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.

The Kennedy Assassination 60 Years Later: North Dakota’s Secret Service Connection

a man is shown partially in a convertible with one leg hanging across the back while he protects the passengers as the convertible drives off to safety

The limousine carrying mortally wounded President John F. Kennedy races toward the hospital moments after he was shot in Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill climbs onto the back of the car, as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president. Justin Newman, AP Photo

A few critical seconds from Nov. 22, 1963, still replay in Clint Hill’s mind—even 60 years later. On that horrific day when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Hill, who grew up in Washburn, was serving as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s United States Secret Service agent in the presidential motorcade.

Photographs from bystanders and the infamous Zapruder film immortalize images of the events that changed history and Hill’s life. Footage shows President Kennedy clutching his throat after being hit by a bullet about 40 minutes into a city parade. Seconds later, Hill, from a position on the running board of the follow-up car, sprints toward the presidential convertible, scrambles onto the trunk, then pushes the first lady—crawling on her hands and knees on the trunk—back into her seat before throwing himself across Mrs. Kennedy and the slain president.

According to accounts by Secret Service agents, President Kennedy had wanted the limousine top off during the motorcade so he could be closer to the people. When the fatal bullet shattered the president’s skull, Hill selflessly turned his body into a living convertible canopy. He clung to the car with his left hand, his feet positioned to protectively cover the first lady and the president lying in her lap as the limousine sped four miles to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Eleven years ago, I interviewed Clint Hill about his courageous actions that fateful day and his lingering sense of guilt. The retired agent was still struggling with the death, his voice cracking at times with emotion.

“I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility and guilt that I was unable to get there quick enough to intercede and really make a difference,” he said then. Hill believed it was his bullet to take. “Every day I think back to November 22. It never leaves me.”

an older man takes a portrait photo in a black suit with a black background

“I’ve never emotionally left North Dakota,” former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill told me in 2012. “North Dakota has a very special place in my heart that will never go away.” Photo by Michael Collopy

Read my article based on a 2012 interview with Clint Hill in North Dakota History, which includes his telling of the story and details he shared for the first time. For more on Kennedy, read another article in this journal issue by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson, “John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt: Parallels and Common Ground, Including North Dakota.”

Since our conversation, the 91-year-old Hill and his wife, Lisa McCubbin, have co-authored books about his time in the Secret Service serving multiple presidents. Until recently they’ve traveled the world representing the United States and our state. Hill has never forgotten his North Dakota roots. He continues to provide interviews about his Kennedy experiences. In 2018, Gov. Doug Burgum presented him with North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state’s highest honor.

As Hill continues to share his personal memories about Nov. 22, new theories have surfaced about the killing of JFK. Just a few weeks ago Hill’s Secret Service colleague Paul Landis released a new and differing firsthand account of the “magic bullet.” Nevertheless, Hill remains true to his version of the tragic events he witnessed in Dallas.

While Hill’s actions that day can be viewed as part of his professional duty, no other Secret Service agent took the risk to their own life. President Kennedy could have been describing Hill when he once remarked, “The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.”

Thank you, Mr. Hill, for serving as a magnificent ambassador for North Dakota and your courageous service in various Secret Service positions, protecting Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, as well as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. We are grateful.

President John F. Kennedy, William Guy, an Quentin Burdick, all wearing suits and ties, are shown smiling as they look towards the person taking the photo

On June 19, 1960, John F. Kennedy flew into Fargo to attend then-Rep. Quentin Burdick’s 52nd birthday party. JFK is pictured at the bash along with William Guy (center), who was making his first run on the Democratic ticket for governor, and Burdick, who was facing off against popular Republican Gov. John Davis for an open U.S. Senate seat. In a perfect trifecta, all three men won their elections, changing the political landscape of the state and the country. SHSND SA 1960-00021

9 New Things to See and Do: Create Holiday Memories at the State Museum and Historic Sites

A giant inflatable reindeer with a red nose is stepping on a woman who is trying to be pulled out by the hand by a woman and by the feet by another woman

During the holiday hustle and bustle, while sipping iced sugar cookie lattes and searching for the PlayStation 5 and Squishmallows on your shopping list, think about taking an innovative approach to your gift needs. Consider giving your family and friends the gift of spending time together and making memories at the State Museum, or take a road trip to see exhibitions at our state historic sites.

You’ll find plenty of new things to see and do. It takes a village of exhibition planners, preparators, new media specialists, education curators, collections staff, writers, editors, museum curators, public information specialists, and others to bring fresh, engaging adventures to visitors. We invite you to visit with your family or friends and explore these special museum additions created by our staff in 2021:

1. Dakota the Dinomummy: Love dinosaurs? Check out our newly updated exhibit of Dakota the Dinomummy. Discover why this rare Edmontosaurus fossil has garnered international attention. Take a selfie with our life-size Dakota artwork on a banner, and touch a 3D replica of its skin. It’s the next best thing to petting a real dinosaur!

The entrance for an exhibit has the title Fashion & Function: North Dakota in pink and green neon lights. There are 3 mannequins below the sign. One is wearing a red and blue wonder woman costume. One is wearing a dark colored pageant gown with a Miss America sash. The third is wearing a burple ballgown with silver gems ont the top.

2. Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style: Take in our largest display ever of 400-plus clothing items from the state’s collection. View new fashions by contemporary Native American designers, wedding dresses, powwow regalia, Olympic gold medalist Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s hockey jersey, 2018 Miss America Cara Mund’s coronation gown, farming and ranching clothes, entertainer Lawrence Welk’s suit, and singer Peggy Lee’s performance dress. On Dec. 17, we’re adding former North Dakota first lady Grace Link’s 1939 silk satin wedding gown. She recently donated the elegant dress on her 103rd birthday, and it’s worth the visit. Open through November 2022.

3. Ancient Earth: Ceramic Endeavors by Brad Bachmeier: See 26 exquisite ceramic artworks created by this nationally acclaimed Fargo artist. Bachmeier’s work is rooted in sustainability and connects the Earth’s natural resources with its inhabitants. Open through March 2022.

A small exhibit with underwear hanging on a clothes line and many other small objects on the floor of the case

4. Recent Donations: A veritable case of curiosities ranging from underwear to COVID-19 vaccination boxes, the Recent Donations exhibit features more than 40 new artifact donations, mostly gifted by North Dakota citizens. Our curatorial staff selected both serious and whimsical artifacts for your viewing pleasure. Open through November 2022

5. North Dakota Native American Hall of Honor: In September, three individuals were inducted into the North Dakota Native American Hall of Honor. Learn about the contributions of Sitting Bull, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Dave Dauphinais, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; and Lydia Sage-Chase, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Exhibit open through August 2022.

6. Rudoph is lighting up the Northern Lights Atrium! Plan a family photo or selfie with Santa’s red-nosed helper. Available during regular State Museum hours every day in December except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

7. The James River Café is constantly whipping up new specialty items. Stop in for breakfast, lunch, or a quick snack. My favorite beverage was invented and named about a year ago by barista Myra just for me—the Kim’s Brûlée latte, a delightful, caramelly coffee concoction that’s sure to put you in the holiday spirit. Look for it on the menu board, and let me know if it becomes your favorite latte, too!

An image of a native american man with a feather sticking out from the back of his head is pictured with the words Sitting Bull next to him

8. Sitting Bull: Visit the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center near Williston to learn about the life and legacy of Sitting Bull. This exhibit pops with lush colors and a rich historical telling of Sitting Bull’s life, leadership, and legacy. Open through May 2026.

9. Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library prototype of an exhibit exploring TR’s childhood: Enjoy this 12-minute storytelling and interactive experience in our temporary exhibit gallery at the Chateau de Morès Interpretive Center in Medora. We’re excited to share this experience as we look forward to the opening of the presidential library in 2026.

This festive season, I hope you’ll find time to share a museum or state historic site visit with those you love. The gift of learning, laughing, and exploring together (a cup of Kim’s Brûlée in hand, natch) just might make history as your most savored memory.

Happy holidays from all of us at the State Historical Society of North Dakota!

10 Date Adventures to Try this Week: Check out these romantic outings at State Museums & Historic Sites

Whether you’re planning an outing this week with someone new or looking for a fresh activity to share with your longtime spouse, you’ll find plenty of unique date options at our state museums and historic sites. Explore beautiful North Dakota!

Photo by Johnathan Campbell

1. Watch a spectacular sunset on the Missouri River.
Take in a romantic riverfront sunset at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site just seven miles north of Bismarck. Once the sun goes down, it’s also an amazing spot to stargaze.

Courtesy Grant Invie

2. Cuddle during a free concert.
During Jamestown’s Buffalo Days on Saturday, July 24, treat your sweetie to a free concert by singer-songwriter Grant Invie, performing on the lawn of the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site at 1 p.m. Invie, who hails from Moorhead, Minnesota, will make you swoon with classic country music with hints of gospel and rock-and-roll. Bring a blanket and get cozy on the lawn. No seating provided.

3. Stay “inn” tonight.
For a unique date night, explore Fort Totten’s 16 original buildings and spend the night within the fort! Enjoy a romantic stay at the Totten Trail Historic Inn located in one of these buildings. Let your darling know that you are “hopelessly devoted” during Fort Totten Little Theatre’s on-site production of “Grease.” The play runs through the end of July, so make plans today!

4. Attend Aber Days festivities.
On Saturday, July 24, spend the day together at the annual Aber Days at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., enjoy a vendor fair, Métis music, a blacksmith in action, historical authors Candace Simar and Carrie Newman, a Civil War sewing demonstration, a dream catcher demonstration, military reenactors, and more, then take in a local rodeo! Join the North Country Trail hike at 1 p.m.

SHSND SA 00042-080

5. Check out one of North Dakota’s great love stories.
If you name a town for your sweetheart, it must be true love! Visit the Chateau de Morès in Medora to discover the swoon-worthy romance of the French entrepreneur Marquis de Morès and his bride, the Marquise (also known as Medora). Explore their unique summer home and the Interpretive Center. Then, snuggle with your sweetie during a Chateau wagon ride while taking in the stunning Little Missouri River and Badlands views.

6. Take your relationship to new heights.
Ride the glass elevator to the top of the seven-story observation tower for beautiful prairie views of the Red River Valley across North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba at the Pembina State Museum. Can you see where Canada begins? Discuss what borders mean for countries, states, and individuals.

7. Plan a day trip and picnic.
Plan a day trip to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site in Washburn. Selfie photo ops abound at the larger-than-life statues of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Sheheke, and Seaman the dog. Take in the cool exhibits, unpack a romantic feast at a Fort Mandan picnic table, and hike the Washburn Discover Trail to see native plants documented by Lewis and Clark.

8. Encounter the old and new.
If your date has a passion for history, they’ll love exploring the treasures available right in downtown Bismarck at Camp Hancock State Historic Site on Main Avenue! Here, you’ll find the city’s oldest standing building—once part of a military post and supply depot. Take in exhibits on local history and the U.S. Weather Bureau station once housed there. Don’t forget to check out the newly recreated Weather Bureau offices upstairs. Then pop into the tiny but lovely 1881 Bread of Life Church, where summertime weddings still take place. It’s the oldest church in the city. Admire the workmanship of the 1880s stained glass windows by renowned artist John La Farge.

9. Explore a tale of two rivers.
Walk the trails along the peaceful place where the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers merge not far from the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center near Williston. This is also a great birdwatching spot for lovebirds! Inside the Interpretive Center, find exhibits to explore and a store to purchase a memento of your special day.

10. Chill on a hot day with Romeo and Juliet … and Julius Ceasar.
Attend two Shakespeare productions of passion and intrigue this week at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck! Catch the Young Bards’ free performance, “Shakespeare Our Way,” at 2 p.m. on July 25 in the Russell Reid Auditorium. The Young Bards, Capitol Shakespeare’s youth theater program, will perform scenes from "Romeo and Juliet," "The Merchant of Venice," "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." Or bring a date to “Julius Caesar” being performed by Capitol Shakespeare actors at the outdoor Prairie Amphitheater, July 21-25 at 7 p.m. Bring chairs or a blanket!

3 North Dakota Fashion Designers You’ll Want to Know About

Headshots of three women. The one on the left is Native American and is wearing a black shirt with green jacket over it and a necklace and earrings. Her hair is pulled back. The middle one is white with long, blonde hair. She is wearing a black shirt, and there are pink and red color blocks behind her. The one on the right is Native American and has her hair down behind her shoulders. She is wearing a black shirt with a red shawl around her shoulders and earrings.

Norma Baker-Flying Horse, Casey Paul, and Lauren Good Day

North Dakota has historically been the home of women changemakers—inspiring self-starters who create lasting impacts. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to highlight three contemporary fashion designers from the Peace Garden State—Norma Baker-Flying Horse, Casey Paul, and Lauren Good Day—making their mark in the clothing industry. All three incorporate traditional inspiration, hand-crafted designs, and an intent to empower the wearer in their work.

We feature stunning dresses by these style innovators in our newly opened Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit, which includes more than 400 historical and contemporary garments. Come see these designers’ gorgeous creations at the State Museum in Bismarck and learn about the role of clothing in North Dakota life!

Norma Baker-Flying Horse

A bright blue/teal mermaid style dress with a black top picturing ledger art styled horses and a woman riding one of the horses. The horse the woman is riding is gray with a blue mane and the other two horses are blue with red manes.

Gown worn by journalist Corinne Oestreich at the 2019 Grammy Awards. This gown was designed and sewn by Norma Baker-Flying Horse, owner of Red Berry Woman.

Norma Baker-Flying Horse’s couture apparel brings contemporary Indigenous design to the wider fashion world. Among her growing list of accomplishments, she holds the distinction of being the first contemporary Native American fashion designer to have a gown worn on the Oscar stage and at the Grammy Awards. Her work has even been featured at Paris Fashion Week, attracting global attention to her exquisite Indigenous designs.

Red Berry Woman, Baker-Flying Horse’s Dakota Sioux name as well as that of her business brand, creates one-of-a-kind formal wear in New Town. Using a variety of textiles, she sews and embellishes clothing for both female and male clients. Baker-Flying Horse’s designs merge her cultural heritage with a modern sense of style. An enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, Baker-Flying Horse is also a member of the Dakota and Assiniboine tribes. She pays homage to family traditions through her nationally recognized appliqué work and beading, skills learned from her grandmother and mother. A few months ago, this rising star was honored with the International Indigenous Designer of the Year award by International Indigenous Fashion Week in Regina, Canada.

Casey Paul

A long, red dress with sleeves that is being displayed on a mannequin

New York designer Casey Paul, who grew up in Grand Forks and Bismarck, created former North Dakota first lady Mikey Hoeven’s inaugural ballgown worn in 2001. The ensemble includes three pieces in shantung silk and organza.

An accomplished New York City fashion illustrator and dressmaker, North Dakota native Casey Paul has created evening wear for celebrities and Broadway stars—Liza Minnelli, Mary-Louise Parker, and Madonna among them. Paul grew up in the sewing rooms of her mother and grandmother, where she discovered her love of fabrics, fine beadwork, and couture. As a young girl, she pressed the costumes of entertainers like Johnny Cash at Norsk Høstfest in Minot. (Her family played a role in the annual Scandinavian festival’s founding and continues to be involved in its management today.) She studied apparel and textile design at North Dakota State University and couture dressmaking at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

“I always feel extremely grateful that I grew up there,” the designer says about her state roots. “We, from North Dakota, have a strong compass, good values, and a good work ethic.”

Most recently, Paul and her friend the model/actor Stephanie Seymour co-founded Raven & Sparrow, a company creating vintage-inspired sleepwear at their New York City studio. Barneys New York launched their original 2017 line, which was widely featured in fashion magazines.

Lauren Good Day

A black dress with red trim and a red tie around the wais. On the black fabric is the backside of cowrie shells repeated throughout.

This cowrie wrap dress, featuring a modern interpretation of a traditional cowrie shell, is from Lauren Good Day’s 2019 clothing collection. Cowrie shells were long used as a form of currency among various Native American tribes.

Lauren Good Day’s skills as an artist and an imaginative fashion designer have landed her works in Vogue and in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Good Day, “Good Day Woman,” is a multiple award-winning Arikara, Hidatsa, Blackfeet, and Plains Cree influencer in the international worlds of art and clothing.

Honoring cultural lifeways is key to Good Day’s design inspiration. This Bismarck designer’s clothing lines are inspired by traditional culture and attire and include the beadwork, quillwork, and ledger art illustration skills learned from her mother and grandmother. An enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and a registered Treaty Indian with the Sweet Grass Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, Good Day is passionate about creating authentic, culturally appropriate patterns for her fabrics. She first develops digital graphic designs for a new clothing idea, adding modern twists to traditional inspirations. Those designs are then printed onto fabrics and produced as everyday wear clothing lines.

Good Day includes her signature on each piece, signifying that her fashion designs are works of art. When I talked with Good Day recently, I was curious to know how she felt about non-Native people wearing her clothing collections. She assured me that her designs are meant for all, and she is honored when non-Native people choose to wear her culturally inspired designs.

In addition to her fashion career, Good Day is an accomplished artist, who has garnered top awards at prestigious Native American juried art shows for her tribal arts, beadwork, drawings, and textiles. Her art is featured in museums and private collections across the country.

3 “A-ha” Histories Hidden in North Dakota Museum Work: Quirky discoveries about Peggy Lee, Gannon Mystery Murals, and a Tunnel to Nowhere

An impossible ache runs deep when you hold an old document, a childhood toy, or a photograph and connect with its history. It might involve the thrill of finding an unmarked musty dusty box, coming across a long-forgotten love letter, or finding a black-and-white photograph of your hometown. Those moments cause you to pause and sigh with a satisfied “A-ha” as the lines blur between past and present. I’ve been fortunate to experience several of those twinklings in 2020 while working on an upcoming exhibit and new visitor tours. Here are three of my favorites.

1. Mystery Murals in a Hidden Box

Nothing gets a curator’s heart racing with glee like finding a mysterious box on a storage shelf. The large box was unmarked when a few Audience Engagement & Museum collections staff discovered it. What mysteries would lie within the box? Inside they found 30-some rolled strips of painted canvas with torn edges. As these 10-foot strips were unrolled, my collections team realized these pieces came from State Historical Society murals created as backdrops for 1930s natural history exhibits. Clell Gannon (1900-1978), a regionally known artist and historian, painted the canvases.

A man stands outdoors wearing a hat, bandana around his neck, button up shirt, and pants with belt.

Clell Gannon lived an adventuresome life as a skilled artist, poet, historian, and creator of a charming stone home in Bismarck. You can view a few of his murals at the Burleigh County Courthouse. SHSND 00200-4x5-0402c

Part of this story remains a history mystery, but we think that Gannon’s North Dakota badlands landscape scenes hung in the Liberty Memorial Building on the Capitol Grounds (now the home of the State Library) until the North Dakota Heritage Center opened on the grounds in 1981. In 1980, the State Historical Society staff moved all museum collections from their space in the Liberty Memorial Building into the North Dakota Heritage Center. The unexplained history mystery evolves around “why” and “who” tore the 13’ x 10’ murals into long narrow strips and placed them in an unidentified box on a shelf.

6 deer and 2 elk stand posed in an exhibit display with outdoor scenery

Deer and antelope shared the exhibit platform in front of artist Clell Gannon’s painted mural at the former State Museum location in the Liberty Memorial Building. SHSND 00200-4x5-C-00402

We’re thrilled about discovering these fragile murals and are in the process of digitally bringing Gannon’s artwork back to life. In June, while the State Museum was closed due to COVID-19, we opened the box while we had daily access to sparkling clean and empty museum corridors. Our curators carefully unrolled each 90-year-old strip on long tables and gently brushed off areas of flaking paint. All the strips have deteriorated, but oh my, they are still beautiful. Gannon’s bison—blurred from peeling paint—represent a former generation of these majestic herds that continue to thrive in the badlands today.

museum staff unrolling large mural piece

David Newell, Jenny Yearous, and Lori Nohner of the Audience Engagement & Museum team unroll and prepare a section of a Clell Gannon mural for photographs.

museum staff carefully brushing loose particles from mural pieces

Loose paint flecks are carefully removed from the panels by Jenny and Lori, one small brushstroke at a time.

photographer taking photos

New Media Specialist DeAnne Billings begins photographing two adjacent strips of a mural. Similar to a quilter, she’ll digitally stitch the pieces together to create two murals.

Over the next several months, DeAnne will be digitally “stitching” the sections of these two murals back together, like a careful repair of a beloved old quilt. Watch for our 2021 digital reveal of these artistic treasures.

detail close up of painting

Here’s a sneak peek at a few of Clell Gannon’s badlands bison on small section of a mural, painted about 90 years ago.

2. Peggy Lee’s Hidden Talent Trove
Like one of Grandma’s quilts tucked into a dusty attic trunk, famous Wimbledon native Peggy Lee’s fashion designing talents were hidden away. Familiar with Disney’s classic “Lady and the Tramp” film? Then you already know Peggy Lee’s trademark sultry purr. She’s the voice of both Siamese cats, Peg, and Darling. The talented Lee also composed and sang three of the movie’s memorable songs (“He’s a tramp, but I love him...”). Or you might know her from her many #1 Billboard hits such as “Fever.” What you might not be aware of is this North Dakota native’s lesser known artistic talent.

sepia photo of Peggy Lee with Disney's Tramp on her shoulder

The “Lady and the Tramp” film (one of my all-time favorites!) showcases the multifaceted brilliance of Peggy Lee. She helped compose the score, sang songs, and was the voiceover of four characters including Peg. Did you know “Peg” was named in tribute to her? Credit: © Walt Disney Productions

Peggy Lee was considered a celebrity fashionista of her day, often appearing on stage in gorgeous form-fitting gowns. Over the years, I’ve wondered where she purchased her stunning wardrobe. Where does a North Dakota girl shop after she becomes internationally famous? Which designer’s label was her go-to?

While recently researching and writing about Peggy Lee for an upcoming fashion exhibit, I had an opportunity to speak with Lee’s granddaughter Holly Foster Wells. Of course, I had to ask about the gowns. Wells shared, “After she became famous, my grandmother used to sketch all of her gowns. She designed her gowns and had a seamstress who made clothes for her come to her house every day. She was very into fashion.”

From bathrobes to ball gowns, this Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award winner designed most of her own stylish garments. I love learning another dimension to Peggy’s amazing talents—Grammy award-winning singer, composer, and actor by day, and talented clothing designer at night.

Peggy Lee's formal dress

“Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm,” Frank Sinatra once said about Peggy Lee. You can view one of Peggy Lee’s early performance dresses in our Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit opening at the State Museum in Bismarck in January 2021.

3. Rumors of a Hidden Tunnel to Nowhere
About 20 steps from my office at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum is a non-descript, ivory metal door--always locked. Behind this door is a short tunnel, winding around a couple of turns and abruptly ending with a stark cement wall after 79 feet. So what’s the story behind this quirky hidden tunnel?

white door

What’s behind this locked door at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum?

As a high school student when the ND Heritage Center opened in 1981, I remember hearing rumors about a newly constructed tunnel system running underneath the State Capitol. As the rumor went, it was allegedly a secret emergency escape route for the governor. While “The Case of The Secret Escape Tunnel” might have caused Nancy Drew and her gal pals Bess and George to come running, alas, the rumor isn’t true. The real story, however, is a noteworthy piece of North Dakota government’s architectural planning history.

Here’s the scoop: This tiny tunnel was part of the original ND Heritage Center construction project. The architectural plan included an underground passageway connecting this building with the Department of Transportation (DOT) building and the State Capitol, all located within eyesight of each other. If completed, the service tunnels would have been used by state employees for easy multi-building access. An underground walkway between the Capitol and DOT was constructed and is currently used by staff, but at the ND Heritage Center, only our small concrete segment of the tunnel was started. Lack of funding stopped the project. Your challenge: Try to find the door to the “hidden tunnel” during your next trip to the ND Heritage Center & State Museum! It’s hidden in plain view.

detail of tunnel wall

No physical distancing is needed in the North Dakota Heritage Center’s tunnel to nowhere. This cement wall is the end of the journey.

COVID-19 concerns have caused our team to shift several professional priorities in 2020, providing an unusual invitation for us to look deeper into some hidden places. While living the sobering realities and challenges of a pandemic in our personal and professional lives, our Audience Engagement & Museum team continues to create positive, engaging visitor experiences for the citizens of North Dakota, retaining a sense of wonder as history continues to reveal itself in our work.

Intrigue Behind a Sitting Bull Painting: The Little-Known Story of Artist Caroline Weldon

Sometimes the curious, behind-the-scenes stories of museum artifacts are as intriguing as the actual pieces. In the little-known story of a painting of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull hanging in the State Museum, the art, the subject, and the artist all share remarkable roles.

Painting of sitting bull with tear in it

Sitting Bull portrait by Caroline Weldon 1890 (SHSND 12319)

I’ve walked past this 1890 oil painting of Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Iyotanke, hundreds of times during my museum career. I’ve squinted behind the glass case at the amateur painting and the scrawled signature of “C. S. Weldon” with no recognition. It wasn’t until artist Caroline Weldon (December 4, 1844–March 15, 1921) became the celebrated protagonist of the 2018 motion picture Woman Walks Ahead that I—and many of our museum visitors—learned the fascinating story of this unusual woman’s courage and determination.

Woman Walks Ahead is loosely based on Weldon’s life from 1889 to 1891, when she traveled twice from her East Coast home to Standing Rock Indian Reservation as an activist to help Sitting Bull and additional tribes resist US government proposals to break treaties. Her lifelong fascination with Native American culture had begun in her teen years, and her passion for Indigenous justice led her to later join the National Indian Defense Association. As a single woman in her forties, she traveled to meet Sitting Bull at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which crossed the borders of North Dakota and South Dakota.

1889 Treaty Map

Breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation, North Dakota Studies (

When she arrived, Weldon served in unofficial capacities as Sitting Bull’s translator and lobbyist, and even lived in his household for a time. An amateur artist, she also painted up to four portraits of Sitting Bull. Her life choices were rare both in terms of 19th-century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era, and the tribe gave her the name “Woman Walking Ahead.”

Catherine Weldon and another lady outside with a house and trees in the background

Seated: Caroline Weldon, later in life (SHSND 21405 00002)

Not everyone appreciated Weldon’s efforts. Her unconventional Indigenous rights campaign as a single, white, outspoken woman of the late 1800s created a national stir. Criticized by many, Weldon was unjustly vilified in headlines nationwide.

Weldon left the reservation just weeks before Sitting Bull’s death and became a footnote in history. Her painting was hanging in Sitting Bull’s cabin on Dec. 15, 1890. On that morning a gunfight broke out when Indian agency police came to arrest him, and Sitting Bull and others were killed. Shortly afterward, a police officer whose brother had just been killed smashed the painting with his rifle, tearing the canvas. US Cavalry officer Matthew F. Steele stopped further destruction, took the painting, and later purchased it from Sitting Bull’s widows for two dollars. 1

Closeup of tear in Sitting Bull painting

The canvas was damaged when smashed by a rifle.

Steele’s purchase apparently went unnoticed. In a few scattered mentions about Weldon’s painting over the following decades, historians muse about this painting and her others as being missing. A 1964 article in The West refers to Weldon’s painting as “a picture, now lost, bearing the artist’s sketched initials in the bottom left corner.” 2

I can only guess that State Historical Society staff must have been unaware of the handful of historians still speculating about the painting’s whereabouts, because Weldon’s canvas, with a crudely repaired tear and a replaced frame, had been gifted to the State Historical Society by the Matthew F. Steele estate in November 1953. In a North Dakota History article of 1984, a staff member wrote about the Steele donation: “The location of the only one of Weldon’s Sitting Bull portraits is now known.” 3

Our Caroline Weldon painting can be viewed on exhibit at the State Museum, and a second Weldon painting of Sitting Bull is housed at The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.

Portrait of Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull by Caroline Weldon, 1890, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas

Woman Walks Ahead mentions our State Museum as the location of a Weldon painting, which created a flurry of national interest in her work. We’ve enjoyed welcoming visitors from across the country who have come to view it since the film’s release.

Man and two young girls standing in front of Sitting Bull painting

After watching Woman Walks Ahead with their dad, these two Florida girls requested a family vacation to North Dakota to view Caroline Weldon’s Sitting Bull painting. The family made the trip a few months ago.

It’s fitting that this misunderstood woman, lost in history, is finally having her day in the sun. Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as a courageous activist who sought to build cross-cultural friendships and implement positive national changes while knowing her actions would rankle some and infuriate others. I’m enjoying seeing the increased visitor traffic to respectfully view Weldon’s special painting and learn more about a controversial time in our nation’s history. And I’ve gained a deeper appreciation, not only of a piece of art, but of the remarkable artist behind the story.

* Based on continuing public inquiries since this article first appeared, I’m adding information about why I included Weldon’s first name as Caroline and not “Catherine.” The “Woman Walks Ahead” film and plenty of other works refer to her as Catherine. Weldon’s first name, however, is Caroline. History misidentified her as “Catherine” for decades. How did that happen? As a starting point, little-known Caroline signed her Sitting Bull paintings as “C. Weldon,” so her first name is not identified. In addition, years after her death, prolific author Stanley Vestal misidentified Caroline as “Catherine” in his 1932 biography of Sitting Bull. Vestal’s book has widely served as a primary resource for historians, writers, and others. Only a few years ago Caroline’s true identity was discovered.

1 “Catherine Weldon, Sitting Bull,” North Dakota History 72, nos. 3 & 4 (2005): 12.
2 “Was Mrs. Weldon Sitting Bull’s White Squaw?,” The West, October 1964, 67.
3 Robert C. Hollow, “Portrait of Sitting Bull by Caroline Weldon,” North Dakota History 51, no. 2 (Spring 1984): back cover.