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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

Researching Military Ancestry at the State Archives

Though summer is winding down, the State Archives is still buzzing with researchers on vacation, in addition to our regular local patronage who come in throughout the year. Students, scholars, and curious citizens come to examine our collections to answer their diverse questions. Genealogy remains an area of strong interest, and one question often asked is, “Where can I locate my ancestor’s military record?” While we do not have service records for individual veterans unless that person or their family donated them to us, we do have resources to help patrons in their search and places we can direct you to attempt to answer questions.

How can the Archives help someone research an ancestor’s military service? In our stacks, we have books related to military history, including unit histories, general works on wars and conflicts the US military has been involved in (with a focus toward those North Dakotans participated in), and published diaries, memoirs, and letter collections. These may be useful if a researcher knows the unit(s) their ancestor served with and wants to know where they may have been during a war.

many books on a shelf

A selection of State Archives books related to World War II.

many books on a shelf

We also have a surprising number of regimental histories for units raised during the Civil War, which provide the roster of the men who served in that unit, as well as detailed accountings for the places they passed through and battles they fought in during the war.

We also have a nice selection of books produced by North Dakota counties on residents who served in World War I. These books are helpful to a researcher, as they usually go beyond a simple listing of the men and women from the area, providing stories, photos, and news related to the county at that particular time.

many thin books on a shelf

Examples of our North Dakota county World War I holdings.

A valuable resource we have both in print and on microfilm is Roster of the Men and Women Who Served in the Army or Naval Service (including the Marine Corps) of the United States or Its Allies from the State of North Dakota in the World War, 1917–1918 (1931). This four-volume set lists the North Dakota veterans of World War I and provides a nice, paragraph-length entry on each person that can help a researcher understand a little of their ancestor’s service. A similar roster exists for World War II and Korean War veterans that is commonly called “the red book” because of its red cover. Its entries are not as detailed as its World War I counterpart. It is also available to access through both print and microfilm in our reading room.

interior pages of a book

Pages from Roster of the Men and Women Who Served in the Army or Naval Service (including the Marine Corps) of the United States or Its Allies from the State of North Dakota in the World War, 1917–1918.

In addition to the holdings in our stacks, we have several collections of federal records related to military posts in the state during the 19th century available on microfilm. These include some muster rolls and medical histories. A full listing can be found here by scrolling down to War Department. The records are housed in the National Archives and don’t provide a detailed accounting of an individual soldier’s life, but more a snapshot of a unit at a particular point and time.

For persons who served in the North Dakota National Guard, while we do not have personnel records, we have a sizable collection that contains a variety of records related to several components of the Guard and can inform a researcher as to an ancestor’s service.

Local newspapers provided varying levels of coverage on local men and women serving in wartime, including publishing letters written to inform the folks back home. Finally, researchers have access to Ancestry Library Edition on our research computers that contain several great databases related to military research, including draft registrations, pension indexes, and service indexes.

Our reference staff can also help point you toward sources to consider when researching your ancestor’s military service. While the State Archives may not have records related to every individual veteran from North Dakota, we have ample resources to help you learn more about military service in your family. Stop in with your questions, and we will do our best to answer them.

Appreciating and Repairing Archival Records

April is an exciting time in the State Archives. The month includes two weeks that are relevant to archival collections. National Library Week (April 7–13), promoted by the American Library Association, raises awareness of the importance of libraries and their staff to our communities. National Library Preservation Week (April 22–28) raises awareness of preserving items held in library collections across the country.

This year’s theme for National Library Week is “Libraries = Strong Communities.” With this in mind, a couple of unique examples from our library collection stand out.

First, the oldest cataloged item in our library collection is a 1749 published report related to the Hudson’s Bay Company. This is a beautiful example of mid-18th century publishing. Entitled Report from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the State and Condition of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson’s Bay and of the Trade Carried on There, the report deals with the land granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which included parts of present-day North Dakota that fell within the bay’s drainage basin. The trade in furs and skins is noted, as well as other aspects of trade with Native Americans in the region.

It is fascinating to consider that when the report was published, Great Britain and France still vied for control of North America. George Washington was a teenager, and many of our nation’s Founding Fathers were still children — some not even born yet.

Pages from the oldest cataloged item in our library collection, a report related to the Hudson's Bay Company

Pages 216-217 of Report from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the State and Condition of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson’s Bay and of the Trade Carried on There (1749). Photo by Daniel Sauerwein

Another unique book in our library holdings is The Kindergarten Book (1906). At first glance, one might think this book deals with educating youngsters, but its subject matter is not as innocent as the title implies. It was a publication of the Kindergarten Club, a group of powerful political figures in early North Dakota history. Signatures in the front of the book include Judson LaMoure, one of the first legislators in North Dakota. The Club also included North Dakota politicians Alexander McKenzie and Jerry Bacon, as well as Govs. Louis B. Hanna and Elmore Sarles.

The book is full of poetry and boisterous drinking songs set to popular melodies of the day. The contents of the book denote a group of men who engaged in raucous partying, drinking, and gambling, and perhaps some behind-the-scenes power politics.1

Pages from The Kindergarten Book showing a cartoon and a poem

Pages 28-29 of the The Kindergarten Book (1906). Photo by Daniel Sauerwein.

While we actively engage in preservation of items every day in the Archives, one special activity that some staff engage in is book repair. Sarah Walker, head of reference in the Archives, wrote an earlier blog post on what goes on when the repair group gets together. She noted that it is not a service provided to patrons, but is something the staff does to keep heavily used materials in our collections accessible for future generations as long as possible.

Repairs usually involve gluing loose pages back in place, or shoring up binding, but some are more involved and require the rebinding of the book with special tape. Books deemed too fragile for such repairs are instead housed in phase boxes to protect them from as much wear and tear as possible. The repair efforts do not restore the book completely, but are important to keeping the documented information around for future generations.

As you can see, the State Archives is more than individual pieces of paper or photographs. We also have books that illustrate the changing political history of North Dakota. When those books show signs of frequent use by researchers and need some love and attention, our staff does what it can to keep them around and available for years to come. Each spring, a season of growth and rebirth, we look forward to new additions to our State Archives collection and to repairing items in need.

11 “Kindergarten Club Records, 1906, 1971 Collection Overview,” Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, accessed April 1, 2019, https://apps.library.und.edu/archon/index.php?p=collections/findingaid&id=858&q=Kindergarten+Club.