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. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Preserving North Dakota’s Architectural Heritage: The Red River Frame Cabins of Pembina County

In a quiet corner of Walhalla, tucked among some trees on the south end of town just beyond the local Lutheran church, sits an old log cabin. This structure, known as the Kittson cabin, is about 170 years old, and it looks like it. The walls are slouching outwards, the roof is sagging, and the front door is so bowed it appears it may be the only thing still holding the cabin up. Thankfully, the site will soon become louder as workers begin the process of dismantling the cabin to examine the logs and reclaim what they can in preparation for its reconstruction next year.

The Kittson cabin will soon be restored to a like-new state while preserving as much of the original material as possible.

A lot has been happening at the state’s historic sites in Walhalla the past few years, though it may not seem like it at first glance. At the Gingras Trading Post State Historic Site and now at the Walhalla State Historic Site, where the aforementioned Kittson cabin stands, restoration work has been progressing steadily. Several rotten logs and the roof shakes at the Gingras Trading Post were replaced in 2020. The following year the Gingras house had its roof replaced with fresh cedar shingles. In early September work began to replace the timber siding and windowsills of the house. The next step in the long process of restoring these sites is the dismantling, examination, and reconstruction of the Kittson cabin, which is set to begin in the coming weeks.

In 2020, the Gingras Trading Post underwent restoration work. Courtesy Steve Martens

The Gingras house with a new set of cedar shingles after their installation in late 2021. A year later, the shingles have weathered to a light gray color and look as if they have always been there.

Kobiela Brothers Construction is at work restoring rotten and weather-damaged wooden siding on the Gingras house. With the siding removed, the tenon-and-groove log construction elements are visible. Observe the newer looking logs from the 1974 reconstruction. The siding has done its job in preserving the covered material.

But what makes these cabins so important compared to others in the area? These cabins are among the last remaining buildings from the fur trade era in northeastern North Dakota representative of Red River Frame, a construction style unique to this region. Only four of these buildings still exist. They are the Kittson cabin, soon to be rebuilt, the Gingras Trading Post and house, and the Dease-Martineau House. All of these buildings can be found in Pembina County, located just a few miles from each other.

Red River Frame style is a synthesis of different architectural elements developed by the Métis, a culture born from the descendants of fur traders and their Native wives. Author and archaeologist David Burley, who has studied the origins and expressions of Métis culture in depth, noted in a 2000 Historical Archaeology article that “the ethnogenesis of Métis peoples ... involved a creolizing process in which cultural traits from many different groups were adopted. An analysis of Métis vernacular log architecture ... illustrates this clearly with individual building components derived from a number of different sources.”

Immediately noticeable about this style is that the exterior is built to maintain a level of symmetry. This element is taken from Georgian architecture, which was popular from 1714 to 1830, during the reigns of the British Kings George I, George II, George III, and George IV.

The side of the Gingras Trading Post that leads into the storage area displays characteristic Georgian symmetry.

Underneath the Georgian facade, Red River Frame combines elements of different log cabin construction, including both dovetailed corners and tenon-and-groove assembly around windows and doors. The French called these styles pièce-sur-pièce and pièce-sur-sole, respectively. French influences are strong in Métis culture, and their architecture is no exception.

At the corners of the Dease-Martineau House, you can see how the dovetailed notches of the pièce-sur-pièce style are slanted in two directions, which prevents the logs from slipping in any direction but toward each other, effectively locking the structure together and ensuring its stability. The dollar is included for scale purposes. Courtesy Steve Martens

Another unique characteristic of this style is found in the way windows, doors, and additions are made to fit Red River Frame buildings. Upright beams are attached to horizontal logs with the use of wooden pegs or are set directly into the earth. Slots are cut along the length of the upright beams. Tenons are cut into the ends of the horizontal logs, which are fitted into these slots. This feature is adapted from the pièce-sure-sole style, which had the benefit of allowing buildings to be constructed with few, if any, iron nails. Such buildings could also be disassembled and reassembled with relative ease, much like the Métis’ other famous wooden construction: the Red River ox cart.

This circa 1890 image of the Kittson Trading Post, then located in central Walhalla, shows the upright beams with horizontal logs stacked in between. Each of these horizontal logs has a narrow tenon that is fitted into the uprights. The Kittson cabin stands behind and to the right of the fallen structure in the foreground. SHSND SA C1602-00001

This amalgam of different construction methods developed in the 19th century along the Red River of the North is found nowhere else in the United States, which makes the preservation of these cabins important to local, regional, and state heritage. As such, the restoration process will be meticulous. Every piece of wood and every detail of the design will be recorded as the work progresses. When the Gingras site was restored in 1974, the buildings were first disassembled, and each design aspect as well as the state of the existing material was recorded. Then, new material was acquired, and the building was reassembled on the original location.

In this interior view of the Gingras house, the walls display the same tenon-and-groove construction as the Kittson Trading Post. Notice the original logs on display from the 1974 restoration of the house.

The Gingras house in 1960. It had been abandoned and left to deteriorate. The house was restored after it became a state historic site in 1974. SHSND SA 00101-00062

The same careful process will begin this month at Walhalla State Historic Site, where the Kittson cabin will soon be disassembled and its parts put into storage. The site will stand empty for the winter as the old material is assessed and salvaged and new materials are acquired. In spring 2023, the cabin will be reassembled at the same location with new materials to replace whatever cannot be recovered. Kobiela Brothers, the contractors responsible for the restoration, expect the project to be completed by the end of June 2023. When the dust of construction settles, a cabin that is 170 years old will have been preserved for another century so that people can study and enjoy this unique piece of history.

Interpreting Historical Games at the Pembina State Museum

There is a lot to consider when developing a new program at a state museum. Who is it for? What is it meant to teach? How will that message be conveyed? Where will the program take place? Why is this topic important? On top of all that you must consider what resources are available and what safety guidelines need to be followed. Ultimately, what you want most is for participants to be engaged and eager to learn. In my experience participants seem the most engaged when they are having fun. And what better way to accomplish this than with games?

I am currently working on a program called “Games from Pembina’s Past,” which includes a short virtual element for classroom use and a longer element that will allow visitors to the Pembina State Museum to play various games from the different peoples that settled at one time or another in the region, including the Anishinaabe, Dakota, Métis, Scots-Irish, Icelandic, and others. The program is in the early stages of development. We’re gratefully receiving tribal input regarding the Indigenous games that are included to ensure these are portrayed appropriately and respectfully. Stewart Culin’s “Games of the North American Indians” has also been helpful to my research. The book provides key details such as the Indigenous names for games, designs for the game pieces, and rules for play.

The first game I worked on was hoop and stick. According to Culin, the Chippewa of the Turtle Mountains called it tititipanatuwanagi. It was played by two competitors, one of whom rolled a small hoop ahead of themselves while running. The two competitors would throw their sticks, which had forked ends or were decorated with feathers, at the webbing woven around the hoop. Points were awarded based on where the stick struck in the webbing, much like darts. No points were awarded if the stick passed completely through the hoop.

A young girl and boy are outdoors chasing after a hoop rolling on the ground. The girl is wearing a red dress, and the boy is wearing a red long sleeved shirt, blue jesans, and brown boots. There are other children watching in the background.

Students visiting Fort Mandan State Historic Site play a version of hoop and stick. We hope to have students playing the game here at the Pembina State Museum very soon.

The difficulty of the game can be adjusted by changing the size of the hoop. Historically, hoops have ranged from two inches up to two feet in diameter. So far, I’ve made one 12-inch hoop for the museum based on a 1903 artifact from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. The original is currently held by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the coming weeks, I plan on making a few more hoops of varying sizes.

A brown hoop with light colored thread making a spider web like pattern in the inside with the middle being a red outlined square. To the sides of the hoop are pink sticks with a feather tied to the top. The ones on the left have a large white area towards the middle, and the ones on the right have a large black area towards the middle.

Pictured here is a hoop and stick set I made for the interpretive program using an embroidery hoop woven with artificial sinew to create the web pattern. The sticks are simple painted wooden dowels, with a feather attached to the end with more artificial sinew.

Culin groups different North American Indigenous games into broad categories, which prompted me to compare Indigenous games with games played by European settlers that fit into the same categories. I mentioned that hoop and stick shares some similarities to darts. Other comparisons can also be made. One that I make in the virtual element of the program is to compare a category of game played on an icy track that Culin “included under the general name of snow-snake” (which is also the name of the game itself) to the sport of curling.

Snow snake was played by almost every tribe in the colder climates of North America. The game was played with long, slender pieces of wood carved with heads resembling snakes. Another similar game that Culin includes under the umbrella category of “snow-snake” is ice gliders, also called bone sliders by Culin. Ice gliders were made with animal ribs and decorated with feathers. Snow snakes and ice gliders are slid with an underhand motion along an icy track, which has been prepared beforehand. The Chippewa often built these tracks by dragging a log through the snow and sprinkling the resulting trough with water to create an icy playing surface. Points are awarded to the player whose snow snake travels the farthest in each round.

Culin classifies snow snake as part of a category of games in which game pieces are “hurled along snow or ice.” In the case of snow snake, the pieces are often similar to darts or javelins. This type of game has obvious comparisons to curling, a team game played by sliding a large stone down an icy track toward a target area. I hope to help bridge a cultural divide for students by comparing something familiar, like curling, to something that isn’t, like snow snake or the ice glider game.

A few ice gliders are sitting upright  on a brown shag rg while a coupld lay on the floor. The are all white/offwhite with multiple long feathers at the top that are stuck into a curved, rectangular white/offwhite piece at the bottom.

A set of ice gliders, or bone sliders, made by the staff of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

More familiar to many North Dakota students than curling (and immediately recognizable to the Scottish settlers who built Fort Daer in Pembina in 1812) would be field or floor hockey, also known as shinny. Shinny refers to any game of field hockey where players use curved sticks to bat a ball through goalposts. The name shinny comes from an older Scottish Gaelic word, shinty, which is a game related to hurling and is of prehistoric Celtic (Irish/Scottish) origin.

European and Indigenous field hockey are uncannily similar, which may be why the Indigenous game bares the European name in Culin’s book. The Assiniboine name for the game is tah-cap-see-chah. Shinny was a common tribal game throughout North America. During the game, a buckskin or wooden ball is batted about with curved sticks by two opposing teams. According to Culin, the buckskin ball, weighted with clay or filled with cloth scraps, is the most common ball used by Plains tribes. Players are prohibited from holding the ball but in some versions of the game rules permit the swatting or passing of the ball with the hand. The object of the game is to pass the ball through a goal, usually a pair of stakes set at either end of a flat playing field.

Currently visitors to the Pembina State Museum can play hoop and stick, the hand (or stick) game, a type of guessing game, which we purchased from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indian artists, and double ball, another field sport like shinny which involves passing two balls bound by hide or string back and forth using sticks. Like shinny, the goal of double ball is to get the ball to a goal at either end of a playing field. We also have a few settler games available including hoop trundling, which involves rolling a hoop along with a stick. (Children would often race each other as they rolled the hoops.) Visitors can also try their hand at jacks and marbles, which though sometimes played today has waned in popularity. Research continues into what other types of games were played in the region both by Indigenous people and those of European origin. While we don’t have the facilities to include curling among our offerings, we do intend to add field hockey in the very near future.

Many blue pointed sticks with a red and black band on each sit next to a carrying bag that is yellow, green, red, and white with gray separating the triangular colors. There are also four smaller sticks that are light tan in color with two of them having a black band across the middle. The carrying case for those is brown with tan on the sides.

This handcrafted stick game set came from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and is available for visitors to play at the Pembina State Museum. In this guessing game, one team of players hides both black and white pieces in their hands. The other team must guess which hands hold the black pieces. Score is kept by passing sticks between the teams until one team wins all the sticks.

While many of the European games like curling, field hockey, and darts are still played today, their Indigenous counterparts have been mostly forgotten over the past centuries as tribes were expected to adapt to Western culture. But there are many efforts to revive these games. One example is the Ojibwe Winter Games held annually since 2012 at Camp Nawakwa near Lac du Flambeau in Wisconsin. The games were started to educate students about the history of Native sports. Snow snake, hoop and stick, atlatl throwing, and many more Indigenous sports are played by school students during these winter games. In some small way, I, too, hope to spark interest in Indigenous games at Pembina State Museum through the development of our new program. After all, sports and games are universal pastimes that unite people around the world.

On the Frontier of the Global Economy: Interpreting the Fur Trade Era at the Pembina State Museum

The common perception of the fur trade frontier from the 18th century to the mid-19th century may be one of a vast and harsh wilderness, where traders and indigenous people had to constantly battle the elements. In reality, the people who participated in the fur trade had at their disposal many of the comforts of a growing global trade network. The traders were responsible for exporting the furs used to make hats and fine clothing to the European market as well as importing luxuries from foreign markets to the prairie to exchange for those furs. Indigenous people participated in this economy by demanding and purchasing goods of the highest quality in exchange for the furs they acquired. Some of these items are on exhibit at the Pembina State Museum. There are original pipes, metal utensils and dishes, as well as shards of original stoneware and china on display. These items tell a tale of globe-spanning importance.

A white clay pipe with a label that reads the same

This 15-inch, long-stemmed clay pipe at Pembina State Museum is an example of a type of pipe popular from the late 17th century to the late 19th century. SHSND 85.36.18

One of the most popular luxuries was tobacco. Traded by both French voyageurs and the British Hudson’s Bay Company, tobacco was a highly demanded consumable commodity. An especially prized variety was Brazilian tobacco, which the Hudson’s Bay Co. imported from Portugal. Because of the Navigation Acts, which required all trade to be routed through London, the cost of foreign tobacco was high, as much as three times the cost of British tobacco. The Hudson’s Bay Co. sought to reduce the cost of shipping tobacco to Rupert’s Land, which encompassed all the land that drained into Hudson’s Bay, including Pembina and the Red River Valley. They accomplished this by importing tobacco from Virginia, then an English colony. However, they quickly discovered that their Native customers had developed a taste for Brazilian tobacco while trading with the French and would not buy their inferior product. To keep their customers happy, the Hudson’s Bay Co. switched back to importing the Brazilian variety at a premium price and even purchased tobacco from French and Dutch merchants in Europe when no other supply could be found.

Along with the tobacco, pipes, like the one in the museum gallery pictured above, were a common trade good. These clay pipes were manufactured in England and shipped in mass quantities to North America, not just to Rupert’s Land but to the Thirteen Colonies as well. These pipes were considered disposable, with the stem broken off after each use until only a stub remained. Both long and short-stemmed pipes were common. In Europe long-stemmed pipes were used by the upper class while workers preferred short-stemmed pipes which were easier to grip between their teeth, leaving their hands available for work. In Rupert’s Land the long-stemmed pipe was more common and used recreationally. By the mid-19th century, pipe stems could range from 18-to-24 inches long.

light tan cloth pieces wrapped in the smae color rope

Tobacco was shipped in many forms. Tobacco carrots, the pieces wrapped in cloth and twine, were preferred for their ease of packing and the protection they provided against the elements on long canoe voyages. These examples pictured above are reproductions that visitors may interact with when they visit the Pembina State Museum.

Ceramics were another luxury imported by the Hudson’s Bay Co. in large quantities. At first these products were meant to be used by company employees at the trading posts and were not for exchange. But as the Métis, indigenous people descended from European fur traders and their Native wives, and other independent traders established themselves, the demand for these products increased. Primarily of English origin, by the 19th century, ceramics were popular with a rising middle class seeking ways to display its wealth to others. To satisfy demand, the Hudson’s Bay Co. would import as many as 3,600 pieces of pottery in a year from a single supplier in England. According to its shipping manifests, the most popular color was Royal Saxon blue. The patterns printed in this color were inspired by the oriental patterns of the fine china Europeans had imported since the late 15th century. European potters would subsequently incorporate other colors and patterns inspired by Italian Renaissance paintings and English flora.

A tin cup, 2 stacked floral tea cups, a tan clay mug with a blue icon and blue stripes at the top and bottom, and a tan ceramic jug with a brown top and handle closed with a cork sit behind silverware

Ceramics and other fine pottery were a key luxury imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These replicas are part of the new “Red River Rendezvous” interpretive program which explores the process of exchange and material culture of the fur trade era, circa 1800.

In addition to fine pottery, trading companies also imported glass, stoneware, and metal dishes of pewter and tin. Other luxuries imported by the Hudson’s Bay Co. included ivory in the form of combs, alcohol, and sugar. Brandy was the preferred beverage of choice during the 18th century. The Hudson’s Bay Co. also imported rum from the Caribbean. They imported molasses from the Caribbean to make rum locally in Rupert’s Land as well, though rum was never as profitable as brandy. Sugar was not usually traded for furs but rather imported by the company from the Caribbean to keep its employees happy in their frontier posts.

Many broken bits of ceramics, silverware, plates, glass, and buttons

These broken bits on display in the Pembina State Museum were once valuable global commodities. The blue pieces are examples of the Royal Saxon blue color that was popular with Hudson’s Bay Company employees. Also shown here are remnants of pipe stems, glass beads and bottles, buttons, and metal utensils. SHSND 90.288.1-90.288.92

Today what remains of the network of trade that linked many different people together in the 18th and 19th centuries are broken pieces of items discarded long ago. These pieces, found at trading sites like Fort Pembina built by the confluence of the Red and Pembina rivers in 1801 or at the Gingras or Kittson trading posts constructed near St. Joseph’s (modern Walhalla) in the 1840s, represent what their owners likely would have considered to be garbage. Still, an interpreter can use these items to shed light on the nature of a globally linked economy and how local people participated in and influenced that economy. Despite its frontier location, Pembina and the rest of what would become northeast North Dakota represented a key spoke in the wheel of global trade.

When a Dungeon Master Takes on the Fur Trade, the Devil’s in the Details

When I started work as the Pembina State Museum’s outreach coordinator in February, one of the first tasks I was assigned was to develop a roving interpretive program intended to teach school students and museum visitors about the fur trade and how the business of trading furs was conducted.

This program would take the form of a fur trading game with players assigned to either a fur trade company team or a fur trading family team. The company teams will attempt to gain furs in exchange for their goods while the family teams will have to assemble a list of items purchased from the companies to complete certain tasks with their limited furs. Among other things, players will learn how goods were exchanged on credit, how trade companies kept records, how the hunting season was conducted, and get a chance to interact with replicas of the fur trade’s material culture.

As a regular Dungeon Master who likes to make his own games, I was excited to take on the project. I had to resist the urge to break out my Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) rulebooks. D&D character creation sessions alone can run more than three hours, and our fur trade game is meant to be shorter, capable of fitting into a 1 1/2-hour time slot. But I could still draw on my experience building fun and immersive campaigns for my D&D players while developing a fun and immersive interpretive experience to be taken to classrooms and for visitors to our museum.

Immersion is key to a fun experience. To aid immersion at home I often employ props and costumes to help my D&D players visualize something. The fur trade game is like that but taken to the next level. Everything short of hunting beavers will be represented by some sort of prop, some we already have, and others we are in the process of either purchasing or making ourselves. There have been a few challenges along the way to make our ambitions a reality.

Scope is one challenge. While I would love to purchase a fully stocked trading post like at Fort Garry in Winnipeg, space, budget, and our ability to transport the game won’t allow it. Instead, I have to temper my ambitions and, in some cases, stretch less into more. We have purchased two musket flints, but two single flints do not make for a stocked shelf. So the flints will be part of an interactive display while the shelves (to be built) will be stocked with props representing the items. For gun flints, a pile of small rocks wrapped in brown paper and twine will do.

A room with wooden shelves lining one wall. On the shelves are folded, colorful fabric

It would be nice to have shelves as well stocked as these at Fort Garry, but we have neither the space to store nor the ability to transport so much material for a roving interpretive game.

Another problem we often run into is historical accuracy. Perfect replicas of everything, like my fully stocked shelves, would be nice but aren’t always possible. We have several small pieces of printed cotton fabric. This is meant to represent calico cloth. The prints aren’t accurate, but they don’t have to be. Like props for a game of D&D, they’re meant to help players visualize something. In the case of our “calico” cloth, it’s intended to help our players visualize the wide variety of colors and patterns that were available at fur trading posts.

A table is covered with colorful fabric, spools of twill, a rope, and other materials

Purchasing large volumes of authentic calico or gun flints is unrealistic. Instead we have to find creative ways to represent these items in bulk. For instance, we’ll wrap the fabric pictured here around foam cores to give the appearance of large bolts of cloth.

Anachronisms are unavoidable when developing certain props. To aid immersion I often use handwritten notes and letters. I intend to use them for this game as well. While not everyone who participated in the fur trade was literate, and many spoke languages such as French or Michif (the language of the Métis), our game’s participants are literate, and they overwhelmingly speak English. I will not be giving them instruction letters in other languages nor will I use period-appropriate cursive, which can be illegible to modern readers. Instead, I’ll use a cursive-like font for easier legibility. By allowing some inauthentic touches, we save on limited time.

A hand inked letter, envelope with wax seal, quill and ink, rope, dice, and other items sit atop a wooden table

Handwritten notes like these will add a touch of authenticity while communicating game objectives to players. They are also fun for me to make.

There’s still a lot of work to do before the game is ready for a trial run. There are certainly more challenges that await me, but I hope when the game is finished that the players have as much fun playing it as I have had making it. Hopefully, they’ll learn a thing or two as well—I know I have!