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.

A Work in Progress: Refining the State Museum Collections

Museums continuously accept new objects for their collections. They must also re-evaluate their existing collections, identifying those items that are redundant, lack documentation, or don’t meet their mission. Instead of holding on to items taking up valuable space, museum staff will help make room for new objects by looking for other museums where the objects would be more relevant.

Over the years, the State Historical Society has been able to give artifacts to other museums in North Dakota and across the country. A thresher, our third one, was taking up a lot of our storage space, so this was sent to the South Central Threshing Association in Braddock.

The South Central Threshing Association received this circa 1900 thresher from the State Historical Society.

It also made sense to donate two World War I German machine guns. Not only did we already have one on exhibit, but these two were incomplete, would never be displayed, and were taking up much-needed storage space in our gun vault. Due to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) regulations, there are only limited museums or organizations that are allowed to possess machine guns. We first offered to return them to the original donor, the North Dakota Office of the Adjutant General. We next offered them to the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. They were very pleased to be able to add these guns to their museum.

We donated these German machine guns to the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

In turn, we have accepted artifacts with a strong North Dakota connection from other museums. This 1884-89 Dakota National Guard uniform was offered to us from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. The brass buttons on the coat and hat feature the seal of Dakota Territory and “Dakota N.G.” While we are not sure who owned these items, they are a unique example of the territorial National Guard’s uniforms. Similar ones do not exist in any collection in North Dakota or South Dakota. Given its rarity, we decided it would be an important addition to the state’s collections as an example of an early National Guard uniform.

Dakota National Guard uniform coat and kepi cap. SHSND 2001.48.1-.2

Recently, we accepted an Icelandic askur (covered eating bowl) from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. This askur has a very detailed history. It was originally owned by the Rev. Hans Baagøe Thorgrimsen who emigrated from Iceland in 1872. He served Norwegian and Icelandic congregations in Mountain and Grand Forks. The vessel’s Icelandic origins meant that it was outside the typical collecting scope for the Vesterheim, but the owner’s North Dakota connections made it a very interesting addition for our collections.

This Icelandic askur was a gift from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. SHSND 2022.60.1

These five ballot boxes with limited documented history were offered to us from the McLean County Historical Society Museum in Washburn. We already had similar items; however, we accepted the ballot boxes for educational use at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site in Jamestown. Since these are educational props instead of artifacts, the ballot boxes can be used in programming and made available for audiences to touch, open, and use as innovative learning tools.

Five ballot boxes from the McLean County Historical Society Museum have found a new home at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site.

Moving forward, we are continuing to evaluate our collections, looking for new homes for items that have limited North Dakota history or are overrepresented in the state museum collections. We are also open to accepting items from other museums that will further help us tell the story of North Dakota and the people who live here.

Online Resources for Genealogical Research

Sometimes in the State Archives, we get phone calls or emails from individuals seeking advice who are trying to do genealogical research but are unable to come to Bismarck in person. Luckily due to the increased digitization of archival records, we can still help by suggesting the many digital resources available to anyone with a computer. The following are some Archives-recommended resources for the remote researcher.

Two websites that will get you a lot of bang for your search are and These websites provide access to census, naturalization, military, and vital records (e.g., birth, death, and marriage). A helpful aspect is their ability to filter the results to fit your search parameters. One can search for specific names, geographic locations, and dates, making large collections, such as the census, easier to navigate. That these sites contain records from the entire United States as well as foreign countries makes genealogy research so much more accessible, especially if your ancestor moved states or emigrated from elsewhere. While we use for all our federal and state census searches at the State Archives, it’s also available free of charge through the many local libraries that have subscriptions to

Sites like provide users with a wide range of search field options.

Another site that we recommend for people conducting personal research is Digital Horizons. Digital Horizons contains digitized materials from archives across North Dakota. You can find so much information in the site’s different collections, but for genealogy research we recommend the North Dakota Histories collection of digitized county and town centennial, jubilee, and other anniversary history books. There is also a selection of North Dakota atlases and plat maps that can be helpful when researching the land ownership of your ancestors. Additionally, Digital Horizons has a lot of digitized photographs from across the state, including from the State Historical Society of North Dakota, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies, and the Bismarck Public Library.

The Digital Horizons homepage offers numerous collections to explore.

In my opinion, the land patents from the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records are a hidden gem among digitized records. These patents show the transfer of land ownership from the federal government to individuals, which is particularly helpful if your ancestor took advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act. Aside from the searchable database and digitized documents, this website has a lot of other cool features for researchers. There is an interactive map showing land descriptions on a contemporary map and also transcriptions of land patent contents. The information on this site as well as the State Archives’ collection of county plat maps can resolve many genealogical questions related to land and land ownership.

Land patent details from the Bureau of Land Management’s digital records.

As more records are digitized, it becomes easier to do genealogical research without having to travel to the individual state or country to access those records. The growing number of historical newspapers online at sites such as Chronicling America and Advantage Archives is another great resource. (Check out this blog post for inspiration as to how Chronicling America can assist with researching your family history.)

Genealogy and archival research are more approachable for every type of researcher than ever before, making roadblocks and frustrations less common. But if you are not sure where to start or have questions, State Archives staff are always available to help. We can be reached at 701.328.2091 or