Remembrance in Stone

John Burke Statue

County: Burleigh County, North Dakota

Location: State Capitol Grounds (in front of the capitol), Bismarck, ND

Coordinates: N46o49'13" W100o4656"

Often overlooked by visitors to Bismarck is the monument, off to your right as you enter the state capitol, memorializing Honest John Burke. John Burke came to Dakota Territory in 1888 and made his way by hard work--pitching bundles, teaching school, reading law, publishing a newspaper. He served in the state house, the state senate, the governorship, and the state supreme court, and he was secretary of the federal treasury under President Woodrow Wilson. He was a Democrat. His statue, cast by Utah sculptor Avard Fairbanks, stands in the hall of statuary of the United States Capitol. "Nicknamed 'Honest John," Burke was a man of unquestioned integrity," literature from the hall of statuary proclaims. He was a progressive governor who backed legislation to limit lobbying, to establish primary elections, and other reforms.

The John Burke monument alongside the state capitol came as a sort of a byproduct. In 1959 the state legislature established a national statuary hall commission to decide whose statue would be the first representation of North Dakota in the capitol gallery. James Connally, director of the state auto club, was actively campaigning on behalf of the historic chief, Four Bears. Governor John Davis appointed the commission and charged its members to select a person "who is illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service."

The commission disregarded suggestions that any American Indian might be selected. The commission settled, instead, on John Burke. Burke met the commission's own standards of public service, personal integrity, and long residence, but there also was a fourth standard: "popular acclaim as a hero of his generation." John Burke was a good man, an able man, perhaps even a man beloved of North Dakotans, but a hero? That judgment took place at a time of popular Democratic administrations at the state and federal level. So Burke got the nod. Then somebody, it is unclear who, decided there should be two statues, one for Washington and a second for the North Dakota capitol grounds. And thus it was done.--Research by Cal Schaible, HIST 489, 2010

Recommended Reading

Robinson, Elwyn. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Howard, Thomas, Ed. The North Dakota Political Tradition. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981.

John Burke (State Historical Society of North Dakota) / John Burke Papers (University of North Dakota) / John Burke (National Statuary Hall Collection)

Photo Gallery by Calvin L. Schaible

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Remembrance in Stone / Center for Heritage Renewal