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 statethe railroads and
the grain merchantsand 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 577,000well on its way to 647,000
in 1920. Farmers had their best years, with both good wheat prices and
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 laborthe
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 terribletruly
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.