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Andrew Burke: Civil War Veteran
In 1890, Andrew Burke was the second governor elected in the state of North Dakota. He was the only North Dakota governor who was a veteran of the Civil War.
Burke had a rocky start in life which makes his election to the governorship even more interesting. He was born in New York City to a poor family. His mother died when he was born. His father raised him until he died when Andrew was four. Andrew was sent to an institution for orphans, but also fared for himself by selling newspapers. Eventually, Andrew Burke became a ward of the Children’s Aid Society of New York which put orphans on trains that traveled across the country. The trains stopped at towns where farm families could choose to adopt one of the children.
Burke ended up on a farm in Indiana. He was fortunate that this was a happy home for him. He attended school in the winter and worked on the farm in the summer. The Civil War broke out when Burke was 11 years old. When he turned 13, he enlisted with Company D of the 75th Indiana Infantry as a drummer boy. He mustered out of service in 1865 and returned home to finish school.
After two years of college, Burke moved to Minneapolis where he married. The young couple soon moved to Casselton, Dakota Territory. Here, Burke’s fortunes began to improve. He worked as a bookkeeper for Hibbard and Parlin’s general store, and then as a cashier for the First National Bank. Beginning in 1884, he served three terms as Cass County Treasurer which brought him into contact with important Republican Party leaders.
In 1890, the Republican Party nominated Burke for governor of the new state. He was also supported by the Farmers’ Alliance, an organization with national and statewide political power. As governor, Burke discovered that the state had no constitutional provision for the election of presidential electors. He called the legislature into special session in June 1891 so that North Dakota’s voters would have a voice in the 1892 presidential election. He also supported using state funds (and some of his own money) to help farmers buy arsenic to poison grasshoppers when the insects threatened to destroy the wheat crop.
Burke (as well as several other governors) was influenced by “Boss” Alexander McKenzie who worked for railroad interests. Because there was no governor’s mansion in 1891, McKenzie gave his own house to Burke, but McKenzie expected favors in return. The legislature passed a bill favored by farmers and the Farmers’ Alliance that was meant to force railroads to lease land to grain elevators and warehouses. McKenzie asked Burke to veto the bill. Burke did veto the bill, but the veto angered the Farmers’ Alliance. Because he gave in to pressure from McKenzie, Burke lost the 1892 election to a farmer, Eli Shortridge.
Burke never forgot his early days and the help he had from the Children’s Aid Society. In 1891, he organized a group that worked to establish the Fargo orphan’s home in 1892. His story was carried in newspapers around the country. He encouraged orphans to believe in their future, saying that “It is the character of the man that wins recognition.”
As a veteran of the Civil War, Burke was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic. He later worked for the U. S. Land Office in New Mexico where he died in 1918.