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.

The Civil War in North Dakota

When we mention the Civil War in North Dakota, most people say, “What!?” North Dakota is so far from the area we associate with the Civil War. Were there Confederate troops here? The answer is “no.” However, events did warrant sending resources - men, equipment, and supplies - to the frontier as conflicts between Dakota tribes and Euro-American settlers became more frequent. The Dakota War of 1862 by Kenneth Carley, The Dakota War by Micheal Clodfelter, Brackett’s Battalion by Kurt Bergemann, Columns of Vengeance by Paul Beck, and Through Dakota Eyes edited by Clayton Anderson and Alan Woolworth give insight into the Civil War-era conflicts that occurred on the Northern Plains between 1862 and 1864.

Map of Civil War Battlefields in North Dakota

There are five Civil War Battlefields in North Dakota, as defined by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission established by Congress in 1990. They are Big Mound near Tappen, Dead Buffalo Lake near Dawson, Stoney Lake near Driscoll, Whitestone Hill near Kulm and Edgeley, and Killdeer Mountain at Killdeer. The State Historical Society owns portions of Big Mound, Whitestone Hill, and Killdeer Mountain, while the others are privately owned. Other sites in the state associated with Civil War-era conflicts include Fort Abercrombie south of Fargo, Fort Dilts near Bowman, and the Badlands south of Medora along the Custer Trail, which is managed by the US Forest Service. Since 2012, a group of partners (including the SHSND) have been commemorating the 150th anniversaries of the events that took place at these locations. In 2014 there were three commemorative events – Killdeer Mountain, Battle of the Badlands, and Fort Dilts, plus an overview of these events held here at the Heritage Center in June 2014.

Fort Dilts Visitors

People at the Fort Dilts site on September 7

As we came upon the 150th anniversaries of these events, we received several phone calls and e-mails from people inquiring about our plans to “celebrate” these anniversaries. The word “celebrate” conjures up images of joyful exuberance. We felt that these anniversaries need to be remembered, but the word “celebrate” seems to be disrespectful to the soldiers and Native Americans who lost their lives defending their ways of life. “Commemorate” seemed to be the better choice to appropriately describe the anniversaries and gave us direction for planning.

Each community near these historic sites wanted to be involved in planning. Native Americans who have family stories about the conflicts were also eager to take part. This involves the Ocheti Sakowin or the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota; the Eastern or Dakota groups of Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton and Sisseton, the Middle groups of Yankton and Yanktonai, and the Western or Teton which include the Brule, Hunkpapa, Oglala, Two Kettles, Sans Arc, Minneconjou, and the Sihasapa or Blackfeet.

On paper, this event planning sounds so easy. Just call everyone and set a meeting date, right? To be inclusive and get the full story, everyone has to be at the table. The members of the Ocheti Sakowin live in Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. There is no one spokesperson for the groups. And even now, 150 years later, emotions still run high about this era of history. Add in the pressures local communities are feeling with traffic and increased population in the western part of the state and you have some interesting (and enlightening) conversations. The US soldiers involved came from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, and military reports were used to tell that part of the story.

The commemoration events were quite successful. Those involved in the planning process were aware that the events had to be inclusive. In the three years of dialogue and planning for these commemorations, trust between all parties developed so that any concerns could be brought to the table and resolved.

The three sites that observed anniversaries this year are small in size. It’s difficult to get a large number of people on these sites, as there are no facilities such as restrooms or water. The events were hosted by the Dunn County Museum in Dunn Center, the City of Medora, and the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman. Bus tours to the sites got all interested visitors to the right places. Feedback from attendees suggests that they learned something about that historic site next door.

Invocation in front of Dunn County Museum

Dakota Goodhouse giving the invocation on July 26 in front of the Dunn County Museum in Dunn Center

These events, and particularly the inclusion of Native American perspectives on this chapter of North Dakota history, seemed to help people realize that there are multiple and complicated stories associated with the sites that go beyond the historic site marker text. Our goal is to continue the conversations and research to bring a more balanced and culturally inclusive interpretation of this period of history to site visitors.

Recent Acquisitions

In 2014, the Museum Division was offered over 160 different collections.  About 120 of these donation offers were accepted and made part of the museum’s collections.  We would like to highlight a few of these collections.

Dakota Rattlers T-Shirt

2014.00066 T-Shirt

Paul Rechlin purchased season tickets for the Dakota Rattlers baseball team in Bismarck for the seasons of 1995 and 1996.  “Some of the best summer nights our family spent together as the kids were growing up were watching the Rattlers.  Those games represent some of the beautiful things about growing up in a less-developed ND.”

The Rattlers were in the independent Prairie League, a minor league from 1995-1997 with teams in Aberdeen, SD (Pheasants 1995-97), Austin, MN (Southern Minny Stars 1996-97), Bismarck, ND (Dakota Rattlers 1995-96), Brainerd, MN (Bobcats 1997), Brandon, MB (Grey Owls 1995-96; West Man Wranglers 1997), Grand Forks, ND (Varmints 1996-97), Green Bay, WI (Sultans 1996), Minneapolis, MN (Loons 1995), Minot, ND (Mallards 1995-97), Moose Jaw, SK (Diamond Dawgs 1995-97), Regina, SK (Cyclones (1995-97), and Saskatoon, SK (Riot 1995; Smokin' Guns 1996; Stallions 1997).

Space Suit

2014.00109.00001 Space Suit

Since 2005, the Department of Space Studies at UND has been involved in researching the area of planetary space suit systems.  The North Dakota Experimental – 1 (NDX-1) Mars Prototype suit was the first Planetary Space Suit built at the university level.  The NDX-1 is a planetary suit concept demonstrator designed by a team of UND graduate students led by Pablo de Leon and mobility expert Gary L. Harris.  The prototype has been successfully tested by conducting surface operations jointly with NASA in a number of extreme environments including the North Dakota badlands, Utah, Antarctica, and Australia.

Nurse Cadet Summer Uniform

2014.00111 United States Cadet Nurse Corp summer uniform

The United States Cadet Nurse Corp was created in 1943 to replenish the severe nurse shortage.  It covered training costs, paid a stipend, and issued a grey wool dress uniform and a summer uniform.  Upon graduation the nurses were obligated to serve in the military and to start carrying out their duties on hospital floor. By 1945, US Cadet Nurse Corps nurses were providing 80% of the nursing care in U.S. hospitals.  Adeline Kraft graduated from the program in 1946 and was stationed at St. Alexius Hospital in Bismarck.

Fireman's Helmet

2014.00119 Fire helmet

Leo Lesmeister was the first Fire Chief in Halliday, ND, beginning in 1951.  Leo helped develop a card catalog system so that each farm was assigned a number, which was then used for directions to the emergency, like the modern day 911 system.  He remained Fire Chief until 1997.