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.

Writing into History

Recently, a woman came into the State Archives with a very old, very large document. It was folded parchment paper covered in beautiful scrolling letters. She said she bought it years ago at a garage sale somewhere in the state, and she brought it in to see what, if anything, we could tell her about it. Specifically, she wanted to know if we could help decipher the handwriting to tell her what it was and who was involved.

Document from brand registration book

This document is from a brand registration book. Partially hand-written, partially print, the image of the chosen brand was inked into the box.

The Archives holds many partially and fully hand-written documents.[i] Since it is our goal to maintain these records and make them accessible, we often have to index and transcribe them. Unfortunately, that old script and handwriting is not easy for our modern eyes to read. In the instance of this old document, the writing was clear (not always true in these records), but it was flourishing and calligraphic, and not spaced in any way like the text you are reading on this screen.

Handwriting may range from scratch marks to grandiose flourishes, but script type is not the only reason these types of records are hard to read. For example, some authors and originators of these records had limited communication and education. The clerks recording these documents (who would have had some formal education) might have been dealing with individuals who didn’t speak English, much less write in it.

Selection from a tract book record

This is a selection from a tract book record, showing some of the first purchases of land. Handwriting is not the only issue in these sorts of records; different codes indicated different things, different types of ink are used in the record (difficult to tell here, as this is taken from the microfilmed copy), and often, different handwriting can be seen on the same pages.

Even though the majority of settlers here spoke languages derived from the same Proto-Indo-European language base,[ii] the languages were spoken differently, accented differently, and sometimes were written differently. [iii]). Recording what was heard, trying to determine how it was spelled, and gaining some semblance of accuracy must have been difficult enough.

Some clerks or other individuals ended up using their native tongue in documents, or used a mixture of languages in these documents. However, even some typed items show obvious differences, such as old German script, as seen in this German-published Staats-Anzeiger newspaper from 1907.

Der Staats-Anzeiger

Der Staats-Anzeiger was published in different locations in North Dakota at different periods of time. Entirely in German, it used old German typescript. These papers often published local items of interest, such as letters to and from the old country and other parts of the new country from German settlers in the area.

Picture with identifying information on back

This image is one of many in our collections that contain some identifying information on the back of the picture. The image is below. To the best my eye can see, the text reads: “On Capitol grounds- Mac (arrow up points to Mrs. A. E. McLean Kenmare asst.) and me – soliciting funds for Indians girls’ trip to Dinner. June 1 – 1930 To secure $600.00 (Later – I got it – girls and staff went)”

More frequently than not, we in the Archives receive or discover these items when both parties are long gone. By this time, we are also dealing with old records that may have been housed in poor conditions, resulting in the added possibility of deterioration.

So, how do we determine what is on these records?

Everything is a clue. We know some script types are different, and we know when (and in what language) they are more prevalent. We know older and earlier records mean certain things.[iv]

Sometimes we can also figure it out by looking at other handwriting on the pages. For example, if I can determine a few words, I can then match some letters in other words, and perhaps find a few more, until I can eventually understand the gist of what is being said. I then know what the letters of those words should look like, and may be able to determine a few more words. We can draw a very pale comparison to the significance of the Rosetta stone, and how linguists were able to determine a fully different language through the use of words they already knew.[v] And of course, it helps to have images to pair with names, newspapers to check for ongoing events, and even a general idea of the area. It also helps to know who might have been in the area. Catholics might have used Latin in some of their documents. If Scandinavians settled more in one area than another, we might be able to guess (if we don’t know) that an item from that area is written in Norwegian, rather than Ukrainian.

As for that old, fully hand-written document that I mentioned at the beginning; the woman was able to pick out a few words, and we figured out a few more, so we did help her somewhat. We were able to help her determine that it was an indentureship agreement from the east coast.[vi]

Reading old writing can be tough, but it is thrilling to determine one more piece of the puzzle.

Page from MSS 10369, James Flynn's papers, 1878-1887

This page is taken from the pages of MSS 10369, James Flynn’s papers, 1878-1887. This collection consists of receipts, financial accounts, and correspondence concerning the distribution of grain and supplies and the transfer of cattle by a wagon master of the North Western Express, Stage, and Transportation Company. Again, this is from microfilm, and the copy is already in poor condition. What can you make out?

[i] There are several types of records, actually. Some predate handwriting. (I’m thinking of the gorgeous winter counts on display in our museum in the Early Peoples/Innovation gallery.) Then some are electronic. We will save discussion about these other records for another day.

[ii] I am not an expert in linguistics—more of an enthusiast—but suffice it to say that many/most languages are linked, and more than just through derivation from Latin, Greek, Old German, Old French, Old English…etc. This looks like a good site if you want more information about PIE.

[iii] If you go back early enough, different peoples used a completely different system of writing. Have you ever heard of the ancient Sumerians? Cuneiform, their system of writing, is the earliest known writing system. It mostly looks like lines, squares, squares with lines through them, etc. Then there are pictographs, hieroglyphs, and images such as those found at Writing Rock State Historic Site.

[iv] In North Dakota, this may mean fewer type-written records, and more script from the old countries.

[v] I went to England in 2013, and while there, went to the British Museum for one day (fast trip). Seeing the Rosetta Stone was almost mind-blowing and life-altering for me. If you’re interested in finding out more on the stone, this looks like an interesting read.

[vi] Basically, the named parties would be servants to one man for a number of years, serving for him until they had paid off their debts (apparently for passage to America). The second page, I believe, released the family from this debt, after time was served. The document was from the 1700s/1800s.


The North Star Dakotan Will Be Published Again

In February 2015, the North Dakota Studies program of the State Historical Society assumed ownership of the North Star Dakotan (NSD) as well as the plan for publication of a new edition. This newspaper for grade school students was the brainchild of the late Ev Albers, former director of the North Dakota Humanities Council and Jerry Tweton, professor emeritus of History, UND. The North Dakota Humanities Council published five editions of the NSD beginning in 1993.

The North Star Dakotan Issue #4

Issue #4 of the North Star Dakotan covered the time period of 1889 to 1915, or statehood to World War I.

At a time when there were few curricular materials available for the study of North Dakota history, the Humanities Council filled the gap with the North Star Dakotan. Each edition covered a period of time from the time of the dinosaurs to 1972. Teachers used the North Star Dakotan in their classrooms with a good response from the students. Today, the previous five editions can be found online at

Planning is underway now for the North Dakota Studies program to write and publish the sixth edition in September 2016. The articles will be written by experienced writers with expertise in the subject matter. The articles will run from 100 to 1000 words in length. The sixth edition of NSD will cover the time period from 1972 to the present.

Neil Howe reading the North Star Dakotan

Neil Howe, Coordinator of the North Dakota Studies program, reads North Star Dakotan Issue #3.

In addition to the usual newspaper-style articles that the first five editions presented, there will be editorials, political cartoons, and a cartoon strip. The sixth edition will include, as did the first five editions, a three-part timeline of world, United States, and North Dakota events.

The NSD will include articles on politics, agriculture, sports, social, and cultural events. For instance, the sport pages will cover North Dakota State’s and University of North Dakota’s transition to Division 1 of the NCAA. One article will cover how Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 impacted high school girls’ sports. Of course, the oil business will be a major article with headlines on the “front page.” 

The North Star Dakotan will be published online saving the cost of paper and postage. An online publication corresponds to the use of electronically-delivered materials in most North Dakota classrooms. Of course, that means that the NSD will be available to all readers, everywhere, at any time. Will wonders ever cease?