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!

Timothy Reed's blog

Onward and Upward: Using Drones to Support Our Agency Mission

It’s been over a year since our last post about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, by State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists. So I thought it would be a good time to provide some historical perspective about the agency’s use of UAVs since we began flying them in 2014 and give an update on our use of UAVs over this past year.

A shipwreck can be seen just below the water while a few people stand along the shoreline

State Historical Society archaeologists recently used a UAV to document the location and state of preservation of the wreck of the steamboat Abner O’Neal. In July 1892, the steamboat struck a submerged rock in the Missouri River and sank while traveling between Washburn and Mandan.

Archaeologists from the State Historical Society use UAV technology in support of our agency’s mission to “identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” So far the vast majority of our UAV flights have been to document and map archaeological sites, state historic sites, or to highlight other historic preservation concerns using the unique aerial perspective provided by a UAV.

An aerial view of a patch of land where the outline of a ditch surrounding the area can be seen

A defensive ditch system and areas of prior archaeological excavation are visible in this aerial image of Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site located 11 miles east of Bismarck. During the early 13th century, the settlement was home to about 200 people.

All staff members piloting unmanned aerial vehicle flights on behalf of the State Historical Society are certified as remote pilots under Part 107 of the Code of Federal Regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I’ve been certified as a remote pilot since December 2017 and completed my two-year recertification in December 2019. I’m currently studying for another renewal and will complete those requirements later this month. A second agency staff member is also expected to receive their Part 107 certification within the next month. With more people flying UAVs than ever before, I suggest people learn more about the Part 107 remote pilot certification if they intend to operate a UAV on behalf of their employer. Conditions under which a Part 107 remote pilot must present a remote pilot certificate are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations.

An aeiral view of a patch of land where the indentation of a ditch surrounding it can be seen as well as a rectangular indent in the middle

More than 100 lodge depressions, a fortification ditch system, and a central plaza are visible in this aerial image of Huff Indian Village State Historic Site, once home to about a thousand people.

I’ve written multiple blogs since 2014 about the use of UAVs by the agency’s Archaeology & Historic Preservation team to map and document various state historic sites. To date, our archaeologists have flown dozens of UAV missions, including at 10 state historic sites, three sites on land managed by other state agencies or political subdivisions, four sites located on private land, three sites on federally managed land, and one site on tribally managed land. In addition, we’ve partnered with multiple state and federal agencies, private landowners, and other researchers to safely use UAV technology in support of our mission.

Many people can be seen working on a piece of land with many orange buckets by them

Agency archaeologists use a UAV to document excavations conducted in July 2021 by the PaleoCultural Research Group at a small earthlodge village located near Mandan, North Dakota.

Initially our focus in using UAV technology was to capture mainly oblique aerial imagery. Since 2019 we’ve expanded that focus to include highly detailed 3D surface mapping of archaeological sites using specialized camera sensors and software in a process called photogrammetry. The resulting maps provide us with detailed measurable documentation of the archaeological features present at archaeological sites.

A 3D model of a piece of land with trees around it down the banks can be seen with blue squares with pins in them on a platform hovering above the land model

Our archaeologists used a UAV and photogrammetric software in July 2019 to process images collected at Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site. At top, the blue rectangles indicate the relative positions of the images collected by the UAV, while the individual images it collected are seen at the bottom of this screenshot.

We’ve also expanded our use of sophisticated sensors on the UAVs we fly. In 2014, we used a GoPro camera with a UAV purchased from a local hobby shop. Other more advanced UAV models soon followed, and they were paired with more sophisticated cameras capable of shooting high-resolution images and video. In late 2020 we began using multispectral sensors capable of recording information in spectrums not visible to the human eye. During the last few months of 2021, we’ve begun to include the use of thermal cameras within our growing UAV toolkit.

Two similar images of a dot in the ground sit next to each other. The left image has been colorized to make the dot red and the areas around it bright green and blue. The second image has the dot as white with greenish gray around it.

A side-by-side comparison of images produced by thermal and visible light cameras documenting ground surface conditions at an archaeological site near Mandan, North Dakota, in October 2021. Thermal images indicate the presence or absence of heat, and the tree visible in the center of these photos taken soon after sunrise has clearly begun to absorb heat from the sun.

According to an old maxim, “Change is the only constant in life.” This is certainly true when it comes to the rapidly evolving world of technology and UAVs. Keep an eye out for future blogs as we continue to document our use of UAVs in support of the agency’s mission.

The Wreck of the Abner O’Neal

“Shipwreck” and “North Dakota” are not words one might normally expect to hear in the same sentence. However, there is a well-documented historical use of the region’s waterways.

The first use of steamboats for trade and passenger transportation in the territory that would become the state of North Dakota occurred during the fur trade era of 1830-1867. At that time, steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri was a common sight, as furs were moved to downriver markets in St. Louis and beyond. The use of steamboats by the military during the Plains Indian Wars (1860-1890) is also well documented, especially during the various punitive campaigns of the period. Later steamboat traffic in the Dakotas centered around providing transportation and facilitating commerce in the region. As the railroads expanded, steamboats increasingly found it more difficult to remain profitable as they were routinely outcompeted for the transport of both passengers and freight.

The story of the steamboat Abner O’Neal begins in these waning days of commercially viable steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri.

White ship along a river with green trees and grass on the shore

Postcard of a colorized photograph of the steamboat Abner O’Neal (1884-1892). SHSND SA B0735-00001

The Abner O'Neal steamboat was built in 1884 in Freedom, Pennsylvania, for the Steubenville, Ohio/Wheeling, West Virginia-area steamboat trade. Her original namesake Capt. Abner O'Neal and his son, the boat owner Capt. George O'Neal, were well-known figures during the 1870s in the Steubenville/Wheeling steamboat industry. The Abner O’Neal operated successfully in that region for several years transporting freight and passengers. She was then sold to the Missouri River Transportation Company in March 1890, and Capt. Sam V. Williamson moved to extend his pilot’s license to operate on the Missouri River in North Dakota and South Dakota.

By November 1890, the Abner O’Neal had been operating in the passenger and freight trade on the Missouri for a few months. According to the Pierre Weekly Free Press, citizens in the town turned out “to see a real live steamboat” and marvel at “the practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri River” when the Abner O’Neal docked there. Soon the reality of the seasonal “navigability of the Missouri River” would become painfully clear, however.

A good many Pierre visitors went up to inspect the Abner O'Neal today and see a real live steamboat. During the present universal low stage of water it is a very practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri river.

A Pierre Weekly Free Press (S.D.) report from Nov. 11, 1890, reflected the interest the steamboat generated among locals.

We know the Abner O’Neal spent much of her time in this region transporting grain (usually wheat) between the cities of Washburn and Bismarck/Mandan. The nearby Painted Woods area of the Missouri River has long been recognized as a difficult spot for navigation. (It still is.) The area is known for treacherous sand bars and frequent tree snags that can rip a boat hull wide open. By late November 1891, the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in early-winter ice in the Painted Woods area with a cargo of grain on board.

Captain Sims, in charge of the Abner O'Neal, came down from Painted Woods Wednesday, where the Abner O'Neal is frozen in the ice with a cargo of wheat on board. Manager J. M. Turner said it would be impossible to get the boat to this point this fall unless the ice now in the river thaws out.

The November 20, 1891, edition of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune noted that the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in the ice in a treacherous part of the Missouri River.

The Abner O’Neal remained stuck there in the ice for another four months, until she was finally freed in early April 1892. We have further documentation that the crew of the steamboat labored to keep the hull free from the ice by chopping the ice in direct contact with the hull. Steamboats operating in the Bismarck/Mandan area were routinely hauled out of the river during the winter months to avoid this very situation. We could speculate what lasting effect wintering in the Painted Woods area may have had on the integrity of the Abner O’Neal’s hull, but by late April 1892, the boat was once again making trips transporting grain from Washburn to the Bismarck/Mandan roller mills for processing.

On Saturday, the 30th ul. the ice in the river at this place, and above began to move out and by Wednesday, the Abner O'Neal, which had wintered near Painted Woods, made her way toward Washburn, arriving in the evening, much to the joy of the youth of our city.

On April 9, 1892, The Washburn Leader (N.D.) recounted the steamboat’s joyful reception.

On the afternoon of July 17, 1892, the Abner O’Neal was transporting 9,000 bushels of wheat from Washburn to the Mandan roller mill when it struck a submerged snag or rock and began to sink. The crew attempted to patch the hole, but the damage was too extensive and the steamboat quickly went down in 8-to-10 feet of water. The boat and cargo were uninsured and considered a total loss.

As the steamer was plowing her way through the channel, a shock was felt by those on board, which was at first thought to result from the striking of the wheel on some unimportant snag. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that the snag had made an immense hole in the bottom of the boat, which was rapidly filling with water. Tarpaulins were placed over the opening, and some of her cargo was thrown overboard, in an endeavor to lighten her, but these efforts were of no avail, and she went down, in from eight to ten feet of water. All of the crew escaped safely, but the boat and cargo will be a total loss. Although submerged in such a small depth of water, it is not thought possible to raise her. The machinery will probably be saved.

The July 22, 1892, Bismarck Weekly Tribune carried this description of the sinking of the Abner O'Neal.

For nearly 130 years, the steamboat survived seasonal exposures as a result of fall drawdowns at Lake Sakakawea and the subsequent winter freezes. In late September 2020, State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists received notification from the boating public that the Abner O’Neal wreck location was visible due to current low water conditions. Consent to access the wreck site was granted by an adjacent landowner, and images and video of the wreck location were obtained via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) carrying visible light cameras and a 10-band multispectral sensor on Oct. 1-2, 2020. Researchers generated high-resolution orthophoto mosaics from the images collected by the visible light camera and multispectral sensor. A detailed analysis of the orthophoto mosaics, video, and multispectral images collected by agency archaeologists is ongoing.

a stip of sand can be seen underwater with the remains of a shipwreck

A high-resolution orthophoto mosaic of the Abner O’Neal wreck produced from images captured by the agency’s drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

Black and white view of a shipwreck

Near-infrared image of the Abner O’Neal wreck captured by the agency drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

The wreck of the Abner O’Neal was salvaged after the sinking, with the superstructure and paddle wheel removed. Much of the hull of the wreck has remained intact, despite being submerged in the Missouri River for 128 years. The wreck has been periodically subjected to non-systematic collecting by the public since the sinking. The State Historical Society has received a few artifacts donated by private collectors since 1958, but no artifacts were collected by our archaeologists during our October 2020 site investigations.

Rusty metal lantern

A lantern from the Abner O’Neal was donated to the State Historical Society by a private collector. SHSND 2014.A.3.1.

The Abner O’Neal is within the boundaries of state-sovereign lands managed by North Dakota. Several federal and state regulations protect the site and prohibit the collection of artifacts from the location. Boaters and other interested parties are encouraged to avoid the wreck as a navigational obstacle and reminded to take only pictures.

Orange, yellow, and blue sunset reflecting on the water. Sillouhets of trees can be seen in the background. Some dark pieces of shipwreck are poking up out of the water.

The sun sets on the wreck of the Abner O’Neal, September 2020. Image courtesy of Jesse Biesterfeld.


*This blog was co-authored with Andrew Clark.