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.

How Fun Are These? Historical Facts From the State Archives, Part I

Did you know? The North Dakota State Archives staff are full of fun facts about this state’s history. That’s because we work so closely with collections, books, newspaper articles, and other documentation related to the state. When we discover something bizarre, interesting, humorous, or unique, we have the tools to dig deeper, and we love to share our findings. More proof that it’s a lot of fun to work at the State Archives!

Read on for the first installment of our staff’s favorite fun facts about North Dakota.

Ashley Thronson, Reference Specialist

While I have learned many things about the history of North Dakota since I started working for the State Archives, one of the most memorable tidbits was reading about a memorial adopted by the territorial Legislature in 1879 related to the division of Dakota Territory. A delegation traveled to Washington, D.C., where territorial Rep. John Q. Burbank of Jamestown petitioned Congress with a proposal to divide Dakota Territory along an east-west line. Compared to the current north-south division that created the two states of North Dakota and South Dakota, an east-west split would certainly have been different! This fact also got me thinking of how the territorial divisions impacted and influenced cities and communities. What would Bismarck, Fargo, and other North Dakota towns have looked like in an East Dakota or West Dakota?

Map of Dakota Territory by district, 1884. SHSND SA 978.402 R186m 1884

Matt Ely, Photo Archivist

My favorite North Dakota fun fact is that the Ward County Courthouse fielded men’s and women’s basketball teams in 1909-1910. The formation of the teams was announced on Nov. 18, 1909, in the Minot Daily Optic. The State Archives collections include a picture postcard of the men’s team. Although I have been unable to find the team’s schedule yet, a note on the back of the postcard states that they had a record of five wins and zero losses going into their final game against Minot High School. In the future, I hope to find the result of their final game as well as any information I can on the women’s team.

The men’s basketball team from Minot was commonly referred to as the Court House basketball team, as evidenced in this image, circa 1909. SHSND SA 2006-P-012-00015

Lindsay Meidinger, Head of Archival Collections and Information Management

In 1911, a standpipe and tank were built on the North Dakota Capitol grounds in Bismarck. This water tower was witness to historical moments during the formative years of the state, including the 1930 Capitol fire. Recently, the State Archives received a donation of a photograph of the new capitol building. In the background of the image, the same water tower is visible. Utilizing the State Archives’ online resource, Advantage Archives, we learned that the water tower was “unriveted and taken down” in 1957. Not only was the date it was disassembled discovered, but we also found out that the water tower was sent to Hannaford for its first municipal water system. And it still stands there today!

The water tower looks on as the original North Dakota Capitol burns, December 28, 1930. SHSND SA A3522-00001

Jayne and Sally Strawsine on the North Dakota Capitol grounds in 1948. Notice the water tower to the right of the Capitol building. SHSND SA 11567-00004

These days you’ll find the original state Capitol water tower in Hannaford.

Back to Your Roots: State Archives Staff-Recommended Genealogy Collections

October is American Archives month. To celebrate, we are sharing all things related to the State Archives! Our staff works very closely with our collections, which allows us to gain unique insights into these documents and materials. In this post, we highlight some of our favorite resources that we think have great value for personal history and should be utilized more by the public for genealogical research. Check out the list below, and if you have any questions along the way or are interested in accessing these treasures, don’t hesitate to reach out to our reference staff at or 701.328.2091.

Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist

Yeehaw! In 1957, the 50 Years in the Saddle Club was organized in New Town by 22 cattlemen who had been ranching and working with cattle for at least 50 years. The group aimed to keep memories and tradition alive by annually gathering to reminisce, and their efforts resulted in the four-volume series “50 Years in the Saddle: Looking Back Down the Trail,” as well as a variety of biographies and stories of ranchers and other residents of western North Dakota. Although the biographies vary in terms of length and content, they are wonderful resources for genealogists and western enthusiasts alike. There is bound to be a person or topic of interest to anyone researching the Old West in North Dakota in the 50 Years in the Saddle Club Collection (MSS 11366).

Daniel Sauerwein, Reference Specialist

A great genealogy resource in the State Archives is our collection of yearbooks from various schools, colleges, and universities across North Dakota. While they require a little more background knowledge of your ancestors, such as knowing what school they attended, yearbooks are an exciting way to uncover photographs of ancestors from their younger days and learn what they did in school. Whether your ancestor was a star athlete or outstanding scholar, yearbooks also show familial and community ties, since by glancing at surnames you can trace your family’s trajectory through the years. We are always looking for more yearbooks to grow this resource so please consider donating your yearbooks to help preserve this history.

A selection of Bismarck High School yearbooks in the State Archives.

Ashley Thronson, Reference Specialist

A lesser-used resource at the State Archives for genealogy research is the local government collections. County court case files, including probate, civil, and criminal case files, property assessment records, and some township records are found in these collections. These records can be a little difficult to use as they are not digitized, the records are not all in one place, and the records we have for each county may vary. If you are interested in seeing what local government records we might have on your ancestor, check out the local government records pages on our website.

Virginia Bjorness, Head of Technical Services

The State Archives has nearly 1,400 family history books, many containing a treasure trove of research, stories, and pictures! Written and published by current and former North Dakotans (or relatives with ties to the state), these works can be an unexpected gem for genealogists. Some also contain valuable information about the settlement and development of places across North Dakota. Search for your family’s name here.

Lindsay Meidinger, Head of Archival Collections and Information Management

Although probably a bit of an unconventional genealogical resource, the North Dakota news film collections offer a unique glimpse at the past through a visual of the people, places, and activities that our relatives encountered during their lives. Covering nearly every corner of North Dakota and spanning the 1950s to the 2000s, the news film collections contain raw segments, complete stories, and a plethora of sports clips and games. I personally was able to find out more about my own genealogy through the WDAY-TV collection. One day while digitizing some film, I stumbled upon a segment titled “Postman Arrested and Taken to Banquet in His Honor.” My dad once told me about my great-grandfather, Thomas Cullen, who was a mailman in Fargo for 39 years and never once involved in an accident. Sure enough, the news film segment I had just digitized was footage of my great-grandfather! Through this archival news film, I learned that Fargo city officials and police officers decided to surprise him by “arresting” him and taking him to a party honoring his astounding driving record and service to the city.

Postman Thomas Cullen is "arrested" for his exemplary driving record. SHSND SA 10351-2146-00005

Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services

We have a multitude of collections that provide solid genealogical documentation. However, our oral history collections are some of my favorite sources to use for family history research. Sometimes these oral history interviews are more focused on history than family history, and sometimes they are essentially biographies of the person or people being interviewed. No matter the focus, both history and personal history intertwine and shine through. Even if your family did not contribute an oral history themselves, their contemporaries may have. For example, I discovered in our collections an oral history of the wife of a doctor who took care of my mother’s family when she was young. That was a cool find!

Box of cassettes from the Bicentennial Oral History Collection (MSS 10157).