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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!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Harold Foreman’s Time Capsules

For the past year, I have been cataloging collections that we curate for the U.S. Forest Service. One of my favorite collections comprised a time capsule buried by a resident of Slope County in 1941 and discovered by archaeologists in 2005. So that has me thinking - if you made a time capsule, what would you put in it? Where would you put it? What would you want people in the future to know?

In 2005, a U.S. Forest Service employee inspecting Forest Service land in Slope County found historic objects stashed inside a rock shelter. The artifacts included a sealed J.R. Watkins bottle containing a note dated 1941.

J.R. Watkins bottle

The J.R. Watkins bottle that contained the map (2012A.94.3)

The employee notified a Forest Service archaeologist so the finds could be documented, mapped, photographed.1

As an archaeologist myself, I can tell you that it is pretty unusual to find a map accompanying any artifacts you discover. But that is exactly what the Forest Service archaeologists found. The note inside the bottle included a hand-drawn map with instructions to a “grand burial” that “bears treasure.”2

Detail of hand drawn map

Detail of the map (2012A.94.2)

And the map did lead archaeologist to the “treasure”. But this wasn’t Hollywood-style pirate treasure—no silver, no gold, no pieces-of-eight. It was treasure of a different kind—an informal time capsule. The “grand burial” consisted of several bottles, a jar, and a metal lunch box that had been buried in the ground by a local man.

Liquor bottle, Atlas E-Z seal canning jar, J.R. Watkins bottle, unlabeled bottle, metal lunch box

The capsules (from left to right): a liquor bottle, an Atlas E-Z seal canning jar, a J.R. Watkins bottle, an unlabeled bottle, and a metal lunch box (left to right 2012A.76.54, 55, 53, 56, 59)

It included photos and negatives, magazine clippings, handwritten notes, and small objects including popcorn seeds, candy, cigarettes, matches, and election campaign pins.

Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Delano Roosevelt pins

Calvin Coolidge (left) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (right) election campaign pins (2012A.76.90 & 91)

What would you want people who found your time capsule to know about you? Harold Foreman buried the time capsules between January and March, 1941.3 We know his personal details from the notes that he wrote and buried with the objects in the containers. Harold was twenty-seven years old when he buried the objects. He and his wife Pauline lived with his parents in Slope County, ND.4 Harold was the oldest of nine siblings.5

Would you write about current news? When Harold buried his capsules, the United States had not yet entered World War II. But the war was progressing elsewhere in the world, and Harold followed what was going on. He wrote about wondering who will win and hoped that the Lend-Lease bill proposed to send aid to Great Britain will pass U.S. Congress.6

Would you want people to know what technology is like? What transportation is like? Harold enclosed magazine clippings of cars, trucks, tractors, and trains.

Case tractors ad

Case tractors advertisement (2012A.76.21)

My favorite clipping is a glamorous full page color (complete with silver foil!) advertisement for a Streamliner railcar.

Pullman-Standard Streamliners ad

Advertisement for Pullman-Standard Streamliners (2012A.76.52)

Harold listed vehicles owned by family members. In 1941, Harold drove a 1927 Chrysler sedan that needed repair.7 His brothers Warren and Denver owned a motorcycle.8 Harold put two spark plugs in the metal lunch box capsule.

Champion spark plugs

Champion spark plugs (2012A.76.111-112)

Would you write about your dreams for the future? Would you write about your life experiences and adventures? Harold wrote that he planned on going to California to take up detective work.9 Perhaps with this in mind, Harold decided to include a piece of paper containing his own fingerprints.

Harold Foreman's fingerprints

Harold Foreman’s fingerprints (2012A.76.29)

Another object is an “old pocket watch” that traveled with Harold “through the States”.10 On the back of the watch are visible fingerprints—do these belong to Harold?

Pocket watch

Close-up of pocket watch with visible finger prints. Do these fingerprints belong to Harold? Did this watch go with Harold on his trip to visit his grandmother in Missouri? (2012A.76.89)

He described a trip he and his wife took through several states to visit his grandmother in Missouri.11 He even included a letter written to him by his eighty two-year-old grandmother.12

Envelope with writing

Envelope containing letter from Harold’s grandmother in Missouri (2012A.76.37)

Would you include pictures? Harold included photo negatives with scenes from North Dakota including badlands near Waterford City, a wheat field, and a burning coal mine near Ranger.


Butte in badlands near Watford City (2012A.76.72)

Would you include a photo of yourself? Would it be serious? An action shot? Or maybe a funny photo? Harold included a photo of himself making muscle arms and a funny face.

Harold Foreman posing

Close-up of Harold Foreman posing (2012A.76.68)

Would you want to know who finds your capsule? Harold wanted to know. He even offered a reward if the finder contacted him.13 But Harold wasn’t sure how long it would take for someone to find it, so just in case he was no longer living in North Dakota, he left a list of friends and relatives to contact.14 U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Mervin Floodman did look for Harold.

Unfortunately, Harold died in a car accident in the Pacific Northwest in 1972.15 However, Floodman was able to contact his youngest brother, Howard, in 2006. Howard did not know about the time capsule that his older brother had buried.16 But on one of Harold’s notes, there is a doodle Howard made when he was only six.

House doodle

Detail of house doodle by Howard, Harold’s youngest brother (2012A.76.5)

It is rare for an artifact collection to provide details about one individual’s life. That is what makes the Foreman time capsule so intriguing. What would you want someone in the future to know about you?

Special thanks to the U.S. Forest Service for permission to write about their collection. Special thanks as well to photo archivist Sharon Silengo and volunteer Robert Porter in Archives for their enthusiastic expertise in scanning the photos and negatives.

1Floodman, p. 1-3
32012A.76.8-9, 23-24, 31-34, .36, .40; 2012A.94.2
42012A.76.2; 2012A.76.8; 2012A.76.36; 2012A.76.7; 2012A.76.8
15Floodman p. 26
16Floodman p. 25, 26

Double Ditch Bank Stabilization to Begin Summer 2017

Extensive bank erosion since the 2011 flood has seriously impacted an important state historical site managed by our agency (http://blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/saving-double-ditch). After a long process to determine possible alternatives for funding and a stabilization plan, we’re relieved to have the engineering work begin.

Situated on the east bank of the Missouri River nine miles north of Bismarck, Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site is one of the best preserved examples of an earthlodge village on the northern plains. The site was a regional trading center occupied for nearly 300 years (AD 1490-1785) by the Mandan people. At its peak the population of Double Ditch has been estimated to have been 2,000 or more people, with a richly developed culture based upon agriculture and seasonal bison hunting. Due to its archaeological significance, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bank Erosion at Double Ditch

Bank Erosion at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, October 2016. Photo courtesy Tim Reed, SHSND.

The Missouri River is powerful, perhaps never more so than when it’s in flood stage. This stretch of the river lies between the Garrison and Oahe reservoirs. Those living along the Missouri know this firsthand, as we’ve seen rising floodwaters on more than one occasion impact lives, property, and cultural and natural resources.

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site was unable to escape the effects of the Missouri River’s catastrophic flooding in 2011. Large sections of the river terrace edge shifted in a process called rotational erosion. Rotational erosion simply means that large blocks of sediment at the site were rotating and shifting as slumping occurred along the river bank. This erosional process destabilized the bank and threatened a portion of the site, including parts of the public walkway/bicycle path.

Aerial view of geotechnical coring rig

Geotechnical coring rig operating on rotational erosion area at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, October 2015. Photo courtesy Tim Reed, SHSND.

To make matters even worse, the active erosion at Double Ditch has continued in an area known to contain human burials. Since 2013, 18 burials have been disinterred at the site as a result of this erosion. Because Double Ditch village was occupied for 300 years by thousands of people, more burials would be disturbed if erosion continued.

During the 2015 Legislative session, the State Historical Society of North Dakota partnered with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation to raise awareness about the immediate threat posed to Double Ditch by erosion. Project funding was allocated during the 2015 legislative session to stabilize the site.

Geotechnical coring rig

Geotechnical coring rig operating on rotational erosion area at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site , October 2015. Photo courtesy Tim Reed, SHSND.

A geotechnical study performed in October 2015 confirmed that the erosion was a result of the 2011 flood. The study further determined that the existing threat to the site was even more extensive than originally thought. A new crack was developing below the surface, with the potential to progress 400 feet into the heart of Double Ditch Village. Left unaddressed, this newly identified erosional fault could be catastrophic, causing twelve acres (half of the site) to be lost.

Geotechnical coring rig

Geotechnical coring rig operating at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, October 2015. Photo courtesy Tim Reed, SHSND.

Geomorphological trench being excvated

A geomorphological trench being excavated at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site as part of the geotechnical study, October 2015. Photo courtesy Tim Reed, SHSND.

As the engineering plan was being developed in 2016, the project faced delays from a challenging permitting process. Thanks to the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, project funding not able to be used during the last legislative session was carried over into this biennium. We’re also grateful to tribal members from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and other groups and individuals who supported efforts to keep this critical project moving forward.

Stabilization plans involve terracing the slope and building a Rock Key and Pipe Pile Wall to prevent further erosion. Site improvements include a new nature trail and the addition of native plants. Construction will take about five months.

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site bank stabilization diagram, March 2017. SHSND.

Various geotechnical studies and modeling were critical in developing plans for the bank stabilization. Ultimately the plan involved reshaping the bank by removing weight from the upslope and adding weight to the toe. The rock key/trench and pipe piles will provide mass and strength to stabilize the slope.

The riverbank will be revegetated with a variety of native grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. Interpretive signs will be installed along the bank highlighting natural resources. The stabilized and reshaped bank will protect the Mandan village and enhance fishing access to the river, bird/wildlife watching, and provide a non-motorized landing for kayaks and canoes. In addition, this will prove a safe walking/bicycle trail.

Construction fence

Construction fence at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, June 2017. Photo courtesy Tim Reed, SHSND.

As of the date of this blog, the bank stabilization at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site is anticipated to begin in late June. Construction should be completed in about five months. We’ll keep readers informed in this blog as the project progresses.


*Fern Swenson, Director of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and Kim Jondahl, Director of Communications and Education, were contributing authors to this post.

Advocates of Save Double Ditch

Advocates of Save Double Ditch, a grassroots organization, brave the cold in March 2017 to voice their support for bank stabilization funding. March- 2017. Courtesy Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune