Progressives Unite To End Bossism

Burke Victory Signals McKenzie’s Downfall
November 11, 1906

Democrat John Burke, the tall, lean lawyer from Devils Lake, has defeated Republican Governor Elmore Sarles. This is no ordinary victory. Reform-minded pro-gressive Republicans, led by editor George Win-ship of the Grand Forks Herald, supported Burke. They had had enough of political Boss Alexander McKenzie’s powerful con-trol of North Dakota and its affairs. This ends McKenzie’s sixteen-year reign as the Boss of North Dakota!

McKenzie first achieved territory-wide and even national attention when in 1883, through tricky political maneuvering, he was able to move the territorial capital from Yankton to his hometown of Bismarck. The folks around Bismarck, however, had been aware of McKenzie’s political skills ever since he settled there in 1873.

George Winship. Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

As a hardworking young man in his early twenties, he had been a spike driver for the Northern Pacific Railroad as it laid tracks between Fargo and Bismarck, 1871-1873. When the railroad went bankrupt in 1873, the tracks ended in Bismarck. So did McKenzie. The tall, well built Canadian-born Scot was outgoing and likable. So much so that residents of Burleigh County elected him as sheriff three times. So much so that the Northern Pacific Railroad hired him as their lobbyist to see to it that the railroad’s interests were protected in the territorial, and later, state legislatures.

By the time North Dakota entered the Union in 1889, McKenzie controlled the Republican party; and because Republicans vastly outnumbered Democrats, that meant controlling the politics and policies of the entire state. He handpicked governors and other state officials, even representatives to Washington, for sixteen years. Only once, 1892, did his candidate for governor lose. At the same time he protected the interests of the Minneapolis and St. Paul corporations—railroads, grain-buyers, and millers. He kept their taxes low and state-control at a minimum. How could one man come to such power? First, he was well organized. He had men he could trust to do what he told them in all parts of the state. Second, he had the money and the support of the large corporations whose interests he watched after. Third, he realized that North Dakota had become a land of immigrants who didn’t understand the language or the political process. Too, the immigrants were busy establishing their homesteads. He once said, “Give me a bunch of Swedes and I’ll drive them like sheep.”

Burke and Bryan
John Burke with William Jennings Bryan in 1908. Called “Honest John” Burke, the governor who ended the boss rule of Alexander McKenzie is shown with the famous Bryan who ran for president of the United States unsuccessfully three times, including the 1908 election. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

So now the McKenzie political machine has been smashed. The defeat of McKenzie’s governor and the progressive Burke victory came about because reform Republicans were sick and tired of McKenzie’s undemocratic methods. But there’s more to the story.

Many believe that McKenzie caused his own downfall by recklessly trying to “loot Alaska.” In 1900 he had gained control of disputed gold mining claims through his friend, Alaska’s first and only judge at that time, Arthur Noyes. Illegally, McKenzie worked the claims, perhaps taking as much as $600,000 in gold for himself. A federal court of appeals in California ordered him to stop. But, taking advantage of the wild and wooly Alaska gold-rush spirit, McKenzie refused.

Later that year, the California court was able to remove dishonest Judge Noyes and slap a one-year prison term on McKenzie. President William McKinley pardoned the North Dakotan and McKenzie seemed to have avoided much political damage.

Early this year, however, author Rex Beach exposed in detail McKenzie’s Alaska wrong-doing in a series of articles and in his book The Spoilers. North Dakotans were outraged, and many voted against the boss’ candidates because of Beach’s book.

Now McKenzie, who called the state’s political shots from as far away as the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul, is no longer the Boss of North Dakota. No one is much worried about his well-being. He is a millionaire, having made money in banking, ranching, land-dealing, and beverage selling.

During the campaign, Burke urged voters, in his words: “Take charge of your own government. Do not permit a boss and his men to manage it on their own interests and according to their own caprice.” That is what the people have done in this year of 1906 and the McKenzie era is over.

Do You Know Why Boss McKenzie was So Successful?

A famous North Dakota historian, Lewis F. Crawford, said that McKenzie “was generous with money and . . . personal favors, and recipients often did not know whether he was using them to his special purpose or not.”


By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level

3-5, 7, 9-12

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change