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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!

Daniel Sauerwein's blog

A North Dakota Connection to an American Literary Legend

In processing and organizing collections to make them accessible to researchers, the staff at the State Archives stumbles across unique items with their own stories to tell. While many of these documents and photographs relate to prominent people from North Dakota, or those who spent time or rendered some service to the state, we sometimes find an interesting connection to an important figure in American history in unlikely places.

We recently made one such find. Probate case files are important archival records at the county level that find their way to the State Archives as county governments across North Dakota need to make room for more current records. Older records are sent to us for storage and preservation and are great tools for researchers (especially genealogists) to trace the history of an ancestor’s estate and find other relatives.

In September 2017, Barnes County transferred some of their older probate records to the State Archives. Bev Keesey, one of our volunteers, worked on processing them. One afternoon she stumbled upon Case #599 from 1885 related to Anne Charlotte Fenimore Cooper, daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the Leatherstocking Series, which includes the novels The Pathfinder and The Last of the Mohicans.

Ms. Cooper’s probate case is an interesting read, as her heirs included her other surviving siblings, most who resided in and around the Cooperstown, New York, area. This begs the question: how did a descendant of one of America’s most influential nineteenth-century authors, with no known connection to our state, come to have a probate case in North Dakota? The likely answer links her to one of the major power players of North Dakota early settlement--the railroad.

Cooper’s probate case concerned, according to several case documents, “An undivided one-half interest in the North West quarter (N.W.1/4) [sic] of Section number Fourteen (14) in Township number One Hundred thirty-nine (139) North of Range Fifty-seven (57) West of the Fifth Principal Meridian, in Barnes County, North Dakota.”1 This land is located southeast of Valley City and, based on the fact that Cooper has “An undivided one-half interest” in said tract of land, suggests that the land was part of the large swaths of land given to the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) during the late nineteenth century along their route through North Dakota. That parcel of land was purchased in the Fargo land office by Anthony Gemmet on October 20, 1882.2

According to the case file, the interest Cooper held was valued at $1,500, which would be worth just over $39,000 today when adjusted for inflation. Further, John Noack, acting as administrator of the estate, was the petitioner to the court on the behalf of Cooper, who was deceased. As the case was probated, the land became Noack’s property, and, according to the Standard Atlas of Barnes County, North Dakota (1910), Noack (spelled Noach in the atlas) owned the entire northern half of the section in question, as well as the eastern half of section 12 in the same township.3

It is fascinating to see how a simple case related to a small piece of land in southeastern North Dakota can link investment, settlement, and the descendants of one of America’s most well-known authors. While I have no indication that Anne Cooper ever visited North Dakota, the connection of her (and by extension, her famous father) to the state is special, given the frontier nature of North Dakota in the late 1800s, North Dakota’s important role in the settlement of the West, and James Fenimore Cooper’s love of the frontier in American history.

Page from the Ann Fenimore Cooper probate case file

Page from the Ann Fenimore Cooper probate case file

View a PDF version of the case file.

1 Anne Charlotte Fenimore Cooper probate case file, Barnes County Probate Case Files, State Historical Society of North Dakota.
2 “Patent Details,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records, accessed June 27, 2018, https://glorecords.blm.gov/details/patent/default.aspx?accession=ND0350_....
3 Standard Atlas of Barnes County, North Dakota, Chicago:  Alden Publishing Co., 1910, 55.

An Archives Christmas

As we are in the midst of the holiday season, the sights turn to snow, lit up houses, Christmas trees, and packed shopping malls. Our thoughts turn to time with family and friends, holiday parties, and gift giving. Often, this time is one that we reflect on past seasons and special gifts that brightened our childhoods and memories that will last a lifetime and beyond.

The vast collections of the State Archives provide many treasures and resources for understanding life in days gone by. It seems appropriate to consider items and collections that allow casual visitors and researchers opportunities to learn about how people in our area experienced the holiday season. We have a number of resources available related to the Christmas season that will generate curiosity and personal reflection.

Have you ever wondered what items your parents or grandparents may have had on their wish lists? Curious as to what items were available for possible gifts during Christmases past? We have catalogs from JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and Sears that span several years. This is something many may remember doing as kids, circling the toys and other items we hoped would be waiting for us under the tree Christmas morning. These catalogs are wonderful resources to the material culture of preceding generations, illustrate changes in fashion, and provide insights into the economic history of our country. We also have an FAO Schwarz toy catalog for the fall and winter season of 1974-1975 that is full of unique toys, including the ones on the page image below.

History playsets

One page featuring some history playsets in the 1974-1975 FAO Schwarz Fall & Winter catalog.

In addition to looking at our assortment of store catalogs, those curious as to what potential gifts made Christmas lists in past decades can also examine our extensive newspaper collection on microfilm. Advertisements for goods were a common sight in North Dakota newspapers. While our minds usually gravitate towards grocery items when considering such ads, other local businesses ran ads in the pages of their local paper announcing deals on clothes, toys, televisions, and many other items. Our newspapers are also a great resource for seeing what the communities in North Dakota did around the holidays in terms of events.

Greeting cards, whether homemade or store bought, are a common item associated with the Christmas season. Several of our collections contain examples of such cards and range from simple to very ornate. The Martin M. Stasney Papers (Series# 10630) contains an example of a child’s card, as Violette Stasney colored a Christmas postcard in crayon. Another example of a Christmas card comes from the Della (Moos) Schoepp Papers (Series# 11080) and is a large Christmas card that opens to a detailed pop-up Nativity scene.

Merry Christmas angel tree

Christmas postcard colored in by Violette Stasney, part of the Martin M. Stasney Papers (Series# 10630).

Gloria in Excelsis Deo angel

Front of Christmas card from the Della (Moos) Schoepp Papers (Series# 11080). Photo by Daniel Sauerwein.

Nativity scene

Inside of Christmas card from the Della (Moos) Schoepp Papers (Series# 11080). Photo by Daniel Sauerwein.

Our holdings on Digital Horizons also provide some interesting Christmas related items. One example is from World War I, when the Gackle Republican ran an image on the front page of its December 14, 1917 issue featuring Santa Claus standing upon the world, passing out gifts to various children of the world, under the caption, “Santa Claus to all the world.” It is interesting to note that only the children of Allied nations are represented, clearly denoting that America is at war and that the enemy’s children are deemed not deserving of gifts at Christmas. This prime example of wartime propaganda during the Christmas season conveys the efforts to dehumanize citizens of the enemy nations and stands in stark contrast to the meaning of the season. The image also symbolizes that there were men fighting in the trenches during the season as well who were away from loved ones.

Santa Claus to all the world

Front page of the December 14, 1917 issue of The Gackle Republican, featuring Santa Claus passing out gifts to the Allied children of the world.

Finally, while there is a lot of work that goes on in the Archives, we also make time to get in the holiday spirit by doing a little decorating and bringing out a staff favorite. This is my first Christmas with the State Historical Society. I was introduced to a tradition in the Archives of bringing out Olive, the other reindeer, who I have been told by fellow Reference Specialist Sarah Walker is a boy, was the creation of our State Archivist, Ann Jenks, and stands watch by the reference desk. He’s quite the character to say the least. Who says archivists can’t have a little fun?

Olive the reindeer cart

Olive sends holiday greetings from the Archives. Photo by Daniel Sauerwein

I hope as you prepare your own activities for the holidays, you take some time to stop by and look at the treasures of Christmas past we have in our collections. We wish you a safe and happy holiday season.