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.

Birth Records or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Research

Submitted by Joy Pitts on

As a recent transfer to the beautiful state of North Dakota by way of Texas, I am learning all the ins and outs of North Dakota information law and how it applies to my work in the State Archives. Being an archivist means providing access to the public; however, due to the sensitive nature of information, state and federal legal statues limit some types of documents that we are able to provide. Although we are limited in releasing some information, there are many more records that you can access that will give you the information you need.

For instance, are you trying to find birth records before the turn of the 19th century? This may prove difficult as North Dakota did not mandate the recording of births and deaths until the beginning of the 20th century, and even after this mandate, compliance was spotty until the 1920s.1 But there are other options to find this information — it may just take a bit more searching.

photo collage

Babies from the Margaret Wilder Welch Naylor Photograph Collection, 1890–1920. SHSND SA 2011-P-002-1588 and 1573

If you are looking for any vital record less than 125 years old, you will have to check with the Division of Vital Records. If you are specifically looking for a birth record that is less than 125 years old, then you must produce documentation to prove you are a lineal descendant.2 A lineal descendant is “a person who is in direct line to an ancestor, such as child, grandchild, great-grandchild and on forever. A lineal descendant is distinguished from a ‘collateral’ descendant, which would be from the line of a brother, sister, aunt or uncle.”3

So what does this mean if you are looking for birth records of your great-great-aunt who was born in 1900? That we at the State Archives cannot release this information. According to the Century Code, you can only obtain your own birth record if you are age 16 or older. Parents can get their children’s record if the parent is named on it. If the parent is deceased, a relative of the parent can obtain a copy. For relatives several times removed, providing this information to the Division of Vital Records is particularly challenging. To compound matters, the Century Code does not elaborate on what documentation is necessary to prove direct descendance.

three women holding their babies

Three women with babies on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, 1930s. SHSND SA 00041-1013

How do you find birth information without providing familial records?

  • Newspapers
  • Church records
  • Biographies
  • Naturalization records
  • Census records

Above are just a few resources that may provide you with information. Although sometimes these records might prove fruitless, it is always good to check. For instance, you could start by looking through the local paper of the township where your relative lived to see if there are birth announcements in the social pages. You could also try searching for baptismal records at the specific church your relative attended or the administrative body of the religion they practiced. Some of these records are available at the State Archives and other repositories in North Dakota. For instance, if you are looking for birth information about your Jewish ancestors, you may want to contact the synagogue in closest geographical range to where they lived or the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. If your ancestors were Catholic, you may want to check with the parish or regional diocese, and if your relatives were Presbyterian you will probably want to call the church they belonged to or the Presbyterian Synod.

These are just a few ways to find birth information without going through the Division of Vital Records for a certified birth record. Again, searching for information may take a little more time and effort on your part, but you might find additional relevant information that you can’t find on a birth record.

1Sixth North Dakota Legislative Assembly of North Dakota, “Vital Statistics,” Ch. 169 in Laws Passed at the Third Session of the Legislative Assembly of the State of North Dakota, retrieved Feb. 6, 2020,; Tenth Legislative Assembly of North Dakota, “Vital Statistics,” Ch. 270 in Laws Passed at the Tenth Session of the Legislative Assembly of the State of North Dakota, retrieved Feb. 6, 2020,; Family, 8 April 2019, “How to Find North Dakota Birth Records,” retrieved Feb. 6, 2020,

2Sixty-Sixth Legislative Assembly of North Dakota, “Sec. 23-02.1-27: Disclosure of Records” in North Dakota Century Code, 2018-2019, 9, retrieved Feb. 5, 2020,

Fashion & Function Exhibit Finds Its Style

Visual cues really help the creative process. They kickstart the imagination and the free association of ideas. This is especially true in the exhibition development process. Something — be it an artifact, an image, or a concept — will spark an idea, and you find yourself off and running in a world of exploration and discovery.

We are currently developing a new exhibit for the Governors Gallery at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, opening early 2021. Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style is a thematic exploration of the role clothing has played — and still plays — in the history of the region. The exhibition moves broadly across time while featuring specific aspects, trends, solutions, and adaptations expressed through clothing. It isn’t an exhibition about Parisian designers and haute couture, but rather focuses on practicality, functionality, and style expressed through everyday wardrobe elements.

BW vintage photo of 4 people dressed in western clothing at a rodeo

“Cowgirls at the Medora Roundup” by Leo LaLonde, c. 1955. SHSND SA 00276-14365

Key to developing the exhibition is creating a visual look — or branding — that aids in telling the story and repeats throughout the gallery as a unifying component.  We are talking about design, after all. During the exhibit process I like to select a signature element or image to represent the scope of the project, and that holds true for Fashion & Function. I’ve spent a great deal of time reviewing photographs from the collections of the State Archives, looking not only at the historic moments, but at what the people in the photographs are wearing. I admit I started with a preconceived image in my head capturing my vision for the exhibition, but that fantasy photograph never appeared.

State Archives Division Director Ann Jenks pointed me toward several images she thought might be of interest. Included was a series of photographs created in the late 1950s by Bismarck photographer Leo LaLonde of the annual fall roundup in Medora. They included several great images of both authentic and urbanized western wear, and one shot that pushed all the right buttons as a signature image — and it had nothing to do with my preconceived idea. It was just right!

The photograph is of a well-worn cowboy boot and denim-clad leg resting on the rear bumper of a late 1940s Pontiac Chieftain — the worn character of the boot contrasting with the modernist style of the tail fin and gumdrop-shaped taillights. It just says “fashion” and “function.” The photograph also captures a distorted, reflected world in the chrome of the bumper, including the silhouette of the photographer, a second car, several skeletal trees, and the hilly horizon beyond.

BW vintage photo of a jean clad leg and boot on a car bumper

“Boot and Spur, Medora Roundup” by Leo LaLonde, c. 1955. SHSND SA 00276-14370

Although limited documentation accompanies the photograph, my sense is that LaLonde created it with the intent of entering a photography competition. Several the photographs in the LaLonde Collection were made as contest entries, and it differs from the black and white photographs he normally created for the Bismarck Tribune. The composition is “artistic” rather than “documentary” and it lacks the extensive notations of his newspaper photographs listing the subjects, date, and location of the photograph.

The photographs in the Medora Roundup series have rich gray tones, strong diagonal components, and asymmetrical compositions. In the boot image, LaLonde chose to crop the spur attached to the heel of the boot. The incompleteness of the image forces the viewer to ponder the missing rowel, and why it isn’t there. I really like the energy of the image. It captures the essence of Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style.

Our new media specialist Andrew Kerr has been working with the photograph, folding its elements into a signature logo for the installation. Our plan is to combine the logo with neon and cut steel letters in a vignette at the entrance of the Governors Gallery including sequenced chaser lights and a Miss North Dakota pageant evening gown from 1960. Please plan to visit the exhibition this coming fall. It should prove a memorable experience.

Branding of the "Fashion and Function" exhibit