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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!

Doug Wurtz's blog

The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum “By the Numbers”

Life as a volunteer for SHSND is always exciting and challenging. There is always a new project, a new event, or a new group of people to introduce to the many wonders of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

I recently had the great fun of hosting a tour of 40 high school juniors, seniors and faculty from a Minot, ND, high school. The group was trying to pack as much as possible into their road trip to Bismarck. They visited the legislature in the morning and wanted a tour of the Heritage Center before heading back to Minot for a basketball tournament. As a result of their busy itinerary, the time allotted for their tour was short.

My challenge was to share as much information about the Heritage Center as possible in addition to allowing time for a hurried walk-through of the galleries. I decided that the only way to introduce the many distinct areas of the facility was to create and present a “photo tour” of the building.

I started the photo tour with a slide containing the following “teaser” numbers:

52 million
600 million
12 million

52 million - 255,000 - 600 million - 12 million - 1 - North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

I spent the next 30 minutes revealing the meaning of each individual number.

In November of 2014, the newly expanded and renovated $52 million addition to the Heritage Center was formally introduced to the public.

On that day, 97,000 square feet of space was officially added to the Heritage Center to total 255,000 square feet under one roof. To visualize that number, we did some quick math with an example everyone could relate to. Two hundred and fifty-five thousand (255,000) square feet is equivalent to just under 5 1/2 football fields under one roof. As I explained, there is an entire unseen world one floor down from the main galleries that contributes 48,500 square feet to the total.

The challenge for a 1 hour tour was not only in roaming over 5 1/2 football fields, but also the fact that 600 million years of history are on display in the three main galleries.

It became apparent to the students that the only way to get some understanding of the many departments (called “Divisions”) and hidden corners of the Heritage Center in one hour was through the remainder of the photo tour.

In the comfort of the new Great Plains Theater, my photos allowed them to descend to the lower, secured area of the Heritage Center. As I explained to them, the lower floor is the “heart and brain” of the facility. It is here that all the artifacts and objects, as well as the information accompanying them, are prepared for display in the main floor museum galleries.

I spend a lot of my volunteer time in the Archaeology & Historic Preservation division, so I had more facts available for this area of the Heritage Center.

The Archaeology Collections Manager is responsible for 12 million artifacts in this Division alone. At any one time, about 800 of the 12 million artifacts are on display in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. The artifacts in the collections storage area are arranged on 20,000 linear feet of shelves—that is 3.8 miles of shelving! These artifacts represent 13,000 years of human history in what is now North Dakota.

I quickly reviewed the remainder of the lower level consisting of the paleontology lab, the archaeology lab, museum preparation lab, other collection storage areas, the Communications & Education division, museum, security, and staff offices.

From the lower level, photos moved them back to the main floor with a “stop” at the Archives Division with its 30,000 square feet of space. From there, we quickly moved on to the overall organization of the main galleries before our time was up.

I didn’t have time to tell them that we now have 300 percent more Paleoindian artifacts on display, that our annual visitation has more than doubled since we reopened, that another of our volunteers has taken 30,000 digital photos in the past 16 months, or that in addition to our 90+ paid staff, we have 200 volunteers that keep the State Museum and our state historic sites ticking.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a personal visit must be worth at least a thousand pictures. We hope to see you at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Please allow more than one hour to see everything!

The Failed Fisk Expedition: What If??

Captain James L. Fisk

Captain James L. Fisk, SHSND

“A strong camp and picket guard were posted for the night—a cold lunch was passed around at nine o'clock, and then some tried to sleep. But soon the night darkened into blackness. Hundreds of wolves, attracted by the scent of blood and of corpses set up a most unearthly howling and yelping, while there gathered and broke over us a thunder storm more grand and terrific than anything I had ever experienced. There was incessant and intensely vivid lightening for nearly an hour, and then came peal and treble peal of heavy continued and incessant thunder which lasted for two hours. A shower, not in drops but in sheets poured for an hour upon our parched camp, till within the corral, in the natural basin around which it was formed, cattle were standing in the morning in two feet of water. The fatigue of the day, the groaning of the wounded, the howling of wolves, the unprecedented storm under such circumstances made this a night in my experience never to be forgotten.”[1]
James L. Fisk,
Dakota Territory
September 3, 1864

William L. Larned

William L. Larned, Emigrant member of the 1864 Fisk Expedition, SHSND


“To gain a little personal fame he (James L. Fisk) has thrown the train to the south of a route already open & well defined by Gen. Sully under the guidance of the most competent guides, & has been pushing ahead through a rough broken country of which he is utterly ignorant & his engineer often unable to set on his horse from intoxication…. Yet I like him for his good nature covers a great many defects.”[2]
William L. Larned,
emigrant member of the Fisk expedition,
September 10, 1864


Hubris, poor planning, and bad luck had followed the emigrant train to this point.

I began this story in my last blog post, [http://blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/troubled-time] and quotes like those above are the reason why I enjoy doing research in the State Archives at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum (http://www.history.nd.gov/archives/index.html). Publications sometimes leave out the gritty details and personal anecdotes of the participants in historical events. Additional searching adds context and substance to some of these stories. Personally, I find it fuels the “what ifs” of history.

For instance:

The Fisk emigrant train spent seven days at Fort Rice awaiting and completing passage over the Missouri River aboard the steamboat U.S. Grant. If they had departed Fort Rice even two days later, would they have steered clear of Sitting Bull and his warriors?

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, SHSND

Conversely, if the emigrant train had departed Fort Rice a couple of days earlier, would they have been bogged down in the rugged terrain of the Badlands and put at risk of total annihilation by the Hunkpapa (Lakota) warriors?

Sitting Bull was shot in the left hip during the Fisk raid in September 1864, when a band of Hunkpapas attacked the Fisk wagon train. The bullet exited out through the small of his back and was not serious. How would history have changed if Sitting Bull had been killed during the skirmish?

After the siege, survivors from the Fisk emigrant train returned to Fort Rice. Some of the members of the aborted expedition remained at the fort over the winter and beyond. Is it possible that some of those travelers played a part in early Edwinton/Bismarck, Dakota Territory?

On July 28, 1865, Sitting Bull and his warriors attacked Fort Rice. This intense battle, one of the largest in the history of Dakota Territory, may have wiped out the fort if not for the superior weaponry of the “Galvanized Yankees,” the former Confederate prisoners-of-war stationed there. Would this attack have occurred if Sitting Bull had been killed eleven months earlier?

What if??

If you have not yet visited the State Archives, I invite you to do so. I am interested in your thoughts and research into the “what ifs” of the failed 1864 Fisk emigrant expedition.

[1] James L. Fisk to US Army Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, “Report of the Expedition (Northwestern) to Montana in 1864 for the protection of Emigrants under his Command,” 13 January 1865, www.fold3.com

[2] Ray H. Mattison, ed., “The Fisk Expedition of 1864: The Diary of William L. Larned,” North Dakota History 36 no. 3 (Summer 1969): 209–74.