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.

Onward and Upward: Using Drones to Support Our Agency Mission

It’s been over a year since our last post about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, by State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists. So I thought it would be a good time to provide some historical perspective about the agency’s use of UAVs since we began flying them in 2014 and give an update on our use of UAVs over this past year.

A shipwreck can be seen just below the water while a few people stand along the shoreline

State Historical Society archaeologists recently used a UAV to document the location and state of preservation of the wreck of the steamboat Abner O’Neal. In July 1892, the steamboat struck a submerged rock in the Missouri River and sank while traveling between Washburn and Mandan.

Archaeologists from the State Historical Society use UAV technology in support of our agency’s mission to “identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” So far the vast majority of our UAV flights have been to document and map archaeological sites, state historic sites, or to highlight other historic preservation concerns using the unique aerial perspective provided by a UAV.

An aerial view of a patch of land where the outline of a ditch surrounding the area can be seen

A defensive ditch system and areas of prior archaeological excavation are visible in this aerial image of Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site located 11 miles east of Bismarck. During the early 13th century, the settlement was home to about 200 people.

All staff members piloting unmanned aerial vehicle flights on behalf of the State Historical Society are certified as remote pilots under Part 107 of the Code of Federal Regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I’ve been certified as a remote pilot since December 2017 and completed my two-year recertification in December 2019. I’m currently studying for another renewal and will complete those requirements later this month. A second agency staff member is also expected to receive their Part 107 certification within the next month. With more people flying UAVs than ever before, I suggest people learn more about the Part 107 remote pilot certification if they intend to operate a UAV on behalf of their employer. Conditions under which a Part 107 remote pilot must present a remote pilot certificate are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations.

An aeiral view of a patch of land where the indentation of a ditch surrounding it can be seen as well as a rectangular indent in the middle

More than 100 lodge depressions, a fortification ditch system, and a central plaza are visible in this aerial image of Huff Indian Village State Historic Site, once home to about a thousand people.

I’ve written multiple blogs since 2014 about the use of UAVs by the agency’s Archaeology & Historic Preservation team to map and document various state historic sites. To date, our archaeologists have flown dozens of UAV missions, including at 10 state historic sites, three sites on land managed by other state agencies or political subdivisions, four sites located on private land, three sites on federally managed land, and one site on tribally managed land. In addition, we’ve partnered with multiple state and federal agencies, private landowners, and other researchers to safely use UAV technology in support of our mission.

Many people can be seen working on a piece of land with many orange buckets by them

Agency archaeologists use a UAV to document excavations conducted in July 2021 by the PaleoCultural Research Group at a small earthlodge village located near Mandan, North Dakota.

Initially our focus in using UAV technology was to capture mainly oblique aerial imagery. Since 2019 we’ve expanded that focus to include highly detailed 3D surface mapping of archaeological sites using specialized camera sensors and software in a process called photogrammetry. The resulting maps provide us with detailed measurable documentation of the archaeological features present at archaeological sites.

A 3D model of a piece of land with trees around it down the banks can be seen with blue squares with pins in them on a platform hovering above the land model

Our archaeologists used a UAV and photogrammetric software in July 2019 to process images collected at Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site. At top, the blue rectangles indicate the relative positions of the images collected by the UAV, while the individual images it collected are seen at the bottom of this screenshot.

We’ve also expanded our use of sophisticated sensors on the UAVs we fly. In 2014, we used a GoPro camera with a UAV purchased from a local hobby shop. Other more advanced UAV models soon followed, and they were paired with more sophisticated cameras capable of shooting high-resolution images and video. In late 2020 we began using multispectral sensors capable of recording information in spectrums not visible to the human eye. During the last few months of 2021, we’ve begun to include the use of thermal cameras within our growing UAV toolkit.

Two similar images of a dot in the ground sit next to each other. The left image has been colorized to make the dot red and the areas around it bright green and blue. The second image has the dot as white with greenish gray around it.

A side-by-side comparison of images produced by thermal and visible light cameras documenting ground surface conditions at an archaeological site near Mandan, North Dakota, in October 2021. Thermal images indicate the presence or absence of heat, and the tree visible in the center of these photos taken soon after sunrise has clearly begun to absorb heat from the sun.

According to an old maxim, “Change is the only constant in life.” This is certainly true when it comes to the rapidly evolving world of technology and UAVs. Keep an eye out for future blogs as we continue to document our use of UAVs in support of the agency’s mission.

The Wreck of the Abner O’Neal

“Shipwreck” and “North Dakota” are not words one might normally expect to hear in the same sentence. However, there is a well-documented historical use of the region’s waterways.

The first use of steamboats for trade and passenger transportation in the territory that would become the state of North Dakota occurred during the fur trade era of 1830-1867. At that time, steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri was a common sight, as furs were moved to downriver markets in St. Louis and beyond. The use of steamboats by the military during the Plains Indian Wars (1860-1890) is also well documented, especially during the various punitive campaigns of the period. Later steamboat traffic in the Dakotas centered around providing transportation and facilitating commerce in the region. As the railroads expanded, steamboats increasingly found it more difficult to remain profitable as they were routinely outcompeted for the transport of both passengers and freight.

The story of the steamboat Abner O’Neal begins in these waning days of commercially viable steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri.

White ship along a river with green trees and grass on the shore

Postcard of a colorized photograph of the steamboat Abner O’Neal (1884-1892). SHSND SA B0735-00001

The Abner O'Neal steamboat was built in 1884 in Freedom, Pennsylvania, for the Steubenville, Ohio/Wheeling, West Virginia-area steamboat trade. Her original namesake Capt. Abner O'Neal and his son, the boat owner Capt. George O'Neal, were well-known figures during the 1870s in the Steubenville/Wheeling steamboat industry. The Abner O’Neal operated successfully in that region for several years transporting freight and passengers. She was then sold to the Missouri River Transportation Company in March 1890, and Capt. Sam V. Williamson moved to extend his pilot’s license to operate on the Missouri River in North Dakota and South Dakota.

By November 1890, the Abner O’Neal had been operating in the passenger and freight trade on the Missouri for a few months. According to the Pierre Weekly Free Press, citizens in the town turned out “to see a real live steamboat” and marvel at “the practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri River” when the Abner O’Neal docked there. Soon the reality of the seasonal “navigability of the Missouri River” would become painfully clear, however.

A good many Pierre visitors went up to inspect the Abner O'Neal today and see a real live steamboat. During the present universal low stage of water it is a very practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri river.

A Pierre Weekly Free Press (S.D.) report from Nov. 11, 1890, reflected the interest the steamboat generated among locals.

We know the Abner O’Neal spent much of her time in this region transporting grain (usually wheat) between the cities of Washburn and Bismarck/Mandan. The nearby Painted Woods area of the Missouri River has long been recognized as a difficult spot for navigation. (It still is.) The area is known for treacherous sand bars and frequent tree snags that can rip a boat hull wide open. By late November 1891, the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in early-winter ice in the Painted Woods area with a cargo of grain on board.

Captain Sims, in charge of the Abner O'Neal, came down from Painted Woods Wednesday, where the Abner O'Neal is frozen in the ice with a cargo of wheat on board. Manager J. M. Turner said it would be impossible to get the boat to this point this fall unless the ice now in the river thaws out.

The November 20, 1891, edition of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune noted that the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in the ice in a treacherous part of the Missouri River.

The Abner O’Neal remained stuck there in the ice for another four months, until she was finally freed in early April 1892. We have further documentation that the crew of the steamboat labored to keep the hull free from the ice by chopping the ice in direct contact with the hull. Steamboats operating in the Bismarck/Mandan area were routinely hauled out of the river during the winter months to avoid this very situation. We could speculate what lasting effect wintering in the Painted Woods area may have had on the integrity of the Abner O’Neal’s hull, but by late April 1892, the boat was once again making trips transporting grain from Washburn to the Bismarck/Mandan roller mills for processing.

On Saturday, the 30th ul. the ice in the river at this place, and above began to move out and by Wednesday, the Abner O'Neal, which had wintered near Painted Woods, made her way toward Washburn, arriving in the evening, much to the joy of the youth of our city.

On April 9, 1892, The Washburn Leader (N.D.) recounted the steamboat’s joyful reception.

On the afternoon of July 17, 1892, the Abner O’Neal was transporting 9,000 bushels of wheat from Washburn to the Mandan roller mill when it struck a submerged snag or rock and began to sink. The crew attempted to patch the hole, but the damage was too extensive and the steamboat quickly went down in 8-to-10 feet of water. The boat and cargo were uninsured and considered a total loss.

As the steamer was plowing her way through the channel, a shock was felt by those on board, which was at first thought to result from the striking of the wheel on some unimportant snag. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that the snag had made an immense hole in the bottom of the boat, which was rapidly filling with water. Tarpaulins were placed over the opening, and some of her cargo was thrown overboard, in an endeavor to lighten her, but these efforts were of no avail, and she went down, in from eight to ten feet of water. All of the crew escaped safely, but the boat and cargo will be a total loss. Although submerged in such a small depth of water, it is not thought possible to raise her. The machinery will probably be saved.

The July 22, 1892, Bismarck Weekly Tribune carried this description of the sinking of the Abner O'Neal.

For nearly 130 years, the steamboat survived seasonal exposures as a result of fall drawdowns at Lake Sakakawea and the subsequent winter freezes. In late September 2020, State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists received notification from the boating public that the Abner O’Neal wreck location was visible due to current low water conditions. Consent to access the wreck site was granted by an adjacent landowner, and images and video of the wreck location were obtained via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) carrying visible light cameras and a 10-band multispectral sensor on Oct. 1-2, 2020. Researchers generated high-resolution orthophoto mosaics from the images collected by the visible light camera and multispectral sensor. A detailed analysis of the orthophoto mosaics, video, and multispectral images collected by agency archaeologists is ongoing.

a stip of sand can be seen underwater with the remains of a shipwreck

A high-resolution orthophoto mosaic of the Abner O’Neal wreck produced from images captured by the agency’s drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

Black and white view of a shipwreck

Near-infrared image of the Abner O’Neal wreck captured by the agency drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

The wreck of the Abner O’Neal was salvaged after the sinking, with the superstructure and paddle wheel removed. Much of the hull of the wreck has remained intact, despite being submerged in the Missouri River for 128 years. The wreck has been periodically subjected to non-systematic collecting by the public since the sinking. The State Historical Society has received a few artifacts donated by private collectors since 1958, but no artifacts were collected by our archaeologists during our October 2020 site investigations.

Rusty metal lantern

A lantern from the Abner O’Neal was donated to the State Historical Society by a private collector. SHSND 2014.A.3.1.

The Abner O’Neal is within the boundaries of state-sovereign lands managed by North Dakota. Several federal and state regulations protect the site and prohibit the collection of artifacts from the location. Boaters and other interested parties are encouraged to avoid the wreck as a navigational obstacle and reminded to take only pictures.

Orange, yellow, and blue sunset reflecting on the water. Sillouhets of trees can be seen in the background. Some dark pieces of shipwreck are poking up out of the water.

The sun sets on the wreck of the Abner O’Neal, September 2020. Image courtesy of Jesse Biesterfeld.

*This blog was co-authored with Andrew Clark.

Drone Mapping an Archaeological Site

Archaeologists have been seeking higher vantage points to photograph and map archaeological sites for decades. Cameras mounted under balloons or kites, cameras in aircraft or powered parachutes, or photos taken from ladders, mechanical lifts, or even a slight hill — archaeologists have used them all at one time or another to gain an aerial perspective and document site excavations.

black white image of farmers in field

Some early methods of photography used by archaeologists were not for the faint of heart. A fully extended ladder stabilized by wires was used to photograph excavations at the Oldham site located in Charles Mix County, South Dakota. (River Basin Survey photograph 39CH7-405).

two men working in a crane bucket

Stanley Ahler of the PaleoCultural Research Group and Lloyd Jensen of the State Historical Society of North Dakota use an articulating boom lift to photograph excavations at Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site in August 2005. (Note: Both men were wearing a protective safety harness.)

A relatively new method of mapping features at archaeological sites is drone mapping. Since 2017, I’ve written about flying the State Historical Society’s quadcopter (or “drone”) to photograph state historic sites multiple times. Most recently, I’ve written about using our drone to photograph Cannonball Stage Stop and Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Sites.

Fort Mandan Overlook offers a great example of using a drone to generate a highly detailed surface map of features (such as house depressions, fortifications ditches, or topography) present on an archaeological site. The aerial images are processed using specialized software. State Historical Society archaeologists drone mapped the Fort Mandan Overlook site on July 25, 2019.

Fort Mandan field overlooking forest

Aerial image of Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site in McLean County, North Dakota, taken by quadcopter on July 25, 2019. The fortification ditch visible in this image was a defensive structure constructed sometime in the late-18th to mid-19th century. The site was initially occupied as early as the 1300s. The site overlooks the former location of Lewis and Clark’s Fort Mandan, which was washed away by the Missouri River soon after the expedition passed through the area.

Drone map with 5 red GPS points

To prepare for a drone mapping mission, State Historical Society archaeologists established a series of “ground control points” at the site using a centimeter-level accuracy Global Positioning System (GPS) unit and ground targets. The targets help to accurately align the images captured by the drone and supplement the GPS coordinates tagged to each of the images.

white and black square checkered flag

Six of these targets were placed on the ground surface at the site, and centimeter-precise GPS coordinates were collected prior to mapping.

Prior to flying the drone at the site, a detailed “mission plan” was created using Pix4D capture, a software specifically designed for drone mapping. The mission plan directed the drone to fly in a grid pattern over the site area at a specific altitude and collect images of the ground surface that would be mosaicked or “stitched” together later. The resulting 356 images are at a very high resolution, and each image has extremely detailed locational information associated with it.

mapping software on tablet screen

An image of the Pix4D Capture software during our “mission” at Fort Mandan Overlook. An aerial image of the area serves as a basemap. The mission grid is visible, and the green dots indicate the position of collected images.

aerial view of a field with trees bordering it with 1 red GPS point

One of the 356 images collected by the drone at Fort Mandan Overlook. This image is in the southeast corner of the site. The original image was also tagged with GPS coordinates.

After the grid mission was flown, the images collected were processed using photogrammetry software called Agisoft Metashape. Photogrammetry is the process of obtaining information about objects or the environment by analyzing and interpreting photographic images. The software corrects the inherent distortion introduced when we photograph three-dimensional objects (like artifacts or the ground surface), and then displays the images on a flat surface (like a computer monitor or a printed page).

In this case, the images used in an analysis of the surface of the Fort Mandan Overlook site were those collected by our drone. Photogrammetric image analysis is an area of research the State Historical Society’s Chief Archaeologist Andy Clark is quite familiar with, and he processed the 356 overlapping images collected using this specialized software to produce measurably accurate three-dimensional models and photographs. I’ve included a couple brief descriptions below.

photogrammetric software screencap

An image from the photogrammetric software used to process images collected at Fort Mandan Overlook. The blue rectangles at top indicate the relative positions of the images collected by the drone. The three-dimensional image below is the result of “stitching” the images into a mosaic using a pixel-matching algorithm. The individual images collected by the drone are seen at the bottom of this screenshot.

digital surface model of Fort Mandan Overlook

A digital surface model (DSM) of Fort Mandan Overlook. DSMs contain elevation data of the terrain and other features present on the surface (like trees and structures). In this image, the red, orange, and yellow colors represent lower elevations at the site, so the bluff edge at the site can clearly be identified.

relief map of Fort Mandan Overlook

Image showing a relief map of Fort Mandan Overlook. A relief map is a 3-D representation of a surface, with the Sun’s position indicated. Relief maps tend to look realistic and can be useful in interpreting a three-dimensional surface. The fortification ditch and drainages present at the site are clearly visible in this image.

orthophotograph showing Fort Mandan Overlook

An orthophotograph showing Fort Mandan Overlook. Orthophotographs are aerial images that have been geometrically corrected to minimize distortion so that scale is uniform and features are measurable. Distances and area can be accurately measured using orthophotographs.

State Historical Society archaeologists have “drone mapped” five archaeological sites in this manner so far. While my focus has been primarily on using the drone to document and map archaeological sites, some of my coworkers have begun using similar techniques to model artifacts like stone tools, pottery, and even historic clothing. Keep an eye out for new 3-D projects described in future blog entries!

Flying High: New UAV Flights at North Dakota State Historic Sites

Among the many things about my job I truly enjoy are the opportunities that arise, for one reason or another, to get out of the office on a beautiful, sunny day! Being able to visit one of the state historic sites that I’ve never been to is an added bonus. Even better if I get to visit TWO sites. And if I also have the opportunity to fly our quadcopter at those sites . . . well then, you’ve just about described a perfect work day for me!

I’ve blogged about flying the Society’s quadcopter (also known as a “drone,” “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or “UAV”) several times before [check out some of my earlier entries about flying a drone at North Dakota’s state historic sites, including Double Ditch Indian Village, Menoken Indian Village, Fort Clark, and Fort Rice, among others.]

To date, I’ve piloted a UAV at 13 prehistoric or historic archaeological sites in North Dakota, including 9 state historic sites managed by the State Historical Society. I hope to fly a great deal more in 2019 and beyond. The technology, opportunities for application, and regulatory environment have all evolved since our earliest flights in 2014. But the reasons for these flights all share the same basic purpose: to document preservation concerns about cultural resources, and to enable interpretation and management of North Dakota’s state historic sites.

Aerial view of Cannonball Stage Stateion State Historic Site

Aerial image of Cannonball Stage Station State Historic Site, Grant County, North Dakota, taken by State Historical Society quadcopter on October 17, 2018. View is to the east. The altitude of the quadcopter was 400 feet and wind speed was 5-7 miles per hour when this image was taken. Surface depressions marking the location of two dugout structures and a barn are visible near the fenced area.

I was fortunate to fly the quadcopter at two sites on a beautiful fall day in October 2018. I’d like to share some images and video from these recent flights over the Cannonball Stage Station and Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Sites. Cannonball Stage Station and Fort Mandan Overlook are among the lesser visited of the 57 historic sites in our state. Both are in beautiful, remote locations and definitely off the beaten path.

Located near Raleigh, in Grant County, North Dakota, the Cannonball Stage Station was the fifth stop after Bismarck on the Bismarck to Deadwood Stage Trail. For a brief period from 1877 to 1880, a booming stagecoach line linked the westernmost stop of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Bismarck to the gold fields of the Black Hills. Travelers would have the opportunity to have a short rest and a quick meal here while horses were swapped, and the stage was quickly back on its way. This unique period in North Dakota is well- interpreted at the site, picnic facilities are available, and it’s a peaceful spot. Earthen dugouts clearly visible at the site represent the locations of the stage office, another building, and a barn. Check out a video from a recent UAV flight at Cannonball Stage Station State Historic Site.

Aerial view of Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site

Aerial image of Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site, McLean County, North Dakota, taken by State Historical Society quadcopter on October 16, 2018. View is to the northwest. The altitude of the quadcopter was approximately 100 feet above ground surface, with winds gusting to 30 miles per hour when this image was taken. Two historical markers present at the site are visible in this image, as well as the dramatic bluff edge.

Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site is located near Washburn, North Dakota, in McLean County. This site overlooks the former location of Fort Mandan, constructed and occupied during the fall and winter of 1804–1805 by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The fort location has long since been eroded away by the nearby Missouri River, but there are other stories here as well. During archaeological investigations conducted at the site by the State Historical Society in 1991–1992, a fortification ditch dating to the late 1700s–early 1800s and a Plains Village campsite dating to the 14th century were documented. Interpretive signs are present, and the viewshed from this location is stunning. Watch your step, though—the bluff edge is steep. Check out the video from a recent UAV flight at Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site.

I was happy to add Cannonball Stage Station and the Fort Mandan Overlook to the list of state historic sites I’ve visited and documented from the air. Someday, I’m going to get to every one of them. In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider a trip sometime soon to these or one of the many other state historic sites in North Dakota. I hope the video links in this blog help to give you just a hint of the historical significance and natural beauty of these locations. The videos were a lot of fun to shoot! Many thanks to the video editor who helped me out on short notice, and to the Bismarck/Mandan local musicians that provided the accompanying music. Enjoy!

Behind-the-Scenes: School Tours of the North Dakota Heritage Center

“My favorite quote from a student this year as she was exiting one of the exhibits was, ‘I love this place.’ Her eyes were wide open and she had a look of pure joy on her face. I bring my students there to be able to have these great experiences.” (Jessica Horst Frohlich, 4th grade teacher at Northridge Elementary)

If you’ve ever visited the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on a weekday in April or May, chances are good that you have seen a swarm of elementary school students and their teachers enjoying themselves. As late spring weather warms up, and the average 5th grader’s thoughts begin to stray from the classroom, we begin to see huge numbers of students and teachers touring the exhibits, learning about the history of North Dakota, and generally having a great time!

Students standing by mastodon

Fifth grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck are welcomed to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum by Becky Barnes of the North Dakota Geological Survey and Timothy Reed of the State Historical Society of North Dakota prior to receiving a behind-the-scenes tour of laboratory and collections areas.

Many staff members here love the heightened activity this time of year brings. We enjoy seeing large numbers of young people in the galleries. These students represent the future of North Dakota; full of potential and curiosity, mindful of our shared history, and eager for opportunities to discover and grow. Translation: you’re likely to find a bunch of kids here ready to learn and have some fun!

We host dozens of school group tours during the last month or so of the academic year. Sometimes we’re able to offer a behind-the-scenes tour of our non-public areas to these visiting school groups. Staff availability doesn’t always allow us to invite every group into our non-public spaces, but when it works out, students can gain a unique appreciation of what it can be like to work in a museum as they visit with staff.

Students in Archaeology Lab

Fifth grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck are given a short introduction to the archeology lab and artifact collections storage areas by Archeology & Historic Preservation Division staff Timothy Reed and Meagan Schoenfelder.

We were recently able to offer this experience to a large number of 4th graders from Northridge Elementary School in Bismarck, and also to a group of 5th graders from Will-Moore Elementary of Bismarck. During their visits, these groups visited the archeology laboratory and collections areas that are normally inaccessible to visitors. They were also fortunate to get a tour of the North Dakota Geological Survey’s paleontology laboratory and collections areas.

I’d like to thank Ms. Horst Frohlich of Northridge Elementary, along with Ms. Wetch and Mr. Schultz of Will-Moore Elementary for bringing their students here, and for helping them engage with North Dakota’s past outside the classroom. I’m glad we could accommodate your requests for a behind-the-scenes tour for your students!

Students in Paleontology Lab

Becky Barnes of the North Dakota Geological Survey describes a laboratory procedures used to prepare fossils to the 5th grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School of Bismarck in the Johnsrud Paleontology Laboratory at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

From July 2016 through June 2017, we welcomed 220,000+ visitors of all ages through our doors. Looking specifically at school groups, we saw 9,294 students representing 56 communities during that same period.  More recent numbers reveal that 4,000+ students visited in May 2018 alone!

With so many visitors concentrating their visits during the end of the school year in April and May, it’s important to also extend an invitation to students and educators to visit during the rest of the school year. Take advantage of all the Heritage Center & State Museum has to offer all year round! If you’re an educator, please consider scheduling an additional trip to the North Dakota Heritage Center during the fall or winter months. Kids are no less curious when it’s cold, and many discoveries await them in our galleries and labs!

Student pointing to relative's picture on display in gallery

A 5th grade student from Will-Moore Elementary School of Bismarck proudly points to a relative’s image displayed in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples at the State Museum.

Double Ditch Bank Stabilization Repairs Nearly Complete

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites preserved on the northern plains. The earthlodge village was a regional trading center occupied for nearly 300 years (AD 1490-1785) by the Mandan people. Due to its archaeological significance, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial view of Double Ditch

Aerial image of Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site taken by SHSND quadcopter – November 2013.

Readers of the State Historical Society of North Dakota blog will likely already be familiar with threats Double Ditch faced from severe erosion caused by the 2011 Missouri River flood (please see,, and

Rotational erosion at Double Ditch

Image of rotational erosion of river bank at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site. Image taken by SHSND quadcopter - October 2016.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota, partnering with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, and other groups and individuals supporting preservation efforts mobilized after the 2011 flood to address this critical threat to the site. Left unaddressed the rotational erosion would have continued, eroding deeply into the village and causing catastrophic damage to the site.

Rotational erosion at Double Ditch

Image of rotational erosion front at Double Ditch from a trailcam that monitored the location from March 2015 - June 2017.

An engineering plan was developed to stabilize 2,200 linear feet of riverbank from the effects of rotational erosion exposing numerous burials at the site since the 2011 flood. The State Historical Society is grateful to the 2013, 2015 and 2017 North Dakota Legislative Assemblies for appropriation of the $3.5 million dollars necessary to move this important preservation project forward.

Monitoring topsoil removal

SHSND archaeologist monitoring topsoil removal by a track hoe during bank stabilization project at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site – August 2017.

Bank stabilization began in July 2017, and was anticipated to last about five months. Prior to the start of construction, it was anticipated that additional burials would be identified. The State Historical Society and MHA leadership cooperated to follow state laws and the cultural practices of the Mandan to complete this sensitive work. Archaeologists from the State Historical Society were on hand daily throughout the construction period to monitor earth moving activities. All exposed burials were cared for according to proper protocol and will be interred in private ceremonies of the MHA nation after repatriation.

Heavy excavation equipment moving soil

An SHSND archaeologist monitors removal of soil by heavy excavation equipment during the bank stabilization project at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site – August 2017.

The engineering plan implemented to stabilize the riverbank involved removing many tons of soil to reduce the weight on the bank slopes at the site. Installation of a rock -filled trench and hundreds of steel pipes vertically driven parallel to the river bank provide mass and strength to further stabilize the slopes.

Trackhoe working to stabilize slope

A trackhoe works to stabilize a slope during the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Heavy construction equipment installing steel pipe piles

Heavy construction equipment was used to install steel pipe piles parallel to the Missouri river bank during the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. The rock key trench is already installed in this image, buried between the pipe piles and the river bank.

Aerial overview of crews working at Double Ditch

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. The two trackhoes in this image are working to install a 20’ deep rock key trench as part of the stabilization plan. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

On a personal note, I’m humbled to have been involved with the bank stabilization activities at Double Ditch. Since 2002 I’ve been fortunate to be involved in archaeological research conducted at Double Ditch, and the site is very special to many people. It’s my belief that all those involved with the Double Ditch bank stabilization were part of a preservation project whose importance and sensitivity can hardly be overstated. Had the funding not been available and the project not been undertaken, the alternative would have been for the site to continue to be damaged and further eroded by the Missouri River.

Employees standing in front of construction equipment

Veit Construction employees Baldomero Castillo (Cabo) and John Fay pose with SHSND archaeologists Paul Picha, Brooke Morgan, Meagan Schoenfelder, and Timothy Reed during a break in the action of the bank stabilization project at Double Ditch State Historic Site – August 2017. (Not pictured: SHSND archaeologists Wendi Field Murray and Fern Swenson.)

The bank has been reshaped and landscaping with native plants was installed in early November. Interpretive aspects will be developed over the winter and installed in early summer, after the vegetation has had a chance to develop.

Arial view looking north of Double Ditch stabilization project

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – November 14, 2017. View is to the south. The dark patch on the landscaped slope marks the area covered with an erosion-control product called filter fabric. Filter fabric is used to help prevent erosion until the area develops heavier vegetation. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Aerial view looking south of Double Ditch stabilization project

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – October 25, 2017. View is to the south. The dark patch on the landscaped slope is a portion of the area covered with an erosion-control product called filter fabric. The location of a non-motorized canoe and kayak access trail is also visible in this image. An erosion-control product called Geo Cell was used in the construction of the trail. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.