History of Williston

History of Williston

History of the Williston Area

The Lewis and Clark expedition passed through what is now the Williston basin in late summer 1806 on their way west; as they explored the Louisiana Purchase
to find a water route west to the Pacific

In 1828 Kenneth McKenzie built Fort Union, the principal post of the American Fur Company, three miles from the mouth of the Yellowstone River. This fort was dismantled in 1866 and the materials moved downriver to the mouth of the Yellowstone to build Fort Buford, a military post was officially abandoned in 1895.

Sometime after 1880, Robert Mathews built a ranch at the mouth of the Little Muddy River, east of the present site of Williston. Mathews started the Little Muddy Post Office, put in a line of supplies and a tavern in what was then called Little Muddy. In 1887, the Great Northern Railroad arrived, the town of Williston was named after Daniel Willis James, a friend of the founder of the Great Northern Railroad.

The Homestead Act of 1863 spurred a great land boom in the western United States, and was largely responsible for populating what is now the state of North Dakota. Pioneers settling in North Dakota
came in two waves as a result of the Homestead Act. Between 1879 and 1886, more than 100,000 people settled in the northern Dakota Territory, which became North Dakota after statehood was granted in 1889. The second great movement began in 1898 and continued until about 1915, shortly after the beginning of World War I.

By 1889, there were 13 or 14 buildings and the entire population of Williston numbered less than one hundred. In 1890 the town was incorporated and platted and few lots were sold. Growth continued throughout the 1890’s and in 1898 the town board’s official proceedings were published in the city’s first newspaper - The Little Muddy Optic. Central school was built in 1899 at the present site of the
Plainsman Hotel.


In 1900, the town selected its first Board of Trustees, elected its first mayor W. H. Denney and celebrated the grand opening of the Bruegger Opera house. In 1906 it was converted into the U.S. Land offices. Later another theater opened up on main street ushering in another miracle of the modern age - moving pictures!

Businesses sprouted up and down main street in that first decade of the new century. Enterprising businessmen founded the predecessor of the Williston Chamber of Commerce in September of 1907. They called it the Williston Community Club. The general purpose of the organization was to encourage and foster the growth and prosperity of the city and trade area.

In that same year Co.E 1st N.Dak.Inf Regiment of the National Guard was federally recognized with 55 local men sworn in. By 1917 the Company had grown to 152 strong and were deployed, eventually ending up in Europe during WW1. 

There was very little industry in Williston in those early years, this being a mostly agricultural community. With the coming of cheaper electricity in the twenties more diversified industries began including a bottling company, a creamery and telephone company.

As with the nation in general, the great depression years saw very little change in Williston. The thirties were tough on everyone. The drought reached its peak in 1934 and by the end of the decade most people owed back taxes. 

In 1941, Company E was again called up to serve bravely in the Pacific during WW II. Williston’s National guard unit, along with countless Williston men and women in the Armed Forces have served our country and given their all from WWI through today’s conflict in the Middle East.
Throughout the forty’s and early fifties, Williston grew slowly but with the discovery
of oil in the county things changed quickly. Industries came in and many families moved here. Many buildings went up in those years, including the Plainsman, Williams County Court House, The New Armory and Williston High School, all of which have served this community well
and are still in use today.

Williston State College grew from an extension center, established in 1957 to an institution with a student body of more than 800 students and over 150 faculty and staff providing educational opportunities to the greater Williston Area and beyond.

Our community has a rich history of fraternalism. The many civic, service, patriotic,
religious and fraternal organizations have played a major role in the development of Williston.
The late 70’s again brought prosperity in the way of another oil boom. The community swelled over 20,000. With the decrease of production in the early 80’s the population decreased and has stayed around 12-14,000 until the latest boom in 2010 - 2014.

Williston has been listed as the nation’s fastest-growing micropolitan city (under 50K) for three consecutive years by the US Census Bureau and currently estimates its population at close to 30,000.

The community and western North Dakota has experienced remarkable growth
in both population and infrastructure investments over the last several years. Williston is “Open for Business” and is working on being “Reimagined” as it positions itself for even more growth.

Williston with its rich history continues to thrive. Joseph W. Jackson, one of Williston’s first mayors once wrote “Williston has arrived and her future is brighter and far more certain than ever.” True then, true now.