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.

Celebrating Archives Month: Memorable Finds in Archives

Working with archives collections, that is, with books, papers, photos, and other two-dimensional records, is a gift unto itself. These are the actual documents interacted with by people of the past and are a part of our history! We learn cool facts as we process and use these collections. We also often see items of interest. Whether that means uncovering a surprising historical event or discovering something unexpected, our memorable finds fuel conversations and entertain us. However, these finds also provide us with a more personal insight into the history we are working with and the people who used these records.

Below you’ll find some unforgettable items our staff has come upon over the years while working in archives and libraries.

Keeping Track(s)

The most memorable thing I have found was in the Great Northern Railway Company, Minot Division, Engineering Department Records (MSS 10104). The collection consists of field notebooks, which I rehoused. During this process, I discovered what looked like a piece of railroad track being used as a spacer to keep notebooks upright in a box. I worked with this collection prior to being hired on full-time, so I also consider this item a neat memory of my days as a volunteer.

—Matt Ely, Photo Archivist

Hidden Behind the Frame

The most memorable finds in collections for me have been risqué photos. I have happened upon these several times, hidden behind framed photos or just loose among papers. I wonder about the circumstances that led to these materials being left in a collection donated to a public institution. Whether to keep these items as part of the collection sparks lively debate among our staff, harking back to our ethics lessons in school; that is a topic for another blog post.

—Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist

A Personalized Stamp

Personal stamp of Joseph E. Kenney. SHSND SA 11371-00018

One find that stands out for me is an example of a personal stamp used by Joseph Edwin Kenney, a soldier in the 4th Minnesota Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. The impression, as shown in this image, is part of the Kenney Family Papers (MSS 11371) at the State Archives. The stamp itself is not part of the collection. I have worked with manuscripts of Civil War soldiers for years as part of my academic research, and I have never encountered something of this nature. Possible uses for the stamp include marking his clothing, equipment, and personal items. Joseph gave his life in defense of the Union during the Vicksburg campaign in May 1863.

—Daniel Sauerwein, Reference Specialist

Empty Drug Sampling Containers in a Case File

We received some urine sample collection holders from a state agency as part of a human resources termination case. The State Archives was not supposed to receive the containers, and they were returned for proper disposal. One wonders why the containers were kept once the proceedings were over. Thankfully, they were empty!

—Larissa Harrison, State Government Archivist

A North Dakota Connection to a Film Set in Africa

This still frame from Arch Oboler's unfinished travel film "Alice in Africa" depicts a Masaai tribesman in British Kenya. Red editing marks are visible throughout the footage.

The most memorable item I have discovered at the State Archives is an unfinished, unreleased film entitled “Alice in Africa” (MSS 10782, Bill Snyder Films Collection) produced and directed by Arch Oboler. North Dakota filmmaker Bill Snyder worked for Oboler in Africa during the late 1940s, which is how the film made its way from the continent to North Dakota. “Alice in Africa” centers on a white American woman (played by Oboler’s wife, Eleanor Oboler) who travels through Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo. While the film, which depicts activities and ceremonies of the Maasai, Kamba, and Tutsi tribes, does portray East Africa and its peoples from a white, colonial perspective, it is nonetheless a visually stunning work and an important piece of motion picture history. It represents an early example of a Kodachrome color reversal film of East Africa shot by Westerners.

—Anne Loos, Audiovisual Archivist

Literal Fingerprints

It’s hard to pin down just one memorable find. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention a recent surprise. While researching a collection, I discovered folders full of copies of fingerprints! Not a lot of paperwork accompanied them, but it was cool to see some old-school sleuthing kept in our Archives.

—Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services

Funky Bookplates

Some of the most memorable things I have found come from my time processing new book acquisitions at a previous job in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. My favorite part was checking to see if the book had a bookplate. A bookplate is a decorative label inside the front cover of a book showing who owns it. While printing your name would suffice, why wouldn’t you choose to design a bookplate that reflects your unique personal style and interests? Above is one of my favorites. I hope to find more weird and wonderful bookplates here at the State Archives.

—Ashley Thronson, Reference Specialist

Clippings and Trim

This is the reason why archivists need up-to-date tetanus shots! I keep this box of paperclips (usually of the sharp or questionable variety) beside my desk and, as you can see, use it regularly to collect the many varied things used as fasteners I find while going through collections.

—Megan Steele, Local Government Records Archivist

From Fiction to Fact: Family History Shapes Our Lives and Culture

Frequently, I tell my friends, coworkers, and family that I have one of the most important jobs in the world. As head of reference services at the State Archives, I help connect people to the past, historically and also genealogically.

You may know a genealogist. They may have even been a regular person at one point in their life. Then they tasted that sweet drink of knowing their own roots, finding family secrets, and unlocking their own (and everyone else’s) direct past through the use of obituaries, photographs, census records, biographies, and more. They are the person who drags their family to archives, libraries, and cemeteries whenever they go anywhere on vacation. After tasting that drink, they can’t go back, so now they are the keeper of secrets for their family (and any other family they get interested in).

My family’s genealogist is my mother, and because of her I know all sorts of things about my family and every person who happens to accidentally fall into one of our large ancestral families, which, by the way, is all-consuming in North Dakota. It’s a big state, so I’m probably only connected to half of it. The Germans from Russia half, of course.

A woman in a red dress and black leggings stands in front of wall lined with 5 rows of books and is holding a light blue book with dark blue writing in front of her.

Despite my best efforts, I have inherited my mother’s insidious genealogy genes. I use this interest in family history to help others do their own family history research.

When I was younger, I never thought that I would end up helping others fall down the rabbit hole of family history research—but I did, and I love it. Because, again, this is one of the most important jobs in the world. And if you don’t believe me, look at the evidence! Family is all around us—from Luke Skywalker learning that his father is Darth Vader in “Star Wars” to people begetting people in the Bible to King Henry VIII and all the royals. Our families define us, our culture, and our history.

I recently revisited one of my favorite fictional accounts of the importance of family history: “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by Madeleine L’Engle. After taking a brief, limited survey of some of the people I know, I feel confident in stating that you likely haven’t heard of this book, part of L’Engle’s Time Quintet series, but I am sure you have heard of the first in the series, “A Wrinkle in Time.” I read “A Wrinkle in Time” in elementary school, and I absolutely loved it. Much later in life when I learned that there were sequels, I was excited to read them as well. All are in the fantasy/science fiction genre.

In “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” Meg Murry, who was the slightly unconfident, ugly duckling lead character in “A Wrinkle in Time,” has matured and married her childhood sweetheart Calvin O’Keefe, who also starred in the first book and who does not get enough “airtime” in this book.

Readers of the first book will already know that Calvin’s family life as a child was not the best. He was kind and smart, but the rest of his siblings were hard and constantly in trouble. His father was mean and his mother detached. Calvin was an outlier. Meg’s scientifically minded family is quirky, fun, and different; her mother is known for cooking meals in her lab over her Bunsen burner, her father studies the science of time, and she and her siblings are all smart in their own way and all very loved.

While Calvin is presenting at a conference in Britain, a very pregnant Meg is celebrating Thanksgiving with her family. Calvin’s mother, Mrs. O’Keefe, has joined the family and is there when the president of the United States calls (it makes sense in the book) and tells Meg’s father that a dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo, is threatening nuclear war.

At this news, surprisingly, Mrs. O’Keefe lays a charge on Charles Wallace, Meg’s youngest brother who is also the most intuitive, to save the world.

After this, Charles Wallace ends up meeting a unicorn (again, it makes sense) who allows him to travel through time, despite mainly staying in one location, in one “where.” In this way, Charles Wallace is able to experience the struggles, connections, and history of multiple generations of one family as he attempts to prevent war by changing the timeline.

I don’t want to ruin the ending, since you will all want to go and read this book immediately, but ancestry is very important to this story. So is the journey to learning this interconnected family history, despite being rife with hardships.

Charles Wallace does not get to look up names in a computer to easily discover who is connected to whom, or what is about to happen to these families. However, he does learn through first-hand experiences. He also eventually gets access to letters from the family (discovered in somebody’s attic, of course) as well as a book that tells important details about the history of the family.

A tree with nametags on it that says Family Tree underneath it with a couple scrolls and ink and quill

Oh, the places a little genealogical research can take you.

Though his fantastic journey is probably a genealogist’s dream come true (who wouldn’t want to travel through time with a unicorn?), it is also (much like genealogical research) fraught with unknowing, anguish, and frustrations. Our patrons can’t just come into the State Archives and find everything they want by entering a family name into some amazing, magical database. Researchers must pick through whatever they can find to learn the details of a family’s history, which sometimes are very limited. A marriage license here, a death notice there, and a lot of luck may lead them to their quarry.

In the end, Charles Wallace does save the world (sorry to ruin that portion of the ending for you) by finding the “correct” timeline for one family to trace down. We will ignore the nature versus nurture discussions that could occur here and jump right into the crux of the situation—Charles Wallace has discovered how connected we all are through his journey through time.

Our tagline at the State Historical Society of North Dakota is “History for everyone.” I think we can also add, “Everyone’s history matters.” Genealogy may not be of interest to everyone—and I’ll say it—not knowing your ancestry does not mean that you are necessarily lost in this world. But everyone has a story, and that story interacts with everyone else’s story, and we are all more connected than we even realize. Every person, every place, every “where,” and every “when” connects in our shared history.

Genealogy. It matters!

“Archives in Action” Video Series Spotlights Our Passion for Preserving ND History

I know I’m biased but working in the State Archives is super cool.

Every day I get to learn about the happenings of the past and the stories of people in this state—not just the famous ones like Peggy Lee and Lawrence Welk but people like you and me who lived, worked, and played here through good and bad times. I get to see how our history connects to the rest of the country and world. On a daily basis, I am privileged to view the past through newspapers, documents from state agencies, manuscript collections from private donors, books, yearbooks, and oral histories.

Now we get to share a little bit of what life is like in the Archives with you.

In October 2020, during American Archives Month, we launched an online program of videos to take you into our world. If you pay attention on our social media platforms, you’ve probably already seen these. The “Archives in Action” video series gives you a taste of the ins and outs of working in the Archives, highlights our collections, and shows some of our processes in around 5 minutes or less.

Screenshot of YouTube with a man standing in between rows of shelves full of boxes

State Archivist Shane Molander shared a video on preserving newspapers in the State Archives.

You can watch these videos when they premiere on our agency Facebook page, but they are also easily viewable on our YouTube playlist. You’ll be able to “visit” our stacks area, learn about digitizing newspapers and donating to the Archives, see how state agency records are transferred to us, and more. We add new content all the time—so check it out. We love to share our passion for what we do and the history of this state!

Screenshot of YouTube Playlist called North Dakota State Archives

Our YouTube playlist is your go-to source for “Archives in Action” videos.

In the Archives: Remembering 40 Years at the North Dakota Heritage Center

This year, the State Historical Society of North Dakota is celebrating an anniversary—40 years since the North Dakota Heritage Center first opened its doors to the public.

This anniversary affects all of us who work here, but today I want to focus on the archival side of this story. Of course, as faithful readers know, the State Archives collections, which consist of two-dimensional objects such as photographs, papers, and books, document the history of the state, including our own history.

Much of this history is described in the first chapter of the “North Dakota Blue Book 2015-2017.” The State Historical Society got its start in the guise of a Ladies Historical Society, formed in 1889, which became our current organization soon thereafter. Initially, the State Historical Society resided in a single room in the basement of the North Dakota Capitol building. In 1919, the state Legislature authorized the construction of the Liberty Memorial Building honoring the veterans of World War I. When the memorial building was ready for occupants in 1924, the State Historical Society moved over, taking up multiple rooms. (Today the North Dakota State Library is located in the Liberty Memorial Building.)

More space was eventually needed, however, and in the 1970s, initial funding was provided for the State Historical Society’s new building, which broke ground in 1976.

Jim Davis, former head of reference services in the State Archives, often shared stories of this history with me. He was first hired to help move Archives collections into the new building, as well as to sort items. He stuck around, and by July 1981 became a full-time employee. So, I invited Jim to share some of his memories in a brief interview, which I have transcribed, edited, and condensed below. He recalls:

I was hired on October 14 [of 1980] to move books and sort. There were stacks and stacks of boxes up in the Archives. … We were still working on all that when we opened up. We were still putting out the microfilm, which was all behind the desk. There was no self-serve for anything but county history books. As we were opening, they were still putting the finishing touches on the Archives. I had to move my typewriter as they finished putting the glass up [around the desk]. … It was February 2 of 1981 that we opened the Archives. I opened the doors [of the Orin G. Libby Memorial Reading Room] to the public—May was the actual grand opening. … It took some getting used to. The building was so much bigger. We had a lot of space to deal with. The meeting rooms, the auditorium. We were really scrambling to get the auditorium ready before the big opening.

The grand opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center in 1981 drew large crowds to see the new building and exhibits.

Bundles of wheat are tiled across an orange background. On the right side is a yellow box with brown border that has text in brown that reads North Dakota Heritage Center

A light yellow, three panel brochure. The left side lists a program schedule and grand opening events. The middle has an image of the outside of a building with people walking up to it and also has text underneath it that lists the North Dakota Heritage Commission and North Dakota Heritage Foundation members. The right panel has a white and blue sticker that reads Hello my name is Terry Rockstad. Under the sticker is a bunch of text about the North Dakota Heritage Center.

Front cover, above, and interior view, below, of the program from the grand opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center in 1981. It details a range of celebratory events held to mark the occasion. SHSND SA 32435

A pink Plains Talk newsletter, Volume 12, No. 3, Summer 1981. The article is about the Heritage Center Grand Opening being highly successful.

In the summer 1981 issue of Plains Talk, our agency newsletter, we wrote of the successful opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center. SHSND SA 1605600

Now, 40 years later, we have worked through two additional expansions. In 2007, the Archives storage areas and offices were expanded, and in 2014, 97,000 square feet were added to the Heritage Center building, which became known as the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. And we are still going strong! These photos, stored and accessible in the State Archives, show how the Historical Society’s exhibits have changed over time.

An exhibit with display cases lining the walls and glass tables in the middle. Many artifacts are displayed. Above the cases is a canoe and bull boat and other artifacts.

Here is the Historical Society’s first exhibit space in the basement of the North Dakota Capitol building. SHSND SA A5113-00001

An exhibit display with ox pulling a wooden cart

This Red River cart and ox was on exhibit in the 1950s when the Historical Society was housed in the Liberty Memorial Building. SHSND SA 00239-00101

Two men look at an exhibit about forts with a section of a log cabin and a bed in it. Above them are signs that read Forts and Fighting Boredom, Not Indians.

Here, two men take in an exhibit at the new North Dakota Heritage Center in 1980s.
SHSND SA 2012-P-061-00008

A trex skeleton towers above an exhibit

This photo was taken in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time, one of the new galleries created in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum as part of the 2014 expansion. SHSND SA 32141

For more information on the agency’s history and state record series holdings, check out the Archives website. And don’t forget to glance through our photo collections on Digital Horizons and SHSND Photobook for Historical Society (and other) images!

Online databases and indexes available for Archival research

For the past ten or more years, we have had increasing questions on when, how much, and what of our collections would be put online. While not all our collections are available to be viewed on our website, there are increasing numbers of databases and indexes that allow researchers access to more information from a distance. In this new age of living around COVID-19, online access to collections, databases, and resources is especially useful.

Below is a round-up of some useful sites that can assist your research from a distance. See what you can discover!

Photographs, maps, and other printed materials

(New!) Photobook. We do have some of our photos available to be viewed in various spots on our website and on social media, but up till now, only a small selection have been available to look at easily unless you were in the building. I wrote this and this blog post to aid with searching for and ordering photos in the past. However, this new site allows researchers to search and view a large selection of our images! Although not all our photos are scanned, any that ARE scanned will show here. This webpage is free to use and is keyword-searchable based off the information we have in our system. It is worth noting that not all our images are scanned and not all are identified. If you would like to order a higher resolution scan or reproduce and use the image publicly, you may need to provide a fee and get permissions, so please contact us. Search by keyword (Item Detail) or by collection number, if you know it (you can search through inventories here).

photobook website screenshot

Digital Horizons. You can still use this to search out images from our collections and from other institutions in the state—but you may not realize that you can now use it to read some scanned County History books, thanks to the State Library, as well as the North Dakota Blue Book.

Vital Records

(New!) North Dakota Birth Record Index. Birth records are closed for 125 years by North Dakota state law. Birth records older than 125 years can be searched out on this index. You must contact Vital Records to obtain a copy of the record.

(New!) North Dakota Death Index. Use this index to search out deaths that occurred in North Dakota from about 1900 to present (not including the past year). You can search by last name and date. This index was put together with data from the Department of Health’s Vital Records office. You must contact Vital Records to obtain a copy of the record.

Death records website screenshot

(New!) North Dakota Marriage Records Index. This index consists of pre-1925 marriage records indexes from our Archives as well as marriage record information (1925 to present) provided by the Vital Records office. Not all marriage records from all counties before 1925 are fully indexed and included in this index. We hold pre-1925 marriage records in our collections, but to obtain certified copies of marriage records, contact the county in which the marriage occurred.

(New!) North Dakota Divorce Records Index. This index searches for divorces in North Dakota from 1947 to present. Before 1947, divorces may be filed with the county or held in our collections. Check our online holdings available here.


Chronicling America. If you haven’t yet learned about this site, you need to check it out! It is a free-to-use, word-searchable database of an increasing selection of newspapers from our Archives and from other archives and libraries across the country. We use and refer people to this very helpful site all the time. (Read more of my own experiences here!) And while most runs of the papers only go through about 1922 for North Dakota, the Bismarck Tribune is now available into the 1930s.

ND Archives Newspaper website. But wait! That’s not all! For more newspapers in different areas, covering even more spans of time, check out this very useful website. Also free-to-use and word-searchable, this has increasing numbers of papers that cover early days up to present in various communities. If you are interested in learning more about how to get other local papers up on the site, please contact us.

Writing for Dakota Datebook

Dakota Datebook logoIf you are a fan of Prairie Public Radio here in North Dakota, you may already be familiar with the “Dakota Datebook” program (which you can access online—newer archives are here and older archives are here). It airs five times a day, every day, and features snippets of North Dakota history that relate to that date in time. The posts pop up all over—sometimes reprinted in newspapers—and last year, a selection of dates were published in book form!

The State Historical Society of North Dakota has been a longtime partner in this program. A handful of past Archives interns have written specifically for this program during their time with us (such as Jayme Job, Tessa Sandstrom, Annie Erling, Maria Witham, Carol Wilson, and Alyssa Boge). Some of our staff serve as part of the editorial board. Also, a few of us write for the program—and as a result, we have ended up helping with a few different series that have formed.

Avid listeners to the series will likely remember these series. While there have been a few more, unconnected to the State Historical Society (such as Steve Stark’s series on Theodore Roosevelt from this past summer), a good number have been written by staff here:

  • One series, mainly written by Jim Davis, (though I assisted on one or two dates), was written for the 50th National Historic Preservation Act. Staff in our Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division provided some ideas for those datebooks.
  • Jim Davis also took the lead on and wrote a MASSIVE number of entries documenting and commemorating the anniversary of World War I, as well as a “Countdown to Statehood” series for the 125th anniversary of North Dakota’s statehood.
  • And now, I am writing my first series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment—a series on women’s suffrage! And what better time to discuss this series than now, during National Women’s History month?

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on women’s suffrage, but writing for the series means you do a lot of research that takes you off in many different directions, and you learn a LOT of details—and get very familiar with it. In fact, I think you kind of start to LIVE the history. And the history is fascinating! Suffrage bills were present in many legislative sessions. However, not all men or women supported the idea. Prior to obtaining suffrage fully through the 19th Amendment, women did get some limited voting rights in North Dakota. Gov. Lynn Frazier alone would sign several bills related to women’s right to vote, including the ratification in December 1919. And despite all of this, women also still served in elected public offices, many quite early on. Such as Laura Eisenhuth—she was the first woman elected to state-wide office in North Dakota and the first woman to hold a state superintendent’s position in the United States in the 1890s.

The resources are out there, and it’s been a treat to find them and bring them together. I’ve read through old House and Senate journals when women’s suffrage had been on the agenda. I’ve been following threads concerning suffrage through different newspapers. (Thank you, Chronicling America!) I’ve been looking at posters and illustrations depicting the fight for suffrage—both here, and through the National Archives collections. These have been invaluable resources during my first few entries.

I’m also lucky to have a timeline I can follow, which the North Dakota Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission put together, that gives me some direction if I am failing. Though I always have enjoyed writing about obscure details, the whole history helps to ground these stories and is also necessary for the series.

And then, to add icing to the cake, I am reading these entries for the program. Since these stories are about women, Prairie Public wanted to use a woman’s voice for the entries. I have never recorded something for radio before, so I am honored every time that I am able to bring a voice to these words.

This is a really fun, very different, and interesting part of my job, and I look forward to continue working on this project through this partnership.

Collage of artifacts

These items, from our ephemera collection, show items for and against suffrage. Note that the North Dakota Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage consists of all women officers. SHSND SA 11354-Womens_Suffrage

Sarah Walker at a computer and with radio equipment

Sarah Walker at Prairie Public Station in Bismarck, ready to record. The audio is actually recorded long-distance in Fargo, where it is edited and made ready to air.