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!

Two True Stories from History That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Day

If you asked me for my definition of history, I might say that it’s a combination of circumstances.

Daniel J. Boorstin famously said, “Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.” Whether you’re a sage student of history or just starting out as a history buff, the love of research and discovery is essential to museum and academic work, such as The science of this work is often hidden, sometimes giving people the idea that history is a series of liner, inevitable events just waiting to be reported.  When the reality is that what we call history as a subject is evidence based, communicating the subjects of fossils, farmers, or photographs is a little more artistic and circumstantial.

The world can be a crazy place. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that life is rarely ever linear. Here are a few weird and sometimes wonderful (OK, mostly weird) stories that often get left out of the history books.

John Evans

Before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off the on their expedition, there was the Welsh explorer named John Evans. John was certain that a lost tribe of Welsh were living in North America. To be fair, there was a 1790s “internet rumor” going on. A number of people in England were doing the 1790s equivalent of “trending” the story of Madoc, the myth of a Welsh prince who was supposed to have sailed to North America in 1170. In the myth, his descendants were supposed to be living in the American Midwest and speaking Welsh, of course.

No evidence of a Prince Madoc or his voyage has ever been found. Internet rumor, 1790s style.

John Evans and another Welshman by the name of Iolo Morganwg were going to team up to discover these “Welsh Indians,” identified as the Mandans. Iolo withdrew early from the expedition however, and by 1793, John was imprisoned by the Spanish under the suspicion of being a British spy.

Apparently, his story wasn’t believable then, either.

By 1795, he’d agreed to a plea deal, became a Spanish citizen, and set off on an expedition with the backing of the Spanish to try to discover a route to the Pacific Ocean from the Missouri River and his lost group of Welsh. He did find the Mandans and spent the winter with them before returning to St. Louis.

The Mandans were not Welsh.


John Evan's map of the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Mandan villages of North Dakota. Source Wikipedia, Library of Congress.

Note: President Thomas Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark copies of John Evan’s maps and notes which they used on their expedition. Learn more about American Indians in North Dakota at

And sometimes a humble person steps into the right set of circumstances and ends up owning a third of the world.

Catherine I

Catherine I was born Marta Helena from Polish-Lithuania. Having both parents die from plague before her sixth birthday, this unfortunate child found herself scrubbing floors to survive. Then the Russians invaded. Which meant she was taken prisoner and then sold to a solider. Who traded her to another officer. Who gave her to a general. Who traded her to a duke. Who introduced her to the Tsar. History is a little sketchy as to her exact origins, but by 1711, she accompanied Peter the Great on a military campaign and saved everyone from the overwhelming Turkish army. Six months later, Peter the Great and a peasant woman were married.

Paintng of Catherine I

Some days you wake up a peasant girl. The next day, an empress in charge of 15 million Russians. YOLO. Catherine the Great by Jean-Marc Nattier. Source Wikipedia.

And if that isn’t enough of a Disneyesque fairy tale ending, she convinced the Tsar to make her co-ruler. And then his heir. When Peter the Great died in 1725, Catherine became the first woman to rule Imperial Russia opening the door for a century almost entirely dominated by women rulers.

And if that isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.

Note: Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law is Catherine-the-Great (Catherine II.) If your background is German-Russian, it’s because Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law signed a manifesto inviting Germans to settle in Russia. Learn more about German-Russian immigrants at or research your unique family history in the North Dakota state archives.

Collecting Donations to Tell North Dakota’s Story: Voting Machines, Soccer Uniform, and Wool Sweater

The State Historical Society accepts about one hundred donations per year into our museum collection. Each donation can consist of one item up to several hundred items. We are stewards of the collection on behalf of the people of North Dakota, so we would like to hear from you. What do you think we should have in our collection? What sorts of objects define North Dakota? Your input matters for our future collecting. Click here to fill out our survey:

We will use the public responses to better guide our collecting strategy for the future. We will also use the data to determine how much additional storage space we will need to continue collecting the history of North Dakota.

We collect a myriad of different objects from all time periods. Our museum collections committee always looks for a story behind the objects, for that is what sets one object apart from another. Here are a few collections that recently arrived at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

The Office of the Secretary of State donated voting machines that were being replaced by newer models. The M100 and AutoMARK were purchased using federal, state, and county funds following the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA was passed following the hanging chad fiasco in Florida during the 2000 General Election and was meant to modernize our nations voting systems. Ninety-five percent of the purchase was paid for with federal funds, 2.5% with state funds, and 2.5% with county funds.

ballot device

AutoMARK assistive ballot marking device. Acc #2019.00058

The M-100 was implemented in approximately half of the counties in 2004. M-100 implementation was completed in all 53 counties for the 2006 election. AutoMARK implementation was completed during the 2006 election. The M-100 and AutoMARK were available at every polling place in the state for every statewide election through the 2018 General Election. Counties also used this equipment for local special elections.

ballot boxes

Ballot boxes for the M-100 optical scan and Optech III-P Eagle. Acc #2019.00058

The Optech III-P Eagle (the tan machine below) was used in several counties prior to the adoption of the statewide voting system. This particular machine comes from LaMoure County.

ballot tabulator

The Optech III-P Eagle ballot tabulator. Acc #2019.00058

The soccer uniform was worn by four-year-old Hannah while playing on the pre-K team Orange Pumpkins in the fall of 2018. Although she and her parents live in Bismarck, Hannah had a friend who played soccer in Mandan, so Hannah’s parents signed her up for Mandan’s recreational soccer team.

collage of soccer clothing and soccer player

A: The uniform consists of the orange Mandan soccer team shirt, a pair of athletic shorts, shin guards, pink soccer socks, and soccer cleats. Acc # 2019.00066; B: Hannah playing a game at the Dakota Community Bank and Trust soccer fields in Mandan, ND.; C: Hannah posing for a photo in her uniform.

Harvey Jaeger donated a wool sweater made by his grandmother, Anna Jaeger, for his father, Hugo Jaeger. It was made by Anna in about 1930. Anna raised the sheep, sheered the wool, spun and dyed the yarn, and knit the sweater.

vintage soccer sweater

The sweater is a brown wool, button down cardigan, with multiple knit patterns. Acc #2019.00054

Anna (Birkmeier) Jaeger was born in Germany, August 15, 1882, and emigrated to the United States in 1885, settling south of Hebron. She married Fred Jaeger in 1901 and homesteaded south of Zap. Hugo Jaeger was third oldest of 11 siblings, Anna died in 1968.

Hugo Jaeger (1904-1946) married Pauline Jacober (1908-2013) in 1929 and lived in a three- room house on the family farm for nine years. Then they moved to Zap where Hugo worked in the coal mine. They moved to Bismarck in 1942.

***Due to the temporary closing of our sites for COVID-19 precautions, we currently will not be accepting the donation items until further notice. If you have something you would like to donate, please still fill out our potential acquisition questionnaire, which can be found at This is the first step to start to make a donation. We will continue to respond to your requests to make donations.