A pioneer of horse racing in SD

One of the sections of Martha Linde’s “Western Dakota Horse Stories” book details the life of a man in Dakota Territory who is considered one of the pioneers of horse racing in the territory and subsequent state of South Dakota. 

The section entitled, “Horse Racing Pioneer, Norvell Blair,” begins, “Horse racing, whenever and wherever it has occurred, affects all men differently. In Dakota pioneer times it was the most popular sport. To Norvell Blair of Sully County, owner of a fine string of race horses, it was a matter of great pride. While Blair owned a number of fine horses, the greatest was Johnny Bee, listed in records at the state (capital) as being the fastest horse in South Dakota for the years 1907 to 1909. During these years Blair and his sons took their horses across the state on a racing circuit.”

Johnny Bee was described as being dark brown in color, with a “luxurious mane and tail,” and he was said to be high-spirited and a dependable racer, “always getting off to an unusually fast start.” While Linde does not specify which breed of horse Johnny Bee was, she writes that Blair always had Morgans among his horses and appeared to favor the breed.

Linde describes that Blair’s story “is an interesting one among the various population groups that make up South Dakota’s melting pot.” Born a slave in Tennessee in 1814, Blair “had a hard life and knew what it was to be bought and sold,” Linde writes. He married Mary Bagly, who was half Cherokee, and they had seven children, all of whom would live in Dakota Territory. Blair and his sons came to Dakota Territory around 1880, settling at Okobojo, near Pierre, and the rest of the family would arrive to live at the new home eventually, as well as inviting others to join the settlement in the remote area. The settlement, described in history books of the past as “Sully County Colored Colony,” northwest of Onida, grew to about 400 people. It “engaged in farming and stock raising for many years and was successful until overspeculation after World War I caused a reverse and the crash came that spelled disaster to many ranchers in the area,” Linde writes.

Newspaper archives from 1941, describing the history of the colony, show that Blair (spelling his first name “Norval”), arrived in 1883 a year after his sons, P.H. and B.P. Blair established one of the first black settlements in the territory. Another article describes that they also started a livery business in the now-ghost town of Fairbanks. “Blair became an extensive land owner and well-to-do before he died in 1916,” the article states. “Blair did not fasten himself to the soil to the exclusion of everything else. He was a sportsman and is still remembered among race horse owners of another day.”

The article also tells how Blair’s son, Wesley, “earned nation-wide fame” in the 1890s for rescuing a trainload of passengers during a forest fire near Hinckley, Minn. “Utilizing his knowledge of the country, (Wesley) Blair hurried the passengers to a marshy spot in the forest and ordered them to lie down until the fire danger had passed. As a reward, the railroad company gave him a lifetime job and his friends presented him with a gold watch,” the article states.

An article in the Aug. 7, 1947, edition of the Argus Leader describes that the Blair family moved from Morris, Ill, to Dakota Territory in 1883, “in search of health and freedom,” and that several of their children were born as slaves before Blair “was liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln in 1863.” That article states that the four sons assisted with ranch work, while three of the daughters worked for officers’ families at Fort Sully, which was near Fairbanks.

Blair died at the age of 102 on Oct. 7, 1916. 

By 1925, members of the colony the Blairs founded owned 27 quarters of land, an article in the Feb. 1, 1999, edition of the Argus Leader describes. “By 1938, the group in Sully County was down to 48 members. Two years later, there were 18 left.” At the time of the article, the land remained in the name of one of the early members, with the land rented to area farmers.

Stories of opportunity throughout history exist in all places, and as I was researching this topic, this is only a teensy, tiny particle on the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Blair family, the settlement they founded, the stories of what those settlers went on to do – I’d encourage you to dive in to the available research to learn more!

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