nd.gov - The Official Portal for North Dakota State Government
North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Barb Handy-Marchello's blog

Never Stop Learning

When I completed my bachelor’s degree many decades ago, I thought that I was done with school, finished with learning. Whether that was the result of book fatigue or just the glossy idiocy of youth, I am not sure. However, I eventually returned to school and was pretty darn close to 50 when I finally received my Ph.D. in American History. This time, I did not even pause in the learning process but kept on thinking, reading, and writing history – a student with no homework.

I became very comfortable in the study of history and never suspected that I would someday hop back onto that steep learning curve to write a book in an entirely different field of study. Archaeology. I think I took one archaeology course in college (it was required), but I don’t remember much about it.

Now I am writing a book (available next fall) about the people who lived in North Dakota in ancient times. I mean really ancient times. The first people (that we know of) came here around 13,000 years ago. My training as a historian little prepared me to write about people who did not document their lives and beliefs on paper. Throughout this process, I have ranted about archaeologists’ fuzzy dates, my frustration with the limits of archaeological research (they have to go find stuff buried underground!), and their scholarly disagreements. Nevertheless, through study I have actually come to know quite a bit about North Dakota’s earliest peoples.

I find them likable, these people who braved North Dakota before Lake Agassiz had become the Red River, and who probably met some pretty unfriendly animals when they first looked around the northern Great Plains. The first arrivals needed to find resources quickly. They needed food – meat and berries or wild greens – and potable water. They required materials to construct shelter. They had to locate good quality stone to make into projectile points, knives, hide scrapers, and other useful items for their tool kits. These resourceful, hardworking people (like so many who followed them), found all of these things in abundance and returned again and again when they needed what North Dakota had to offer.

Naze Village Illustration

Around 500 BC, hardworking people organized villages near the resources they needed to raise their families in North Dakota. (Andrew Knutson, artist)

I have learned a lot from them. No, I can’t knap stone into a useful tool or to turn a bison hide into clothing, though there are people who enjoy doing that sort of thing. My lessons are quieter, more internal, like: Be curious. Eat new foods. Learn new skills. Adapt to the environment. Meet new people and try out new ideas. Don’t settle for what is right in front of you; something better is just over the horizon. Listen to the younger generation; they may have the right answer to the problems you face. And don’t stand still; a short-faced bear may find you delicious!

Web-based ND History Curriculum: Your Feedback is Welcome

When we published the web-based curricula for North Dakota Studies including The Civil War in North Dakota and North Dakota People Living on the Land, we hoped to receive comments from readers that would lead to corrections, new approaches to organizing the material, and perhaps ideas for new sections. We thought that a web-based curriculum, unlike a paper textbook, could be easily changed and we welcomed the dialog that we might have with students and teachers.

Well, we have heard from nary a student nor a teacher. However, we have heard from a good number of readers who have been out of school for a long time. Their comments have brought smiles to our faces, but also some work that led to careful thought and corrections. The whole-community method of writing history is new and inspiring, but also a little worrisome and frightening at times. We take our responsibility to write accurate, thorough, and interesting history very seriously, but sometimes a nudge in a different direction is just what we need.

I will not reveal the names of the people who wrote, but we want to share a few of their comments with you.

A descendant of Siegmund Rothhammer wrote to tell us we had his name and some other details wrong. Rothhammer traveled to North Dakota in 1864 with General Sully. His assignment was to observe and take notes on plants, animals, soil, minerals, and climate.

Our correspondent’s email sent us on a search for the errors. Certain that I had copied his name carefully, I returned to the archival source. Indeed, my spelling matched the documents. But one cannot easily dismiss the family knowledge that our correspondent had, so I carried on. Finally, I found the source of the error. The microfilm copy of Rothhammer’s report had come to us from another state with the error already embedded. A further search in other resources confirmed the error and we made the correction.

Portrait of Two Bears

Two Bears was a Dakota leader who defended his peaceful hunting camp at Whitestone Hill in 1863.  Our Civil War piece on Whitestone Hill was criticized for calling the conflict a battle, instead of a massacre. SHSND 1952-5644a

Another comment came to us from a descendant of Two Bears who defended his hunting camp from an army attack at Whitestone Hill in 1863. This correspondent asked that we reconsider the use of the word “battle” in the title of our story about the conflict at Whitestone Hill. “Massacre” was more appropriate, he argued, and gently scolded us for this error. I agreed with him, and made the change to the website. Again, using words found in original resources had led to our error.

Some correspondents have praised these educational websites, and we are proud as peacocks when we hear from happy readers. Recently, a British woman wrote to tell us how she had found North Dakota: People Living on the Land and read through much of it. She said, “I want to thank you for such a beautifully written, informative and stimulating website.”

And that’s why we love our web-based curriculum: widely read, easily corrected.