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Find an overview of North Dakota history, its heritage, and historic events.
Both rural and agricultural, with grain farms and cattle ranches, North Dakota gets its name from the Dakota division of the Sioux Indians who lived on the plains before the Europeans arrived. "Dakota" means "friend." French-Canadian soldier and fur trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes was the first known white explorer to visit the home of the Dakota in 1738. North Dakota was one of the last areas of the frontier to be settled by non-Native Americans, and even today, it's not a highly populated state. North Dakota, whose capital is Bismarck, joined the Union in 1889 as the 39th state. Appropriately, the state flower is the wild prairie rose.
When North Dakota entered the Federal Union in 1889, its leaders prophesied a glorious future for the Northern Prairie State. Great cities and prosperous farms, said the promoters, would make Dakota the "jewel" in the crown of Democracy. The ensuing century has proven the "boomers" both right and wrong. North Dakota has enjoyed prosperity, but it has also seen devastatingly hard times. In 1989, the essential problem remains the same as a century earlier--finding the capital necessary to provide services and benefits of a modern society to a far-flung population. As it was in 1889, North Dakota remains a social, cultural, and economic colony, a producer of raw materials, a consumer of manufactures and capital, and an exporter of educated young people.
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 Métis. Descended from Euro-American fur trade employees and Chippewa Indian women, the Métis 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 Métis center in the United States was St. Joseph (now Walhalla), and men such as Antoine Gingras headed a self-conscious new nation. The Méti 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 tracklaying 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.
The influence of the railroads and their business allies guided northern Dakota from its earliest territorial days. Led by political agent Alexander McKenzie of Bismarck and St. Paul, these groups worked to attract investment capital to the Northern Plains. The 1883 removal of the territorial capitol from Yankton to Bismarck on the main line of the Northern Pacific Railway demonstrated the power of these outside corporate interests in Dakota Territory's affairs.
On November 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison approved the admission of North Dakota to the Union. The new state was a Republican Party stronghold. The first Governor, John Miller, presided over a turbulent initial legislative session that, among other issues, fought about the question of legalizing lotteries and prohibition.
Political life revealed an insurgent tendency that has continued to the present day. In 1890, the cooperative Farmers Alliance formed an Independent Party to challenge the "McKenzie Gang" that dominated the Republican Party. The Independents fused with the minority Democratic Party in 1892 and captured state government with a platform promising significant reforms. Their efforts, however, were frustrated by political inexperience, and in 1894 the Republican Party regained power. Controlled by conservatives, North Dakota government encouraged investment by establishing liberal banking, regulatory, and taxation policies; to support their policies, conservatives argued that capitalists would not invest in North Dakota unless state government did its part to diminish risk and enhance profits.
Though severely criticized by progressives, the strategy did result in some industrial development. Large lignite mines opened near Beulah and Wilton, and local brickworks and flour mills soon dotted the state. The railroad industry, bolstered by completion of both James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway in 1887 and the Soo Line in 1893, built branch lines and fostered new towns. Rail expansion peaked in 1905 when the GN and Soo squared off in a "railway war" in northern North Dakota.
Evidence of development, however, did not quiet the progressive opposition. In their opinion, the state provided too many incentives, and they pointed out that huge profits were being taken from North Dakota, that the distant leadership of rail and commodities companies were often arrogant and unresponsive to the needs of their customers, and that rural people were often taxed out of proportion to their means. Most galling, however, was the frequent evidence that out-of-state corporate interests dominated North Dakota government, using it to further private goals rather than the general welfare of the citizens.
By 1905, the swelling chorus of protest caused a political upheaval. Republican progressives united with Democrats to elect John Burke as Governor, and his election commenced a reform era. In the next decade, a series of other movements surfaced. For example, in 1907, a new cooperative movement, the American Society of Equity, came to North Dakota and by 1913 had procreated well over 400 marketing and purchasing locals throughout the state. Among the many new settlers who immigrated during the second Dakota "boom" after 1905 were radicals, and they united into the North Dakota Socialist Party. Both the cooperative and radical movements questioned the preference given to out-of-state corporations, called for fair taxation, and demanded better services from state government. For these movements, the goal was returning control of North Dakota's government and economy to the people, and they were not afraid to demand that state government organize and operate banking, insurances, and processing businesses in order to bring the benefits of competition, lower costs, and better services to the people.
These movements procreated the Nonpartisan League, North Dakota's greatest political insurgency. The NPL, born in 1915, united progressives, reformers, and radicals behind a platform that called for many progressive reforms, ranging from improved state services and full suffrage for women to state ownership of banks, mills and elevators, and insurances. Led by A. C. Townley, the NPL used the primary election to take control of the Republican Party in 1916, dominated all state government by 1918, and enacted its program in 1919. It's administration, headed by Governor Lynn J. Frazier, instituted many reforms in state government; among them were re-organization of state services, expansion of educational services, development of health care agencies, and improved regulation of public services and corporations. However, it's core program generated fierce opposition fueled by funds from out-of-state corporations; those interests used every means to obstruct the NPL program, including lawsuits and extreme propaganda.
The anti-NPL movement gained strength during and after World War I. Charging that the NPL's leaders, many of whom were former Socialists, were opponents of American participation in World War I, the anti-NPL forces coalesced in late 1918 into the Independent Voter's Association. Vitriolic political infighting followed. The IVA attacked on many fronts, rapidly sowing disunity within the NPL and splitting the coalition of cooperative groups that had helped support the League. Economic distress caused by the precipitous decline in grain prices after World War I and a drought in western North Dakota helped diminish NPL support. In 1920, the IVA took control of one legislative house and in 1921 forced a recall election that deposed Governor Frazier and other members of the Industrial Commission that governed state-owned industries. The NPL era, one that significantly altered North Dakota government, had ended.
The NPL left an indelible mark on the state. The Bank of North Dakota at Bismarck, opened in 1919, has become a large and powerful economic force; the State Mill and Elevator at Grand Forks, completed in 1922, provided a market for grain and a source of feed and seed; the state hail insurance program benefitted many farmers until its elimination in the 1960s. Perhaps most importantly, the NPL established an insurgent tradition in the state that blurred party lines for four decades, and both the League and the IVA elevated a generation of leaders to power. Each official recalled in 1921, for example, later regained public office.
For North Dakota the 1920s and 1930s proved to be watersheds. An economic Depression, starting with the 1920 collapse of wartime prices for grain, punctured the economic expansion of previous decades. More North Dakota banks closed in 1921 than in any other year; the resulting contraction of credit caused many farm foreclosures. Simultaneously, farm sizes increased, and many farmers mechanized their operations. A dramatic shift to motorized transportation placed greater emphasis on better roads and bridges. As the times changed, new devices entered the state's homes; radio, especially, became commonplace after the first stations went on the air in North Dakota in 1922. Likewise, motion pictures attracted thousands, and many theaters were built in towns across North Dakota. These economic and social factors had by 1930 made North Dakota a different place than a decade earlier. The fire that destroyed the old state capitol building on December 28, 1930, symbolized the end of an era.
The Great Depression of the 1930s both slowed progress and sped change. Heavy farm debt loads and low commodity prices caused a crises of farm foreclosures and bank failures. Those farmers in a better financial position enlarged their holdings. Rural population diminished while cities grew. North Dakota reached its peak population in 1930, but the total thereafter dropped steadily until 1950.
As a rural state, North Dakota suffered greatly when the prices received for farm produce declined. The search for a solution to that problem brought about different movements in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, cooperatives enjoyed a renewed popularity in the 1920s. As farmers tried to band together to market their produce and reduce the costs of farming, the North Dakota Farmers Union spread across the prairies. Substantial organizing efforts in the mid-1920s resulted in formation of a state Union in 1927; Farmers Union locals built elevators and organized oil cooperatives that served the needs of an increasingly mechanized rural economy. In 1932, the cooperative group helped form a militant defense organization, the Farmers Holiday Organization, to take direct action against low commodity prices and farm foreclosures.
The renewed militancy in rural North Dakota quickly spread into state politics. A revitalized Nonpartisan League emerged in 1932, electing the colorful populist William Langer as Governor. Langer took bold actions when he assumed his office in 1933; he slashed state spending, imposed moratoriums on mortgage foreclosure sales, and embargoed shipment of grain from the state. However, his disregard of law brought Federal investigations, and in 1934 he was convicted of campaign law violations and removed from office; Lt. Governor Ole Olson finished the term. That same year, a divided NPL lost the Governor's office to Democrat Thomas Moodie; he assumed office in 1935, but was quickly disqualified when an investigation discovered that he did not meet state residency requirements. Lt. Governor Walter Welford succeeded Moodie, becoming the fourth Governor in seven months. Langer returned to the electoral wars in 1936 after successfully overturning his conviction and then being exonerated after four new trials in 1935. In 1936, he was re-elected Governor; though defeated in 1938 when he ran for the US Senate, he unseated incumbent Lynn J. Frazier in 1940 and retained that office until his death in 1959.
Though the explosive politics of the 1930s mostly centered around Langer, several other North Dakota leaders received national prominence. Senators Gerald P. Nye and Lynn J. Frazier became known for reflecting the isolationist philosophy prevalent among North Dakota people. Nye's investigation of the role of the munitions industry in bringing the United States into World War I made him a national figure and at the end of the decade he helped lead the national America First movement that sought to keep the nation out of World War II. Frazier established himself as a pacifist by annually proposing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw American participation in foreign wars. In 1936, Congressman William Lemke was nominated for President by the new Union Party; though he received fewer than one million votes, he carried the concerns of drought-stricken farmers throughout the nation.
Despite economic problems, crop failures, dust storms, and weather extremes, North Dakota visibly modernized during the 1930s. The new skyscraper State capitol, begun in 1932, was completed in 1935. Federal relief programs improved highways, state parks, and city services throughout the state. State departments addressed public health and safety problems, and a movement for consolidated law enforcement was initiated with formation of a State Highway Patrol in 1935. Rural schools consolidated at an increasing rate. Public utilities extended their reach through development or rural electric cooperatives; the first, Baker Electric of Cando, energized its lines in 1938.
For many, however, the economic hardships of the Depression could not be overcome. Thousands of North Dakotans lost their farms and either moved into the cities and towns or from the state. One historian estimates that over 70% of the state's people required one form or another of public assistance. The toll in broken dreams, physical hunger and hardship, and displacement will never be completely measured. Still, most North Dakotans stubbornly held on, husbanding their resources and spending carefully. Even during the hard times, for example, drought-stricken counties and cities rarely missed bond payments, and indeed the public debt in the state was substantially reduced during the Depression years.
More favorable weather improved crop yields in the 1940s. With more commodities to sell, farmers benefitted even more from the higher prices stimulated by American entry into World War II. Within a span of five years, the farm debt in the state dropped markedly; at war's end in 1945 North Dakota residents had accumulated the largest per capita bank deposits in the nation.
Wartime prosperity continued into the late 1940s. Major Federal projects kept the construction economy booming, for example. In 1946, the demand for Missouri River flood control and diversion of the river's waters for irrigation and industrial development were rewarded with initiation of construction on the Garrison Dam; project supporters also envisioned a grand scheme of canals to move the water into other parts of the state, and the project's start seemed the realization of dreams voiced since the early 1920s. Reservoirs on the Sheyenne, James, and other rivers were also constructed for flood control and municipal water purposes.
Development of natural resources expanded in 1951 when oil was discovered near Tioga. The resulting "oil rush" coincided with expanding use of lignite coal to generate electricity; in 1952 and 1954, two coal-fired plants were built near Velva and Mandan, and oil refineries were established at Williston and Mandan, as well.
Communication and interstate transportation systems improved dramatically during the 1950s. The first television station went on the air in 1952 at Minot. Construction of a Federal controlled access highway system began in 1956. In addition, by 1960 two large Air Force bases had been built at Grand Forks and Minot, a modern continuation of an historic role in Federal military strategy that began in the 1860s. Changes in communications and transportation were enhanced by better airline service and a rapid shift away from dependence on railways. Though airline routes had included North Dakota since 1927, regular service expanded in the 1940s and 1950s, at least in part as a result of a conscious effort by state government to develop local and regional airports. Likewise, the steadily more modern network of state and federal highways made truck transportation into a viable alternative to railroads. Those same highways made private auto transportation more reliable; more North Dakotans bought cars after World War II than ever, soon giving the state a ratio of over two vehicles for every person in the state. As a consequence, however, use of rail passenger service declined, and by the end of the 1950s railroads had increasingly become a means for hauling freight, not people.
Even as the state modernized, established political patterns continued. A new insurgency, the Republican Organizing Committee (ROC), quickly became powerful after 1943. It elected Fred Aandahl as Governor in 1944 and controlled the office until the late 1950s. Its leaders included Milton R. Young, who was selected to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of John Moses in 1945 and served until 1981. ROC success forced realignment in state politics; to unite liberals under one banner, the Nonpartisan League and the Democratic Party moved toward consolidation in the 1950s finally agreeing to run a unified ticket in 1956 and eventually merging in 1960. The Democratic-NPL obtained some immediate success; in 1958, well-known liberal leader Quentin N. Burdick became North Dakota's first Democratic congressman, and in 1960 the party gained the Governor's office and held it continuously for the next twenty years, including four consecutive victories by William L. Guy (1961-1973) and two by Arthur A. Link (1973-1981).
In the 1980s, political control of the state has shifted between the two parties. Republican Allen I. Olson upset incumbent Governor Link in 1980; the election put many Republicans into state office and in part resulted from the overwhelming popularity of Presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. Within two years, however, Democratic-NPL efforts to regain the party's momentum resulted in steady gains, and in 1984 Olson's bid for re-election was stymied by Casselton farmer George A. Sinner. In 1986, Democrats for the first time won control of the State Senate, as well. After a century of domination by the Republican Party, North Dakota now has a vibrant two-party politics.
The major issues of the 1970s and 1980s have been modern incarnations of longtime debates. One important issue has been economic development, and once again the discussions have centered on the creation of a climate favorable to capital investment in the state. A struggling farm economy has brought many changes to the state, and demands for improved state services for people with special needs have forced major reallocation of available tax dollars. The basic issue has been determining the proper uses for limited tax resources and the most productive ways to stimulate economic development.
Governmental efforts to encourage economic diversification have taken several forms. In the 1960s, the administration of Governor William Guy actively promoted massive use of the vast lignite coal reserves. As the demand for electricity expanded, coal-fired generating plants became economically feasible, leading to major development of power plants and open-pit mining. A national concern with energy self-sufficiency in the 1970s resulted in huge investments by generating corporations and cooperatives in western North Dakota. By 1981, a dozen generating facilities and huge strip mines were in operation; large power lines carried the electricity to consumers both inside and outside North Dakota. The most spectacular result was construction of the nation's first coal-to-synthetic natural gas conversion facility near Beulah, which entered production in 1983.
This kind of economic development deeply disturbed many North Dakotans. Fearing that the "one-time harvest" of coal might forever destroy the land's suitability for agriculture, agricultural and environmental interests united to demand strong reclamation laws. In 1973, 1975, and 1977, the legislature responded with a set of regulations that addressed concerns about returning mined land to its original contours, replacing topsoil, and mitigating impacts on cultural resources. These laws have come under steady attack from energy interests, and some of the more stringent regulations have been modified during the 1980s.
Oil exploration and development also became part of the debate. High international prices for crude oil stimulated a "boom" in exploration and development in western North Dakota after 1978. An influx of workers and capital caused population explosions in western cities, such as Williston, Dickinson, and Watford City, and some municipalities went deeply into debt to provide local services to the new residents. However, world-wide oil prices declined in 1981, many oil workers moved on, and some localities found themselves without the means to pay off large debts incurred for municipal improvements.
In like manner, Missouri River diversion has remained a potent political issue. The Garrison Diversion plan, authorized by Congress in 1968, entered construction, but by 1976 was stalled by court challenges based on its environmental impacts; even though many leaders strongly backed the plan, landowners, environmental groups, and Canadian officials asserted that the negative effects far outweighed any benefits. A compromise between these interests was hammered out in 1986; construction of a greatly-reduced project has continued, but even that remains under attack from agricultural and environmental groups. For many longtime backers of the project, the primary issue became North Dakota's ability to obtain some benefits in return for the destruction of Missouri River bottomland by the Garrison Reservoir. Conceived as a project to combine municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses for the water, the project has been substantially modified; presently plans call for delivery of Missouri River water to the Red River, Indian Municipal, Rural and Industrial (MR&I) water funding, and an increase in the statewide MR&I water fund to help deliver water to cities and towns throughout southwestern and northwestern North Dakota. For most state residents, the most obvious benefit from years of planning and effort are the recreational uses of Lake Sakakawea.
North Dakota's basic industry, agriculture, underwent major difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s, again emphasizing that the state was a participant in a world-wide economy. Record prices for American grain in the early 1970s, the result of huge overseas sales to the Soviet Union, led many farmers to expand their operations and others to go deeply into debt to enter agriculture. As the price of land climbed, so too did prices for machinery, seed, and the other "inputs" of agriculture. Commodity prices, however, never returned to the levels of the early 1970s, and by the end of the decade many farmers found themselves unable to generate enough income to maintain their debts. Rural discontent mounted, generating organization of a state branch of the American Agriculture Movement, a national rural protest movement, and leading to development of special credit counselling services by state government. The trend continued into the 1980s. Though land values dropped substantially, the number of farms has declined steadily.
The boom-and-bust cycles in North Dakota's agriculture and energy industries have rippled through the state's economy. Recent administrations have re-doubled efforts to encourage new industry and to stimulate other sources of revenue. Some successes, notably the development of agricultural equipment manufacturing and food processing, have occurred.
As North Dakota has sought to attract new sources of jobs and income, greater attention has been paid to tourism. Substantially larger amounts of public money have been devoted to promotion and development of historic and recreational attractions. To attract visitors, efforts to liberalize restrictive "blue laws" have expanded. The campaign began in 1979, when some forms of gambling were legalized; in the 1980s, the opportunities for legal gambling have been increased, and several attempts to relax historic "blue laws" that limit business operations on Sunday and the sale of liquor have become topics for public debate.
As North Dakota's economy and politics have changed, so has the composition of its society. Demand for better public services for disadvantaged citizens resulted in lawsuits that forced improvement in state facilities and de-institutionalization of many handicapped people. Declining enrollments in elementary and secondary schools have brought about consolidations and school closures. In higher education, public debate has centered on the number of colleges and universities in North Dakota and called attention to the state's ability to support those institutions adequately.
Perhaps the most striking change, however, is reflected by a 1987 census figure. According to census estimates, more North Dakotans now live in cities and towns than in rural areas, an alteration with dramatic implications for the structure of the state's economy and the composition of its government.
The issues that face modern North Dakota remain tied to its history. Attracting the capital necessary to develop necessary services, providing jobs and income for the people, and diversifying a colonial economy are tasks that have faced the state's leaders since its earliest days. The old issues of self-determination and popular control are yet relevant as North Dakota enters its second century.
Today, North Dakota is a state where there is little air or water pollution. During the early 1990s, North Dakota gained 25,000 new jobs. Trade with Canada and Mexico is growing and tourism is increasing as well. State leaders still strive to broaden North Dakota's economy that depends heavily upon agriculture. Increased industrial growth would raise the per capita income and create more job opportunities for North Dakotans.
Source: North Dakota Centennial Blue Book 1889, Publication of the North Dakota Secretary of State. The history was originally written in 1988.
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