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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!

Guest Blogger's blog

Civil War Reenactor, Living Historian, or Public Historian?

When I was in college people often asked me, “What will you do with your degree…teach?” As an aspiring living historian/reenactor, the answer I always gave was “no,” because I did not plan to become a schoolteacher or professor. But looking back on it, I realized that the dissemination of historical knowledge to people through reenactment is teaching—though perhaps not in a traditional sense.

The terminology for people who impart historical knowledge through performance varies. The hobby (as it is often called) has many faces: soldier, trapper, tinsmith, laundress, or lady, to name a few. Most people involved in historical reenacting do so for a variety of reasons. They may like camping; they may like firing historic weapons; or they may like being with friends and family. Whatever the reason, you can be certain that most people dressed in period clothes do not do so for comfort.

6th Infantry reinactors wearing time period hats, jackets, and pants and holding muskets

6th Infantry re-enactors at the Yellowstone Lodge #88 Historic Masonic Site, adjacent to Fort Buford State Historic Site. Yellowstone Lodge #88 was on the Fort Buford Military Reservation.

Wearing a wool uniform or leather tunic is not comfortable. Women who portray officers’ wives wearing corsets and several petticoats or laundresses toiling over a hot fire are not comfortable. So why are they doing this? I know a former art teacher who makes pottery and sells it at events, but he also loves the camaraderie and history aspects of being a reenactor. Others do it because they enjoy the activities associated with it, like camping, shooting, acting, or modeling period clothing. If you talk to most living historians, however, you would find that the camaraderie of the historical reenactor world is the biggest draw—meeting and interacting with others who are deeply interested in all things historical.

The majority of historical reenactors are ordinary people who relive history for fun and to get away from a fast-paced, technological world. Like anything, though, this hobby has extreme participants.

At one end of the spectrum are the “Farbs” (a fabricated impression). This is a term given to some participants who continue with historical reenactment after being politely told that their impression contains inaccuracies, like, “they would have never worn polyester” or “tennis shoes were not invented yet.” Most people will learn from these comments, often with help from fellow reenactors. They try to improve their impressions, even going so far as to research details on their own.

At the other end of the spectrum are the hardcore “living historians.” These individuals go to great lengths to make sure every detail of their outward garb is accurate. One of the contracted background artists for Gettysburg went as far as urinating into a jar full of brass buttons to get the correct patina. Most living historians, however, are in the middle somewhere (myself included). They do their research and listen to other historians to hone their impressions.

Steven Reidburn wearing a navy blue 1872 pleated blouse

The author wearing an 1872 pleated blouse while reenacting frontier military at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

I have been a Civil War reenactor for 35 years. My own reasons for participating in this activity are simply put: I enjoy the firearms, the people, the fresh air, and the questions asked by visitors about the weapons, trappings, and uniforms.

If you have ever held a Civil War musket and looked at the workmanship of the wood and metal, you will see the amazing skill it took to craft such a firearm. There are many variations of muskets, and most were used during the Civil War. Camping with just a blanket and a dog tent is exhilarating (well, it used to be). The enormous number of questions asked by visitors and audiences is stunning. There is always one about wearing a wool uniform on a hot day, “Aren’t you warm in that?”

Robert Lee Hodge dressed as a confederate soldier

As his name implies, Robert Lee Hodge is reenacting a Confederate soldier. He looks and acts the part of a underfed, clothes scavenging, hard core Confederate veteran soldier.

It is wonderful when the questions someone asks are about something I know very well, and about which I can provide a lot of information. For me, that would be any question about Fort Seward, strategy during Gettysburg, or any other major battle of the Civil War. “Do you think Robert E. Lee was off his game during Gettysburg?” (Yes.) “Could the South have won with Stonewall Jackson?” (Yes.) And if the answer to a question is not clear, it makes me curious. I then go read the relevant historical accounts to glean an answer, if there is one. With those questions, I usually answer like any teacher would: “That is a good question. I don’t know for sure, but will look deeper into it.” In this sense, living historians are also lifelong learners. The truly best questions come from young people. It thrills me to answer their questions. From these encounters, I always feel there is hope that the work that living historians do to preserve the past will continue.

Next time there is a living history demonstration going on near you, I recommend that you watch and ask questions of the participants. You will see the light in their eyes and the passion they carry in their hearts for what they do.

Guest Blogger: Steven Reidburn

Steven ReidburnSteven Reidburn is the former Site Supervisor at Fort Buford State Historic Site and is currently the Site Supervisor at the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site. He is also the State of North Dakota Historic Weapons Supervisor.

5 Reasons Readers Love "North Dakota History"

As an editor, I get to geek out over dictionaries, style guides, and book catalogs (such as this one from the University of Nebraska Press). I also try to stay current with a variety of academic journals, and am privileged to work with editor Pam Berreth Smokey on one of the best in our region: North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, published semiannually by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Perhaps you are one of our devoted readers, but for the uninitiated (and newcomers to the northern plains, such as myself), I am excited to tell you about this stellar resource. The State Historical Society loves gathering audience feedback, and we recently conducted a North Dakota History reader survey. Ensuring reader satisfaction is a unique challenge in that we want to present new, credible scholarship in an accessible and visually appealing way.

Well, we were thrilled with the results! Here are five top reasons readers love our journal.

Journal covers

Recent covers of North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains

1. Well-researched articles.
Did you know the State Historical Society of North Dakota has published an academic journal since 1906? While the journal (called North Dakota Historical Quarterly from 1926 to 1945) maintains high academic standards for the historians, professors, and others who contribute well-researched articles, we also attract a broad general readership of folks interested in the history of our region. If we can help the reader think more deeply about an article topic through a new lens or learn a fascinating new tidbit about history, we’re fulfilling our purpose.

2. Enlightening topics.
In our reader survey, over half of respondents* rated the journal “outstanding,” and 79 percent read “most pages” or “cover to cover.” As a bookworm (and the journal’s book review editor), I am excited folks still make time to read an entire magazine! Some of the most interesting feedback relates to article topics: immigrant ethnic history is our most popular subject area, with Native American history and architecture/historic preservation coming in close behind.

Chart showing favorite topics

From North Dakota History reader survey, January 2018

3. Local history is personal.
Our most popular article of 2016–17 was “1997 Grand Forks Flood” by University of North Dakota professor Kimberly Porter, which recounted a personal experience of the natural disaster many of our readers lived through. Similarly, our Winter 2017 issue featured McIntosh County German-Russians and three rural North Dakota cemeteries, meaning many of our readers were tied (as actual relatives, or culturally) to the people and communities discussed.

Photo of 1997 Grand Forks flood

Kimberly Porter’s article on the 1997 Grand Forks flood was the most popular of the past year. North Dakota History, Vol. 82.1 (Summer 2017), pp. 18–19

4. Great design.
Images remain vital to our storytelling, and we are proud the journal has won the Mountain-Plains Museums Association Publication Design Award for two years in a row (2016–17). The most recent winner included this article on frontier photographer Orlando S. Goff, who captured an iconic photo of Sitting Bull in 1881.

5. One-of-a-kind stories.
On the northern plains, truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction. We continue to add original content for free online, including this recently posted 1957 article, “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Mother.” A personal favorite, Kate Roberts Pelissier’s astounding oral history is reminiscent of Little Women and the Little House books.

Margaret Barr Roberts

Margaret Barr Roberts, described in “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Mother” by Kate Roberts Pelissier, raised five daughters alone on a ranch near Medora after her husband disappeared. SHSND A4454

Have I piqued your interest enough? You can catch up with the contents of recent issues online, read them in our State Archives, purchase copies through our Museum Store, or subscribe. Our next issue, going to press in June, will highlight World War I memorials across the state and explore the 1856 G. K. Warren maps, which were pivotal in charting the Missouri River and its environs.

Keep reading! And don’t hesitate to let us know what you think.


* We conducted the survey electronically through an email to available subscribers. The link was also published in the print journal. Fifteen percent (148 people) of the email list responded.

Guest Blogger: Ann Crews Melton

Lenny KruegerAnn Crews Melton is associate editor of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. She edits "Plains Talk" newsletter, the State Historical Society annual report, assists with "North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains," and scribbles a red pen across many other resources.