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.

Two Forts: 60 Years and 60 Miles Apart

Stone marker for Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site

State Historical Society of North Dakota marker at the Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site 11.5 miles west of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, ND. (Photo by Doug Wurtz, 2018)

While investigating archaeological sites and collections managed by the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division, a question will inevitably arise that requires a trip to the State Archives for more research. For the last three years, I have been researching the little-known story of the “Galvanized Yankees” (1st United States Volunteer Infantry, aka 1st USVI) at Fort Rice, Dakota Territory. Another story I have spent quite a lot of time researching is the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, the “Corps of Discovery.” Only recently, while I was putting some notes together about the Galvanized Yankees, did I notice the similarity between the two stories.

Both are about the westward expeditions of men whose homes were in the eastern United States, far from Dakota Territory. Men from Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and other states would play key roles in both journeys.

Upon arriving in what is now North Dakota, the Corps would spend the winter of 1804–1805 at Fort Mandan, 60 miles (as the crow flies) northwest of the fort the Galvanized Yankees would occupy 60 years later at Fort Rice in 1864–1865.

Both expeditions traveled up the Missouri River to reach their first winter’s destination.
The Corps left St. Louis and traveled by keelboat, by pirogue, and by foot to Fort Mandan.
The 1st USVI traveled by train to St. Louis and then by steamboat and on foot to their winter home at Fort Rice. Both expeditions were under the orders of a U.S. president; the Corps under orders from President Thomas Jefferson, the 1st USVI from President Abraham Lincoln.
They both spent their first winters in crude accommodations built from cottonwood logs cut nearby.

Each expedition included one woman. Sakakawea, a Lemhi Shoshone living with the Hidatsas, accompanied the Corps of Discovery to the West Coast. Elizabeth Cardwell, the wife of Private Patrick Cardwell of the 1st USVI, accompanied her husband to Dakota Territory. Both women had babies who became a prominent character in each story. Sakakawea’s son, “Pomp” (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau), was born just prior to the expedition and traveled to the West Coast and back with his mother. Cardwell’s baby, a daughter, was born at Fort Rice and died seven days after her birth. Cardwell had been pregnant with the baby on the last 250-mile march to Fort Rice.

Both expeditions included at least one well-known encounter with Native Americans. Meriweather Lewis, co-commander of the Corps, killed a Blackfoot warrior in a skirmish in the Marias River country of present-day Montana on July 26, 1806. If not for the superior firepower of Lewis and his men, they could have been killed by the Blackfoot warriors, and the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition would have ended much differently. The 1st USVI was attacked on July 28, 1865, at Fort Rice by Native American warriors under Hunkpapa Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Gall. If not for superior firepower on the part of the military, the fort could have been overrun and destroyed that day, changing the story of the Galvanized Yankees and military forts on the Upper Missouri River.

Tree and remnants of corner markers of office at Fort Rice State Hstoric Site

A portion of the parade ground (right) and corner markers of the post adjutant’s office at the Fort Rice State Historic Site, 27 miles south of Mandan, ND. The winter barracks of the 1st United States Volunteer Infantry would have been located behind the two trees at the center of the photograph. (Photo by Doug Wurtz, 2017)

The mission of each expedition also had some parallels. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was instructed to explore unknown territory, establish trade with Native Americans groups, affirm the sovereignty of the United States in the region, and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. The mission of the 1st USVI was to explore unknown territory, establish safe trade routes for immigrants to the gold fields of Montana and Idaho, proclaim the sovereignty of the United States (to the Native Americans), and monitor the waterway of the Missouri River.

When I began to research these topics, I viewed them as entirely separate stories. But anyone who has worked with archival records knows that it often leads to unexpected discoveries and insights. My archival research showed that though the stories of the Corps of Discovery and the Galvanized Yankees were 60 years and 60 miles apart, history was, in many ways, repeating itself.

Hiddenwood #2: A One-Room Schoolhouse in North Dakota

It was a morning of total frustration. I couldn’t read the caption beneath the photo in a seventh-grade geography book.

In hindsight, the reason is clear. I was six years old, a first grader at Hiddenwood School #2, and l hadn't yet learned to read. The photograph I was puzzling over was of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore. The “big kids” were reading the geography text; I was stuck with Fun with Dick and Jane.

old photo of teacher ad students

Teacher and students in a one-room country school (SHSND 0032-BK-05-07)

I was reminded of this experience during a recent visit to the Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Next to the Nancy Hendrickson house is a photograph of a teacher and her nine students in a one-room country school. A date on the blackboard reads “October 20, 1910.”

One-room country schools were still prevalent in North Dakota in the mid-1950s. It is estimated 3,795 of these school buildings existed in 1955; 2,355 of those were actually in session.1 I attended the one-room Hiddenwood School #2. Hiddenwood #1 was three miles north; #3 was three miles south.

Even though I attended a one-room school decades later, my memories of Hiddenwood #2 are exactly as pictured in the 1910 photograph: the chalkboard (ours was green); the wooden desks; the stern, no-nonsense teacher; the self-conscious students; and the stack of books.

Even the number of students is the same: two of us in first grade, two in seventh grade, and one each in the grades between. The ratio of boys to girls was different, though; we only had one girl, Sylvia, who was in fifth grade. The rest were boys from farms as far as 2.5 miles away.

photo of Washington, Sir Salahad, and Regulator clock

Washington, Sir Galahad, and "Regulator" clock

Nine wooden desks faced the front of the room. On the wall over the chalkboard was the wooden Regulator clock that our teacher wound every morning. On either side of the clock were two pictures: Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington on the right, George Frederick Watts’ Sir Galahad on the left. The meaning of the Stuart picture was evident. We weren’t so sure about the Sir Galahad picture.

Recent research in the State Archives revealed the reason for Sir Galahad’s placement next to the clock:

In any event the teacher should decree that nothing but beautiful things shall be hung upon the walls. Better bare walls than debased or debasing art; better nothing in the way of decoration than decoration which is worse than nothing. The following list may prove useful to the country teacher who wishes to be able to name one desirable work of art…2

The list included Watts’ Sir Galahad.

As I wrote in my last blog post, I grew up in a slower, simpler time. I described my boyhood as one that could have taken place in the mythical community of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. This simple country school was a big part of the mystique, and there was no “debasing” art in it.

I remember the smell of the green sweeping compound scattered and then swept up before leaving for the weekend, the long walk to school every day (460 feet, door to door), and the house flies we imprisoned in the ink wells on our desks.

My most vivid memory is of the McLean County bookmobile that stopped at our school once a month. We were each limited to borrowing 10 books per visit. We had read and reread the books in our country school library, many of them missing covers and pages. The traveling bookmobile opened up a world that satisfied my curiosity about Mount Rushmore and introduced me to many other wonders.

Hiddenwood #2

Hiddenwood #2

I was frustrated to read the 2014 news story of the burning of the old schoolhouse. The building was beyond repair and was becoming an eyesore. I was content, though, to be able to read the story of its end, an ability I owe to my five formative years at Hiddenwood #2. While we can’t go back in time, I’m delighted to be able to use the State Archives to research information, find photos, and learn more about my childhood school.

1 Warren A. Henke and Everett C. Albers, The Legacy of North Dakota’s Country Schools (North Dakota Humanities Council, 1998), v.
2 O.J. Kern, Among Country Schools (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1906), 102.

When Picnics Get Out of Hand: Hiddenwood Lake Stories Discovered in ND State Archives

North Dakota has been a state for 129 years. The Hiddenwood Old Settler’s Picnic has been observed for 116 of those years.

Most readers have absolutely no idea what or where the Hiddenwood Old Settler’s Picnic is, or why it has been around for more than a century. Most people from the small community of Ryder, North Dakota would have only a sketchy idea of their local picnic’s history if not for the resources of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND.)

Over the last couple of years, I have spent many hours researching the picnic’s history by reading microfilm in the State Archives. Luckily for me, The Ryder News was on the scene documenting the inception of the picnic, the shaky start, the good times and the bad times, the fascinating cast of characters, and the determination and spirit of the homesteaders at a place called Hiddenwood Lake. The Ryder News ceased publication on Sept. 9, 1943, but other area newspapers picked up the story and continued publishing highlights of this annual event.

Hiddenwood sod house and Old Settlers Chapel

Reconstructed sod house on the Hiddenwood picnic grounds. (Constructed 1976.)
In the background is the “Hiddenwood Old Settlers Chapel,” the original church built at Hiddenwood in 1907. (2018 photo, Doug Wurtz)

Hiddenwood Lake is a small body of water about one mile in length and a half-mile in width during good years (it was completely dry in the 1930s). The lake is located 30 miles “as the crow flies” southwest of Minot, North Dakota. It is a half-mile from the farm where I was born and raised.

My earliest memories while growing up on the farm were the yearly trips to the Hiddenwood Picnic grounds for the annual get-together of friends, neighbors, assorted politicians, and entertainers. I have always said that I grew up in “Mayberry,” the fictitious community setting for two popular American television sitcoms, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Mayberry, R.F.D.” For those of you too young to remember the show, Mayberry was the idyllic setting of simpler times and traditions that lasted from decade to decade.

My memories of the Hiddenwood Picnic have always been just that; simple, folksy, and enduring. That wasn’t always the case.

Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel with people standing in front of the building

Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel, Hiddenwood, ND (Circa 1904) (Photo: Owned by Doug Wurtz)

In 1903, two of the original homesteaders at Hiddenwood Lake, William W. Wright and Esten R. Williams, decided to hold a community picnic to attract other new residents of the area to the retail store they had established at Hiddenwood. The Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel was a brand new business on the prairie and would only be successful if it became the source of supplies for homesteaders in the area. They put out the word and their neighbors came to the first picnic. The picnic was a success--neighborly and nice.

The former Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel building

The former Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel building (2018 photo, Doug Wurtz)

By the next year, the new store had flourished a bit and the second picnic was to be held. By that time, though, the true spirit of Williams was beginning to show. Research shows that he wasn’t just a new homesteader at Hiddenwood. He was also in business with Wright in a firm called “Williams & Wright” with offices in Minot and Hiddenwood. They were land men directing newcomers to claims around Hiddenwood Lake, undoubtedly for a profit. Business is business, but Williams was not content with just land commissions.

The second Hiddenwood Picnic in 1904 got completely out of hand, as was reported in The Ryder News on June 23, 1904:

“We have been to several bad picnics in our time but of all the picnics that we have been to, the one at Hiddenwood Monday certainly was the most rotten affair we have ever taken in. The blind pigs1 commenced doing business in the morning and did a rushing business all day…(Another fight ensued) when the old man Williams saw that his son was getting the worst of it, he ran into the house to get his revolver, saying that he would fix him, but luckily for Williams, somebody had hid the revolver, as if the old man had got his revolver there would probably have been a lynching, as somebody was looking for a rope at that time.”

Esten Williams packed up and left the county four days later. The Hiddenwood Picnic then settled into the neighborly affair that has been held every June for 116 consecutive years. There is much more to the history of the picnic. It is slowly, but surely, being pieced together one archived story at a time.

1 The term “blind pig” originated in the United States in the 19th century; it was applied to lower-class establishments that sold alcohol during prohibition. The operator of an establishment (such as a saloon or bar) would charge customers to see an attraction (such as an animal) and then serve a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law.

Benefits of Volunteering at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum: Making Our Community A Better Place

While doing research for a recent project, I stumbled across a website that proposes that the act of volunteering has numerous health benefits, both physical and mental.

The website goes into specific detail:

  • 76% of people who answered a recent survey indicated that volunteering made them feel healthier
  • 94% said volunteering improved their mood
  • 96% said volunteering enriched their sense of purpose
  • 95% said by volunteering, they were making their community a better place
  • 80% felt they had more control over their mental health and depression
  • 78% said volunteering lowered their stress levels
  • 49% said it helped their career in the paid job market
  • 56% said it helped their careers

Volunteer in the Paleontology Lab

A volunteer at the Paleontology lab working while a tour of students looks on.

According to Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, volunteers are a large part of the agency’s success. She said there are currently more than 200 Heritage Volunteers working statewide at various sites.

Every summer, a Heritage Volunteer recognition social is held at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. In the 2017 program from that event, Claudia Berg, agency director, included the following remarks:

“Each and every one of you brings your life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect, and humor with you when you volunteer … For whatever reason you volunteer, you make a difference to our organization. You give your time generously without expectation of reward … Last year (2017) that time totaled 11,711 volunteer hours. Since the program’s inception in 1981, Heritage Volunteers have donated over 425,764 hours.”

What Claudia didn’t mention is that we volunteers (all 200+ strong) are surely deriving all the benefits detailed in the study quoted above: better moods, sense of purpose, lowered stress levels, and so on.

Volunteers sorting in the Archaeology Lab

Volunteers working in the Archaeology lab.

I can’t validate the numbers in the study cited above, but I can attest to the following perks of volunteering at the State Historical Society:

  • studying dinosaurs with professional paleontologists
  • studying artifacts with professional archaeologists
  • learning research methods from professional archivists
  • learning object preservation from museum preservation experts
  • participating in programs developed by the Communications and Education Division
  • assisting gallery guides with public presentations
  • meeting and interacting with ND Heritage Center visitors from around the world
  • building a personal network of other volunteers with similar interests
  • spreading the word and recruiting other volunteers
  • eating way too many cookies (That should probably be at the top of this list.)

Volunteer working on computer in the State Archives

Erlys Fardal has contributed in excess of 6,500 hours of volunteer time at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.
She is pictured here doing research in the Heritage Center archives division.

I, personally, have had the great satisfaction of logging in excess of 2,000 hours of volunteer time at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. I have been asked numerous times how I became a volunteer and why I continue to do so.

I am a firm believer in the old adage of “use it or lose it.” While there are physical benefits to volunteering at the ND Heritage Center, (it is a healthful walk from the west visitor entrance to the coffee shop on the east side), I became involved because of my interest in North Dakota history and archaeology and the mental benefits of continued study and research after my retirement. I have to admit that the first step was a little scary. I came from a profession far removed from history and archaeology. My early apprehension quickly dissipated after working with staff members. They were willing to share their knowledge and expertise in a manner that was neither threatening nor discouraging. After 2,000 hours, I am just getting a good start.

Volunteer sorting in the Archaeology Lab with the help of a staff member

Volunteer working in the Archaeology lab.

As Claudia mentioned in her quote above, we all come to the State Historical Society with our own “life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect and humor.” The ND Heritage Center is a great place to enhance all of those qualities. In addition, our moods have improved, our stress levels have diminished, we have contributed to the community, and our experience and knowledge has continued to grow.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, contact Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator, at or give her a call at 701-328-2674. She will get you pointed in the direction that most suits you and your skills and passions.

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” (Author Unknown)

Dem Bison Bones

Do you remember your first childhood anatomy lesson?

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…

The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones.”

An internet search shows many variations of this song. The only thing that doesn’t vary is the order of connectivity: toe to foot, foot to ankle, ankle to leg, and so on.

I don’t remember when I first heard this little ditty, but I have always been fascinated by bones. It may have something to do with being born and raised on a farm where I was constantly surrounded by animals and animal bones.

The galleries in the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum provide a perfect venue for the study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures, also known as osteology.

I decided this fall that it would be fun and educational to write a short presentation on basic bone structure. After a couple of false starts, I enlisted the aid of a friend for a Saturday afternoon search and recovery mission for bison bones. That afternoon’s antics would provide enough material for a separate story, but suffice to say we loaded a pickup with dry, weathered bison bones, unloaded them in my garage (to my wife’s dismay), and I began the search for connectivity; toe to foot to ankle, etc.

Internet sites such as “The Virtual Museum of Idaho” made this a fairly easy project. The “American bison” page (UWBM-35536 -- Bison bison) provides full-color, 360 degree views of each bone of a bison’s skeleton.

Rearticulated bison front limb

Rearticulated bison front limb

With the reference site and a garage half-full of bison bones, some assembly was required. As luck would have it, we had acquired all of the bones on our search to rearticulate the left front leg of a bison. The assembled and properly labeled bones don’t lend themselves to a catchy tune, however:

“The third phalange connects to the second phalange,
the second phalange connects to the first phalange,
the first phalange connects to the metacarpal,
Now shake dem bison bones.”

As all projects seem to do, this one grew and began to take on an educational aspect that I had not envisioned when I identified the first weathered “calcaneus” bone. (Check it out on the Idaho Museum site.)

Comparison of human astragalus (talus) and bison astragalus

Slide from “Bison in A Box” presentation

The more bones that I reassembled, the more I realized how the bones of the front leg of a bison resemble and mirror bones of the human arm. A couple of purchases of a human skeletal hand model and human foot model clearly illustrated this. By this time, a Powerpoint presentation was beginning to take shape, and more bison bones began to fit together. With time, a complete hind leg of a bison was also rearticulated and my fascination grew—this time with the comparison between the “wrist” joints of a human and the corresponding “ankle” joints of a bison.

The North Dakota Heritage Center is a perfect venue for this presentation, where comparisons between the skulls of Bison latifrons and Bison antiquus, the ancestors to the modern Bison bison, are on display.

Bison antiquus skeleton

Bison antiquus skeleton, Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples

A full, life-sized model of the Bison antiquus is fully assembled (rearticulated) and helps illustrate the story of Beacon Island in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. You, as a visitor to the exhibit, can hum whatever version of the bone song you prefer as you study this model.

The basic premise of bone identification has continued to evolve since I plucked that first bison bone from the prairie sod. My research has uncovered many uses for one of the newly discovered bones. The astragalus bone (one of the “ankle” bones of sheep, goats, bison, etc.) was used in Mongolian games of chance, was a useful component of friction fire-starting, and was the basis of a child’s game (“jacks”).

Join us at the Heritage Center as we continue to explore this bony topic and finalize our presentation, “Bison in A Box.”

If I could carry a tune a whole new genre of songs could be sung about bison bones:

“Astragalus connected to calcaneus,
Calcaneus connected to the tibia,
Tibia connected to the femur
And on and on it goes.”

Experimental Archaeology: Flintknapping, Firing, and Fabricating Early Gadgets

I don’t like to shop. My idea of shopping is to know exactly what I want at the store and the aisle that contains the product I need. In, out, done.

I was recently in need of a new set of kitchen knives. Over the years I have sharpened and resharpened the set of Chicago Cutlery knives that my wife and I received as a wedding present. Replacement of the worn-out set was not a problem for me. There is a retail store where I have “shopped” on numerous occasions, and I knew where the knives were located. In, out—wait.

Unfortunately, I like gadgets.

The knives were displayed next to the latest and greatest knife sharpener. I have a number of sharpeners, but I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

Across the aisle from the knives was a display of spaghetti canisters; glass and stainless steel with a screw-top lid. I like spaghetti. It seemed only right that our noodles be kept in the latest kitchen storage innovation.

In, out (not as fast as I had anticipated), done.

Where am I going with this story?

I take it for granted that the store down the street has everything I need. Imagine, if you will, that it was the year 1717 and not 2017, and I needed a new knife, a new knife sharpener, and a food storage container. If the store wasn’t there and I had to craft these items, how would I begin?

The State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) and the North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA) are collaborating on a project that explores these questions and more. Every other Friday at 10 a.m., an “Experimental Archaeology” program is conducted at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Experimental Archaeology tools

Some of the tools being used during "Experimental Archaeology"

In public learning spaces in and around the museum, flintknappers, potters, fire-starters, jewelry makers, and other skilled artisans replicate the processes that produced knives, storage containers, fire, personal adornment, and more before retail stores were available for replenishment.

Removing bark from willow branch

Using a piece of Knife River flint to remove bark from a willow branch to make a willow basket.

Consider the knife that I so cavalierly replaced in our kitchen. If I had to make that knife myself, where would I begin? What type of material would I use to fashion the blade? Does Knife River flint knap better than Tongue River silicified sediment? Would heating the material before knapping result in a better product? What size and shape of blade would be best for downing and then processing a bison? What kind of handle would I fashion, and what material would I use? How would I resharpen the blade when it became dull? Where would I do that resharpening? (Certainly not in an earthlodge or tipi, where the kids could step on the razor-sharp flakes.)

Flintknapping demonstration

Gary Jochim demonstrating flintknapping

When the bison was ready for eating, how would it be cooked and served? What if, instead of having glass and stainless steel containers, I had to fashion a pottery vessel by hand? Where would I begin? What type of clay would I use? How would it be tempered so that the vessel wouldn’t crack when fired? How would it be fired and at what temperature? How would I achieve the proper temperature? How would the container be shaped for proper heating, serving, and storage? How would the clay pot be incised or impressed for decoration and identification?

These processes and many more will be replicated at the semi-monthly “Experimental Archaeology” sessions. Our sessions are loose, friendly, and inclusive. Everyone is invited, and no question is too trivial.

A visitor recently asked how long it took to complete the pecking of a groove in a stone hammer. The answer was that you peck until it is done—this can take hours or it can take days, depending on the quality of the work and the resources available. Time takes on a different dimension if you are on a hilltop scanning for bison, looking out for the enemy, waiting for your clay pots to fire, or thinking about the angle of your next percussion strike while knapping a stone tool. “Experimental Archaeology” will put you in the same frame of mind.

Demonstrating pecking a hammerstone

Erik Holland, Curator of Education for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, teaching the art of pecking a hammerstone.

Join us for our next free sessions on August 11 and 25, 10 a.m. to noon, in Project Room A of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

After several experiments, it is obvious to me that I will never be able to eliminate shopping from my life. I do, however, appreciate the gadget store down the street a little more.