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McKenzie County History

Untamed territory……

McKenzie County in western North Dakota hosts ragged buttes, sagebrush and prairie grasses, rolling fields of wheat and other marketable crops. The land speaks of its history through fossils, petroleum deposits, petrified forests and evolving terrain. It is a history that is rich with fortitude, from the days of the roaming dinosaurs, through the feral days of the old west, to its present state of worldwide links through modern technology.

It was once a wild country; its badlands and rolling hills inhabited by few. For the native Hidatsa, Mandan and Arikara tribes, the land provided ample resources as their hunting and ceremonial grounds. Wildlife was abundant and the land’s native inhabitants survived the windswept prairie with a reverence for its unpredictable disposition.


During the spring of 1805, the first noted explorers came to the area. Captain Meriwether Lewis, his companion Captain William Clark and their party, including the Shoshoni woman known as Sakakawea made their legendary journey over these vast western plains.

They were accompanied by a boundless and passionate sky above. Underfoot, the solid earth sprang forth a blossoming virgin prairie that would, in the years to come, be claimed as home to generations.

 Hunters and trappers……

In the years following the Lewis & Clark expedition, the area’s earliest settlers appeared. Mainly, they were hunters and trappers. Here, they found a paradise of wild game. Bison, bear, elk, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, beaver, otter, mink, muskrats, wolves, coyotes and wild fowl were plentiful.

It has been noted that in 1883 the first log cabin, which served as a hunting cabin, was built at the mouth of Cherry Creek on the banks of the Little Missouri River. During that same year, President Theodore Roosevelt first visited western North Dakota. He fell in love with the badlands and established two ranches there, the Maltese Cross Ranch and the Elkhorn Ranch.

In those days, cowboys outfitted with chaps, saddle, spurs, horse, bedroll and guns, roamed the countryside. Under the laws of the old west, the area grew as cattle were herded up from Texas and ranching took root. The "cattle-kings", ranchers and cowboys, reigned and ruled the land.

In an autobiography, dated 1913, Theodore Roosevelt said, "There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid."

"The worst of all fears is the fear of living."


In the early 1900’s, the area became a progressing pioneer community as an influx of homesteaders staked their claims on the soil and the future. Life for them demanded raw courage, strong discipline and a vision beyond the tar paper shanties that dotted the prairie.   

Under the Homestead Act, settlers had to live on their claims for at least six months of each year, for five years, before they could get a permanent title for their land. It was also required that the homesteader breakup five acres of sod and farm the land.

Largely, the homesteaders were of Scandinavian descent and many were foreign born. Of those early pioneers, the majority of them were Norwegians, but there were also many who originated from Sweden, Holland, Russia, Germany and elsewhere.

Together, and in spite of blizzards, prairie fires and copious hardships, they stayed. With their settling came a greater need for the railroad and ferries. They established townships and a foundation for the area’s future.

Establishing a county……

 McKenzie County was established on March 8, 1883, and named after Alexander McKenzie who was a strong political figure in North Dakota at the time. 


 In 1905, one hundred years after Lewis & Clark made their famous trek across western North Dakota, McKenzie County was officially organized by the North Dakota Legislative Assembly. McKenzie County was one of the last counties to be organized in North Dakota.

The first county seat was in Alexander (also named after Alexander McKenzie) as assigned by the governor in 1905. The county seat designation was a controversial issue in the beginning. It was quickly "stolen" from Alexander and moved to the more populous town of Schafer. The county seat question, placed on the ballot many times before, was officially settled and moved by special election in 1940 to Watford City, the present day location.

 The land……….

 In the early days, McKenzie County was known as the "Island Empire" due to the fact that it is surrounded by water on three sides. The Missouri River forms the northern and part of the eastern border. The Little Missouri also runs along part of the eastern and southern borders. The Yellowstone River forms the western border.

McKenzie County and its cities struggled through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s with the drought, the building of city water and sewer systems, and the establishing of medical care facilities and other public facilities.

PWA labor helped with some of those early projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped establish the Theodore Roosevelt in 1933-1941. It acquired National Park status in 1978.

The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) undertook rangeland seeding projects in the ’40s on Land Utilization Projects, as earlier defined by the Bankhead Jones Act of 1937.

Garrison Dam was completed in 1954 on the Missouri River, resulting in the sprawling Lake Sakakawea, a body of water that now makes up the northern and eastern county borders. Much of Lake Sakakawea is now controlled by the Corps of Engineers.

In 1960, Land Utilization Projects were designated as the National Grasslands, later named Little Missouri National Grasslands that now make up 503,000 acres in the county.

Oil was first discovered in the early ’50s in McKenzie County and is still a vital part of the county’s economy.


Today, McKenzie County remains rich in old west traditions, yet blends well with the progressive technology necessary to meet the challenges promised in the next century.

It is an area of wholesome living. We boast of clean air, an excellent school system, low crime rate, modest housing costs, low insurance costs, good medical facilities, no traffic problems, low taxes, strong and stable banks, and friendly people with a spirit of collective soul that seeks to preserve our quality of life.

Outdoor opportunities abound in McKenzie County. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park and National Grasslands provide acres of wild country to be explored.

Hunting and fishing…..

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park, National Grasslands and Lake Sakakawea provide acres of wild country to be explored on foot, bike, horseback, canoe, sailboat or motored transportation.

The area is a paradise for the hunter or fisherman. You can still view most of the wildlife native to the area and more, including the bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, fox, bobcat, wild turkey, grouse, ring-necked pheasant, partridge, geese, ducks and many others.

Fishing on Lake Sakakawea is hard to beat. There is an ample supply of walleye, sauger, northern pike, small mouth bass and salmon, just to name a few. The seriously adventurous can fish the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers for huge and prehistoric looking paddlefish.

 We welcome you….

A lifetime of activities and adventures are available in McKenzie County. We welcome you to retrace the footsteps of Lewis & Clark to discover for yourself what it is about this land that digs a fierce desire for preservation into the marrow of its inhabitants.

Experience the breathtaking northern lights, breathe in a dimensional landscape where fluffy floating clouds cast random shadows over the vast rolling plains, and encounter a quality of life that is unmatched.


McKenzie County

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