North Dakota State History

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General State History
Historic Figures

General North Dakota State History

Before Euro-American settlement of the Northern Plains began in the 19th Century, the land had been occupied for many centuries. Archeological investigations document the presence of big game hunting cultures after the retreat of the continental glaciers about 10,000 years ago and later settlements of both hunting and gathering and farming peoples dating ca. 2000 B.C. to 1860. When the first white explorers arrived, distinct Indian groups existed in what is now North Dakota. These included the Dakota or Lakota nation (called "Sioux", or enemies by those who feared them), Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. Groups of Chippewa (or Ojibway) moved into the northern Red River valley around 1800, and Cree, Blackfeet, and Crow frequented the western buffalo ranges.

These peoples represented two different adaptations to the plains environment. Nomadic groups depended primarily upon vast herds of American Bison for the necessities of life. When the horse was brought to the Northern Plains in the 18th Century, the lives of the Dakota, Assiniboine, and Cheyenne changed dramatically. These bands quickly adapted to the horse, and the new mobility enabled them to hunt with ease and consequently to live better than ever before. The horse became a hallmark of Plains cultures, and the images of these mounted Indians bequeathed an romantic image of power and strength that has survived in story, films, and songs. In contrast, the sedentary Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara lived in relatively permanent earthlodges near the Missouri River and supplemented produce from extensive gardens with hunting; their fortified villages became commercial centers that evolved into trading hubs during the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Indians and Euro-Americans came into contact during the 18th Century. The first recorded visitor was La Verendrye, a French explorer who reached the Missouri River from Canada in 1738 while searching for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Others followed, including La Verendrye's sons in 1742. However, most contact resulted from the Canadian fur trade until Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the American "voyage of discovery" up the Missouri from St, Louis in 1804.

The fur trade linked the Northern Plains to a world-wide economic and political system. European nations, competing for mercantile supremacy, claimed the plains, and Great Britain, France, and Spain exchanged the territory several times through wars and treaties. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, all French lands drained by Hudson's Bay were given to Great Britain, including the country tributary to the Red River of the North. France had ceded lands drained by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to Spain one year earlier; this territory was returned to France in 1800. Three years later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sold French possessions to the fledgling United States. This sale, known as the Louisiana Purchase, inaugurated American ownership of lands now included in North Dakota.

Intense competition characterized the fur trade, and rival companies competed for prime locations. In 1801, Alexander Henry, Jr., established a post at Pembina that after 1812 became the center for an agricultural colony sponsored by the British crown. However, British influence diminished along the Missouri after 1800, and the Red River Valley likewise fell into American control in 1818 when the London Convention established the 49th Parallel as the northern boundary between the United States and British possessions in North America. Ironically, many of the colonists near Pembina moved north into Canada when an 1823 boundary survey found them to be residing in the United States.

With several notable exceptions, contact between the Native peoples and American traders, explorers, and military personnel in the Northern Plains remained peaceful during the early 19th Century. Indians became instrumental in the fur trade; major trading posts at Fort Union and Fort Clark, and others of lesser significance, catered mainly to Native trappers and hunters. In exchange for their meat and furs, the Indians received guns, metal tools, cloth and beads, and other trade goods. This exchange forever altered Indian cultures, and it often brought dangers; in 1837, for example, smallpox virtually wiped out the Mandan people at Fort Clark.

In the Red River Valley, the fur trade created a new nation, the Metis. Descended from Euro-American fur trade employees and Chippewa Indian women, the Metis melded the two cultures in language, lifestyle, and economy. In 1843, regular caravans of high-wheeled, wooden Red River carts began hauling buffalo robes and pemmican, the proceeds from semi-annual hunts, to St. Paul along well-worn trails. The Metis center in the United States was St. Joseph (now Walhalla), and men such as Antoine Gingras headed a self-conscious new nation. The Meti nation, however, faded as the buffalo became ever less available east of the Missouri River.

For the most part, the incursion of the Euro-Americans into the Northern Plains caused few confrontations with Indian peoples. In 1863, 1864, and 1865, however, the pattern changed. Major military expeditions searched the Northern Plains for Santee Dakota who had participated in a violent uprising in Minnesota in 1862. Battles at Whitestone Hill in 1863 and at Killdeer Mountain and in the Badlands in 1864 diminished Dakota resistance, forcing many onto reservations to avoid starvation. A chain of military outposts, beginning with Fort Abercrombie in 1857, continually increased Federal power, and the great slaughter of the northern bison herds after 1870 eventually caused the nomadic tribes to submit. Some bands of Dakota resisted into the 1880s, but their old way of life on the plains was lost.

Several parts of the struggle between opposing cultures yet remain sources of legend and controversy. In 1876, units of the 7th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. George A. Custer left Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck to search for Dakota who had refused confinement on reservations. The resulting annihilation of Custer's immediate command at the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory made names such as Crazy Horse, Gall, and Sitting Bull familiar throughout the nation. Many Dakota moved to Canada to escape relentless punitive expeditions sent by the army, and remnants finally surrendered at Fort Buford in 1881. Nine years later Sitting Bull, the leading opponent of reservation life, identified with the Ghost Dance religion, one that forecast the return of traditional Plains Indian ways. Standing Rock Reservation Indian police were sent to arrest the elderly leader at his home in 1890, and Sitting Bull was killed. American settlement of the Northern Plains commenced in earnest after 1861, when Dakota Territory was organized by Congress. Significant immigration commenced when the westbound Northern Pacific Railway built to the Missouri River in 1872 and 1873. Along and near its line, new towns sprang up to serve the settlers, the track laying crews, and other, sometimes rowdy frontier citizens. Fargo and Bismarck, for example, both began as rough-and-tumble railroad communities. Spurred by the 1862 Federal Homestead Law, farming settlement developed gradually after the first claim west of the Red River was filed in 1868.

A great settlement "boom" in northern Dakota occurred between 1879 and 1886. During those years, over 100,000 people entered the territory. The majority were homesteaders, but some organized large, highly mechanized, well capitalized bonanza farms. These operations, several of which lasted into the 20th Century, made names such as Dalrymple and Grandin well known throughout the United States and helped publicize the northern frontier.

Ethnic variety characterized the new settlements. Following the first settlement "boom", a second boom after 1905 increased the population from 190,983 in 1890 to 646,872 by 1920. Many were immigrants of Scandinavian or Germanic origin. Norwegians were the largest single ethnic group, and after 1885 many Germans immigrated from enclaves in the Russian Ukraine. A small, but strong community of Scotch-Irish-English background played an especially influential role, contributing many of North Dakota's early business and political leaders. Many other groups, including Asians, Blacks, and Arabs, settled throughout North Dakota. So significant was this foreign immigration that in 1915 over 79% of all North Dakotans were either immigrants or children of immigrants.

North Dakota Historic Figures

Lawrence Welk
1903-92: Welk was one of eight children born on a farm near Strasburg, North Dakota. He displayed a musical interest at an early age. After leaving school in his elementary years because of a prolonged illness, Lawrence spent more time practicing his talent.


Dorothy Stickney
1896-1998: A Broadway actress who received stage immortality in the long running "Life with Father," co-starring her husband, Howard Lindsay, Dorothy Hayes Stickney was one of the great leading ladies of the legitimate theater. Born in Dickinson, North Dakota, on June 21, 1896, Stickney attended the North Western Dramatic School in Minneapolis. She sang and danced as one of the four Southern Belles in vaudeville and began acting in summer stock companies.


Ivan Dmitri
1900-68: Gaining international fame for his sensitive portrayals in color photography, etchings and watercolors, Ivan Dmitri's work has been exhibited in nearly every major art museum in the western world. Born Levon West, he moved throughout North Dakota during his youth, as his father was a Congregational preacher. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class at Harvey, North Dakota, taught school for a year, and enlisted in the United States Navy. After World War I, West received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota where, despite his interest in art, he studied business administration at his father's insistence. His first break as an artist came with the publication of his etching of "The Spirit of St. Louis" upon Charles Lindbergh's arrival in Paris. The etchings of Levon West soon were in great demand. His interest in photography brought recognition in the new medium and in order to separate his two artistic fields and protect those that had purchased his etchings, West took the name of Ivan Dmitri for his photographic work


Roger Maris
1934-85: Raised in Fargo, North Dakota, Maris was a football and basketball star at Shanley High School. He played in the American League after trying out with the Chicago Cubs. Maris began playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1959, and hit 14 home runs. In 1958 and 1959, he hit 28 and 16 homers respectively, while playing for Kansas City. Maris was traded to the Yankees in 1960, and his legend began. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the American League that year, after hitting 39 home runs with 112 RBIs. The year 1961 saw Maris blast 61 home runs, one more than Babe Ruth hit in a season, and again Maris was named MVP.


Eric Sevareid
1912-92: Nationally known television commentator, news analyst, and author, Eric Sevareid is particularly noted for his perceptive essays on public events and personalities. Sevareid grew up in Velva, North Dakota, and knew from his youth that he wanted to be a journalist, which accounted for his fascination with the local newspaper. At the age of 18, Sevareid began working as a copy boy. He later became a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal while attending the University of Minnesota. Upon receiving his B.A. degree, Sevareid traveled to London and Paris to continue his studies. He joined the Paris edition of the New York Herald and became a radio correspondent for CBS in 1939, covering the war in Europe. In later years, Sevareid was known for his coverage of presidential elections and meetings of the United Nations Assembly in Paris. Sevareid retired as a CBS television news commentator on November 30, 1977.