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: On-A-Slant Village

We are currently* working on rehousing and photographing artifacts from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26) with the volunteers in the archaeology lab. On-A-Slant was a Mandan earthlodge village. It was lived in for more than two hundred years, until the late 1700s. If you visit Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan, you can still see the village site.

Here are just a few of the artifacts from On-A-Slant that the volunteers have helped photograph and repack so far.

The bone tools really inspired this project—there is a wide variety of types of artifacts—fishhooks, beads, gaming pieces, fleshers and grainers for working hides, awls for leather work, hoes for gardening, and much more. A researcher visited last year to examine this collection. It is always exciting when a researcher visits, because it gives us a chance to explore our collections in depth. So when the researcher was done, Division Director Fern Swenson suggested we start photographing the artifacts from On-A-Slant and repack them in archival materials.

collection of bones with a size ruler

Just a small selection of the many different bone artifacts from On-A-Slant Village. Top Row: bison scapula hoe; Middle Row, left to right: fishhooks, antler projectile points, elk tooth pendants, tube beads; Bottom Row, left to right: awls, hide grainers, bracelet fragments (SHSND AHP 83.442.13.36; 83.442.21.2, 5-6, 11-13, 16, 32, 35; 83.442.42.5, 13; 83.442.19.1-2; 83.442.41.23-25, 41-45, 53-55, 72-73, 143; photos by David Nix)

There is large quantity of pottery from On-A-Slant, and the sherds also show a lot of diversity—from solid thick pieces to thin delicate sherds. This medium-sized example is just one of many beautiful rim sherds.

pottery shards

Volunteer David C. repacked this sherd from On-A-Slant (SHSND AHP 83.442.4.1272)

There are cord impressions along the top edge and around the neck. The lower part of the sherd (the shoulder) has incised zigzags. The pattern work on this vessel is amazingly straight and even—the potter had a very skilled and steady hand.

pottery shard detail

Here is a close-up of the evenly made lines on the same sherd as above (SHSND AHP 83.442.4.1272)

Like many other village sites in North Dakota, there are also a lot of chipped stone tools. Scrapers don’t always get a lot of attention—they are a very common kind of tool. Scrapers were used for processing hides and skins for clothing, blankets, shelter, and more. However, the sheer number of scrapers from On-A-Slant demonstrates the importance of hide processing—there are thousands of scrapers from On-A-Slant. These represent a lot of hard work. Can you imagine scraping off an entire bison hide using these?

collection of scrapers

These are just a few of the thousands of scrapers that David Nix has generously photographed for us (SHSND AHP 83.442.86.601-620, 1451-1460, 1481-1500, 2011-2020; photos by David Nix)

We have not handled very many metal artifacts from On-A-Slant so far. This small bell is one of the few metal items we have repackaged. If you look closely, you can see a piece of leather still carefully tied around the bell’s suspension loop.

Metal bell

Volunteer Steve found this bell--complete with a leather strap tied around the loop. Both Steve and I think this is an interesting artifact because leather doesn’t survive very well in North Dakota, so we don’t see it very often in our archaeology collections (SHSND AHP 83.442.92.90)

Many (many!) thanks to all the volunteers who have dedicated so many hours to working on this project so far: Diane, David C., David N., Janet, Marshall, Mary, Michelle, Mikayla and Mikaylah, Sandra, Susan, Steve, and Wendy.

*Due to the current Covid-19 situation, volunteering is temporarily on hold. However, if you are interested in joining us when we resume, please let us know! Contact Visitor Service Coordinator Beth Campbell (, a copy of the volunteer application form can be found at

Two True Stories from History That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Day

If you asked me for my definition of history, I might say that it’s a combination of circumstances.

Daniel J. Boorstin famously said, “Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.” Whether you’re a sage student of history or just starting out as a history buff, the love of research and discovery is essential to museum and academic work, such as The science of this work is often hidden, sometimes giving people the idea that history is a series of liner, inevitable events just waiting to be reported.  When the reality is that what we call history as a subject is evidence based, communicating the subjects of fossils, farmers, or photographs is a little more artistic and circumstantial.

The world can be a crazy place. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that life is rarely ever linear. Here are a few weird and sometimes wonderful (OK, mostly weird) stories that often get left out of the history books.

John Evans

Before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off the on their expedition, there was the Welsh explorer named John Evans. John was certain that a lost tribe of Welsh were living in North America. To be fair, there was a 1790s “internet rumor” going on. A number of people in England were doing the 1790s equivalent of “trending” the story of Madoc, the myth of a Welsh prince who was supposed to have sailed to North America in 1170. In the myth, his descendants were supposed to be living in the American Midwest and speaking Welsh, of course.

No evidence of a Prince Madoc or his voyage has ever been found. Internet rumor, 1790s style.

John Evans and another Welshman by the name of Iolo Morganwg were going to team up to discover these “Welsh Indians,” identified as the Mandans. Iolo withdrew early from the expedition however, and by 1793, John was imprisoned by the Spanish under the suspicion of being a British spy.

Apparently, his story wasn’t believable then, either.

By 1795, he’d agreed to a plea deal, became a Spanish citizen, and set off on an expedition with the backing of the Spanish to try to discover a route to the Pacific Ocean from the Missouri River and his lost group of Welsh. He did find the Mandans and spent the winter with them before returning to St. Louis.

The Mandans were not Welsh.


John Evan's map of the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Mandan villages of North Dakota. Source Wikipedia, Library of Congress.

Note: President Thomas Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark copies of John Evan’s maps and notes which they used on their expedition. Learn more about American Indians in North Dakota at

And sometimes a humble person steps into the right set of circumstances and ends up owning a third of the world.

Catherine I

Catherine I was born Marta Helena from Polish-Lithuania. Having both parents die from plague before her sixth birthday, this unfortunate child found herself scrubbing floors to survive. Then the Russians invaded. Which meant she was taken prisoner and then sold to a solider. Who traded her to another officer. Who gave her to a general. Who traded her to a duke. Who introduced her to the Tsar. History is a little sketchy as to her exact origins, but by 1711, she accompanied Peter the Great on a military campaign and saved everyone from the overwhelming Turkish army. Six months later, Peter the Great and a peasant woman were married.

Paintng of Catherine I

Some days you wake up a peasant girl. The next day, an empress in charge of 15 million Russians. YOLO. Catherine the Great by Jean-Marc Nattier. Source Wikipedia.

And if that isn’t enough of a Disneyesque fairy tale ending, she convinced the Tsar to make her co-ruler. And then his heir. When Peter the Great died in 1725, Catherine became the first woman to rule Imperial Russia opening the door for a century almost entirely dominated by women rulers.

And if that isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.

Note: Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law is Catherine-the-Great (Catherine II.) If your background is German-Russian, it’s because Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law signed a manifesto inviting Germans to settle in Russia. Learn more about German-Russian immigrants at or research your unique family history in the North Dakota state archives.