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!

Daniel Sauerwein's blog

Archives Adventures During Telecommuting

Summer is here, and there have been several changes of late. The biggest change has been the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to working from home for two months. As a reference specialist, I assist researchers in accessing the materials they need to answer their diverse questions. Being unable to access our physical materials because of the closure limited me in how quickly I could respond to requests, but our amazing patrons have been very understanding. That said, this situation presented me with opportunities as well. I entered data on a couple record groups when not handling the requests that could be answered with our online resources.

The first group of records I worked with were marriage records from Oliver County dating from 1896 to 1925. Marriage records are a popular request among our patrons, as genealogical research represents a sizable amount of our research requests. Most such requests revolve around naturalization records, marriage records, and obituaries.

You can learn much about an area from a group of marriage licenses. Seeing several licenses of the same last name for the groom or bride indicates a fairly large family lived in that area, and the children were settling down. Since these licenses spanned 1896-1925 with most being in the 1905-1920 time frame, which coincided with a sizable wave of immigration into North Dakota, several folks applying for licenses were possibly either new immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants to the area. One interesting pattern appeared in that men with the same last name, who are assumed to be brothers, seemed to marry sisters of a family. This likely relates to immigration patterns, where several families from a community overseas will migrate to a specific location in the United States.

scan of a marriage license

Marriage licenses from this time also note locations that are now memories in a county. Several unique locations were noted on the licenses for the place of marriage, with many being, according to Doug Wick’s book North Dakota Place Names, rural post offices in the various townships. In addition, they clue us into the differences in society at that time, especially the fragility of life, as there were a few licenses that have the same man marrying more than once. While divorce is a possibility for why the first marriage ended, life expectancy was much shorter at that time. With events like the Spanish Flu pandemic, other diseases, and the risks of death in childbirth, an untimely death for the spouse is also a possibility. Seeing these licenses made me wonder about the situation that caused the groom to remarry so soon after seeing an initial license bearing his name. Did he leave his wife, did she leave him, or did she die in an unfortunate situation? As the data entry was paramount on the group of licenses, this question could only be pondered for a moment.

scan of a marriage license

One unique challenge to these licenses is those filling them out had handwriting that left much to be desired. This is one of the challenges when transcribing older documents and records for data entry, or to just understand the document better. Several times during the data entry for these licenses, consulting Census records via Ancestry was necessary to try to decipher a name, especially in circumstances where initials were used (usually the husband’s) instead of the full first name. This was a minor issue, but one that is worth noting. Overall, the addition of the data on these licenses will enhance ease of access to these records for our patrons in the future, as such records are quite popular.

The other group of records I am working with during this time away from the office is the facsimile files. These binders contain photocopies that allowed patrons to look at our photograph holdings before we began the digitization process. Information about the photo, including collection number, item number, a description of the photo, and, if known, the donor is noted. I am working with photos of schools arranged by county. Most are of rural schools and are roughly 100 years old.

There are some cool photos in these binders. The most unique was a photo from Valley City High School in 1905 described as “Boys Toilet Room.” Yes, someone took a photo of the interior of the boys restroom in Valley City High School in 1905. Fortunately, it appears it may be either related to the construction of the school or done at a time when nobody was in the building. It made me chuckle though and think of the popular rock song “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

While working from home has been an adjustment during these unique times, data entry on both the marriage records and facsimile files will provide greater access to our materials in the future. It will be nice to return to the North Dakota Heritage Center more often to catch up on requests and to help the public with their research questions. Someday, archivists will preserve and process material related to this time and helping researchers to answer questions about 2020, and there will be many. Have a safe and happy summer.

Martin Luther King Jr. Remembered in North Dakota

January conjures up images of cold, snowy days, hockey season, and the excitement of a new year. It is also the time our nation pauses to remember an icon of civil rights and racial equality, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Born on January 15, 1929, King’s birthday is observed as a federal holiday on the third Monday in January to recognize the contributions he made to American history. To honor the holiday, it seems fitting to examine State Archives collection items related to Dr. King.

The State Archives preserves the papers of North Dakota governors, and two former governors — George Sinner and Ed Schafer — have materials related to a commission appointed to coordinate MLK Day observances in the state. Sinner’s papers also hold correspondence and materials related to the first observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in North Dakota in 1986, when it became a federal holiday.

One letter from Sinner to Pastor Dan Rothwell of Fargo’s First Assembly of God Church commended the church for having gospel music artist Jessy Dixon appear at the church’s MLK Day event. Murcie Poplar, president of the Children’s Art Institute in Gary, Indiana, sent Gov. Sinner a gift of the Candle Prayer, a commemorative candle created for the holiday to be lit across the nation and world. The original gift was damaged in transport to North Dakota and a replacement was sent.1

photocopy of a typed letter

Our newspapers on microfilm provide insight into how local media covered King’s life and influence, including his assassination on April 4, 1968. For example, the April 5 edition of the Grand Forks Herald provided a bold banner headline and pictures. The Jamestown Sun also provided prominent coverage of King’s assassination. Interestingly, the Sun did not cover much of King’s Aug. 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, though given that mining accidents in Utah and Montana occurred in late August 1963, and that King’s civil rights movement activities were largely focused in the eastern part of the United States, this event did not garner the same level of attention in North Dakota.2

photocopy Grand Forks Herald front page

photocopy of The Jamestown Sun front page

The well-known magazine Ebony published a biography of King shortly after his death with many poignant pictures. Ebony has a connection to North Dakota through one-time editor Era Bell Thompson, who grew up in Driscoll, graduated from Bismarck High School, attended the University of North Dakota, and received the governor’s Rough Rider Award.3 Another book in our library stacks, House Divided: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King by Lionel Lokos (1968), represents an early analysis of King as a civil rights activist. Both titles are available in the reading room during our regular business hours.

In addition, our film collection contains an interesting segment where WDAY in Fargo interviews the Rev. Charles Hughes, a priest in the Fargo Diocese, about the King assassination and the legacy of King’s work. Hughes marched with King in Washington in 1963 and noted that what King feared was “the spiritual death of America through racism,” and that King felt that if his death could prevent that spiritual death, it would be worth it.4 This represented a fine example of how one North Dakotan reflected upon the tragic event.


While the State Archives does not have as much on Dr. King compared with other institutions in the nation, we do have an assortment of materials that inform how North Dakota reflected upon King’s life and work, and how earlier generations commemorated his legacy. Despite being removed geographically from the major events of the civil rights movement, important figures like Era Bell Thompson and Judge Ronald Davies (who presided over the Little Rock Nine case) have strong connections to our state. If you visit the ND Heritage Center & State Museum, you can view additional struggles for civil rights, such as the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, in our exhibits.

1 Governor George A. Sinner to Pastor Dan Rothwell, January 20, 1986; Murcie L. Poplar to Governor George A. Sinner, December 2, 1985; Governor George A. Sinner to Murcie L. Poplar, December 11, 1985, in George A. Sinner Records, Collection #31602, Box 147, Folder 5, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.

2 Grand Forks Herald, April 5, 1968; Jamestown Sun, April 5-6, 1968; Jamestown Sun, August 29, 1963.

3 Kathie Ryckman Anderson, “Era Bell Thompson: A North Dakota Daughter,” North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains 49, no. 4 (fall 1982): 11–18.

4Charles Hughes talks with WDAY, April 5, 1968, WDAY-TV, Collection #10351, Core #02446, Segment #00017, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.