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!

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Two True Stories from History That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Day

If you asked me for my definition of history, I might say that it’s a combination of circumstances.

Daniel J. Boorstin famously said, “Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.” Whether you’re a sage student of history or just starting out as a history buff, the love of research and discovery is essential to museum and academic work, such as The science of this work is often hidden, sometimes giving people the idea that history is a series of liner, inevitable events just waiting to be reported.  When the reality is that what we call history as a subject is evidence based, communicating the subjects of fossils, farmers, or photographs is a little more artistic and circumstantial.

The world can be a crazy place. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that life is rarely ever linear. Here are a few weird and sometimes wonderful (OK, mostly weird) stories that often get left out of the history books.

John Evans

Before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off the on their expedition, there was the Welsh explorer named John Evans. John was certain that a lost tribe of Welsh were living in North America. To be fair, there was a 1790s “internet rumor” going on. A number of people in England were doing the 1790s equivalent of “trending” the story of Madoc, the myth of a Welsh prince who was supposed to have sailed to North America in 1170. In the myth, his descendants were supposed to be living in the American Midwest and speaking Welsh, of course.

No evidence of a Prince Madoc or his voyage has ever been found. Internet rumor, 1790s style.

John Evans and another Welshman by the name of Iolo Morganwg were going to team up to discover these “Welsh Indians,” identified as the Mandans. Iolo withdrew early from the expedition however, and by 1793, John was imprisoned by the Spanish under the suspicion of being a British spy.

Apparently, his story wasn’t believable then, either.

By 1795, he’d agreed to a plea deal, became a Spanish citizen, and set off on an expedition with the backing of the Spanish to try to discover a route to the Pacific Ocean from the Missouri River and his lost group of Welsh. He did find the Mandans and spent the winter with them before returning to St. Louis.

The Mandans were not Welsh.


John Evan's map of the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Mandan villages of North Dakota. Source Wikipedia, Library of Congress.

Note: President Thomas Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark copies of John Evan’s maps and notes which they used on their expedition. Learn more about American Indians in North Dakota at

And sometimes a humble person steps into the right set of circumstances and ends up owning a third of the world.

Catherine I

Catherine I was born Marta Helena from Polish-Lithuania. Having both parents die from plague before her sixth birthday, this unfortunate child found herself scrubbing floors to survive. Then the Russians invaded. Which meant she was taken prisoner and then sold to a solider. Who traded her to another officer. Who gave her to a general. Who traded her to a duke. Who introduced her to the Tsar. History is a little sketchy as to her exact origins, but by 1711, she accompanied Peter the Great on a military campaign and saved everyone from the overwhelming Turkish army. Six months later, Peter the Great and a peasant woman were married.

Paintng of Catherine I

Some days you wake up a peasant girl. The next day, an empress in charge of 15 million Russians. YOLO. Catherine the Great by Jean-Marc Nattier. Source Wikipedia.

And if that isn’t enough of a Disneyesque fairy tale ending, she convinced the Tsar to make her co-ruler. And then his heir. When Peter the Great died in 1725, Catherine became the first woman to rule Imperial Russia opening the door for a century almost entirely dominated by women rulers.

And if that isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.

Note: Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law is Catherine-the-Great (Catherine II.) If your background is German-Russian, it’s because Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law signed a manifesto inviting Germans to settle in Russia. Learn more about German-Russian immigrants at or research your unique family history in the North Dakota state archives.

3 Terrifying Historical Things Scarier than Any Movie

They say people who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, so pay attention to this blog post! Visit or the collections of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum and you may never sleep again.

1. Cough Syrups and Suppressants

People in the 19th century took their coughs pretty seriously. Decades before antibiotics, huge fortunes were made selling “all natural, safe and soothing” cures. Which isn’t to say that these serums weren’t effective at mellowing you out — it’s just that slapping “natural, safe, and soothing” on the label doesn’t mean they weren’t packed with as much booze and narcotics as they could handle. Which they were.

4 package boxes for tonics

Is there anything it can’t cure? Not according to the label. (SHSND 18061)

This type of massively misleading marketing drove support for a clean food and drug policy in the United States. One of the unsung heroes of the movement, who had crazy ideas like removing morphine and chloroform from baby cough syrup, was Edwin Ladd. A chemistry professor at North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo, Ladd later brought his expertise to bear as a U.S. senator. Ladd’s passion for ensuring food quality is the reason the box of ground pepper you bought at the grocery store is actually ground pepper and not something like ground coconut shells. I am totally not making that up.

2. Rocks from Space

Most are familiar with a popular theory about the end of the dinosaurs; everything was going fine until a giant rock fell out of space, and then something awful happened to the temperature. But that was so 65 million years ago. Could such a thing happen to humans? It already did. In Siberia. And not to be outdone, North Dakota has its own impressive collection of meteorites.

The best documented case would be the Richardton meteorite. On an otherwise normal day, June 30, 1918, at 9:48 a.m., a meteorite exploded above Richardton and Mott. In total, nearly 220 pounds of rock were collected, and amazingly, nobody was hurt.

metorite rock, triangular in shape, dark grey speckled with tan


This thing traveled a long way to get the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. (On loan from University of Minnesota)

To see how unlucky North Dakota can be in the Milky Way, including our impact craters, check out North Dakota Night Sky. And see a piece of the Richardton meteorite on exhibit at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

3. Anatomy Furniture

Museums sometimes hold a great deal of furniture for a variety of reasons. And sometimes that reason seems to be documenting all the different ways Lovecraftian horrors can be imposed in a room.

brown cloth footstool with horn legs

This footstool is made of your Roomba’s nightmares. (SHSND 12774)

Back in the day, furniture that was likely to be conversational as well as stabby was a common theme. This is a huge and surprisingly heavy hat rack that could also impale your pets.

horns joined together with fur and velvet fabric to form hooks for hats

Did not predict the sharp decline of giant hats. Did predict the comeback of the scrunchie. (SHSND 6085)

Make a plan to visit the State Museum on Halloween. You never know what spooky thing you’ll discover.

footstool in the shape of a small chair. horns bottom and decorating the top edge. Quilted pattern on the fabric.

This stool may cause reproductive harm. Thankfully it is encased on exhibit in the State Museum’s Inspiration Gallery. (SHSND 2010.68.1)

Stay weird out there.