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.

Mystery Monsters

What’s better than a 23-foot long mosasaur? A 40-foot long mosasaur! If you’ve walked through Underwater World in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time, I’m sure you’ve looked up to see the giant swimming reptile called Plioplatecarpus. If you haven’t, you’re missing out. Imagine a monstrous komodo dragon with flippers, prowling the oceans as Tyrannosaurus stalked the land. The hanging Plioplatecarpus, a type of mosasaur, measures approximately 23 feet, nose to tail. That’s an impressively sized beastie. We’re currently working on another mosasaur in the lab – this one is most likely double the size of the one on display. Also found in the northeastern corner of the state, the monster mosasaur downstairs will take a long time to prepare (clean and restore). There are teeth, a few ribs, a bunch of thoracic and lumbar vertebrae – but not a lot of skull or flipper bones. They might still be hiding away in the unprepared jackets (how we transport them from field to the lab), but what we do have is of an impressive scale. Sadly, so are the concretions surrounding the bones – hence why it will take so long to prepare the fossils. To give you an example: one average-sized vertebra from the white mosasaur in the Underwater World seafloor (under the Archelon turtle) took maybe a couple of hours to prepare. One average-sized vertebra from our monster mosasaur can take up to 12 hours for one bone! Ufda.

Vertebra comparison

Left, vertebra from Plioplatecarpus. Right, vertebra from our unknown mosasaur.

Tooth comparison

Left: Tooth and root from the mystery monster.
Right: Tooth and root from Plioplatecarpus.

Fossils may be rock, but the work is delicate. The loose shale that covers everything needs to be scraped off so we can see what we’re dealing with. Airscribes (mini hand-held air-powered jackhammers) are used under magnification. The concretions are tightly adhered to the surface of the bone, but it takes a light touch to remove them. Push too hard with the airscribe, and you drill right into the bone itself. Afterwards the bone is taken to the microblaster (sounds fun, right?), which is like a sand-blaster, but shoots baking soda. When used properly, this can remove the little bits of dust and debris that remain. Used improperly, and you can blast holes in the bone. Thus, the number one rule in the lab is Patience.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the color differences between the bones above – and below you’ll see an even more drastic color change. This is due to the types of minerals that were around when the bones fossilized Our mystery mosasaur is rich in iron – so it’s a rusty, chocolate brown (and really heavy). The Plioplatecarpus is also iron rich, but also contains sulfur, which is why you can see yellow bits (and it smells like rotten eggs when you work on them). Below are bones from yet another mystery mosasaur from the Pembina region – this one is white and flakey (and super soft) from high concentrations of gypsum.

Vertebra and flipper bones of mosasaur

Vertebra and flipper bones from the Pembina area, on display in the Underwater World sea floor.

Working with Manuscript Collections

I've often compared the process of working with incoming manuscript collections to the experience of receiving gifts at Christmas. Each package that arrives is like a gift: some donations are anticipated, others arrive without warning; some donations are more unique than others; but they all were created, maintained, and given with care and an understanding of their current and future importance.

There have been several notable "surprises" donated since I started working for the State Archives. In October 2011, a box arrived from a donor in New York that contained correspondence between the notorious "Political Boss" Alexander McKenzie and his "secret" second wife, Elva. Despite having such a big impact on North Dakota politics, there are very few existing records that document McKenzie's personality and business activities. These original letters are especially important since secondary sources surrounding Alexander’s life, such as newspaper accounts, biographies, census records, and even legal documents often have discrepancies. The finding aid to this collection can be found here:

Alexander McKenzie

Portrait of Alexander McKenzie by D.F. Barry, ca. 1880s (A2279)

Another "surprise" collection, the papers of Lakota historian Josephine McCarthy Waggoner (1871-1943), was donated last fall. It includes stories of Lakota and Dakota tribal members and their cultural traditions, many of which were told to Waggoner firsthand, as well as Waggoner's own life experiences. Waggoner worked with several individuals to publish her manuscripts, and in the process, many of her writings were lost. Her descendants struggled for decades to reclaim her work, and many remnants remain scattered across institutions or in private hands. In light of this struggle, the already historically significant collection is even more important. The stories were fascinating to read as I processed the collection, which is unique among the North Dakota State Archives' manuscripts collections. The finding aid is located here: (Emily Levine recently edited and published Waggoner's manuscripts in the book Witness).

Group photo with Josephine Waggoner

Josephine Waggoner (second from right, standing) with husband Frank, Ramona Skogen, Carl, Joan and Alfred Braine, May 1940 (Series 30203, Box 26, Folder 6)

Revisiting existing collections in the Archives can elicit some of the same feelings of surprise and excitement as new donations bring. The Will Family papers (Oscar H. Will, George F. Will Sr. and many others) resided at the SHSND since the 1940s, and processing was completed this year (although major additions were made to the collection up to 2009). The papers are a major resource for information about the pioneering seed company, as well as North Dakota archaeology, dendrology (the study of trees), ethnobotany, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people, and the history of Bismarck (ND).

George F. Will, Clell G. Gannon, and Russell Reid

Left to right: George F. Will, Clell G. Gannon and Russell Reid during a trip down the Little Missouri River, June 19, 1925 (10190-00640)

On occasion, we receive notice that a collection will be donated and are aware of its significance from the beginning, but still are surprised about what we find as we work with the collection. Former North Dakota Archivist Frank Vyzralek's papers were donated this past year, and are currently being processed. Vyzralek's lifetime of research covers what seems like every possible topic related to North Dakota history, including: railroads, steamboats, mills and elevators, banks, fires, brewing, crime, politics, businesses, transportation, historic properties, and much, much more. Every day, I look forward to organizing this collection and the other gifts that are donated to the archives, and making them accessible to the people of North Dakota.