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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!

Dem Bison Bones

Do you remember your first childhood anatomy lesson?

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…

The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones.”

An internet search shows many variations of this song. The only thing that doesn’t vary is the order of connectivity: toe to foot, foot to ankle, ankle to leg, and so on.

I don’t remember when I first heard this little ditty, but I have always been fascinated by bones. It may have something to do with being born and raised on a farm where I was constantly surrounded by animals and animal bones.

The galleries in the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum provide a perfect venue for the study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures, also known as osteology.

I decided this fall that it would be fun and educational to write a short presentation on basic bone structure. After a couple of false starts, I enlisted the aid of a friend for a Saturday afternoon search and recovery mission for bison bones. That afternoon’s antics would provide enough material for a separate story, but suffice to say we loaded a pickup with dry, weathered bison bones, unloaded them in my garage (to my wife’s dismay), and I began the search for connectivity; toe to foot to ankle, etc.

Internet sites such as “The Virtual Museum of Idaho” made this a fairly easy project. The “American bison” page (UWBM-35536 -- Bison bison) provides full-color, 360 degree views of each bone of a bison’s skeleton.

Rearticulated bison front limb

Rearticulated bison front limb

With the reference site and a garage half-full of bison bones, some assembly was required. As luck would have it, we had acquired all of the bones on our search to rearticulate the left front leg of a bison. The assembled and properly labeled bones don’t lend themselves to a catchy tune, however:

“The third phalange connects to the second phalange,
the second phalange connects to the first phalange,
the first phalange connects to the metacarpal,
Now shake dem bison bones.”

As all projects seem to do, this one grew and began to take on an educational aspect that I had not envisioned when I identified the first weathered “calcaneus” bone. (Check it out on the Idaho Museum site.)

Comparison of human astragalus (talus) and bison astragalus

Slide from “Bison in A Box” presentation

The more bones that I reassembled, the more I realized how the bones of the front leg of a bison resemble and mirror bones of the human arm. A couple of purchases of a human skeletal hand model and human foot model clearly illustrated this. By this time, a Powerpoint presentation was beginning to take shape, and more bison bones began to fit together. With time, a complete hind leg of a bison was also rearticulated and my fascination grew—this time with the comparison between the “wrist” joints of a human and the corresponding “ankle” joints of a bison.

The North Dakota Heritage Center is a perfect venue for this presentation, where comparisons between the skulls of Bison latifrons and Bison antiquus, the ancestors to the modern Bison bison, are on display.

Bison antiquus skeleton

Bison antiquus skeleton, Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples

A full, life-sized model of the Bison antiquus is fully assembled (rearticulated) and helps illustrate the story of Beacon Island in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. You, as a visitor to the exhibit, can hum whatever version of the bone song you prefer as you study this model.

The basic premise of bone identification has continued to evolve since I plucked that first bison bone from the prairie sod. My research has uncovered many uses for one of the newly discovered bones. The astragalus bone (one of the “ankle” bones of sheep, goats, bison, etc.) was used in Mongolian games of chance, was a useful component of friction fire-starting, and was the basis of a child’s game (“jacks”).

Join us at the Heritage Center as we continue to explore this bony topic and finalize our presentation, “Bison in A Box.”

If I could carry a tune a whole new genre of songs could be sung about bison bones:

“Astragalus connected to calcaneus,
Calcaneus connected to the tibia,
Tibia connected to the femur
And on and on it goes.”

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)

Shackles

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.