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!

A Historian’s Adventures in Entomology (aka “Other Duties as Assigned”)

I like to consider myself a historian specializing in textiles. I am in my element when I can talk to visitors about quilts or catalog a lovely dress. As curator of collections management here at the State Museum, I can also hold my own when it comes to talking about a variety of subjects from furniture to guns. Bugs are a whole different matter, however. While I have a background in science, the only thing I know about insects are which ones are dangerous to museum collections and the phone number for our pest control professional who can take care of them.

When we were offered and accepted a cabinet containing a collection of butterflies and moths, I was mildly concerned about cataloging them, but the opportunity to get a butterfly collection that represents the upper Midwest was too important to let those concerns get in the way. In the summer of 2021, I was able to find the perfect intern, a museum studies student with an interest in entomology. Mary Johnson, a graduate student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta, had exactly the background we needed to get the collection cataloged. Unfortunately, we could only fund the internship for 2 1/2 months, and there were well over 1,000 insects to identify and catalog! It was impossible for her to catalog the whole collection. (You can read about her project and others in this blog written by our interns last summer.) This meant someone would have to catalog the rest. But who? (Insert the sound of crickets chirping here. And no, they are not from the collection drawers!) As fate would have it, it fell on me—a history person, a textile person, and a quilter—to identify and catalog drawers full of butterflies and moths.

While butterflies are beautiful, they are way out of my sphere of knowledge. The butterflies I am used to working with look more like these and are embroidered with thread and yarn.

Close-up of quilts from the State Museum collection. SHSND 17662, 1981.93.1

Still, I had a couple of things going for me. First, collectors house like specimens together so a drawer might be one genus and the various species in that genus will be lined up together. Even so, when faced with a drawer like the one below, it can be a bit daunting for someone without an entomology background.

SHSND 2021.10.434-.467

My second help was that Mary made a guide for each drawer. She photographed the drawer and labeled or at least narrowed down the possibilities of which species the various groups of butterflies belonged to.

Lastly, some but not all of the specimens were identified by the collector. Some but not all also had collection locations identified, which helped when a species is found in a specific area.

Here is an example of a butterfly with full identifying information, including where and when it was found, its species, and who found it. SHSND 2021.10.461

But many specimens had little or no information.

Sorry, folks, but the “From Clyde” tag doesn’t help me much. SHSND 2021.10.455

When I was lucky and a butterfly’s species was noted on a tag, I could safely assume the butterflies in the same column were also of that species. When identifications didn’t agree, I felt I needed to verify the species. I also knew that as research has evolved, species names have changed; animals once thought to be different species might now be combined in the same species, or animals thought to be the same species might be separated due to what my untrained eye sees as a minor variation. With many of these specimens collected and identified nearly 50 years ago, changes were a possibility.

But how was I going to verify the identification? I did what anybody else would do—I turned to the internet. In the past, internet searches have helped me with everything from how to tie a necktie to how to wear a Bohemian folk costume to the names for various parts of a saddle, and I was hoping it wouldn’t let me down when it came to identifying butterflies. I found many websites. Some were scientifically written and over my head; others were geared toward kids and way too simple. A few were written for folks like me using plain English with enough detail to help me identify different species. Even with the collector’s notes, Mary’s notes, and help from websites, trying to decide if a specimen was an eastern tiger swallowtail, a Canadian tiger swallowtail, or a western tiger swallowtail wasn’t easy.

“Other duties as assigned” is a broad category I never would I have thought would include butterfly identification. But the task turned out to be an interesting adventure for this historian and has given me a better appreciation for the work of all scientists.

Bismarck’s 150th Anniversary Celebrated in New State Archives Exhibit

Summer is in full swing here in the State Archives, and patrons are busy engaging with our collections to answer their various research questions. This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Bismarck’s founding. To celebrate the occasion, the Archives reference team took on the task of selecting photographs from our collections to be part of a new exhibit in the corner of the reading room dedicated to former State Archivist Gerald Newborg. We affectionately call this space the “Newborg Nook.”

This space has two chairs and serves as a quiet place for people to sit and take in the reading room, as well as browse our selection of periodicals. It is also a space where small, temporary exhibits are put up to invite visitors to learn more about the topics covered in our holdings.

Prior to the new exhibit, this area hosted an exhibit on the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women full suffrage in the United States. In considering what should go up in this space next, the Archives reference team concluded that the 150th anniversary of Bismarck was timely and would allow us to highlight photographs and other materials from our collection that deal with the city.

We went through our digitized images on Digital Horizons and our Photobook site and narrowed these down to our favorite ten. We also reflected upon what was significant to include in terms of local landmarks. Thus the former and current Capitol buildings, the Northern Pacific rail bridge, the Bismarck Civic Center, Kirkwood Mall, downtown, and residential scenes all found a place in our narrative. The resulting exhibit illustrates how Bismarck, initially named Edwinton, has changed over time and captures the richness of 150 years of history.

Andrew Kerr, one of our new media specialists in the Audience Engagement & Museum Department, worked his magic and put many of the images and captions onto large wall stickers that make the wall pop. This colorful design, featuring the palette used for the city’s 150th anniversary celebration in the spring, also included some mounted images to give the exhibit three-dimensional characteristics. Andrew did a great job with the installation, and it looks amazing.

This collaborative effort resulted in a cool little exhibit you will want to check out when visiting the reading room and features some books on Bismarck from our collections, including The Bismarck-Mandan Encyclopedia and the three-volume series Bismarck-Mandan Memories, that you can read while relaxing in the space. Be sure to check out the exhibit while it is up and keep an eye out for future exhibits in the space in coming years.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: A Tour of the Processing Lab and the Importance of Provenience

Summer is a fun time with people from different places taking tours of the archaeology lab and collections at the State Historical Society. But since not everyone can come visit us in person, let’s take a virtual tour. Today we will tour the processing lab.

The archaeology processing lab at the State Historical Society.

Archaeologists study the human past by looking at what people leave behind, including artifacts. Artifacts encompass any objects that people made, used, touched, or carried.

Artifacts are sorted into different sizes in the processing lab. This is called size grading. For large projects we use a machine, which looks a bit like a big, motorized sieve.

The size-grading machine in the processing lab is useful in the sorting process.

We separate different-sized artifacts so it is easier to sort these objects by material types like stone, pottery, seeds, animal bone, and shell. It is a little easier for the human eye to distinguish among different materials when everything is closer in size.

The objects in the trays below are size graded. These items are part of the archaeology hands-on educational collection. Although real artifacts, they have low provenience and were found out of context in dirt piles resulting from a road construction project. Provenience is exactly where something is found at a site. Those things found around an object—other artifacts or related features like storage pits or house walls—are the context. Both context and provenience are very important.

Trays of size-graded artifacts.

When archaeologists study artifacts they need to know the provenience and context. Provenience and context give the details and clues needed to piece together the backstories of people living in a certain place and time in the past. This is why archaeologists take careful notes, make maps, as well as photograph and record everything as they excavate. All the recording is to track provenience and context.

Most of the items on the trays in the processing lab are from Scattered Village (32MO31) and the modern city of Mandan. Scattered Village was primarily lived in by Mandan people from the late 1500s to around 1700. The current city of Mandan originated in the 1870s and now covers the site of Scattered Village. Even though we know what village and city the artifacts are from (the general location), we don’t know specifically where on the site they came from (the exact provenience) or what was around or near them (the context).

What do you see on the tray in this close-up photo?

Unprovenienced artifacts from Scattered Village and the city of Mandan.

If you look closely, you’ll see some recent artifacts, like chunks of asphalt from the road that was torn up to be repaired. There also are older items from Mandan’s early days, like an old glass bottleneck. Meanwhile, the bison teeth and pottery sherds from Scattered Village are around 300 to 450 years old. It’s unclear whether the freshwater mussel shell is from Scattered Village or Mandan since it is missing its provenience. Because these artifacts are missing their provenience and context information, they are not very useful for most researchers. But they are good examples of the types of materials and artifacts found at Scattered Village and in Mandan. They provide an opportunity for people to touch and see real artifacts when they visit the lab.

The artifacts revealed.

One of the reasons archaeologists sort everything into different material types is so each kind of material can be sent to people who specialize in the different materials. For example, all the animal bone found at a site will go to a faunal analyst (someone who studies animal bone). The faunal analyst will look at the bones and record what kind of animals they belong to. This can tell us about the environment at the time, the animals people hunted, ate, lived with or cared for, the age or health of those animals, and sometimes even the time of year an animal died.

A faunal analyst studies bones found at a site to identify the animals once living there and provide insight into both the surrounding environment and people’s interactions with the world around them.

Ultimately everything found during an excavation is examined and written up in a report so the information is available in the future to know more about the past.

Reflections on a Rare Fluted Stone Tool from Stutsman County

One of the most important artifact types found in archaeological sites are ground stone tools. These include tools such as stone axes, manos, metates, pestles, abraders, figurines, and hammerstones. Most ground stone artifacts were created by pecking, grinding, and polishing. Additionally, drilling was used to create holes in scarcer ground stone artifacts such as smoking pipes, stone gorgets, and stone pendants. In contrast, artifacts like manos, metates, and hammerstones could be selected from natural cobbles and slabs and used with little or no modifications. While manos, metate, mortars, and pestles are often used to process substances (e.g., plant and animal products, pigments, clay, and tempers), hammerstone, abraders, and polishers are mainly used to manufacture and shape tools (Adams 2014; Morrow 2016).

Stone hammerheads, called grooved mauls, are common ground stone artifacts found in North Dakota. Grooved mauls are hafted percussion tools, and the maul head represents the stone part of the tool. In July 2021, a landowner donated a uniquely shaped grooved maul to the State Historical Society’s Archaeology and Historic Preservation Department. This grooved maul measures 8.6 inches (22 cm) in length, 10.6 inches (27 cm) at its widest circumference, and weighs 7 pounds (3.2 kg). According to the donor, the maul head was found in Stutsman County, south of Plow Lake.

The longitudinally arranged channels, or flutes, pecked into the surface of the maul and extending from the handle groove to the working end make this one of the most unique mauls ever found in North Dakota. The handle groove goes almost all the way around the maul. The parallel flutes are common to grooved axes, and they are less likely to occur with grooved mauls.

A grooved maul with additional parallel fluting pecked into the surface from Stutsman County. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

Grooved maul heads vary in size, weight, and grooving pattern. For example, based on the grooving pattern, maul heads can be classified as either full grooved or three-quarter grooved. While a full-grooved maul head has a groove that completely encircles the object’s circumference, a three-quarter grooved maul head has a groove that encircles three-fourths of the circumference. Grooved maul heads were usually made on a selected cobble that already possessed a spherical or ovoid shape. Grooved maul heads were mostly made of granite, basalt, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks. They were hafted with either split stick or twisted rawhide. Handles were attached to the pecked groove and often placed closer to the poll end or near the midpoint of the maul.

Grooved mauls were essentially the sledgehammers of their day; they could be used for any activity requiring impact force (Adams 2002; Morrow 2016, 324). They were used for food preparation tasks, including breaking bison bones to extract marrow, as well as pounding dried meats and chokecherries (Fedyniak and Giering 2016). Additionally, they could be used for hammering stakes into the ground, driving wedges through wood, and even killing small animals (Adams 2014). According to Highsmith (1985, 69), the rarity of fluted ground stone artifacts may suggest their special function in a non-utilitarian context. Fedyniak and Giering (2016, 77) have described the use of stone mauls in healing ceremonies. Experimental studies and use-wear analyses can provide insights regarding the possible functions of grooved mauls.

Distal, left, and proximal ends of the grooved maul. Evidence of use-wear is more visible in the working, battered distal end of the maul head. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

Most grooved mauls are found on the surface of archaeological sites and often are collected by landowners and avocational collectors. Very few grooved mauls are recovered from secure archaeological contexts. Most of our grooved maul artifacts were acquired through gifts and donations, and we have little-to-no provenance information for these collections.

Moreover, grooved mauls could be used/reused for a longer time—hundreds and possibly thousands of years—and this makes it difficult to accurately date them (Fedyniak and Giering 2016). In the case of the maul head from Stutsman County, we do not know its archaeological context. In general, grooved mauls appear to be associated with the later part of the Native American occupation of North Dakota, but they could be also found in the earliest time periods; a temporal range of Early Woodland to Historic times seems most likely (Deaver, Deaver, and Bergstrom 1989; Morrow 2016, 324). For example, a grooved maul recovered from the Bull Ring site (32ME166) may date back to the Early Plains Woodland Tradition (circa 400 B.C. to 100 B.C. in North Dakota). On the other hand, South Cannonball (32SI19) grooved mauls temporally may represent the Extended Middle Missouri Plains Village occupation, dating roughly from A.D. 1200 to 1400 (Griffin 1984, 95; Johnson 2007). Grooved mauls were recovered from controlled excavations at the South Cannonball site, where 15 massive grooved mauls were found (Griffin 1984, 59). The presence of a large number of grooved mauls in the northern Plains may indicate the importance of this artifact in the day-to-day activities of the Native people.

Examples of grooved maul heads from South Cannonball. SHSND AHP 92.2.720, 3590, 4689, 6393, 6453, and 6770

Replicas of full-grooved hafted mauls. A handle creates more leverage and force. SHSND AHP Educational Collection

Size comparison of the grooved maul head from Stutsman County, right, with one of the replicas. SHSND AHP Educational Collection


References

Adams, Jenny L. 2014. Ground stone analysis: A Technological Approach. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Deaver, Ken, Sherri Deaver, and Mike Bergstrom. 1989. Onion Ring, 32ME166, A Tipi Ring Site in Central North Dakota. Report prepared for The Coteau Properties Company, Bismarck, ND.

Fedyniak, K., and K.L. Giering. 2016. “More Than Meat: Residue Analysis Results of Mauls in Alberta.” Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper 36: 77-85.

Griffin, D.E. 1984. “South Cannonball (32SI19): Extended Middle Missouri Village in Southern North Dakota.” Submitted in fulfillment of Contract CX 1200-7-3554, Rocky Mountain Region National Park Service. Colombia, MO: Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri.

Highsmith, G.V. 1985. The Fluted Axe. Amherst, WI: Palmer.

Johnson, Craig M. 2007. A Chronology of Middle Missouri Plains Village Sites. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, no. 47. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

Morrow, Toby A. 2016. Stone Tools of Minnesota. Anamosa, IA: Wapsi Valley Archaeology, Inc., https://mn.gov/admin/assets/stone-tools-of-minnesota-part1_tcm36-247478.pdf

The Sitting Bull Robe Saga: Exploring the Lifecycle of an International Loan During a Pandemic

Part of museum work is loaning objects to other institutions. The State Museum currently has 22 active loans, most of which are in-state and straightforward. But when an international border and a pandemic are involved, the situation can get a bit more complicated. Here’s what happened when an art gallery in Canada requested a rare artifact for an exhibit a few years back.

Birth: In late 2018, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, requested the loan of a significant piece of our shared history: a buffalo robe painted by Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull painted the robe between 1877 and 1881 while seeking asylum in what is now Saskatchewan. It is the only known buffalo hide painting by Sitting Bull in existence. The robe, which Sitting Bull initially gave to Canadian trader Gus Heddrich, entered the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s collection in 1945 after Heddrich and his wife died.

Buffalo robe painting by Sitting Bull. SHSND 10117

When institutions request loans from the state’s collection, some boring but important paperwork must be completed. Collections staff reviewed the reason for the loan, the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s exhibit plans for the painting, and details about the gallery’s light levels and climate control. The loan request noted: “This artwork could be considered one of the most significant Indigenous paintings completed within Saskatchewan but has never been exhibited in Saskatchewan. It would be of enormous interest to the descendants of Sitting Bull’s people as well as the larger community.” State Historical Society staff agreed—the loan was approved, and its journey began.

Transport: Some not-so-boring paperwork followed. Our registrars (aka paperwork gurus) exchanged over 100 emails with the gallery’s customs broker, U.S. and Canadian customs officials, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to complete all the forms required to transport the robe safely across the border. Due to the robe’s cultural and historical significance it required a courier, that is, a personal escort on its travels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cost of international fine art couriers is a bit prohibitive, so State Historical Society staff decided to make the trek with the robe themselves. The robe was carefully packed in a large shipping crate, and in June 2019, two staff members made the six-hour drive from Bismarck to Regina, Canada.

All packed up and on the road.

Exhibit: From June 2019 to April 2020, Sitting Bull’s hide painting featured prominently in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibition. The exhibit explored the diverse ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the province related to land, and how objects carry histories and stories. You can learn more about the exhibit on the MacKenzie’s website. Staff at the art gallery developed a variety of programming around the buffalo robe, including public talks with First Nations members. Artist and Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill was at the gallery to welcome the robe on behalf of the Lakota people of Saskatchewan. He also shared some of the meanings behind the images on the hide painting in this video.

View of Sitting Bull’s robe in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibit. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Opening event with Lakota Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill on June 20, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Extension: The loan’s original end date was set for May 30, 2020. Agency staff had their passports ready, but the universe had other ideas. The U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel for nineteen months. Between March 2020 and November 2021, the State Historical Society and the MacKenzie signed two loan extensions. This additional time led to unique opportunities, including extra months for visitors to view the robe. During the robe’s extended stay, the gallery’s “Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth” class used it as inspiration for a video game project that combined Indigenous oral storytelling with interactive design. From December 2020 to April 2021, the robe and the students’ work were showcased in the exhibit Travelling Memory: Sitting Bull’s Robe, The Mackenzie’s Art School, and the Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth.

The Travelling Memory exhibit highlighted a video game project by eighth-grade students at the MacKenzie Art School. The project gave audience members an interactive way to experience the story of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Return: Since every North Dakotan and Canadian knows that safe travel in the winter (or even spring) is no guarantee, arrangements to pick up the robe were made for early June 2022. Once again, the registrars emailed and traded paperwork like crazy to ensure a pain-free border crossing.

Reunited, and it feels so good! The robe was patiently waiting for agency staff at the MacKenzie Art Gallery collections storage area.

Sitting Bull’s buffalo hide painting returned to Bismarck on June 4, 2022. Previously, it was exhibited at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum for over thirty years. But continuous display, exposure to light, and repeated handling is stressful on natural materials. So for the foreseeable future it will be resting in storage to help preserve the colored pigment and the condition of the hide.

State Historic Sites Keep Me On My Toes As The Summer Season Begins

Another summer season is upon us! It is the most exciting time of the year. Every day when I get to work fresh opportunities present themselves. This is part of what I like about being a historic sites manager. It is never the same. Sure, there are routine tasks I do regularly, but most of the time I walk into work with a different agenda for the day than the one I end up with. New projects, mysteries, and challenges arise to keep me on my toes. Most days, I do not get to my planned agenda before my phone rings, and we are off to tackle some new adventure.

In fall 2020, my phone rang. It was a call about upgrading the playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site near Grenora. The decades-old playground equipment at the site was from the time when the State Historical Society oversaw both historic sites and state parks. The outdated equipment was no longer safe. For the next several months, I worked with officials from Divide County to secure funding and design a new playground set for the site. As part of the project, I applied for several grants, including ones from the John & Elaine Andrist Fund and the Outdoor Heritage Fund. This past winter, the equipment was installed. On June 11 we held a grand opening event, where the community could try out the equipment, and the staff of the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center hosted hands-on games.

The old playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site near Grenora.

New playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site.

One of the biggest improvements we are working on this year is installing an elevator at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site. It is not every day you can make a historic structure Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. Installing the elevator will allow visitors who are unable to climb the stairs to the courtroom to still attend programs there or even court, should the Southeast Judicial District need to use the space again for jury trials as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a massive project that will significantly improve the use of this beautiful building. Plus, it also has revealed some fun little tidbits. We never expected to find beadboard under the paneling of the judge’s platform. We have not seen beadboard anywhere in the courthouse before. Could it be that there was more beadboard in the courthouse, and it was covered when all the tin went up to hide the damage resulting from the 1916 courthouse fire?

Workers from RDA Construction discovered beadboard paneling under the judge’s platform at the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site.

The floor in the former superintendent's office was removed to make room for the new elevator at the courthouse.

A construction worker stands in the new doorway, which will serve as a second entrance and access point to the elevator.

These are just a couple of the new things we have been working on at state historic sites. We are also in the process of acquiring a helicopter for the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown. The 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site has several programs planned for the summer, including talks with law enforcement. Fort Totten State Historic Site will feature concerts this month and is working on more events to come. The Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is hosting a prototype exhibit for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library for a limited time. All in all, it’s set to be an excellent summer to check out our wonderful state historic sites.

The Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is hosting a prototype exhibit for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.