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.

Cattle Culture Stories Come Alive in Flashy Western Attire

Our upcoming exhibition Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style shoehorns 19 thematic sections into the 5,000-square-foot Governors Gallery of the State Museum. That is a lot of information and even more stories.

One such story involves a buckskin suit included in the Cattle Culture section of the exhibition. The suit—consisting of a matching fringed coat and pants—belonged to Franz Hanneburg, who worked on a ranch near Hebron. As is often the case with historic garments, we don’t know how he came to own the suit in the 1890s. We also don’t know the maker’s name, but it was probably a woman affiliated with the Sioux/Nakota/Yanktonai.

Tan buckskin jacket and pants with fringe on the bottom and shoulders of the jacket and sides of the pants. Colorful floral designs are on the front of the shoulders and pockets of the jacket.

Front view of buckskin suit. SHSND 2018.5.1-.2 

The suit represents a significant earlier element in Western history—the military scout. Beginning in the 1860s, military scouts adopted this hybrid combination of European-cut garments fabricated and embellished with regional materials—in this case, tanned buckskin and porcupine quills. It was a style first romanticized in The Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper and in the writings of Washington Irving, then later adopted by several scouts when they became theatrical performers and led the Wild West shows popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the flamboyant style favored by notables such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and Pawnee Bill.

This flashy suit style wasn’t limited to showmen; we are also highlighting studio photographs of the Marquis de Morès and the photographer Frank Fiske in similar scout-inspired outfits in the exhibition. The Hanneburg suit is cut after a European-style lounge coat pattern using set-in sleeves and a distinctive diamond-shaped back panel and accented with patch pockets. The two pockets are die-cut buckskin—possibly using a u-shaped chisel—and possess a decorative reverse-flute edge.

Detailed view of the upper back portion of the jacket. Four horseshoe shapes alternating between teal and purple are on each side in a circle, and leaves and flowers are around them in purple, pink, orange, teal, and red.

Detail of back yoke.

A closeup detail of the pocket. There is a pink flower with a burple middle and leaves coming off of the flower in purple, orange, teal, and pink.

Detail of patch pocket with fluted edge.

This windproof buckskin coat is fully lined with red wool, trade blanket fabric and would have been an effective buffer against the region’s brutal climate. The fringed coat is also embellished with a delicate pattern of stems and leaves worked in multicolored, dyed porcupine quills. Interestingly, a change in the decoration scheme is evident. As is the case in several locations on the coat, there are graphite, hand-drawn guidelines for flowers that were never executed.

Detailed view of the quillwork - teal leaves with purple vines leading to red, teal, purple, and yellow/orange flowers.

Graphite pattern for quillwork.

The stylistic legacy of the Hanneburg suit is represented in another garment in the Cattle Culture section, an embroidered wool shirt from the 1950s. While the two garments are remarkably different, they share a common lineage in the evolution of Western fashion.

Black button up shirt with white snaps and white embroidered floral designs on the chest, shoulders, cuffs, and upper arms

Embroidered black wool shirt. SHSND 2011.53.1

Up until the mid-19th century the prevailing mode in men’s fashions could rarely be called conservative or subdued. Men very often appeared as strutting peacocks, decked in rich, patterned fabrics, intricately cut tailoring, elaborate embroidery, and bright, flashy color combinations. The dandies of those times, the English Macaronis and the French Incroyables of the old regime, were swept away by the somber grays and blacks of the Industrial Age.

How curious that at the same time—and in the most unlikely of settings—the ostentatious plainsmen and scout suits of the American West took hold. The style found its way into the first generation of Western showmen and women, and easily transitioned to the silver screen in the early days of serial movies. Buckaroo stars such as Tom Mix and Tim McCoy provided macho swagger while draped in historic flamboyance.

Wild West shows, rodeos, and dude ranches perpetuated the look, and by the postwar America of the 1950s, the genre was firmly entrenched in popular culture. While masquerading as the most American of icons—the cowboy—no one would question or suspect an old-world dandy preference for bright colors and intricate embroidery.

While our black wool cowboy shirt is fairly subdued, its contrasting white rayon chainstitch embroidery clearly reflects the legacy of the quillwork on the Hanneburg suit, right down to the especially elaborate flourish across the back yoke.

White line in a v shape with white embroidered flowers, vines, and leaves on a black shirt

Detail of back yoke.

Join us in early 2021 to experience these two fine examples from the holdings of the State Historical Society of North Dakota—along with many more—when we premiere Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style.

The Wreck of the Abner O’Neal

“Shipwreck” and “North Dakota” are not words one might normally expect to hear in the same sentence. However, there is a well-documented historical use of the region’s waterways.

The first use of steamboats for trade and passenger transportation in the territory that would become the state of North Dakota occurred during the fur trade era of 1830-1867. At that time, steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri was a common sight, as furs were moved to downriver markets in St. Louis and beyond. The use of steamboats by the military during the Plains Indian Wars (1860-1890) is also well documented, especially during the various punitive campaigns of the period. Later steamboat traffic in the Dakotas centered around providing transportation and facilitating commerce in the region. As the railroads expanded, steamboats increasingly found it more difficult to remain profitable as they were routinely outcompeted for the transport of both passengers and freight.

The story of the steamboat Abner O’Neal begins in these waning days of commercially viable steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri.

White ship along a river with green trees and grass on the shore

Postcard of a colorized photograph of the steamboat Abner O’Neal (1884-1892). SHSND SA B0735-00001

The Abner O'Neal steamboat was built in 1884 in Freedom, Pennsylvania, for the Steubenville, Ohio/Wheeling, West Virginia-area steamboat trade. Her original namesake Capt. Abner O'Neal and his son, the boat owner Capt. George O'Neal, were well-known figures during the 1870s in the Steubenville/Wheeling steamboat industry. The Abner O’Neal operated successfully in that region for several years transporting freight and passengers. She was then sold to the Missouri River Transportation Company in March 1890, and Capt. Sam V. Williamson moved to extend his pilot’s license to operate on the Missouri River in North Dakota and South Dakota.

By November 1890, the Abner O’Neal had been operating in the passenger and freight trade on the Missouri for a few months. According to the Pierre Weekly Free Press, citizens in the town turned out “to see a real live steamboat” and marvel at “the practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri River” when the Abner O’Neal docked there. Soon the reality of the seasonal “navigability of the Missouri River” would become painfully clear, however.

A good many Pierre visitors went up to inspect the Abner O'Neal today and see a real live steamboat. During the present universal low stage of water it is a very practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri river.

A Pierre Weekly Free Press (S.D.) report from Nov. 11, 1890, reflected the interest the steamboat generated among locals.

We know the Abner O’Neal spent much of her time in this region transporting grain (usually wheat) between the cities of Washburn and Bismarck/Mandan. The nearby Painted Woods area of the Missouri River has long been recognized as a difficult spot for navigation. (It still is.) The area is known for treacherous sand bars and frequent tree snags that can rip a boat hull wide open. By late November 1891, the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in early-winter ice in the Painted Woods area with a cargo of grain on board.

Captain Sims, in charge of the Abner O'Neal, came down from Painted Woods Wednesday, where the Abner O'Neal is frozen in the ice with a cargo of wheat on board. Manager J. M. Turner said it would be impossible to get the boat to this point this fall unless the ice now in the river thaws out.

The November 20, 1891, edition of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune noted that the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in the ice in a treacherous part of the Missouri River.

The Abner O’Neal remained stuck there in the ice for another four months, until she was finally freed in early April 1892. We have further documentation that the crew of the steamboat labored to keep the hull free from the ice by chopping the ice in direct contact with the hull. Steamboats operating in the Bismarck/Mandan area were routinely hauled out of the river during the winter months to avoid this very situation. We could speculate what lasting effect wintering in the Painted Woods area may have had on the integrity of the Abner O’Neal’s hull, but by late April 1892, the boat was once again making trips transporting grain from Washburn to the Bismarck/Mandan roller mills for processing.

On Saturday, the 30th ul. the ice in the river at this place, and above began to move out and by Wednesday, the Abner O'Neal, which had wintered near Painted Woods, made her way toward Washburn, arriving in the evening, much to the joy of the youth of our city.

On April 9, 1892, The Washburn Leader (N.D.) recounted the steamboat’s joyful reception.

On the afternoon of July 17, 1892, the Abner O’Neal was transporting 9,000 bushels of wheat from Washburn to the Mandan roller mill when it struck a submerged snag or rock and began to sink. The crew attempted to patch the hole, but the damage was too extensive and the steamboat quickly went down in 8-to-10 feet of water. The boat and cargo were uninsured and considered a total loss.

As the steamer was plowing her way through the channel, a shock was felt by those on board, which was at first thought to result from the striking of the wheel on some unimportant snag. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that the snag had made an immense hole in the bottom of the boat, which was rapidly filling with water. Tarpaulins were placed over the opening, and some of her cargo was thrown overboard, in an endeavor to lighten her, but these efforts were of no avail, and she went down, in from eight to ten feet of water. All of the crew escaped safely, but the boat and cargo will be a total loss. Although submerged in such a small depth of water, it is not thought possible to raise her. The machinery will probably be saved.

The July 22, 1892, Bismarck Weekly Tribune carried this description of the sinking of the Abner O'Neal.

For nearly 130 years, the steamboat survived seasonal exposures as a result of fall drawdowns at Lake Sakakawea and the subsequent winter freezes. In late September 2020, State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists received notification from the boating public that the Abner O’Neal wreck location was visible due to current low water conditions. Consent to access the wreck site was granted by an adjacent landowner, and images and video of the wreck location were obtained via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) carrying visible light cameras and a 10-band multispectral sensor on Oct. 1-2, 2020. Researchers generated high-resolution orthophoto mosaics from the images collected by the visible light camera and multispectral sensor. A detailed analysis of the orthophoto mosaics, video, and multispectral images collected by agency archaeologists is ongoing.

a stip of sand can be seen underwater with the remains of a shipwreck

A high-resolution orthophoto mosaic of the Abner O’Neal wreck produced from images captured by the agency’s drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

Black and white view of a shipwreck

Near-infrared image of the Abner O’Neal wreck captured by the agency drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

The wreck of the Abner O’Neal was salvaged after the sinking, with the superstructure and paddle wheel removed. Much of the hull of the wreck has remained intact, despite being submerged in the Missouri River for 128 years. The wreck has been periodically subjected to non-systematic collecting by the public since the sinking. The State Historical Society has received a few artifacts donated by private collectors since 1958, but no artifacts were collected by our archaeologists during our October 2020 site investigations.

Rusty metal lantern

A lantern from the Abner O’Neal was donated to the State Historical Society by a private collector. SHSND 2014.A.3.1.

The Abner O’Neal is within the boundaries of state-sovereign lands managed by North Dakota. Several federal and state regulations protect the site and prohibit the collection of artifacts from the location. Boaters and other interested parties are encouraged to avoid the wreck as a navigational obstacle and reminded to take only pictures.

Orange, yellow, and blue sunset reflecting on the water. Sillouhets of trees can be seen in the background. Some dark pieces of shipwreck are poking up out of the water.

The sun sets on the wreck of the Abner O’Neal, September 2020. Image courtesy of Jesse Biesterfeld.

*This blog was co-authored with Andrew Clark.