Biographies,  North Dakota Today,  The Cowboy Chronicle

On the Edge of History: A Profile of Medora’s Doug Ellison

“It is the romance and drama of history that still holds my interest. Growing up on a ranch was a reflection of the Old West, so that is the era that first attracted my attention. All of history is interconnected, so one theme leads to another.”  Doug Ellison

There has always been a certain romance to the American West.  There is mystery, excitement, beauty and wide open spaces where adventure and opportunity awaits. Indeed this was true even back in the day when the west was first being settled. Men and women living in crowded tenements and working long hours in often grueling jobs, saw the west as the land of opportunity and a chance for them to have land of their own. There were countless hardships for the pioneers and settlers of the west, but through it all and still today, the west holds an allure and its mystique is deeply ingrained in American culture.

Even as a young boy Doug Ellison had a fascination and love for history. He cannot remember a time when he was not interested in it.  All of Ellison’s great grandparents homesteaded Grant County, North Dakota between1906-1910. His parents, Dean and Lila Miller Ellison, are still on the family ranch there. Growing up he used to go down to an old schoolhouse nearby and spend hours looking through the stack of books that remained behind after it was abandoned. It was the pictures in the North Dakota history books that he especially loved. Those pictures were his introduction to many of the topics he has spent his life researching. Ellison notes that North Dakota tends to be overlooked by historians, but that “North Dakota history is as rich and colorful as anywhere else”. The pursuit of history is what Ellison’s life has been about. It’s not just a hobby or a job; it is a passion that has led him down many roads, but always towards an understanding of the people and times before us. 

The North Dakota State Historical Society offered Ellison an interim job as Site Supervisor at Fort Buford in 1988. This opportunity led to a permanent job in 1989 at the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site in Medora as Assistant Site Supervisor. While working at the Chateau, Ellison hired an interpreter named Mary Knapp late one season. Mary shared his love of history and they were soon married. As time went on they opened the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora to supplement their income, and later purchased a motel property, The Amble Inn, as well. In 1996 Ellison left the employ of the historical society to be able to focus more on their two businesses.

While Western Edge is a haven for books on western history, it specializes in “frontier history” with books on everything from Colonial times to polar exploration. Ellison says it’s a good fit for Medora because the clientele changes on a daily basis. Unlike many bookstores, he is able to keep a good selection of book titles in his inventory while adding new ones as they appear. There are books at the Western Edge that one would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. You will also find prints, music and a few other items.

In 2014 The Western Edge, sponsored a series of speakers for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Badlands.  Although it is not well known, The Battle of the Badlands was one of the most influential battles that took place in 1864 during the campaign of General Alfred Sully to claim Dakota Territory for the U. S. government. One of the speakers was Chief Sitting Bull’s great grandson and closet living relative, Ernie LaPointe. It is fairly common for descendants, including grandsons of General Sully’s men, to visit Western Edge seeking information on his campaign.  “Only three generation ago. Our history remains close in time here.”

Ellison is the editor or author of nine books and contributes frequently to historical journals such as South Dakota Magazine, Little Big Horn Associates, the National Association of Outlaw Lawman History, and the Wild West History Association which recently published his story,  “ The Youngest Outlaw: Kilby and the Kid.”. He has written book reviews for the State Historical Society journals of both North and South Dakota.   He has appeared in two History Channel episodes. He was at the convention of the Western Outlaw Lawman History Association in 1992 when he was filmed for the History Channel’s “Ten Most Wanted” episode.  “Custer’s Last Man” was filmed in Medora for the History Channel in 2011.  Ellison has given historical advice and book recommendations to Daniel Bielinski of Canticle Productions. Canticle Productions specializes in stories of North Dakota. (https://www.canticle-productions.com/)

Ellison has been a popular speaker at several history conventions including the 2015 Theodore Roosevelt Symposium. Just this past July Ellison was a speaker at the Wild West History Association Roundup in Deadwood, South Dakota speaking about the 1884 Stoneville Gunfight which cost the lives of five men. The leader of the Posse, Fred Willard became Medora’s first lawman in1885.  It was Ellison’s talk at the Roosevelt Symposium that led to his 2017 book, Theodore Roosevelt and Tales Told as Truth of His Time in the West.  His discourse detailed how some of Roosevelt’s stories of his life out west do not always adhere to factual history. He wrote in a light vein so as to not seem to be too critical of Roosevelt who Ellison believes was a truly great man. He does however feel that history should be factual. “So many times errors are repeated by generations of writers.”

The truth is so important to Ellison that he is willing to expose his own incorrect conclusion. His first book, Sole Survivor, was an examination of the Frank Finkel narrative. Finkel claimed to be a survivor of the Little Bighorn Battle. Ellison, who spoke at the 2021 Little Bighorn Associates Conference in Bismarck, was asked for an update on Frank Finkel. He undertook more research; research which in 2021 compared to 1983 when Sole Survivor was written was much easier.  The Internet gave Ellison access to many additional sources. He unearthed minor but important discrepancies that proved Finkel was not telling the truth. “I told the group that despite my earlier arguments in the book, Finkel was a faker. Biographers always lament the fact that despite their best efforts new information on their subject always comes to light – sometimes because their book has dislodged new information.”

Ellison served as Mayor of Medora for two terms and still serves on the City Council. He felt he had unique experiences and a perspective that could benefit his community. He enjoyed his time in public service and encourages everyone to get involved in their community in any way that is comfortable for them.

It was during his time as mayor that Ellison caused quite the stir. He wanted to have a living history event that would culminate with a public hanging.  Articles about his planned “hanging” ran across the country in multiple news outlets including Yahoo, CBS Chicago, and Bloomberg news with headlines like, “There will be no public hangings in this North Dakota Town” and “Mayor of North Dakota Tourist Town has to wait to hang.” Ellison explains, “The hanging took on a life of its own. My plan was to offer a moral story on how crime does not pay – we planned to stage an Old West shootout on the street, I would ‘kill’ a man, they would take me to the courthouse museum, condemn me to hang, and take me out and hang me from a gallows. The set up got ignored and the story ran on the wire all over the country. A correspondent friend of mine in London even sent me a link from the London Times which had reported on the ‘American mayor who wanted to hang himself for the tourists.”  Ellison had planned on playing the criminal and had devised a plan using gear from a movie industry stunt supplier so it would look real but he would not be harmed. Ultimately the city council did not approve the event. Ellison still believes, that in context, it was a good idea.

Ellison and the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame have had a close relationship for many years.  Not only has he and his family have been members of the NDCHF, Ellison has consulted with the Hall on a variety of topics over the years.  In 2016 when Buck Taylor, Newly in the television series Gunsmoke, appeared at the Hall as a guest, Ellison loaned them his limited edition print of Taylor’s painting “Gunsmoke” to be used as a back drop. There are currently plans in the works for Ellison to do presentations at the Hall.

Ellison and his wife Mary have two children Jon and Ashley, and two grandchildren. His daughter is a frequent proof reader and editor of his books.  Mary was an extra in a scene with Peter Fonda in the movie Wooly Boys (2001), filmed in Medora. Currently Ellison has a handful of projects in various stages of completion including a story about Calamity Jane’s time as a foster mother; a little known part of her life.  “History is not dull. It is simply timeless human drama. It is a cliché, but true – we need to know where we came from to know where we are going. ”

In addition to the many articles in various journals, the following are the books written or edited by Douglas W. Ellison:

Sole Survivor, 1983

David Lant: The Vanished Outlaw, 1988, his fate is still a mystery

The Life of Harry Tracy; the Convict Outlaw, 1990, a 1902 book edited and reissued

Mystery of the Rosebud, 2002, also deals with the Custer battle

Journal of a Mountaineer, 2010, originally published as a newspaper serial in 1899

Edge of Darkness, 2015, the final days of Ben Thompson, gunfighter, gambler and lawman

Theodore Roosevelt; Tales Told as Truth, 2017

Sheriff Thomas Cody: A Man to Match a Mob, 2019

A Desperado without a Peer, 2021, John Wesley Hardin invades Kansas in 1871

Resources:

  • Mr. Douglas Ellison, June 2022

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