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.

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.

Comparative Collections – Using the Present to Understand the Past

Sometimes the best way to understand a fossil is to go fishing. A number of our paleontological sites across North Dakota have fossil bones from the family Lepisosteidae (gar or garpike) preserved. While gar are still alive today, their range tends to be more southern and eastern, closer to warmer, slow-moving waters and bayous. While the living gar may not be an exact match to our fossil gar, studying the bones from the living animals can help us better understand what we’re finding in the rock.

Our paleontology department has a small comparative collection of recent animals - things that may share similarities to fossil creatures we find. For instance, a modern deer may have similar bone structures to 30 million- year-old deer. A modern crocodile may have ribs and vertebrae that look similar to crocodiles that once roamed North Dakota 60 million years ago. The same goes for the gar.

This is where taxidermy comes into play. Instead of stuffing the skins of animals, we only keep the bones (similar to a European mount). To remove the flesh from the bones, dermestid beetles work wonderfully, but tend to smell, and can have the occasional bug escape artist. We can’t risk that in a museum. Burying the bones in the ground and letting nature do all the work is also an option, but that takes a bit of time and also needs a location to bury the critter. So we stick to simmering the bones in a pot.

Simmering the bones in a pot

For mammal skulls, this is a piece of cake. All the bones of the skull are knit together by sutures – think a bone zipper – and tend to stay all locked in place. Fish skulls, including our lovely gar, have very smooth joints between the bones (called synarthroses) that in life do not move much. However once the skin and connective tissue begins to break down, the skull bones will fall apart.

Since the fossil bones we find are all disarticulated (no longer connected to one another), we need individual bones from modern fish – not a completely intact skull. What we had to do here was make sure the bones fell apart IN ORDER while cleaning them. We simmer them for a while, gently scrub, and then pull off a single bone. Repeat. The bones were placed in order off to the side to dry, where they will be ready to eventually photograph or draw for comparison.



Here we have an articulated skull with the dermopterotic bone highlighted in red. This lets us know where exactly in the skull the bone is.

Articulated skull with the dermopterotic bone highlighted in red

Next, we have an illustrated dermopterotic, from our recent gar stew. This helps us identify a single bone, if we ever come across a similar looking piece in the field.

Illustrated dermopterotic