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!

Expanding Our Missouri River Story with Two Transferred Sites

The State Historical Society of North Dakota has expanded! On July 1, the number of state museums and historic sites the agency operates became 59. We are excited to welcome the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site into our family!

Welcome to the Family - Lewis &Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site is written out in white text on a dark blue background. Under that is an outdoor view of a large brown building with green roof and a wooden recreated fort

Since 2015 our friends at the North Dakota State Parks and Recreation Department had managed both of these sites in Washburn. However, during the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers changed the century code and management was transferred to the State Historical Society. For visitors, this change will be imperceptible as hours of operation, tours, and staffing remain the same.

I understand that such a sweeping change can be unnerving to those experiencing it. Leaving the familiar for the not so familiar is hardly everyone’s cup of tea. It was for these reasons that we decided to make the transition as seamless and stress free as possible for the team at Washburn. Working with Parks and Recreation Director Andrea Travnicek, State Historical Society Assistant Director Andrea Wike and the respective teams at each agency, we devised a plan to begin the transition as soon as the Legislature finalized the bill.

We created eight transition groups to work with the various parts of operations that would need to be brought over. These included Historic Sites, Human Resources, Business Office, Concessions, Museum Collections, Technology, Maintenance, and Communications. Kevin Kirkey, then-Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center manager, and Historic Sites Manager Robert Hanna of the State Historical Society, were assigned to each team. Other staff from both agencies were assigned as needed. We began having meetings in the final weeks of May. Some of the questions to be answered included how to bring IT resources over, how to handle shifting security for the sites to our system, and how the gift shops and retail purchasing would change. We discovered and addressed subtle differences between the two state agencies. 

These initial meetings went great, and before long detailed plans were in place for the July 1 transition. During the process, Kirkey decided to take on a new challenge within the state parks and recreation system. After a brief search, we selected Dana Morrison, the site’s interpretive coordinator, to replace Kirkey and become site supervisor.

A man dressed in a park ranger uniform shakes a woman's hand in the same attire. Behind them is a mural of Lewis & Clark

Former site manager Kevin Kirkey congratulates Dana Morrison on her promotion from interpretive coordinator to site supervisor.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan are a remarkable addition to the State Historical Society, and, like our other sites, are now under the umbrella of the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Department. Prior to July 1, we were already responsible for the care and interpretation of key state historic sites along the Missouri River including Huff and Double Ditch Indian villages, Fort Clark and Mih-tutta-hang-kush Indian village, and Fort Buford. Adding the Lewis and Clark portion of the story allows for a more complete telling of the significant history that took place upon the banks of the Missouri from about 1400 to 1890.

A desk sits scattered with a map, candle, glasses, portfolio, quill, books, and other items

Recreation of Meriwether Lewis’ desk at Fort Mandan State Historic Site.

Operation of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan adds about 25,000 square feet of indoor space, as well as stunning new locations, excellent collections, and dedicated staff members. Our mission is the identification, preservation, interpretation, and promotion of North Dakota’s heritage. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan have found a perfect home.

Friends in High Places: Processing the Papers of the Late Historian-Journalist Roy Johnson

Since this spring, I have been working as a collections processing intern here in the State Archives. A history major at the University of Mary, I have spent a fair amount of time researching and writing papers for my classes. Little did I know this skill would allow me to make great friends. For the past month I have been working on processing the Roy Johnson and Louis Pfaller Collection, which has involved organizing and putting materials in folders.

Johnson was an historical writer and journalist for the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican for roughly two decades. Most of his articles were written between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s, with his writing touching on such topics as early pioneers on the frontier and the military expeditions following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He passed away in 1963. Part of my work with the collection involves reading his research correspondence and looking through the sources and manuscripts that formed the bulk of his writing. Although he is no longer alive, I feel as though he has become a friend and mentor.

My job is significantly easier because Johnson himself labeled, dated, and organized his own work. I find his attention to detail and diligent organization impressive. Additionally, this collection has introduced me to a whole host of other researchers and historians. Many of Johnson’s correspondents were fellow North Dakota historians, including Dana Wright, Maj. Frank L. Anders, and Nelson A. Mason, with connections to other collections in the Archives.

Five men dressed in pants, button up shirts, ties, and jackets sit on a hill with trees in the background

Here Roy Johnson is seen on an excursion with fellow historians and history enthusiasts following in the footsteps of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Pictured left to right are Nelson A. Mason, Johnson, C. R. Dalrymple, Jack Landblom, and E.O. Liessman. Photo by Frank L. Anders, Roy Johnson and Louis Pfaller Collection, State Archives.

My friendship with Roy Johnson is not all dry letters and primary sources; sometimes he sends me on wild goose chases as well. For instance, in one folder of research, I found letters in which Johnson had written to multiple correspondents, asking for information on Pierre Bottineau, the 19th-century frontiersman. (Bottineau County and town are named for him.) Johnson referenced an article he hoped to write, but this article was not included among his papers. I was determined to see if there was an article, so I hit our microfilm collection, focusing on a window of seven years of daily newspapers from the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican.

A computer monitor with microfilm processing equipment next to it sit on a wooden table with windows with drawn blinds in the background

This was my view for a couple of days when I was searching for a newspaper article on microfilm.

After several days in the reading room, I decided to seek other means to locate this elusive article. A box of fan mail sent to Johnson contained the golden ticket. Typed on a yellow sheet of paper was a comprehensive list of articles Johnson had penned, which had been compiled by his friend who inherited the collection, Rev. Louis Pfaller. Father Pfaller then went on to add additional research to the collection and help reprint various article series that Johnson wrote. Each article he wrote had a publication date next to it, which confirmed my suspicions. The article on Bottineau had never come to fruition.

Contrary to what some may believe, working in the Archives is full of excitement. With many more boxes to go, I look forward to future adventures with my friend Roy Johnson as I explore the early North Dakota story he shared through his writing.

Many boxes sit on a shelving unit

The collection includes both boxes that have been processed and those waiting to be explored.


A young woman wearing a light denim colored dress with a black tshirt under it, black scrunchie on her left wrist, hoop earrings, a necklace, a ring on her middle right finger, and black framed glasses stands outdoors in front of a brick wall with a waterfall. A building and tree are in the background.Guest Blogger: Crystal Portner

Crystal Portner is a Collections Processing Intern in the State Archives. She is a double major in History and Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck and will graduate in December 2021. Originally from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, Crystal is spending the summer helping process the Roy Johnson and Louis Pfaller Collection along with various other projects in the Archives.