The Region

Where Prairie and Plains Meet

North Dakota 1889-1989

D. Jerome Tweton - University of North Dakota, Grand Forks

Published August 1, 1989  |  August 1989 issue

The unquenchable thirst for furs lured the first Europeans into present-day North Dakota, changing forever the lives of the native peoples who had adopted the prairies and plains as their own. When Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye crossed the vast, treeless grassland in 1738 on his way to the Missouri River, he witnessed two distinctly different Native American ways of life. The Assiniboines, traders and hunters, gave the Mandans, a sedentary farming and hunting people, tools, muskets, and powder in exchange for corn, tobacco, and animal skins. Most of the Mandans, the Hidatsas, and the Arikaras (known as the Three Tribes) lived in permanent earth-lodge villages along the Missouri, where they farmed, traded, and hunted. By the 1790s, the Plains Chippewa Indians (the Turtle Mountain Chippewas) had moved out of the eastern woodlands and had adapted to the plains as bison hunters, although many continued to play roles in the Pembina fur trade.

By far the largest and most powerful group was the Lakota, or "western Sioux." Comprising seven bands, the Lakota epitomized Plains Indian culture, a highly organized hunting society. The Yankton and Yanktonai, the "Middle Sioux," lived between the Missouri and James rivers and because of their location were traders as well as hunters. The Dakota, or "Eastern Sioux," maintained a woodlands culture, moving onto the plains from the east to hunt bison. Regardless of tribal affiliation, all North Dakota Native Americans held a reverence for the land and its resources.

The rush of white settlers into northern Dakota did not come until after the reservation system was mostly in place: the Three Tribes were at Fort Berthold, the Dakotas were at Standing Rock, and some Yanktonai and Lakotas were at Fort Totten. In 1871, when the Northern Pacific began to extend its transcontinental line west from Fargo, only 2,400 whites lived in the northern half of the territory. But things changed quickly. Within just ten years, the NP had crossed the territory, James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway was preparing to lay tracks about a hundred miles north of the NP line, and the huge bonanza farms of the Red River Valley and the rich ranches west of the Missouri had proved to the world that this was exceptional wheat and cattle country. The Great Dakota Boom was on. By 1889, when North Dakota entered the Union, about 190,000 people had settled on Dakota's northern prairies.

By 1889, four historic themes had been set in the new state. First, North Dakota would be represented by the Republican party, which had dominated territorial politics. Alexander McKenzie, the boss of the North Dakota Republican machine, was allied with both the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern, and he held a tight reign on the state's politics and policies. Second, North Dakota would be an agricultural state, with essentially a one- crop wheat economy. As producers of raw material, North Dakotans were dependent on corporations outside the state—the railroads and the grain merchants—and Twin Cities corporations and capital in Minnesota would control the fortunes of the state for years to come. Third, North Dakota would have a highly diverse ethnic character. By 1915, almost 70 percent of the state's population had been born or had parents who had been born in another country. Fourth, Native American residents would face an increasingly difficult life on the four reservations, as the federal government imposed "Americanization" programs and policies and reduced the size of reservations in response to "homestead fever."

North Dakota's first decade brought economic woe to wheat farmers and slowed the growth of population, but the first decade of the twentieth century was characterized by unbridled expansion, unprecedented prosperity, and political "revolution." The Golden Age of Agriculture set the stage for North Dakota's Second Great Boom. The railroads doubled their miles of track, opening all corners of the state to the last surge of settlement. By 1910, the population had reached 577,000—well on its way to 647,000 in 1920. Farmers had their best years, with both good wheat prices and good crops.

The political landscape also changed dramatically. In 1906, Progressive Republicans joined Democrats to oust McKenzie's candidate, ending 17 years of Republican boss government. The Progessives opened up the political process, enacting such legislation as the initiative, the referendum, and direct primaries. The optimism of the state's founders and the Second Boom combined to create what historian Elwyn B. Robinson has termed the "too-much mistake." By 1915, North Dakota had more towns, railroad trackage, churches, schools, and elected officials per capita than any other state.

The farmers were enjoying good times, but they still had little control over their destinies. Despite their legislative success, the Progressives had done little to improve grain-grading procedures or to control the power of outside corporations. This failure made North Dakota fertile ground for radical reform. In 1915, Arthur C. Townley seized the opportunity and organized the Nonpartisan League, which became the liberal faction of the Republican Party. The League called for a system of state ownership: a bank, mills, elevators, creameries, cold storage plants, and packing plants. Tapping a wellspring of rural discontent, the League spread like a prairie fire and in 1918 gained political control of the state.

Confident that the state would give farmers a fairer deal at the elevator and at the bank, the 1919 legislature enacted the state-ownership program as well as other agricultural and political reforms. But the conservatives rallied and formed the Independent Voters Association (IVA), which in 1921 organized the recall that removed from office Governor Lynn J. Frazier, the attorney general, and the commissioner of agriculture and labor—the three officials who as the Industrial Commission oversaw the state's new businesses. In 1922, with hard times again on the farm, the IVA captured the state, ending North Dakota's brief "socialist experiment." The Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, however, survived the political storm and remain today as symbols of North Dakota's revolt against outside control.

The two decades between the world wars were North Dakota's most difficult years. World War I stimulated the farm economy, as farmers planted from fence to fence for defense. Agricultural operations expanded, especially in the semi-arid western part of the state, and farmers went deeply into debt for land and machinery. By 1920, with wheat at well over two dollars a bushel, farmers were certain that they had attained permanent prosperity. But the bubble burst, and wheat prices soon plummeted to around a dollar, placing farmers in a terrific price squeeze. Banks began to fail in 1923, signaling the onslaught of farm depression. By 1933, 575 of North Dakota's 898 banks had closed, leaving depositors with over fifty million dollars in losses. The 1920s were difficult, but the 1930s were terrible—truly years of despair. Ravaged by wind and drought, North Dakota staggered under the strain of depression. By 1936, two of every three North Dakotans depended on the federal government for assistance. Tethered to a one-crop wheat economy, North Dakota was the hardest hit of all the states. World War II revived the state's economy and laid the foundation for a generation that experienced general, although uneven, prosperity. The population, which had declined during the Depression, leveled off, ranging between 620,000 and 650,000 people.

Four themes have characterized the years since World War II. First, North Dakota became a two-party state in the 1950s when the Nonpartisan League merged with the Democrats. Since 1960, with the exception of four years, Democrats have controlled the governorship, although the legislature has remained Republican and the two parties have generally shared the state's congressional seats. Second, the economy became more diversified, with farmers planting potatoes and sugar beets, with wheat still the principal crop. More importantly, drillers discovered oil in 1951, which together with lignite-coal development made North Dakota an energy state. Third, the state's population shifted from the farms and small towns to the larger cities, creating a rural exodus. Fourth, the federal government began to play a more significant role in the state's economy by constructing and supporting air bases, missile systems, and water projects.

More than any other state, the history of North Dakota has been tied to the land. About 85 percent of its income is derived from agriculture and energy, and in most ways the state's well-being is determined by outside forces over which its people exert little control. Whether harvesting wheat, pumping oil, or working on a reservation (Native Americans account for less than 4 percent of the state's population), the orientation is toward the land.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the oral and written stories of both Native Americans and early white immigrants described the power of the land, which they characterized as harsh and beautiful. More recently, Lois Phillips Hudson's Bones of Plenty portrayed an angry land that turned against the people during the 1930s, and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine describes three generations of an Indian family on a North Dakota reservation. Karl Bodmer and George Catlin created strong artistic images of Native peoples and their land during the 1830s, and that same connection has continued as a theme. Artist Paul E. Barr has depicted the stark beauty of the Badlands on canvas, and Jacquelyn McElroy has presented a more whimsical North Dakota with elevators rising out of a land suspended by balloons.

"The land, what else is there?" This has been the North Dakota of the farmer, the rancher, the strip miner, the roustabout, the artist, and the generations of European immigrants and Native Americans who shaped the land and the character of its people.

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