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.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Fort Rice

If you could go into the archaeology collections storage, what would you find? Mostly a lot of boxes. If you could peek into those boxes, what would you see? Mostly a lot of bags! If you could look inside one of those bags, what would you see? You would finally find an object! Since it isn’t possible for everyone to visit all the collections (and even if you could, there would not be much that you could easily see), this is the perfect opportunity for an online collections tour! This week’s tour will take us through some of the collection from Fort Rice (32MO102), a state historic site in Morton County, North Dakota (

Why Fort Rice? Quite a few projects I have worked on recently have involved this site, so there happen to be a lot of fun photos available. Dr. Barbara Handy-Marchello recently gave a talk at the fall North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA) meeting about the lives of officers’ wives who lived at this fort, and she needed me to photograph specific objects for her presentation. In the meantime, I cataloged about 678 additional objects from the site.

The first Fort Rice was established in 1864 as part of a chain of military forts built to protect transportation routes in the region. In 1868 Fort Rice was expanded and used as a military post until it was finally abandoned in 1878. Most of the objects in our collection date to the time of the fort, though some of the objects are more recent. Others pre-date the presence of non-native peoples in the area.

What kinds of questions come to your mind when you look at these objects? I wonder what their stories would be if they could talk (or write their own blog)!

Dentalium shell beads, like these, come from the ocean. Who wore these beads?

Dentalium shell beads


Dentalium shell beads


These are stone end scrapers for preparing animal hides. What was made out of the hides that these helped prepare?

stone end scrapers

(2010.99.6885, .6881, and .6884)

There are a lot of beautiful glass beads from Fort Rice. Which color would you pick to wear and why?

glass beads from Fort Rice


I would pick the green beads. I like green!

green beads


Or maybe I would choose the blue glass beads–I also like blue!

blue beads


Or there is a bead with spots! Maybe I will just have to do a future post all about beads.

bead with spots


This boot was made for walking! Who wore this boot and where did they walk in it?



A metal spur. Did the person who wore this like riding fast? What was the horse’s name?

metal spur


A fragment of a ceramic plate or saucer. This would probably have been part of a fancy place setting. What dinner party conversations did it witness?

fragment of a ceramic plate or saucer


These are fragments of a doll’s tea set. Was this someone’s favorite toy?

fragments of a doll's tea set

(2010.99.6296 and .6295)

There are a lot of glass bottles in the Fort Rice collection. This is a close-up of a medicine bottle. The letters on the bottle read: USA HOSP DEPT. Who needed this medicine and why?

medicine bottle


Metal handcuffs. These look rather unpleasant. I wonder who had to wear these and for how long?

metal handcuffs


Where should we go next on our archaeology collections tour? Please let me know what kinds of artifacts or collections you would like to see in my next post!

Great Sources of Information about Fort Totten

Visitors often have personal connections to the history of Fort Totten. Researching the files we have at the site and answering a visitor’s question is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Site Supervisor. There are three resources we primarily use. Two of them are primary sources, and the third is secondary.

The first source we use when looking for an answer to a question is one of the three school yearbooks donated to us by former students of the boarding school that operated here between 1891 and 1959. The yearbooks are from 1910, 1939, and 1951. These have great pictures of former students and employees of the school as well as the clubs and sports organizations the school had throughout its history. This past summer, the 1910 yearbook was used to locate photos of two girls who had once attended the school. The girls were ancestors of a woman visiting the site. She was looking for information to help her research her family history.

1951 Yearbook Cover

Cover of 1951 yearbook

Archival staff and past Site Supervisors have also compiled wonderful collections of historical photos. Several of these have been placed in a large binder, located at the site. The photos show many of Fort Totten’s buildings-- some of which no longer exist. They are a great reference when showing visitors what the Fort used to look like. I used this binder and the historic photos while putting together information to have a gazebo rebuilt two summers ago. The gazebo had been constructed early on in the school era to beautify the grounds.


Picture of new gazebo

I also use historic photos to promote the site’s history on our Facebook page It has been a great way to interact with the public and to spark conversations about the site. Stories that people share about the site and post on the Facebook page are gathered and put in our site’s history files after permission is granted from the author.

The secondary source that I reference the most while searching for answers to visitors’ questions is the book, History of Fort Totten, which was written in the 1950s by the United States Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The book details the history of Fort Totten, including the Indian Industrial School and Frontier Fort Era. It also has a chapter of oral histories that were gathered by the State Historical Society of North Dakota in the 1970s and 1980s from former students of the school. Four of these oral histories were videotaped and are used in our orientation video.

As a Site Supervisor, I continue to add to the primary source history of the site by recording and saving the stories and memories that are told to me by those who come searching for answers to their questions.