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.

Beyond “Mrs. Husband’s Name”: Researching Women’s Full Names

While working from home the past two months, collection staff in the Audience Engagement and Museum Division started a long-needed data cleanup project. While often tedious, one part of this project I am truly enjoying is researching the first names of women who we only have recorded as “Mrs. Last Name,” or “Mrs. Husband’s Name.”

The New York Times recently published a series called “The Mrs. Files” discussing the same type of project. This article articulates the tradition of using a husband’s name to refer to a married woman.

Women using “Mrs. Husband’s Name” in a social and official capacity was very common, although it seems odd looking at it from a contemporary point of view. Many of the artifact donation forms from the early days of the State Historical Society are signed this way, and this continued well into the 1980s.

I believe it is important that these women are remembered as themselves, not only by the names of their loved ones. Researching and recording these first names ensures their work and contributions to the state’s history are remembered.

Mrs. Adams

In 1936, the North Dakota Federation of Women’s Clubs donated a sampler created by a Mrs. Adams from LaMoure. In this case, the artifact itself helped identify the artist, as Mrs. Adams embroidered her initials, “O.M.A.” I didn’t think many Adamses would be living in LaMoure during that period, so I looked through census records. In the 1940 census, three women with the last name Adams appeared in LaMoure County; one was Olive. To confirm this suspicion, I looked at the 1930 census, and listed below her husband Paul was “Olive M. Adams.” Digging a little further I learned Olive Marshall, born in 1879, married Paul Adams, a prominent LaMoure banker, in 1904. Looking into newspapers from the area would probably reveal even more about Olive M. Adams, but for now, her full name fills gaps in the sampler’s history.

Framed beaded piece that says North Dakota 1889 - 1936 In small things Liberty, In large things Unity, In all things Charity. There are clouds, a bison, covered wagin, tipi, squirrel holding wheat, farmstead, and the state capitol depicted.

Sampler by Olive Marshall Adams (the artist formerly known as Mrs. Adams). SHSND 1977.27

Mrs. William P. Zahn

There are beautiful pieces of beadwork in the State Historical Society’s collection attributed to Mrs. William P. Zahn. Researching Mrs. Zahn was not difficult because her son, Frank B. Zahn, donated the items. Frank, a prominent North Dakota judge and historian, was easy to find. According to his obituary, Frank was the son of William P. and Kezewin Zahn.1 Kezewin was the daughter of Yanktonai chief Flying Cloud and appears in some Federal and Indian census records under the English-Christian name Mary Josephine Zahn (an assimilationist re-naming practice deserving of its own full article). I knew the State Archives had records from Frank Zahn, so I did a quick search and they have multiple photos of Kezewin and her family!

How striking is it to put not only a full name, but also a face to the woman who made this piece!

A beaded cradle hood with yellow trim. The main area is beaded in white and there are red stars with yellow and red squares inside them, red squared with yellow and green quares inside, and triangle, diamond, and square shapes in the same colors.

Soft cradle hood made by Kezewin Zahn. SHSND 2557

Mrs. John Kruger

In 1956, Mrs. Otto A. Matzek donated the wedding dress of her mother, Mrs. John Kruger. This one was harder. I had two people to find. Once I found that Mrs. Matzek was Edith Kruger Matzek, finding her mother became easier. Researching Gerahdina “Dena” Detmer Kruger revealed two things. First, we had the wrong date recorded for the dress. The donor misremembered her mother’s wedding date as January 1912. The Weekly-Time Record out of Valley City announced the upcoming wedding of Miss Dena Detmer and John W. Kruger on January 15, 1913.2

An off white/tan wedding dress. It is full length and has long sleeves. There is a draped part over the chest. Beaded fringe hands off of part of the chest drape and the sleeves.

Dena Detmer Kruger’s time-traveling wedding dress. SHSND 13355

Second, it turns out that Dena Detmer was a postmaster for Lucca in Barnes County in the 1930s! How cool is that?!

A record of the different postmasters in Barnes county from 1928 to 1960, including John W. Kruger, Mrs. Dena F. Kruger, Mrs. Grace Leone Phillips, Pearletta R Fisk.

Dena, the mail woman ( U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line].)

The State Historical Society has artifacts and records attributed to women around the state using their husband’s names. We don’t know if they did this simply because it was the social norm, or if that was their preferred title. Perhaps early record keepers made the decision for them. Whatever the reason, documenting the women’s full names builds a richer and more complete picture of North Dakota’s history.

1 “Frank B. Zahn, Historian, Judge, Dies Here Sunday,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 5, 1966, 10.
2 The Weekly Times-Record (Valley City, ND), January 9, 1913, 5.

Archives Adventures During Telecommuting

Summer is here, and there have been several changes of late. The biggest change has been the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to working from home for two months. As a reference specialist, I assist researchers in accessing the materials they need to answer their diverse questions. Being unable to access our physical materials because of the closure limited me in how quickly I could respond to requests, but our amazing patrons have been very understanding. That said, this situation presented me with opportunities as well. I entered data on a couple record groups when not handling the requests that could be answered with our online resources.

The first group of records I worked with were marriage records from Oliver County dating from 1896 to 1925. Marriage records are a popular request among our patrons, as genealogical research represents a sizable amount of our research requests. Most such requests revolve around naturalization records, marriage records, and obituaries.

You can learn much about an area from a group of marriage licenses. Seeing several licenses of the same last name for the groom or bride indicates a fairly large family lived in that area, and the children were settling down. Since these licenses spanned 1896-1925 with most being in the 1905-1920 time frame, which coincided with a sizable wave of immigration into North Dakota, several folks applying for licenses were possibly either new immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants to the area. One interesting pattern appeared in that men with the same last name, who are assumed to be brothers, seemed to marry sisters of a family. This likely relates to immigration patterns, where several families from a community overseas will migrate to a specific location in the United States.

scan of a marriage license

Marriage licenses from this time also note locations that are now memories in a county. Several unique locations were noted on the licenses for the place of marriage, with many being, according to Doug Wick’s book North Dakota Place Names, rural post offices in the various townships. In addition, they clue us into the differences in society at that time, especially the fragility of life, as there were a few licenses that have the same man marrying more than once. While divorce is a possibility for why the first marriage ended, life expectancy was much shorter at that time. With events like the Spanish Flu pandemic, other diseases, and the risks of death in childbirth, an untimely death for the spouse is also a possibility. Seeing these licenses made me wonder about the situation that caused the groom to remarry so soon after seeing an initial license bearing his name. Did he leave his wife, did she leave him, or did she die in an unfortunate situation? As the data entry was paramount on the group of licenses, this question could only be pondered for a moment.

scan of a marriage license

One unique challenge to these licenses is those filling them out had handwriting that left much to be desired. This is one of the challenges when transcribing older documents and records for data entry, or to just understand the document better. Several times during the data entry for these licenses, consulting Census records via Ancestry was necessary to try to decipher a name, especially in circumstances where initials were used (usually the husband’s) instead of the full first name. This was a minor issue, but one that is worth noting. Overall, the addition of the data on these licenses will enhance ease of access to these records for our patrons in the future, as such records are quite popular.

The other group of records I am working with during this time away from the office is the facsimile files. These binders contain photocopies that allowed patrons to look at our photograph holdings before we began the digitization process. Information about the photo, including collection number, item number, a description of the photo, and, if known, the donor is noted. I am working with photos of schools arranged by county. Most are of rural schools and are roughly 100 years old.

There are some cool photos in these binders. The most unique was a photo from Valley City High School in 1905 described as “Boys Toilet Room.” Yes, someone took a photo of the interior of the boys restroom in Valley City High School in 1905. Fortunately, it appears it may be either related to the construction of the school or done at a time when nobody was in the building. It made me chuckle though and think of the popular rock song “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

While working from home has been an adjustment during these unique times, data entry on both the marriage records and facsimile files will provide greater access to our materials in the future. It will be nice to return to the North Dakota Heritage Center more often to catch up on requests and to help the public with their research questions. Someday, archivists will preserve and process material related to this time and helping researchers to answer questions about 2020, and there will be many. Have a safe and happy summer.