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.

Learning from Trees

While writing the new curriculum for 8th grade North Dakota Studies (, I browsed the archives for “good stuff.” “Browse the archives” should also be in quotation marks because one does NOT browse the archives as one browses the shelves in the public library. Archival materials are carefully stored in locked rooms where the controlled environment prevents the documents from being harmed by mold and other threats. The locked doors also prevent interested bystanders from acquiring important documents for their own libraries.

The “good stuff” I was looking for was, ideally, brief explanatory documents and photographs that could explain how life unfolded for those who lived in North Dakota in the past. The documents had to be interesting enough to hold the attention of eighth-graders. I wanted students to view the past through events that were fun or had a youthful perspective.

To find documents, I searched the online catalog (ODIN). Since I often started my search with only a vague idea of my goal, it actually was a little like browsing. I kept my fingers crossed that my search terms were appropriate to my wish list. When luck was with me, I was rewarded with some lovely gems from the archival collections.

One of my favorites is a collection of papers and photographs documenting the tree claim of Nels Wold of Traill County (A. N. Wold Papers, Mss 20375). Tree claims were made under the Timber Culture Act (1872). Planting several acres of trees and keeping them alive for several years entitled the claimant to 160 acres in addition to other claims such as a Homestead Act (1862) claim.

The collection includes the official forms Wold filled out to establish and prove his claim, a map of Traill County, and a hand-drawn map of the Wold farmstead showing where the trees had been planted. Bringing these documents to life are several photographs showing the trees on the date of his proof in 1891 and in 1898. In the twenty years since they were planted, the trees had grown to shelter the house and barns from the winds.

Wold farm in 1891

The Wold farm in 1891. The trees behind the house were planted under the Timber Culture Act in 1878. SHSND 20375-B375-A

Another photograph brings a stronger historical view to the Wold Papers. In this photo, Nels Wold’s son, A. N. Wold, stands with his two children next to a 50-year-old tree. The cottonwood tree appears to hold in a fond embrace the descendants of the man who planted it.

A.N. Wold and children

Nels Wold’s son, A. N. Wold and his two sons stand in front of a 50-year-old cottonwood tree on the Wold farm. SHSND-B375-F

These documents and photographs will help students understand how the federal government distributed land in the 19th century and the challenges the claimants faced in keeping those trees alive. Reading these documents, along with other lessons on rainfall and drought, the students will understand why tree claims were successful only in the eastern part of North Dakota. Perhaps students will also gain an appreciation for North Dakota’s great variety of climates and soils, the hard work of settlement farmers, and the beauty of a tree.

The North Dakota State Fossil Collection

Deep within the bowels of the Heritage Center in Bismarck is a room with great riches. It contains items of staggering age and scientific value. This room contains the North Dakota State Fossil Collection. From giant swimming lizards to “trumpeting” mastodons, from specimens mounted on pins to those needing forklifts to move, the North Dakota State Fossil Collection contains a wealth and variety of specimens (fig. 1). It has been twenty years since the State Fossil Collection was created in 1989 and it has grown in leaps and bounds since then.


This image shows only a small variety of fossils found in the North Dakota State Fossil Collection.

North Dakota Geological Survey (NDGS) geologists had been picking up fossils during the course of their fieldwork since the inception of the Survey in 1895. Those specimens were typically incorporated into the geology department collection. Prior to 1981, the only fossil collections in North Dakota were teaching and research collections at the universities made by faculty, students, and amateur collectors. However, in 1981 Dr. John Hoganson was hired by the NDGS. At that time the NDGS began what is now referred to as the Fossil Resource Management Program, and the recovery of fossils by the NDGS began in earnest. Although not yet officially the “State Fossil Collection,” between 1981 and 1989 North Dakota’s “fossil collection” grew to a small accumulation (a few hundred specimens) of fossil vertebrates and invertebrates. When the main office of the Geological Survey was moved from Grand Forks to Bismarck in 1989, this small collection only required a few cabinets for storage space.

Over the last 20 years, the State Fossil Collection has grown exponentially and now contains approximately 6,100 cataloged specimens (with more being added all the time) and 3,800 fossil localities. It is difficult to give even a rough estimate of how many cataloged and uncataloged specimens are in the State Fossil Collection at this time. The collection now contains plant, invertebrate and vertebrate fossils, and also contains a large rock and mineral collection. After nearly 10 years in the Johnsrud Paleontology Laboratory under the auditorium, it was obvious that we had again outgrown our space. In 2009 the state legislators saw the need to expand the North Dakota Heritage Center and signed a bill allocating money to put a new addition on the current building. Over the years the collection has moved from Grand Forks to Bismarck, and then within Bismarck it has moved twice. With each move the storage space for collections has nearly tripled in size (fig. 2).

Office Layout

Size comparison between North Dakota Heritage Center lab and collection spaces. A) Lab and collection space used between 1991 and 2000. B) Lab and collection space used between 2000 and 2014. C) Lab and collection space currently in use since May 2014.

Although the state collection is very young (some of the older collections in the United States have been around for more than 100 years), we have a very important representation of Cretaceous, Paleocene, and Oligocene fossils not found in very many other museums across the country. This is something we are trying to expand on during every field season. Although many don’t know it, as you walk through the new Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time, there are great riches just below your feet.