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.

10 Most Instagrammable Places in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum is back open! Our museum has been rated the top destination in Bismarck for several years, so it makes sense that it attracts photographers from all over the world. As part of the digital media team, I’m lucky enough to see all corners of the museum. Today, I’m going to share with you my favorite spots to snap a perfect post.

1. Cannonball Concretions

The ND Heritage Center & State Museum is located on the beautiful North Dakota Capitol Grounds. With plenty of space for social distancing, try out your daily walk or yoga pose while the morning is quiet.

Sarah Walker at state museum demonstrating yoga poses

Sarah Walker, head of reference specialist.

2. French Gratitude Train

What’s your gratitude story? Learn about the French Gratitude Train online or find it on the south grounds.

French gratitude train

French Gratitude Train, south grounds of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

3. Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples Trade Route Map

This map shows the trade routes from North Dakota and across the Atlantic Ocean. What do you see when you look at a map? How far you’ve come or where you are headed?

trade map

Map and routes located in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples.

4. James River Café

Treat yourself to a latté in a quiet corner of our café. Bring your special project and unwind for a bit surrounded by the beautiful canopy views.

cross stitch detail and james river cafe views

Cross stitch by Lilly Bowe, visitor services, and comfortable, quiet spaces at the James River Café.

5. Outdoor Spaces

The ND Heritage Center & State Museum has lots of space for outdoor picnics, relaxing with friends, and spending quality time with your dog. Recharge, run, or relax in the shade of the museum.

front of state museum

Enjoy the outdoors. We have free Wi-Fi inside when you’re ready.

6. Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time Dinosaurs!

It’s always a good day to see dinosaurs. You can take a sloth selfie, too.

sloth selfie and dino display at museum

When dinosaurs ruled!

7. Museum Store

Here’s a recipe for fun: the museum store! Check out the fun and North Dakota-made gifts.

handmade clay cookware

Clay cookware, available in the museum store.

Or find your new Zoom shirt! (You know you need one.)

Logo tshirt

This shirt is online meeting ready.

8. Bison Statue

Normally, we’d say keep a safe distance from our North Dakota bison, but this one on the north grounds is perfect to get close to.

bison selfie and bison statue detail

Jessica Rockeman, new media specialist.

9. Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today 1950s Soda Shop

Little known fact: Bring a friend to our 1950s soda shop. There is a table and seating inside for two. Hear what would have been on the jukebox. What do you dance to?

soda shop

Ice cream is great in any era.

10. Natural History in the Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today

Stay well.

bear mount

Have a BEARY good day!

Two True Stories from History That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Day

If you asked me for my definition of history, I might say that it’s a combination of circumstances.

Daniel J. Boorstin famously said, “Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.” Whether you’re a sage student of history or just starting out as a history buff, the love of research and discovery is essential to museum and academic work, such as The science of this work is often hidden, sometimes giving people the idea that history is a series of liner, inevitable events just waiting to be reported.  When the reality is that what we call history as a subject is evidence based, communicating the subjects of fossils, farmers, or photographs is a little more artistic and circumstantial.

The world can be a crazy place. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that life is rarely ever linear. Here are a few weird and sometimes wonderful (OK, mostly weird) stories that often get left out of the history books.

John Evans

Before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off the on their expedition, there was the Welsh explorer named John Evans. John was certain that a lost tribe of Welsh were living in North America. To be fair, there was a 1790s “internet rumor” going on. A number of people in England were doing the 1790s equivalent of “trending” the story of Madoc, the myth of a Welsh prince who was supposed to have sailed to North America in 1170. In the myth, his descendants were supposed to be living in the American Midwest and speaking Welsh, of course.

No evidence of a Prince Madoc or his voyage has ever been found. Internet rumor, 1790s style.

John Evans and another Welshman by the name of Iolo Morganwg were going to team up to discover these “Welsh Indians,” identified as the Mandans. Iolo withdrew early from the expedition however, and by 1793, John was imprisoned by the Spanish under the suspicion of being a British spy.

Apparently, his story wasn’t believable then, either.

By 1795, he’d agreed to a plea deal, became a Spanish citizen, and set off on an expedition with the backing of the Spanish to try to discover a route to the Pacific Ocean from the Missouri River and his lost group of Welsh. He did find the Mandans and spent the winter with them before returning to St. Louis.

The Mandans were not Welsh.


John Evan's map of the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Mandan villages of North Dakota. Source Wikipedia, Library of Congress.

Note: President Thomas Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark copies of John Evan’s maps and notes which they used on their expedition. Learn more about American Indians in North Dakota at

And sometimes a humble person steps into the right set of circumstances and ends up owning a third of the world.

Catherine I

Catherine I was born Marta Helena from Polish-Lithuania. Having both parents die from plague before her sixth birthday, this unfortunate child found herself scrubbing floors to survive. Then the Russians invaded. Which meant she was taken prisoner and then sold to a solider. Who traded her to another officer. Who gave her to a general. Who traded her to a duke. Who introduced her to the Tsar. History is a little sketchy as to her exact origins, but by 1711, she accompanied Peter the Great on a military campaign and saved everyone from the overwhelming Turkish army. Six months later, Peter the Great and a peasant woman were married.

Paintng of Catherine I

Some days you wake up a peasant girl. The next day, an empress in charge of 15 million Russians. YOLO. Catherine the Great by Jean-Marc Nattier. Source Wikipedia.

And if that isn’t enough of a Disneyesque fairy tale ending, she convinced the Tsar to make her co-ruler. And then his heir. When Peter the Great died in 1725, Catherine became the first woman to rule Imperial Russia opening the door for a century almost entirely dominated by women rulers.

And if that isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.

Note: Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law is Catherine-the-Great (Catherine II.) If your background is German-Russian, it’s because Catherine I’s granddaughter-in-law signed a manifesto inviting Germans to settle in Russia. Learn more about German-Russian immigrants at or research your unique family history in the North Dakota state archives.

3 Terrifying Historical Things Scarier than Any Movie

They say people who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, so pay attention to this blog post! Visit or the collections of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum and you may never sleep again.

1. Cough Syrups and Suppressants

People in the 19th century took their coughs pretty seriously. Decades before antibiotics, huge fortunes were made selling “all natural, safe and soothing” cures. Which isn’t to say that these serums weren’t effective at mellowing you out — it’s just that slapping “natural, safe, and soothing” on the label doesn’t mean they weren’t packed with as much booze and narcotics as they could handle. Which they were.

4 package boxes for tonics

Is there anything it can’t cure? Not according to the label. (SHSND 18061)

This type of massively misleading marketing drove support for a clean food and drug policy in the United States. One of the unsung heroes of the movement, who had crazy ideas like removing morphine and chloroform from baby cough syrup, was Edwin Ladd. A chemistry professor at North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo, Ladd later brought his expertise to bear as a U.S. senator. Ladd’s passion for ensuring food quality is the reason the box of ground pepper you bought at the grocery store is actually ground pepper and not something like ground coconut shells. I am totally not making that up.

2. Rocks from Space

Most are familiar with a popular theory about the end of the dinosaurs; everything was going fine until a giant rock fell out of space, and then something awful happened to the temperature. But that was so 65 million years ago. Could such a thing happen to humans? It already did. In Siberia. And not to be outdone, North Dakota has its own impressive collection of meteorites.

The best documented case would be the Richardton meteorite. On an otherwise normal day, June 30, 1918, at 9:48 a.m., a meteorite exploded above Richardton and Mott. In total, nearly 220 pounds of rock were collected, and amazingly, nobody was hurt.

metorite rock, triangular in shape, dark grey speckled with tan


This thing traveled a long way to get the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. (On loan from University of Minnesota)

To see how unlucky North Dakota can be in the Milky Way, including our impact craters, check out North Dakota Night Sky. And see a piece of the Richardton meteorite on exhibit at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

3. Anatomy Furniture

Museums sometimes hold a great deal of furniture for a variety of reasons. And sometimes that reason seems to be documenting all the different ways Lovecraftian horrors can be imposed in a room.

brown cloth footstool with horn legs

This footstool is made of your Roomba’s nightmares. (SHSND 12774)

Back in the day, furniture that was likely to be conversational as well as stabby was a common theme. This is a huge and surprisingly heavy hat rack that could also impale your pets.

horns joined together with fur and velvet fabric to form hooks for hats

Did not predict the sharp decline of giant hats. Did predict the comeback of the scrunchie. (SHSND 6085)

Make a plan to visit the State Museum on Halloween. You never know what spooky thing you’ll discover.

footstool in the shape of a small chair. horns bottom and decorating the top edge. Quilted pattern on the fabric.

This stool may cause reproductive harm. Thankfully it is encased on exhibit in the State Museum’s Inspiration Gallery. (SHSND 2010.68.1)

Stay weird out there.

5 Surprising Stories about Exhibits at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

1. That’s made out of butterflies?

Friend to gardeners, ecotourists, and second-grade science projects, the butterfly is the flagship for biodiversity in your front yard. Butterflies are an essential part of the food web and plant pollination. And artwork, it turns out.

Look closely at this portrait and you will see it’s not just a silhouette of a woman — the piece is made entirely out of butterfly wings.

silhouette of a woman made out of butterfly wings

2. The most dangerous animal in the museum is what?

When museum bloggers discuss dangerous animals, the usual suspects come to mind: bears, mountain lions, and venomous snakes are certainly to be respected in the North Dakota wilderness. Relatively few people think of the bison, which was perhaps the biggest killer of humans even 500 years ago. Imagine being part of a hunting party, crouching in the grass, while thousands of 2,000-pound bison, strong enough to plow snow with their faces, graze a few feet away from you. Horses were reintroduced to North America in 1519, and that made the bison hunt faster, but not necessarily safer.

Family of three taxidermied bison

The point is bison are tough. Our taxidermy mounts have been on display since 1925. Depending on your age, you might remember them from when the museum was housed in the Liberty Memorial Building, the ND Heritage Center & State Museum constructed in the 1980s, or as they are displayed today in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. They are beautiful to appreciate, but it’s still advisable to keep your distance.

Family of three taxidermied bison in the 1930s, 1980s, and 2019

3. Why does your exhibit contain arsenic?

I am not a museum preparator or conservator. I don’t even play one on TV. But common sense tells me if the word “arsenic” is involved, it would be a good idea to keep my distance. Arsenic used to be a mainstay in industries like embalming, agriculture, and even cosmetics. It was also a champion bug killer, so it was used heavily in taxidermy until people realized that it wasn’t very good for your health.

Taxidermy specimens have a lot of uses for researchers and are great tools for interpretation and education. But when the sign says “don’t touch” — we really mean it.

Sign stating that Natural History specimens may contain ARSENIC - Please do not touch! There are taxidermy animals in the background.

4. Why do you freeze the artifacts?

Some things don’t come in the door dangerous; they just get that way over time. Silver nitrate film is a good example of when good things go bad. When State Archives staff open a box of old film and get a strong whiff of vinegar from the silver nitrate, they take action to preserve the negatives. This is done through digitization, scanning, and good, old-fashioned refrigeration.

Why store things in a freezer? Without cold storage, materials can deteriorate rapidly. Silver nitrate film can spontaneously combust, which is pretty high on the crisis scale. With cold storage, negatives can remain unchanged and accessible for many centuries.

Sarah Walker bravely standing beide our cold storage unit

5. Just how many guns do you have?

While museum security is not as exciting as actor Ben Stiller would have you believe, remember that what you see at a museum is only about 10 percent of the actual collection (there many reasons for that, but that’s another blog post). Most of the museum’s gun collection, for example, is kept in a gun vault. There are muskets, cannons, pistols, guns from 19th-century campaigns and both World Wars. There’s even a flame thrower in the arsenal. (When the zombies come, we’re ready.)

Case displaying many guns

Top Reasons to Redesign Your Website

We all have things we hold onto for far too long. Clean-up projects hit the trifecta of misery.

Redesigning a website is a series of time-consuming chores that are psychologically, emotionally, and financially overwhelming. And it doesn’t help that most of us hardly know where to start-it’s much easier to convince yourself that technically, the site still functions, right? With our dedicated education team, we had the difficult conversation about our North Dakota Studies website and made the call to redesign it.

Website redesign is not a small task, but let’s face it. You probably need it. Why?

1. To create a better user experience.
User or customer experience (UX or CX) are industry jargon for what gets down to the question of who is your customer? When we began the revamp of the website, we took a hard look at our numbers. How many students does ND serve? How are our users finding us?

Number of students in North Dakota: 108,000 (8 to 10 thousand per grade)

74% of traffic to the ND Studies website is organic

2. Your website isn’t working.
Think of how many screens you encounter in a day. Phones, smart tvs, tablets, smart watches, laptops or notebooks, desktops, smartboards if you’re in a classroom. If you haven’t looked at your website across multiple devices, you have work to do. There might also be places where you want to reorganize or change terms that make sense to your industry, but aren’t that common outside of the silo to better serve your users. And keep an eye on the horizon. Have you thought about how smart speakers might affect your site traffic?

ND Studies Website on three different devices

Have you thought about it? Be honest.

3. Haul stuff away to make room for what’s important
When you’ve covered what you can handle (internal resources) and what the audience wants, it’s time for action.

We decided to prioritize our newest online educational content:
Grade 4
Grade 8

And we made sure we still had room for growth.

How do you decide what to keep on your site? Here is a quick cheat sheet of strategic questions to ask when dealing with content on your website that maybe doesn’t fit into the new structure-

Browser support
If a project is done in a program like flash, it’s no longer supported in browsers. End it.

There is a difference between a low use area and dying area. Low use might be worth keeping or redoing in the future. The dying track is just that. It is OK to remove content that is at the end of its lifespan.

Analysis and Audit
This will save your team from “But it’s so good” syndrome. What your team thinks is fantastic material isn’t always what the customer values. If material doesn’t help your users, it isn’t fantastic. Each area has to be reviewed and taken on its own merits.

Some decisions are easier than others.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to serving the  people of North Dakota. And with our new website we can do that better. Which comes with the side effect of increased web traffic. Win win!

North Dakotans visit most, followed by Minnesota, California, and Virginia

2014 website sessions: 24,779 | 2018 website sessions: 106,370

That's an increase of 312%

When you visit, you probably don’t think about the people behind the screens in the museum producing all of the online learning options for North Dakota. You are probably thinking about the information you need to find to tackle the job you need to do. You want accurate information that you can find in a flash. Great websites mean continual improvement so that users have a great website experience.

Favorite top searches: Venn diagram, The importance of history in our own lives, 3 venn diagram

Wow. You guys really like venn diagrams.

And great website experiences have people coming back for more. Thanks North Dakota!

Site loyalty rose 74% in October 2018

Venn diagram of funny people, value accurate information, and history rock stars

Here's a venn diagram just for you.

Bringing Mars a Little Closer to North Dakota: An Upcoming Online Exhibit Explores North Dakota’s Night Sky

Today’s post is going to be about Mars. I’m letting you know that ahead of time, because in the past, people have needlessly freaked out when you surprised them War of the Worlds style.

H.G. Wells will do that to people.

Our agency is developing an online exhibit titled ND Night Sky. I’m taking the lead on developing this amazing project, which fits perfectly with my lifetime obsession of geeking out over anything “Space.” In one part of this exhibit, you’ll learn why Mars and North Dakota make great research buddies. In anticipation of seeing the exhibit, here are four facts about our planetary neighbor that will get you cool points.

1. Mars is tiny but feisty
In our solar system, Mercury is the only planet smaller than Mars. And while the atmosphere on Venus went into a runaway greenhouse effect, the atmosphere on Mars gave up. In what would be considered the blink of an eye in planetary timescales, Mars lost its atmosphere, rusted, and freeze-dried.

Wet to dry Mars animation

It’s OK Mars. If it makes you feel any better, we are constantly having asteroids thrown at us. Image source: NASA

2. Mars is the ultimate lonely planet destination
Mars is no place for the timid. What isn’t covered in ice is rugged, arid, rocky terrain. Mars is home to the solar system’s largest volcano and the deepest canyon. The extreme, frozen desert weather makes it the ultimate lonely planet destination orbiting the sun.

Olympus Mons, Mars

Olympus Mons, Mars. This volcano is 374mi/624km in diameter.  Or to put it another way, Olympus Mons is a volcano approximately the size of the state of Arizona. Image source: NASA

3. The trouble with triples-or why you can’t have a swimming pool on Mars
Having a swimming pool on Mars would be very tricky because of the low atmospheric pressure (1% of Earth’s), combined with the low temperatures, (a balmy summer day on the equator of Mars is still -20F) would cause the liquid water in your pool to simultaneously freeze and boil at the same time.

Your pool on the Martian surface would be a big hole with vapor or ice. We call this the “triple point” in chemistry.

The three states of matter

Three states of matter for the price of one. Neat!

4. Nice Mars factoids, but what does it have to do with North Dakota?
Glad you asked. The tractors that go to the U.S. Antarctic Program research stations in Antarctica? Those are made in Fargo. The Inflatable Lunar Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) is underway at University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. You can see the NDX-1 Mars Prototype suit on display at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. And the first crops tested on the International Space Station were arabidopsis and dwarf wheat.

You thought that North Dakota was isolated, rocky, and cold. Turns out, it just might be some of the best training for living on Mars.

NDX-1 prototype spacesuit

See the NDX-1 prototype spacesuit at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck, ND. NDX-2 is currently being developed at UND in Grand Forks, ND. Space fashion!

Coming soon to an internet near you!
A portion of this ND Night Sky exhibit will highlight North Dakota’s contributions to engineering, technology, and exploration and how they relate to Mars. Why? Because the sort of innovation that gets the robots (and someday humans) to Mars will have massive implications for the rest of us on Earth.

There’s much more to this exhibit than Mars. We’ll look at some Native American ties to the night sky, navigation, meteorites, and ND night sky activities you can do on any clear night. Watch for an opening date for this online exhibit.

Jessica holding a guinea pig with a space poster in the background

Pro tip: If you’re going to try and be “too cool to smile,” it helps if you don’t pose in front of your poster of the solar system while holding your guinea pig. I work for the State Historical Society in Bismarck by day and am old enough to know better than to stay up too late looking at the night sky but still do it anyway.