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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!

Strange Things Found: Five Unusual Artifacts in the Collection of the North Dakota State Historical Society

I am one of the fortunate people who get to work with and protect some of the treasures of our state. As it turns out, a few of those treasures are a little unusual. The State Historical Society began formal collecting efforts in the early 1900s. In the intervening century, what is now the Museum Division has assembled a collection of a little over 74,000 artifacts (this does not include the holdings of our other collecting divisions). With a collection of that size I still find things that surprise me, even after four years of working here.

1. Patsy the Calf (2010.52.1)

Patsy the Calf

Born on a farm in the Williston area, Patsy is a unique calf. If you look closely at her chest, you’ll see a twin that never separated while she was in the womb, leaving a mouth and undeveloped eyes under her neck and a large bulge on her rib cage. She was calved in April1976 and lived until June of that year before dying of pneumonia. Upon her death, the family decided to have her remains preserved by a taxidermist. Twenty-four years later, in 2010, she was donated to the State Historical Society. Keeping Patsy’s remains preserves an unusual part of farm life in an agricultural state.

2. Buffalo Hide Chair (13346)

Buffalo Hide Chair

We have many pieces of furniture in the collection that are upholstered in buffalo hide, invariably with horns used for components such as the bottoms of chair legs, armrests, and back supports. Horn furniture was popular and stylish in the late 19th century, though most mass- produced pieces were made with cow, rather than buffalo parts. To modern eyes, including my own, the look of horn furniture can be somewhat…unsettling…to say the least, and that’s why I included it on the list. We believe it was produced in the 1880s in Kidder County. With the prevalence of buffalo in North Dakota’s natural history, our collection of horn furniture is a very North Dakotan twist on a popular fad.

3. Novelty Coffee Pot (1994.12.1)

Novelty Coffee Pot

Some items just make you scratch your head, and this is one of them. All we know about the coffee pot is that it was given to the mayor of Pembina, North Dakota, around 1900. Glued to the side are rifle cartridges, dice, seashells, pocket watches, and military buttons. The list could go on. All of this was given a thick coat of gold paint. Who did this and why did they do it? The world may never know.

4. Shackles (1982.48.8)


Some of our unusual items are not unusual because of what they are, but because of the story associated with them. These shackles were used to restrain a horse thief known as “Club Foot” Wilson, who had stolen two mares in Mercer County, Dakota Territory, in 1884. At the time, there was a vote to decide the county seat, with a choice between the towns of Causey and Stanton. Realizing the race was tight, local officials offered to set Wilson free in return for his voting for Stanton, which he of course did. According to the donor, Stanton won by one vote, though the records I have at my disposal do not confirm that. By keeping this item, we preserve an unusual story about justice in Dakota Territory.

5. A Pioneer Murder Weapon (10895)

Model 1842 Springfield Musket

In February 1897, eight members of the Spicer family were brutally murdered in rural Emmons County. While there are conflicting accounts regarding motive, Thomas Spicer, head of the family, was shot and killed with the Model 1842 Springfield musket pictured above, while working in a cow shed. The remaining members of his family, including five other adults and two babies, were killed with other weapons. Five men were arrested in connection with the murders and though all were initially sentenced to death, two eventually went free for lack of evidence. It is unlikely that we would even be offered an item like this in 2017. Preserving it however, tells a story about the dangers of pioneer life.

Double Ditch Bank Stabilization Repairs Nearly Complete

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites preserved on the northern plains. The earthlodge village was a regional trading center occupied for nearly 300 years (AD 1490-1785) by the Mandan people. Due to its archaeological significance, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial view of Double Ditch

Aerial image of Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site taken by SHSND quadcopter – November 2013.

Readers of the State Historical Society of North Dakota blog will likely already be familiar with threats Double Ditch faced from severe erosion caused by the 2011 Missouri River flood (please see blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/an-eye-in-the-sky-for-preservation, blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/saving-double-ditch, and blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/double-ditch-bank-stabilization).

Rotational erosion at Double Ditch

Image of rotational erosion of river bank at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site. Image taken by SHSND quadcopter - October 2016.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota, partnering with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, and other groups and individuals supporting preservation efforts mobilized after the 2011 flood to address this critical threat to the site. Left unaddressed the rotational erosion would have continued, eroding deeply into the village and causing catastrophic damage to the site.

Rotational erosion at Double Ditch

Image of rotational erosion front at Double Ditch from a trailcam that monitored the location from March 2015 - June 2017.

An engineering plan was developed to stabilize 2,200 linear feet of riverbank from the effects of rotational erosion exposing numerous burials at the site since the 2011 flood. The State Historical Society is grateful to the 2013, 2015 and 2017 North Dakota Legislative Assemblies for appropriation of the $3.5 million dollars necessary to move this important preservation project forward.

Monitoring topsoil removal

SHSND archaeologist monitoring topsoil removal by a track hoe during bank stabilization project at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site – August 2017.

Bank stabilization began in July 2017, and was anticipated to last about five months. Prior to the start of construction, it was anticipated that additional burials would be identified. The State Historical Society and MHA leadership cooperated to follow state laws and the cultural practices of the Mandan to complete this sensitive work. Archaeologists from the State Historical Society were on hand daily throughout the construction period to monitor earth moving activities. All exposed burials were cared for according to proper protocol and will be interred in private ceremonies of the MHA nation after repatriation.

Heavy excavation equipment moving soil

An SHSND archaeologist monitors removal of soil by heavy excavation equipment during the bank stabilization project at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site – August 2017.

The engineering plan implemented to stabilize the riverbank involved removing many tons of soil to reduce the weight on the bank slopes at the site. Installation of a rock -filled trench and hundreds of steel pipes vertically driven parallel to the river bank provide mass and strength to further stabilize the slopes.

Trackhoe working to stabilize slope

A trackhoe works to stabilize a slope during the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Heavy construction equipment installing steel pipe piles

Heavy construction equipment was used to install steel pipe piles parallel to the Missouri river bank during the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. The rock key trench is already installed in this image, buried between the pipe piles and the river bank.

Aerial overview of crews working at Double Ditch

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. The two trackhoes in this image are working to install a 20’ deep rock key trench as part of the stabilization plan. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

On a personal note, I’m humbled to have been involved with the bank stabilization activities at Double Ditch. Since 2002 I’ve been fortunate to be involved in archaeological research conducted at Double Ditch, and the site is very special to many people. It’s my belief that all those involved with the Double Ditch bank stabilization were part of a preservation project whose importance and sensitivity can hardly be overstated. Had the funding not been available and the project not been undertaken, the alternative would have been for the site to continue to be damaged and further eroded by the Missouri River.

Employees standing in front of construction equipment

Veit Construction employees Baldomero Castillo (Cabo) and John Fay pose with SHSND archaeologists Paul Picha, Brooke Morgan, Meagan Schoenfelder, and Timothy Reed during a break in the action of the bank stabilization project at Double Ditch State Historic Site – August 2017. (Not pictured: SHSND archaeologists Wendi Field Murray and Fern Swenson.)

The bank has been reshaped and landscaping with native plants was installed in early November. Interpretive aspects will be developed over the winter and installed in early summer, after the vegetation has had a chance to develop.

Arial view looking north of Double Ditch stabilization project

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – November 14, 2017. View is to the south. The dark patch on the landscaped slope marks the area covered with an erosion-control product called filter fabric. Filter fabric is used to help prevent erosion until the area develops heavier vegetation. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Aerial view looking south of Double Ditch stabilization project

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – October 25, 2017. View is to the south. The dark patch on the landscaped slope is a portion of the area covered with an erosion-control product called filter fabric. The location of a non-motorized canoe and kayak access trail is also visible in this image. An erosion-control product called Geo Cell was used in the construction of the trail. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.