Allen, John Delbert (a.k.a. J.D.) b. April 20, 1851; d. April 28, 1947
Author Bertha Rachael Palmer wrote of J.D. Allen in her 1939 book Beauty Spots in North Dakota, in which she described several individuals significant to North Dakota’s history: “Mr. Allen has lived through the most remarkable stage in the history of North Dakota and surely the most romantic. He knew the pioneers, the Indians and the buffalo and he saw them all pass like some great pageant, and today the pageant still lives as he has seen it, in the many paintings he has left . . .” Arriving in Mandan only three years after its founding and seven years before the Dakota Territory became the states of North and South Dakota, Allen personally knew some of the most famous names in the region. As a taxidermist, he made hunting trophies for Theodore Roosevelt, who was convalescing near Medora, and the Marquis de Mores; while an interest in American Indian lore and collecting unique art objects introduced him to the likes of Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face, Red Tomahawk, and other Sioux chieftains from the state’s sometimes turbulent homestead era. A witness to the largely untamed wildlife in the region, Allen spoke to Palmer of the “buffalo killed on the Little Heart River south of Mandan . . . one bull killed north of the courthouse in 1883 . . . elk killed at Little Heart . . . antelopes . . . buffalo, wolves, and coyotes as well as red and swift fox,” which, in turn, along with American Indian culture, served as his primary inspiration as a painter.
The eldest of three children, Allen was born on April 20, 1851 in Italy Hill, Steuben County, New York to M.P. Allen, a furniture dealer and cabinet maker, and his wife Nancy K. (Cook). In 1853, the Allen family moved to Ohio and then on to Paw Paw, Michigan, where M.P set up his own furniture business. When Allen was seven years old, tragedy struck the family with the passing of his mother Nancy. In 1873, when he was 21, Allen entered into a business partnership with his father, which ended amicably a year later when Allen opened his own taxidermy shop in Paw Paw. At about this point in time in 1873, he visited Fort McKeen, later to be named Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Mandan, North Dakota, as evidenced by known paintings of the fort. General George Armstrong Custer was the Commander of this fort prior to his demise at Little Big Horn in 1876 A self-taught craftsman, Allen saw his business grow steadily in Paw Paw until 1877, when he relocated to Denver, Colorado, established another taxidermy business, and served as an aide to the governor.
In 1880, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and took employment as a stenographer for General H.E. Sargent, the general manager of the Northern Pacific Railway, where he stayed until the spring of 1881. On May 11 of that year, Allen arrived in Mandan to stay and worked as a timekeeper and telegrapher at the railway shops there, a position he held until he resigned it later that summer. He was formally relieved by the railway in the fall and, after returning from a brief visit east, established his taxidermy business in 1882. The business thrived, due in no small part to his extensive connections among hunters and trappers. On February 3, 1890, Allen married Nellie A. Wilson, a native of the state of New York. The marriage produced one child, a daughter named Ila K., born on May 21, 1891.
Having taught himself to paint and draw during his younger formative years, Allen, upon his establishment in Mandan, was able to focus more time and energy on painting. Working first with pastels, he soon switched to oil-based paints. His work often dealt with the early days of the state as a subject and frequently described landscapes, buffalo, and American Indian life using warm, earth-toned colors. His realistic distribution of light and shadow, mass, division of space, and perspective presented the views as Allen saw them in his time, ascribing a historical, as well as artistic, value to his work.
When Allen died on April 28, 1947, he was the oldest active taxidermist in the country. In addition to painting, Allen was also an amateur photographer, poet, and violinist.
Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.
Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota. Chicago: George A. Ogle and Co., 1900.
Hilfer, Karen. “Creative Instincts Ruled Their Lives.” Mandan News, November 30, 1986.
Palmer, Bertha Rachael. Beauty Spots in North Dakota. Boston: Bruce Humphries, Inc., 1939.
Taylor, Edwin Mrs. Catalogue of Art Workers Within North Dakota. Bismarck: American Association of University Women (local branch), 1945.
State Historical Society of North Dakota
North Dakota Resource File: Biography, North Dakota State Library
Submitted by Jackie Heinl