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.

Never Stop Learning

When I completed my bachelor’s degree many decades ago, I thought that I was done with school, finished with learning. Whether that was the result of book fatigue or just the glossy idiocy of youth, I am not sure. However, I eventually returned to school and was pretty darn close to 50 when I finally received my Ph.D. in American History. This time, I did not even pause in the learning process but kept on thinking, reading, and writing history – a student with no homework.

I became very comfortable in the study of history and never suspected that I would someday hop back onto that steep learning curve to write a book in an entirely different field of study. Archaeology. I think I took one archaeology course in college (it was required), but I don’t remember much about it.

Now I am writing a book (available next fall) about the people who lived in North Dakota in ancient times. I mean really ancient times. The first people (that we know of) came here around 13,000 years ago. My training as a historian little prepared me to write about people who did not document their lives and beliefs on paper. Throughout this process, I have ranted about archaeologists’ fuzzy dates, my frustration with the limits of archaeological research (they have to go find stuff buried underground!), and their scholarly disagreements. Nevertheless, through study I have actually come to know quite a bit about North Dakota’s earliest peoples.

I find them likable, these people who braved North Dakota before Lake Agassiz had become the Red River, and who probably met some pretty unfriendly animals when they first looked around the northern Great Plains. The first arrivals needed to find resources quickly. They needed food – meat and berries or wild greens – and potable water. They required materials to construct shelter. They had to locate good quality stone to make into projectile points, knives, hide scrapers, and other useful items for their tool kits. These resourceful, hardworking people (like so many who followed them), found all of these things in abundance and returned again and again when they needed what North Dakota had to offer.

Naze Village Illustration

Around 500 BC, hardworking people organized villages near the resources they needed to raise their families in North Dakota. (Andrew Knutson, artist)

I have learned a lot from them. No, I can’t knap stone into a useful tool or to turn a bison hide into clothing, though there are people who enjoy doing that sort of thing. My lessons are quieter, more internal, like: Be curious. Eat new foods. Learn new skills. Adapt to the environment. Meet new people and try out new ideas. Don’t settle for what is right in front of you; something better is just over the horizon. Listen to the younger generation; they may have the right answer to the problems you face. And don’t stand still; a short-faced bear may find you delicious!

Web-based ND History Curriculum: Your Feedback is Welcome

When we published the web-based curricula for North Dakota Studies including The Civil War in North Dakota and North Dakota People Living on the Land, we hoped to receive comments from readers that would lead to corrections, new approaches to organizing the material, and perhaps ideas for new sections. We thought that a web-based curriculum, unlike a paper textbook, could be easily changed and we welcomed the dialog that we might have with students and teachers.

Well, we have heard from nary a student nor a teacher. However, we have heard from a good number of readers who have been out of school for a long time. Their comments have brought smiles to our faces, but also some work that led to careful thought and corrections. The whole-community method of writing history is new and inspiring, but also a little worrisome and frightening at times. We take our responsibility to write accurate, thorough, and interesting history very seriously, but sometimes a nudge in a different direction is just what we need.

I will not reveal the names of the people who wrote, but we want to share a few of their comments with you.

A descendant of Siegmund Rothhammer wrote to tell us we had his name and some other details wrong. Rothhammer traveled to North Dakota in 1864 with General Sully. His assignment was to observe and take notes on plants, animals, soil, minerals, and climate.

Our correspondent’s email sent us on a search for the errors. Certain that I had copied his name carefully, I returned to the archival source. Indeed, my spelling matched the documents. But one cannot easily dismiss the family knowledge that our correspondent had, so I carried on. Finally, I found the source of the error. The microfilm copy of Rothhammer’s report had come to us from another state with the error already embedded. A further search in other resources confirmed the error and we made the correction.

Portrait of Two Bears

Two Bears was a Dakota leader who defended his peaceful hunting camp at Whitestone Hill in 1863.  Our Civil War piece on Whitestone Hill was criticized for calling the conflict a battle, instead of a massacre. SHSND 1952-5644a

Another comment came to us from a descendant of Two Bears who defended his hunting camp from an army attack at Whitestone Hill in 1863. This correspondent asked that we reconsider the use of the word “battle” in the title of our story about the conflict at Whitestone Hill. “Massacre” was more appropriate, he argued, and gently scolded us for this error. I agreed with him, and made the change to the website. Again, using words found in original resources had led to our error.

Some correspondents have praised these educational websites, and we are proud as peacocks when we hear from happy readers. Recently, a British woman wrote to tell us how she had found North Dakota: People Living on the Land and read through much of it. She said, “I want to thank you for such a beautifully written, informative and stimulating website.”

And that’s why we love our web-based curriculum: widely read, easily corrected.

Lessons from Lake Agassiz

I would guess that research sounds like a pretty dull job to most people. Nose down in book, hand scribbling notes, eyes growing bleary, back bone slowly coiling into a permanent loop around the desktop. I won’t deny that all of that happens. But the process is also one of discovery. There is always something new, something cool to add the body of knowledge we share with those who read our curricula and newsletters.

When we decided to write about the geology of the Red River Valley for the North Dakota Studies newsletter, I entered the research cautiously. I am a historian. I love documents; I can understand anything old on paper. Layers of dirt are important, but I have always considered rocks and dirt to be someone else’s joy-filled research project. Reading through the documents, I slowly absorbed the geological history of the great glacial Lake Agassiz that formed the Red River Valley thousands of years ago.

Lake Agassiz in 1895

This map of glacial Lake Agassiz was drawn by Warren Upham in 1895. He based it on available knowledge of Lake Agassiz’s shorelines. W. Upham, The Glacial Lake Agassiz

And those numbers! I can easily grasp the historical flow of a couple of centuries, but 11,000 years is almost beyond comprehension. When I read that Lake Agassiz “briefly” overflowed into present day Minnesota for a period of only 300 years, I wondered how many generations of people might have thought of that temporary shoreline as a permanent part of the landscape. You could almost hear their discouraging words as the shoreline where they had always fished receded to the west.

Nevertheless, I learned some very interesting things about Lake Agassiz. The lake did not fill all of the space that is today considered the ancient lake bed. The lake rose and receded, overflowing here and there over several thousand years. Changing water levels left ripples of shorelines that are easily visible in the southern Red River Valley. In forests to the north, the shorelines are more difficult to locate, but new information surfaces from time to time.

Another interesting thing I learned is that the ancient lake is today the focus of research on how global warming might affect North America and the Atlantic Ocean. As the huge lake, the largest in North America, drained through Hudson Bay into the Atlantic Ocean, it changed the chemistry of the ocean and cooled the air temperature of northern hemisphere. At least, that is the current working hypothesis. Climate scientists are still working on the problem, but it appears that the geologic history of Lake Agassiz may help us understand global warming today.

Lake Agassiz’s peculiar geology created the Red River Valley, one of the greatest agricultural regions in the world.

Major Fleming's House

The lakebed of Lake Agassiz formed the large, flat valley of the Red River. In the 1870s, the Red River Valley attracted settlers who found the rich soil was perfect for wheat farming. SHSND C0868

Today, we talk about the land that our grandfathers farmed and about our attachment to this place. I wonder how many more generations will call it home before geological change takes place once again and leaves us wondering where it all went.

North Dakota Studies: Helping Teachers Teach

North Dakota Studies and the Communications and Education Division support the state’s social studies teachers in many ways. The North Dakota Studies program at the State Historical Society (SHSND) produces curriculum and other resources for students, teachers, and lifelong learners. To ensure those materials are easily available to teachers, North Dakota Studies maintains a website ( where all of its classroom support materials can be found.

Curator of Education Erik Holland coordinates workshops for teachers every summer on a variety of historical, cultural, geographical, and scientific topics. This June’s professional development workshop is titled Commemorate - Educate - Motivate. The three-day, one-credit workshop features commemoration of the anniversaries of the National Park Service, the Pulitzer Prize, the Historic Preservation Act, and Shakespeare’s life.

North Dakota Studies also works with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to identify the North Dakota History Teacher of the Year. Teachers can be nominated by their principal, superintendent, or colleagues. The nominated teacher submits lesson plans, samples of student work, and a short essay on teaching philosophy to demonstrate how he or she leads and encourages students in their studies. The winner receives $1,000 and a variety of classroom resources from Gilder Lehrman. The state winner also competes for National History Teacher of the Year. The 2015 North Dakota winner was Ellen Ista of Kindred Elementary School. This year’s winner will be named soon.

Neil Howe with Ellen Ista and her class

North Dakota Studies program director Neil Howe presented the North Dakota Gilder Lehrman History Teacher of the Year award to Ellen Ista of Kindred Elementary School in 2015. Photo courtesy Neil Howe.

North Dakota Studies Program Coordinator Neil Howe publishes a newsletter three times during the school year which features information on current and upcoming events, curricular materials, and short articles on North Dakota history, geography, or culture. The newsletter is mailed to every social studies teacher in North Dakota.

North Dakota Studies and the Communications and Education Division provide broad support for social studies teachers across the state. The materials, workshops, and information prepare teachers for their highly important task of educating the state’s children.

It Takes a Lot of Work

If, perchance, you walk past my desk one day, you might wonder: Does she work here? Not much sign of labor. Just a woman stretched out in a chair, staring at a computer screen.

Barb working hard

Dr. Barbara Handy-Marchello works very hard at writing for North Dakota Studies. Rockeman photo.

I must say my work does not raise a sweat on my brow or pound callouses onto my fingers. If I go home with a bruised thumb, it could be because I shut a drawer on my thumb, not because a hammer fell on it.

Nevertheless, I work.* Much of my work depends on thinking, leaving little in the way of a visible trail until some sort of product is finished. Writing curriculum is different from any other educational work I have ever done. There are no tests or papers to grade, no lectures to write, no lessons to develop, no students lined up at the door. Just a blank computer screen. It may be days before any sort of work product appears.

Starting with an idea about a project or a publication, I think about it, maybe read what someone else has written, and think some more. My fundamental question is always: “How do we make this idea (or subject or event) make sense and become meaningful to North Dakota’s young students?” 

On the other hand, I might start out to tackle a project with no idea at all. Take, for instance, articles in the North Dakota Studies newsletter. There is no formula or master plan to determine the next topic. I look for areas that we have not covered thoroughly in other publications. Or, I think about what might be a topic of current interest. In the next two years, the nation will be marking the 100th anniversary of World War I. I expect to publish at least two articles about the role North Dakotans played in that war in North Dakota Studies newsletter. It will take a great deal of thinking to figure out how to write a historically accurate, student-friendly, and remarkably brief article on that big topic.

Another project on the horizon is the re-writing of Early Peoples of North Dakota by C. L. Dill. The thinking questions ahead of me involve how to make archaeology interesting and relevant to students and the general public. And how do I, trained in history, interpret archaeological evidence in a way that does no harm to either profession? That project will take a great deal of staring off into space, stretching back into my chair, and, the hardest work of all, making it look like work.

*Of course, I don’t work entirely alone. I get a lot of help from the Coordinator of North Dakota Studies, Neil Howe, and our techie-geekie, enormously talented new media specialist, Jess Rockeman. In addition, there are dozens of very knowledgeable people in every division who support the work of North Dakota Studies.

Revising and Repairing North Dakota: People Living on the Land

Oops! We have found a few errors in North Dakota: People Living on the Land ( since it was published in October 2014. However, because it is an online curriculum, we can make changes quickly. Though there are good reasons to provide students with paper textbooks (there is nothing like the feel of a book in your hands), one of the great advantages of a web-based curriculum is the ease of correcting errors (typographical or factual) that nearly every textbook contains.

During our first introduction of this 8th grade curriculum to teachers, one of the participants noted that a sentence about the U.S. Constitution stated that it was written in 1889 (instead of 1789, as we all know). Well, that was embarrassing. After teaching U.S. History for 17 years, I should have seen that typo immediately. However, the error was quickly and easily corrected.

One day while thinking about nothing of importance, it struck me that in writing the introduction to the role of North Dakotans in World War II, I had failed to mention the outcome of the war. Adults of my age generally know that the Allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1945. For eighth graders, that event is far in the distant past and the conclusion of the war needed to be clarified. And, it was – just one day later.

Differences of opinion are harder to resolve. Take for instance the photo of the Bakken oil region at night that was published by NASA a few years ago. The photo illustrated a section about how oil development had changed western North Dakota. (You can find the photo in Unit IV, Lesson 1, Topic 5, Section 3, Image 18.)

Oil Development

This NASA satellite photograph has state lines superimposed. The bright lights in the Bakken are caused by gas flares, drilling rig lights, and other night-time activity.

In the photo, the lights of the Bakken make it appear to be a city as large as Chicago. Recently, the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota published a similar satellite image, but the lights (whether from flares, drilling rigs, or other activity) appear individually and do not make the Bakken look like a great new urban center.

Urban Centers

This satellite photograph of North Dakota shows the lights of the Bakken on the left side and the lights of Chicago in the lower right side. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the bright area just right of center. This photo was provided by the University of North Dakota-EERC. Technicians at the EERC adjusted the photo for atmospheric conditions that caused the Bakken lights to glare in the NASA photo. Photo courtesy EERC.

The problem is that NASA is a darn good resource and that image has strength. Nevertheless, driving through the Bakken at night is not like driving through Chicago. How to present the concept of major changes in western North Dakota without distortion? By presenting the problem to students.

If we publish both images along with some material about how the photos conflict, students can discuss whether to trust or to challenge resources. Through guided discussions with their teachers they can learn an important life skill of analyzing information before they decide to accept or reject what they read or hear. Part of what we learn in school is about “stuff.” The other part is about how to become a learning person. North Dakota: People Living on the Land is part of both processes.