Archaeological evidence seems to suggest human habitation in the area that became North Dakota as far back as 20,000 years ago. Little is known about those people, but they left behind stone implements that indicate they were big game hunters who seem to have disappeared from the area around 5000 BC.
In the years between 1100 and 1300 AD, tribes migrated from the east, including the Hidatsa and Mandan. They built extensive villages, developed agriculture and hunted and traded over a large area. By the 1600s, the Cheyenne had become temporary residents of the area, following the great herds of bison. They, along with the Lakota Sioux and Assiniboine, profited immensely by domesticating wild horses of Spanish origin.
At the time of the white incursions into the region in the early 1800s, major native groups included the following: the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara along the Missouri River; the Ntonai Sioux in present-day southeastern North Dakota; the Lakota, the most numerous and powerful of the tribes, in the southwest; the Ojibwa in the northeast and the Assiniboine in the northwest.
European Claims and Exploration
In 1679 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle explored the upper Mississippi River and on the basis of that exploit claimed the entire drainage basin for his native France. However, it was not until 1738 that French Canadian Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, acted on the claim. He searched the area unsuccessfully for a Northwest Passage, but noted the abundance of fur-bearing animals. He developed a friendship and lived among the Mandan in the area near today’s Bismarck.
In 1762, near the close of the French and Indian War, France rewarded its ally Spain by granting them the area known as Louisiana in payment for their assistance. The major European influence at the turn of the century was Canadian, primarily through the activities of the North West Company. David Thompson explored north central North Dakota in 1797 and drew maps of his findings. The region did not long remain in Spanish hands, however, and it was ceded back to France in 1800. The rapid territorial exchange was completed in 1803, when France sold the area to the fledgling United States in what is known as the Louisiana Purchase. This acquisition provided about two-thirds of the territory that today is North Dakota; the remaining portion was obtain from Britain in the Convention of 1818.
Early U.S. Exploration and Settlement
Relations between the Indians and the occasional white explorers and settlers were generally peaceful in the early decades of the 19th century. The fur trade changed native life, bringing guns, metal implements and cloth. Contact with the whites also introduced disease and the Mandan and Hidatsa in particular were hit hard by smallpox in 1837.
By the 1840s, two major changes were occurring. First, the seemingly unlimited number of fur-bearing animals was being exhausted, reducing a major source of income for many of the tribes. Second, surrounding areas were developing rapidly; Iowa achieved statehood in 1846 and Minnesota gained separate territorial status in 1849. Spillover from those areas increased the white population of the Dakota regions, which aggravated a number of the Indian tribes that resented incursions onto their homelands.
During the 1850s, organized efforts were made by land companies to entice settlers. Sioux Falls was founded in 1856 and over the next few years Yankton, Bon Homme and Vermillion (site of a former military installation) followed. The increased population led to the establishment of the Dakota Territory immediately before Abraham Lincoln took office in March 1861. The new jurisdiction included present-day North and South Dakota, plus portions of Montana and Wyoming. Yankton served as the first capital and William Jayne the first territorial governor. Montana was separated in 1864 and Wyoming in 1868. The white population in the Dakotas, however, grew very slowly, due in part to the challenging climate and the remote location. Also inhibiting growth was the widely held perception in much of the United States that the northern Great Plains area was devoid of anything of value; maps and atlases of the day labeled the region “The Great American Desert."
Indian problems also dissuaded many settlers from considering the Dakotas as a possible home. In 1862, the Santee Dakota in Minnesota had staged an uprising and then fled into the Dakota Territory. They were pursued by the U.S. Army, which began to construct a series of forts across the territory to provide protection for settlers and travelers. The presence of the army also served to stir up tensions among the resident tribes, the Sioux in particular.
Some stability was brought by a treaty in 1868, in which the U.S. pledged to keep settlers out of specified areas. In return, some of the Sioux, but not all, agreed to remain on reservations west of the Missouri River. The coming of the railroads and the discovery of gold, however, would again ignite warfare in the region.
Railroads. Survey parties had visited North Dakota in the 1850s to scout for the most favorable route for transcontinental rail lines. In 1864, the wartime Congress provided a major boost to these dreams by establishing lavish land grants to help railroad companies finance their ventures and attract settlers to remote western locations. The Northern Pacific Railroad availed itself of this assistance and built westward from Duluth, reaching the Dakota territorial line in 1871. Soldiers were needed to protect the workers from angry Sioux. New towns sprang up along the route, including Fargo on the Red River and Bismarck on the east side of the Missouri.
Gold.The discovery of gold in the Black Hills (present-day South Dakota) in 1874 brought a flood of prospectors in violation of the prevailing treaty agreement. Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) and Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota led the resistance. Most of the fighting occurred in today’s Montana, including the victory over Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Sitting Bull and his followers fled into Canada, but surrendered in northern North Dakota in 1881.
Native life was also negatively impacted by the tremendous slaughter of the bison herds that occurred on the Great Plains in the 1870s. With their prime means of subsistence endangered, many Indians were forced onto reservations.
Agriculture. Farms developed first in the areas near the Red River, but their numbers remained few because of frequent clashes with Indians. In the immediate post-Civil War period, some growth occurred, but under what resembled a colonial system — the Dakotans produced grains and other products that were shipped east for processing and sale; in return, more expensive manufactured goods were sent to the frontier. Many Dakotans barely eked out an existence, while people living elsewhere profited more handsomely from the farmers' efforts.
Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres of public land to heads of families who would live on the land for five years and pay only a modest registration fee; alternatively, a more affluent settler could pay $1.25 per acre and receive title to the land after only six months’ residence. This liberalized federal land policy attracted settlers to the Dakota area in the late 1860s.
The 1870s were a time of prosperity for many farmers. Some large operations, known as “bonanza farms," hired hundreds of workers to farm thousands of acres in eastern North Dakota. Fortunes were made from the sale of hard spring wheat, but the great bonanza came to an end in the depression of the 1890s.
Cattle. The availability of railroad transportation to major markets in the 1870s made cattle production attractive to ranchers. Young Theodore Roosevelt, who was grieving from the loss of his wife, spent two years on ranches on the Little Missouri River and his writings did much to dispel the myths about the Dakotas. The years 1886 and 1887 were the turning point for the cattle industry. The summer was exceedingly dry and was followed by a brutal winter. Huge numbers of underfed and weakened cattle perished. Those conditions were exacerbated by intense competition from other areas that resulted in plummeting beef prices. The nature of the Dakota cattle industry changed — smaller ranches became the norm; areas were enclosed by fences and the era of the open range passed.
North Dakota Statehood
During the territorial phase, the northern and southern Dakota regions had limited contact. The railroad tracks ran east and west, directing the settlers’ attentions in those directions. Alexander McKenzie, a lobbyist for the Northern Pacific, was the behind-the-scenes Republican Party kingmaker who led conservative forces in calling upon businessmen and financial institutions to solve the area’s problems. He was instrumental in the change of location of the territorial capital from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883.
A boundary acceptable to both north and south was fixed in 1887 and two years later Congress enacted enabling legislation that set the path for the admission of the Dakotas, Washington and Montana. North Dakota became the 39th state to join the Union and South Dakota the 40th, both on November 2, 1889. John Miller was elected the first governor and contended with the pressing issues of the day — prohibition and a lottery.
Many farmers became increasingly unhappy with the state’s Republican leadership during the hard times of the 1890s. They looked for scapegoats and had no difficulty with locating two major candidates. The railroads clearly engaged in discriminatory practices by charging higher rates for Dakota grain traveling east than for manufactured items heading west. The banks also were the target of farmer ire and were accused of keeping the growers in perpetual debt through unfair lending practices.
An effort was made to rally collective action through such organizations as the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance, part of a movement in the South and West that was designed to increase the farmers' economic and political clout.
More meaningful reform efforts came after 1900 during the Progressive Era. State laws provided an early form of workmen’s compensation and election reform, but efforts to change railroad practices were largely unsuccessful.
World War I brought a brief period of prosperity to North Dakota. A heavy demand for wheat and high prices cheered many farmers, but the bottom dropped out of the market again when European nations resumed production after the conflict. Grim as the 1920s were, the 1930s were worse. In addition to stiff competition and falling prices, the farmer was plagued by insects, drought, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Many were forced off the land, leading again to a consolidation of farms in the hands of fewer operators.
In 1915, Arthur C. Townley (1880-1959), a farmer and former state Socialist Party figure, was active in the founding of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a group that avoided formal ties with the Republicans or Democrats, but did endorse sympathetic candidates. The NPL spread across the upper farm belt and fought for state ownership of cold storage facilities, grain elevators and mills.
Lynn J. Frazier (1874-1947) was a successful NPL candidate for governor of North Dakota in 1916. He supported programs helpful to farmers and backed the establishment of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota (1919). Scandal forced his recall in 1921, but he was promptly voted a Senate seat as a Republican and served there until 1941. The NPL went into decline in the 1920s when internal dissention and charges of disloyalty during World War I caused its collapse.
William “Wild Bill" Langer (1886-1959) helped to revive the NPL during his election as governor in 1932, but ran afoul of federal authorities for soliciting contributions from government workers. He was removed from office by the state supreme court, but was reelected in 1936. Langer backed a grain embargo during which farmers held their produce off the market in an effort to raise prices; the maneuver was a short-term success. He was later elected four times to the U.S. Senate.
Another prominent personality of the period between the wars was William Lemke (1878-1950), an attorney with early ties to the NPL. In 1932, Lemke was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican, but was initially supportive of the New Deal. He later turned against Roosevelt and ran for president in 1936 on Father Charles Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice ticket. Lemke’s bid attracted support in farm states only.
Gerald P. Nye (1892-1971) was a journalist and progressive Republican, and was the dominant North Dakota political figure of his era. He served 20 years in the U.S. Senate as a chief spokesman for isolationism, a position that represented many of his German-American constituents. Nye headed a committee in the 1930s that investigated the relationship between business interests and American entry into World War I.
New Deal relief programs were vitally important to many of North Dakota’s destitute citizens, and dam construction provided irrigation and power generation for many areas in the state. Agricultural agents introduced many farmers to the benefits of dry farming. Nevertheless, any real measure of prosperity did not return to North Dakota until World War II.
Postwar North Dakota
North Dakota repeated its pattern from a quarter of a century earlier — prospering from gain sales during wartime, but plunging into recession in its aftermath. Farming conglomerates picked up much land during hard times and the number of small family farms diminished. Some efforts were made to diversify the grain-based economy through the manufacture of ethanol (used in antifreeze, solvents and disinfectants) and pastas. Demand for wheat peaked in the 1970s with massive sales to the Soviet Union; many farmers bought new equipment and increased their acreage only to see prices drop a few years later.
Irrigation projects were launched to provide dependable sources of water, power and flood control. The Garrison Dam on the Missouri River was started in 1947, which backed up waters in Lake Sakakawea, a prime recreation area. In 1968, the Garrison Diversion Project was launched for the purpose of distributing water through a series of canals; environmental concerns halted construction for several years, but Congressional modifications in 1986 got the project back on track.
Improved water resources have enabled North Dakota farmers to diversify their efforts to include soybeans, sugar beets and seed potatoes.
Oil was discovered near Tioga in 1951, touching off a minor “oil rush." Refineries have been developed at Mandan and Williston.
The melting of heavy winter snows in the spring of 1997 caused extensive flooding along the Red River and significant damage in Grand Forks and Fargo.
See Indian Wars Time Table and North Dakota .
See also North Dakota favorite son, Lawrence Welk .
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