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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!

Chronicling America Website is Superhero of Online Newspaper Searches

Chronicling America home page

Chronicling America homepage

Chronicling America is an incredible online newspaper resource available for the public through the Library of Congress. Imagine this: there is a free-to-use database where you can search big city and little town newspapers within the United States. You go to the database, select a year range (1922 and earlier only at this point), select a location, type in a key word—and get results that can be viewed, enlarged, reduced, printed, and saved.

Curious about World War I? Here are some headlines. Searching for info about prison breaks, weather, government officials? Just type in your criteria and search—Chronicling America is OCR/word-searchable, which is so great! Our State Archives newspapers on microfilm are not indexed, so typically, if you want to find some information about your family, you have to search day by day, looking at each page. Not so with Chronicling America. You can just type in a name, and see what results come up!

Since 2011, we have received four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowing us to add over 400,000 pages of newspapers to the site. Since not all newspapers can be included, we have selected papers from all over the state containing a lot of local news coverage. This includes papers such as the Ward County Independent, a weekly newspaper; the Bismarck Tribune, a daily; and newspapers from Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Steele, Williston, and other areas.

Chronicling America digitized newspapers

Some of the ND newspapers available on Chronicling America

One caveat to keep in mind; not all news was published in the newspaper. Chronicling America, or newspapers in general, are not a catch-all. Using this site can be a great, easy way to start a search, though, and can sometimes bring up results you might not expect to see.

For example: I received a search request about three years ago from a woman who was looking for a relative who had passed away in, she said, about December of 1902. We looked in multiple papers without any luck. A search of our link to the Vital Records death index did not show the individual dying within a ten-year span—not uncommon, especially around 1900 and through even the 1920s. There were a lot of errors and delays in reporting deaths in those early years. So I had to reply that we were unable to find anything.

Chronicling America Bismarck Tribune

Info about one of the papers available, the Bismarck Daily Tribune, on Chronicling America

Usually, that would be the end of it. However, I kept her request, and just recently, I came across it again. Just for fun, just to double check, I typed the name into Chronicling America, hoping I might find the relative’s name in a gossip column, visiting the city.

Instead, I found a death notice—a year later than the information she had provided!

It turned out, the gentleman in question had died in 1903, not 1902, and passed away in a different city. I was able to respond back, three years later, with an actual obituary. It always is disappointing to us if we can’t provide any information for these requests, so believe me when I say I was very excited to write to her again—possibly as excited as she was to receive the information!

As amazing as this all is, however, it is not possible at this time to put all of our newspapers online. This is something we are asked about frequently, and I do want to clarify that we are not planning to digitize our entire newspaper collection. The amount of time, space, and funding necessary for a venture like this is staggering. We are the official repository for newspapers from across the state, which means that newspaper titles from each of the 53 counties in the state are supposed to be sent to us on a daily or weekly basis. Considering that there is more than one newspaper for some counties, as well as the fact that we keep papers from the past—well, this adds up. Our rolls of microfilm number more than 17,500 already, and the majority of these rolls are microfilmed newspapers. One roll can hold about two years of weekly newspapers and about one month of daily newspapers.

Chronicling America Ward County Independent

A view of the front page of one ND newspaper, the Ward County Independent, from November 4, 1915, p1 on Chronicling America

I asked one of our staff about the more technical details for this. (If technical isn’t your jam, skip to the next paragraph!) If we were to scan each of our newspaper pages at 300 dpi jpg, which is an average and sometimes even larger image than you might get from a camera phone, we would need around 3.5 Petabytes, with no end in sight to more needed storage. Do you know what a petabyte is? It is approximately 1024 terabytes, or a million gigabytes of storage. That is incredibly huge. And that isn’t even providing for a high resolution image. That image would likely not be able to be enlarged or used in a display; it would be too small. That is also without making these newspapers OCR/word searchable, by the way.

So for now, I would encourage everyone to check out the incredible and amazing superhero of newspaper websites—Chronicling America can be a lifesaver in the world of newspaper searches.

Bunny in a rocket

SHSND 10200-00069. ND photographer Nancy Hendrickson’s photo of this bunny makes it look easy to be a superhero—but it’s not!

Letters from “Over There:” How North Dakota Soldiers Viewed the Great War

As America is in the midst of the centennial of our involvement in World War I, historians and the larger nation reflect on a conflict that, at the time, was regarded as “the war to end all wars,” but is largely overshadowed by World War II just over two decades later. Our involvement in World War I, while brief compared to European nations that had sacrificed the cream of their manhood since August 1914, is no less significant.

In North Dakota, approximately twenty-eight thousand individuals served in the war and 474 were killed.1 With war raging in Europe and farmers here at home attempting to fill the food gap left by European farmland being turned into battlefields, what insights did the North Dakota servicemen offer in their letters home?

The State Archives is blessed to have several outstanding collections that have materials related to World War I on a variety of subjects, from nurses to post-war work with the nascent League of Nations. With several collections to choose from, my focus turned to letters written by soldiers from North Dakota and what these writings had to share.

Howard R. Huston standing by old German kitchen

Photo from Howard R. Huston Papers (Photo #10895-1-3-28), State Archives. Caption reads, “Here was an old German kitchen. When company ‘M’ 59th Inf. chased the Germans away from it they had to leave in such a hurry that they left pots of stew still boiling on the stove. We had eaten nothing for about a day and a half and their contribution was very gratefully received. Enough food was captured in this place to feed 500 men for two days.”

The Howard R. Huston Papers is one collection that stands out. Huston was born in the state and grew up in McHenry County, ND. He attended the University of North Dakota, and enlisted in 1917. While serving with the 4th Infantry Division in France, he saw combat and was wounded. After the war, he worked for the League of Nations, an organization that was meant to model the later United Nations and serve as a forum for the world’s nations to come together and solve disputes through peaceful means.

Letter from Howard R. Huston

Letter from Howard R. Huston to his parents in which he references meeting Charlie Chaplin.

In one of his early letters home (before shipping overseas) Huston mentioned meeting and dining with legendary entertainer Charlie Chaplin and running into several fellow North Dakotans where he was stationed. In addition, he expressed his love of the work he was doing in the army at the time, further noting that being a soldier in wartime is “no more dangerous than any other work.”2 It is important to note that Huston had yet to experience combat himself, and such optimism and exuberance is a common thread in soldiers’ writings prior to their arrival at the front.

Photo of Howard R. Huston standing in field

Photo from Howard R. Huston Papers (Photo #10895-1-3-10), State Archives. Caption reads, “This was a vast field in July 1918 and into it my company advanced on the 19th. The machine gun bullets were literally sprayed over it by the Germans and on the spot where I stand Pop Crane was killed.”

Another great collection that houses letters and other writings from soldiers in World War I is the War History Commission, which gathered information related to the service of persons from all counties in North Dakota. Anton Peterson, who served with Company D, 18th Infantry Regiment, which was assigned to the renowned First Infantry Division, described marching to the trenches carrying “two blankets, one suit of underwear, our toilet articles, reserve rations, and one hundred rounds of amunition [sic].” He noted that the weather was rainy, the “roads were sleet,” and that “some of the boys had to be taken in on the ambulance.”3

While in the trenches of France, some common themes emerged from soldiers’ writings, usually revolving around comforts of home, awarding of medals and decorations, and anxieties over combat. In a letter home to family dated April 7, 1918, Corporal G. McClain Johnson of Company L, 164th Infantry Regiment, which was the North Dakota National Guard, discussed the impatience at waiting for the word to go into combat, as well as his impatience at getting word from home. He also wrote, “Whenever the notion strikes you to send something over this way remember that these are three articles which are acceptable over all else. They are—magazines & newspapers, candy, and Tobacco.”4 Though the writings avoid specific details related to combat operations, the fears some soldiers had were hidden within the words. It is important to note that letters home faced screening by military censors to avoid disclosing sensitive information related to operations, and that soldiers may well have felt uneasy sharing such experiences with those who would not understand, having never served.

The end of the fighting was a time of adulation for the soldiers, but also a time of reflection on what they had been through. Oscar O. Haugen wrote to his family roughly two weeks after the armistice took effect on November 11, 1918, describing his feelings at the end of the fighting. He wrote

No more wondering if the next shell got your number on it or not. No more wondering what time of the night you have to get up and out to the lines and do some small Job of some kind.
Quite nice to be able to go to bed at night and know you can sleep all night. As it is about five months now we have been on the go almost day and night.5

Haugen also wrote a letter to his father in Norwegian as well, reflecting the diverse nature of the American army during the war, which included a significant number of immigrants and second-generation Americans who still retained strong cultural and linguistic connections to their ancestral homelands.6

Overall, the writings reflect the diversity of the American soldier from North Dakota in World War I, while reflecting the commonality of the shared experience of serving in the greatest war the world had known to that time. The men expressed their feelings of service, the concerns with coming battle, missing home and family, desire for letters and gifts from loved ones, and some of the unique experiences they encountered during their time in the military. The writings of World War I veterans are a window into a long ago time that must not be forgotten, as the war and their service in it continues to shape the world.

1“World War I,” North Dakota Department of Veteran Affairs, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.nd.gov/veterans/heroes/conflicts/world-war-i.
2Howard R. Huston to parents (original letter), undated, Howard R. Huston Papers, box 1, folder 1, North Dakota State Archives, Bismarck.
3Anton Peterson, The Diary of Cpl. Anton Peterson, 18th Inf. Co. D, 1st Div. A.E.F., War History Commission Records, box 2, folder 11, North Dakota State Archives, Bismarck.
4G. McLain Johnson to parents and Eva, 7 April 1918, War History Commission Records, box 2, folder 20, North Dakota State Archives, Bismarck.
5Oscar O. Haugen to family, 25 November 1918, War History Commission Records, box 2, folder 14, North Dakota State Archives, Bismarck.
6Oscar O. Haugen to father (written in Norwegian), 22 December 1918, War History Commission Records, box 2, folder 14, North Dakota State Archives, Bismarck.