Jamestown man briefly a judge in 1905

John Knauf would return to Jamestown after time at high court.

JSSP Keith Norman Column Sig

A Jamestown attorney had a rather short term as a justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court.

John Knauf served less than five month on the state’s highest court before losing the election for the post in November 1906.

Knauf, a native of Michigan, moved with his siblings to Jamestown in 1883. He attended public schools in Jamestown and spent one year at Jamestown College, now known as the University of Jamestown, before entering law school in Michigan.

He returned to Jamestown to practice law in 1893. He maintained an office in the James River National Bank building, now known as Babb’s Coffee House, where he amassed a law library of over 1,200 books.

Knauf also gathered attention in North Dakota political circles. In 1906, Gov. Elmore Sarles appointed him to the state’s Supreme Court on the resignation of Justice Newton Young.


The only reason Young gave for leaving the court was the low salary the state paid its judges. He went into private practice in Fargo and likely did make more money.

In the summer of 1906, Knauf was appointed to the Supreme Court. The North Dakota Republican convention held in Jamestown that July endorsed him to run for election that fall.

Knauf, just 38 years old at the time, was described by the press as a capable young attorney by The Jamestown Alert and a number of other newspapers of the state.

Other newspapers in the state held a different opinion.

Knauf, and Sarles, the governor who appointed him and was also up for reelection, were accused of being soft on prohibition enforcement.

Some papers went as far as saying Sarles was known to have a drink from time to time.

While those papers acknowledged Knauf didn’t drink alcohol, they insinuated other, unnamed vices. This was probably a reference to an accusation he had taken financial advantage of a client.

When the men of North Dakota went to the polls in November of 1906, they evidently thought it was time for a change.


Sarles was defeated by John Burke and Knauf by Charles Fisk, a Minot attorney. Both Burke and Fisk were Democrats. The election marked just the second time the top office in North Dakota was held by a Democrat.

Knauf returned to Jamestown to practice law. His term at the Supreme Court had been brief and it appears he still had his office.

Knauf died in 1952.

Author Keith Norman can be reached at

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