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.

A Matter of Interpretation: Bringing History to Life at State Historic Sites

Learning how to tell stories objectively isn’t always easy. Not many people realize it, but the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site where I work is staffed with team members who are nationally certified in interpretation. To obtain certification, our staff attends training courses offered through the National Association for Interpretation (NAI). These are weeklong programs, which teach the core principles of interpretation.

One might ask, “What is interpretation?” NAI defines it as “a purposeful approach to communication that facilitates meaningful, relevant, and inclusive experiences that deepen understanding, broaden perspectives, and inspire engagement with the world around us.”

So how does that apply to these sites? Through our training from NAI, we are able to help visitors better understand and relate to site content, and hopefully spark interest in furthering their knowledge of what they learn at these sites. We do so by offering hands-on items that bring seemingly intangible information learned through textbooks or novels to life. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site hold more than 1,500 items (mainly replicas) related to their content. Using replicas allows us to offer visitors the opportunity to handle some of these items. In a sense, we are able to put history into the hands of visitors. Interpretive Resource Specialist Shannon Kelly makes sure all the items we acquire are both historically accurate and add to the story the sites tell. A recent commission by the agency included a beaded belt by Hunkpapha Lakhota/Hidatsa artist D. Joyce Kitson. The purpose of the belt is to allow visitors to handle and contextualize what this representative piece of history may have been like.

This blue beaded belt by Hunkpapha Lakhota/Hidatsa artist D. Joyce Kitson will be used as an interpretive piece for staff to discuss Sacagawea’s possessions and attire during the expedition. We do not know the exact design of Sacagawea’s belt, but this is a good approximation.

Aside from historical items at the site, we also have a lot of programming. From arts and crafts to geology and navigation, we add fun educational activities for visitors. Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) training teaches you how to develop these programs. Staff then create engaging interactive activities and programs that allow visitors to get the most out of their visit. One recent program we ran was a paper boat challenge, where visitors were taught how to make paper boats and then offered “provisions” in the form of beads, corn, corks, and wooden clothespins. The visitor was tasked with loading up their boat with the provisions and seeing how long it could stay afloat while dealing with the elements (or in this case, people splashing).

Our setup for a recent paper boat challenge held at the Fort Mandan State Historic Site Visitor Center near Washburn.

Once staff obtain their certification, they are required to maintain credits for their NAI membership, and this is done by attending its conferences. After an NAI conference, staff come back motivated, inspired, and sometimes even with a new skill set. In November 2023, Bethany Schatz, one of our team members, and I went to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the NAI National Conference. While there, we attended a workshop on 19th-century blacksmithing. Bethany was offered the opportunity to make an item in the forge. She created a steak flipper, which is something that could have very easily been made by the blacksmiths of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. From the forge to the tools, it was all similar to what would have been used in 1804 at the site. Bethany was able to experience in just a short amount of time what it would have been like to work as a blacksmith during the expedition. Not only did she leave the session with a new item she created with her own hands, but she also left with a desire to learn more about the trade as well as how to bring similar hands-on learning experiences to the site and spread inspiration to visitors.

Seasonal employee Bethany Schatz learns how to blacksmith during the 2023 NAI National Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. Bethany was guided through the steps to make a steak flipper by Historic Arkansas Museum site interpreter/residential blacksmith Casey Marshall.

In North Dakota, we are fortunate to have nationally certified interpreters at many of our state historic sites and museums. After all, interpretation is a way to connect with visitors, help develop their interests, and cultivate memorable experiences. Come check us out!

Digitizing Archaeological Collections: Advancing Research, Preservation, and Data Management

Archaeology collections management involves organizing and systematically caring for archaeological artifacts, specimens, records, and associated materials. Proper management is crucial to ensure the preservation, accessibility, and long-term research potential of these collections (Knoll and Huckell 2019). Maintaining high-quality curation standards goes beyond storage enhancement and environmental monitoring. It involves meticulous organization, comprehensive documentation, and secure storage to bolster preservation and ensure accessibility of collections for research and educational purposes. The primary goal driving artifact inventory, accessioning, cataloging, and curation is to maximize the research potential embedded within these collections (Allen et al. 2019; Benden and Taft 2019; Thomson 2014). 

Digitization facilitates efficient data management by creating digital records that can be easily organized, searched, and linked. This simplifies collection management, cataloging, and information retrieval. Digitized artifacts enable precise identification, tracking of location and loan status, and documentation of their condition and preservation requirements (Graham 2012; Thomson 2014). “Organizing objects digitally within a collections management system simplifies inventory processes, ensures effective storage and tracking of all items, and guarantees convenient future access,” according to Thompson (2014: 53). This digital approach significantly enhances the handling of substantial volumes of material (Graham 2012; Thompson 2014).

Moreover, digital access to collections allows for more extensive and efficient research, analysis, and comparison of artifacts. Digital records enable the seamless integration of various data types, including images, texts, and metadata, within comprehensive databases. This integrated approach empowers researchers to establish connections and correlations (Benden and Taft 2019; Thomson 2014). Digitization encourages data sharing and collaboration among archaeologists, researchers, and institutions, leading to more comprehensive research and discoveries. It streamlines data retrieval and expands collection accessibility for scholars, educators, and the general public (Graham 2012; Thomson 2014).

The archaeology collections team within the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Department utilizes the Re:discovery Proficio Collections Management Software to digitize, manage, and organize a wide array of collections, including artifacts, ecofacts (e.g., fauna, flora, pollen, and soil found at archaeological sites), specimens, and documents. Since implementing the software, over 136,000 artifact records have been digitized within the archaeology artifact modules. Beyond cataloging and inventory management, the software provides advanced search functionalities and customizable data fields to efficiently organize items based on diverse criteria. Proficio also facilitates monitoring item conditions and conservation efforts and supports user access control for data security. 

In sum, digitizing archaeological collections is a highly valuable approach that enhances accessibility, preservation, and research opportunities for artifacts. It fosters public engagement and collaboration within the archaeological community. By employing tools like Re:discovery Proficio Collections Management Software, we have digitized thousands of artifact records, paving the way for streamlined organization, efficient cataloging, and comprehensive documentation. In essence, the digitization of archaeological collections isn't just a technological advancement—it's a gateway to preserving the past, enriching the present, and shaping the future of archaeological research and public engagement. However, it's crucial to proceed with care, following best practices to maintain the accuracy and integrity of digital records.

An example of Proficio’s advanced filtering options to search and organize all glass beads from the State Historical Society’s archaeology artifact collections. The total record count for this module is located in the left corner of the display. Sensitive site information has been redacted from the image.


Allen, Rebecca, Ben Ford, and J. Ryan Kennedy. 2019. “Introduction: Reclaiming the Research Potential of Archaeological Collections.” In New Life for Archaeological Collections, edited by Rebecca Allen and Ben Ford, xiii-xxxix. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press and the Society for Historical Archaeology.


Benden, Danielle M., and Mara C. Taft. 2019. “A Long View of Archaeological Collections Care, Preservation, and Management.” Advances in Archaeological Practice 7, no. 3: 217-23.


Graham, Chelsea A. 2012. “Applications of Digitization to Museum Collections Management, Research, and Accessibility.” Master’s thesis, Lund University.


Knoll, Michelle K., and Bruce B. Huckell. 2019. “Guidelines for Preparing Legacy Archaeological Collections for Curation.” Society for American Archaeology.….


Thomson, Karen. 2014. “Handling the ‘Curation Crisis:’ Database Management for Archaeological Collections.” Master’s thesis, Seton Hall University.

Happy New Year? Remembering Y2K in the Museum Collections

While we look upon most new years with great anticipation and excitement for the possibilities of what the upcoming 12 months will bring, the preparations for the turn of the millennium brought fear and trepidation along with hope. Faced with the prospect of calamitous computer problems posed by the Y2K bug, people prepared to shelter in place or alternately to “party like it's 1999.”

Some artifacts in the museum collections show the variety of activities and emotions associated with the coming of the new millennium.

The specter of Y2K brought worries that computers in financial institutions such as banks wouldn’t be able to handle changing internal computer calendars from 1999 to 2000. Since many programs represented years by their final two digits, the concern was that systems, unable to differentiate 2000 from 1900, would crash and all the money in our accounts would be lost. This led some people to withdraw all their money from the bank with the plan of depositing it all back in early January. To prevent a run, bankers tried to quiet these fears by assuring their customers that their money was safe.

SHSND 2002.120.1-2

The U.S. government also did its part to assure people that Y2K wasn’t Armageddon in the pamphlet “Y2K & You: a new horizon” published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This pamphlet contained information on a variety of topics such as “The History of the Y2K ‘Millennium Bug’” and “What Are State Governments Doing,” aimed at calming a jittery public.

SHSND 2007.33.1-2

Churches also did their best to help bring hope for peace with the new millennium. Faith Lutheran Church in Bismarck included a notice on the back cover of its Christmas program inviting the congregation to attend a vigil on December 31, 1999, at 11:30 p.m., with a candlelight walk through the neighborhood at midnight.

SHSND 2003.19.10

For those who were “gonna party like it’s 1999,” there were lots of fun items to help with the celebrations. Along with the traditional party hats, noisemakers, and napkins, one could pick up a pair of 2000-shaped novelty eyeglasses or some confetti to toss at midnight. And for the big toast, a bottle of sparkling wine and a “Happy 2000” balloon could help you ring in the new year in style.

Celebratory accoutrements for the new millennium. SHSND 2003.19.1-9, 2004.5.9

There were also everyday items made a little extra special for the new year. M&M’s made special edition “Millennium Party Boxes” with its famous candies in confetti colors. (Though to be honest, aren’t they already in confetti colors?) It looks like brown was replaced by purple. Inside each box was a fun New Year’s resolution that the different M&M characters made. I particularly like Yellow’s resolution “to stay away from people who only love me for my shell. It’s what’s inside that counts, right?” No one can argue with that!

SHSND 2004.5.5-8

Not only was 2000 the start of a new millennium, it was also the start of a new century. Calendars were made to remember the previous century while this child’s calendar helped to document the firsts of the new century.

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Looking back at that time we can see the fears were largely unfounded, and for most of us 2000 was just another reason to celebrate and be able to say we lived in two centuries and two millenniums! So here is wishing you all a very happy new year in 2024.

Road to the North Dakota Blue Book: A “Treasure Trove” of State Information

When the 2023-2025 North Dakota Blue Book is unveiled in a ceremony this Wednesday at the state Capitol, the event will mark the culmination of a two-year effort by the secretary of state’s office, other state employees, and volunteers to compile what Gov. Doug Burgum has called “a treasure trove of information about all things North Dakota.”

An orange book cover titled Legislative Manual

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site outside Bismarck is featured on the cover of the new North Dakota Blue Book.

Secretary of State Michael Howe said the biennial Blue Book, published by his office, depended on “a multitude of folks that care about the history of North Dakota.”

For Audience Engagement & Museum staff at the State Historical Society, our involvement began in October 2022 when Clearwater Communications, which coordinates the effort, contacted department director Kim Jondahl to let her know the Blue Book Committee had selected North Dakota state historic sites as the featured chapter topic.

Over the next three months our team got to work. Kim put in countless late nights researching and writing the chapter with input from our state historic site managers and supervisors. Editor Pam Berreth Smokey and I condensed and edited text. Meanwhile, New Media Specialist Supervisor Angela Johnson sourced images to accompany our contribution.

The result, a 50-page chapter providing an up-to-date overview of the state’s 60 state museums and historic sites, underscores the “power of place … [to connect] us to the world around us,” according to State Historical Society Director Bill Peterson, who will speak at the Blue Book launch. The chapter traces the agency’s evolving relationship with these sites, from the purchase of the first state historic sites in the early 1900s to the ways the state continues to steward and develop these significant locations today.

In addition to the featured chapter, the Blue Book, the 38th since statehood, includes a wealth of reference material on North Dakota’s branches of government, elections, natural resources, educational system, tribal-state relations, and key industries. A concluding chapter, penned by State Archives Head of Reference Services Sarah Walker, explores 150 years of Bismarck history in commemoration of the capital city’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2022.

All 141 state Legislators, cabinet members, elected officials, university presidents, the State Library, and contributors will receive copies. Blue Books are also sold in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum’s store, with past editions accessible via the State Historical Society website.

The 2023-2025 Blue Book, which clocks in at over 600 pages, has come a long way since the slim 180-page inaugural 1889-1890 edition. That roughly pocket-sized volume comprised an array of political and official statistics, the North Dakota Constitution, and founding national documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. It followed a similar format to Long’s Legislative Hand Book and Rules of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Dakota, produced in 1887 and 1889 by Mandan attorney Theodore K. Long.

An orange book cover titled Legislative Manual

The inaugural, not so blue, Blue Book. SHSND SA 353 N811 1889/90

Interestingly, that first edition wasn’t even blue, nor was it called a blue book, a term adopted from the British who printed government reports and diplomatic correspondence in blue covers at least as early as the 1600s. The copy housed here in the State Archives has a salmon-colored cover—it wouldn’t go blue until 1897—and was known as the Legislative Manual. In the 1920s and 30s, the book was published under the title, the Manual for the State of North Dakota, before becoming officially known as the North Dakota Blue Book in 1942.

For much of the 20th century, the Blue Book was produced sporadically—about once every decade. But in 1995, Howe’s predecessor as secretary of state, Al Jaeger, began publishing it biennially. “All the credit I think goes to Al understanding the value of having that history in book form and also looked at every two years,” said Howe, a former state legislator who was elected secretary of state in November 2022 and in this role also serves on the State Historical Board. “Al since 1995 has been a part of every Blue Book including this current one that’s coming out.” Moving forward, the secretary of state’s office is exploring ways to expand the book’s digital format. They also plan to continue the tradition of printing the Blue Book (although exactly what that will look like is under consideration).

A tan book cover with an American flag on it titled Manual for the State of North Dakota 1930

In the 1920s and 30s, the Blue Book sported a distinctly patriotic cover. SHSND SA 353 N811 1929

Over the years, while state government statistics and reference material have remained a staple of the publication, the information inside has varied—early editions included everything from postage rates and the value of foreign coins to the names of registered law students and a listing of insurance companies operating in North Dakota. Some editions even reprinted England’s 1215 Magna Carta, which famously limited royal power. And in the era before women and many minority groups received full voting rights, the 1909 Blue Book featured a section on the qualifications needed by state to vote. With some variation, the common requirement was that you be male and at least 21 years old.

For its amusement quotient, however, the 1942 edition is a standout. It not only notes the number of large candy factories in North Dakota (two in case you were wondering) but also gives space to then-Gov. John Moses’ thoughts on our infamous winters. Moses deemed these “sadly misrepresented” and “widely dramatized in the public press,” on average “no more than seven to fifteen degrees below those recorded at St. Petersburg, Florida.” Ahem.

A blue book cover titled North Dakota Blue Book 1942

Want the skinny on North Dakota candy production? The 1942 Blue Book has you covered. SHSND SA 353 N811 1942

If that wasn’t enough to make readers pack their bags and head our way, Moses ended his homage to the state by citing the words of North Dakota poet James W. Foley: “There’s something in Dakota … makes you bigger, broader, better, makes you … noble as her soil … makes you mighty as a king.”

The 2023-2025 North Dakota Blue Book will be launched from 3-4 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, by Secretary of State Michael Howe in the Memorial Hall of the state Capitol. The event, featuring musical entertainment, light refreshments, and remarks by officials, is free and open to the public. Contributors will be able to pick up their complimentary copies at that time.

Black Fridays Past: Items From the State Collection That Once Caused a Shopping Frenzy

November and December are gift-buying months for many people in the United States, which often leads to a shortage of some of the year’s must-haves. The day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, is a popular day for shopping the sales with hordes of crowds hitting America’s malls. Since some items are limited in number and are only on sale during certain times of the day, people line up early in the morning, risking frostbite (at least in North Dakota) to guarantee they will get the product at the discount price. Here at the State Historical Society, we’ve been lucky over the years to snag a few of these coveted items for the museum collection.

In the early 1980s, the most desired toy was a Cabbage Patch Kids doll. By the end of 1983, nearly 3 million Cabbage Patch Kids had been sold. Cabbage Patch Kids were flying off the shelves, and some were being sold on the black market at a highly inflated price.

A black Cabbage Patch Kid doll with gray clothes and green trim sits in its yellow and green box.

This Cabbage Patch Kid was purchased from Target by the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1985. The name on her birth certificate is Oriane Adelaide. No staff members were harmed in the procurement of this doll. SHSND 1985.85.1

Beanie Babies were one of the most popular collectibles of the 1990s. Since 1994, collectors have been on the hunt for the tiny creatures, with some more collectible and desirable than others. In 1997, McDonald’s had a line of Beanie Babies created for their Happy Meal toys. They sold 100 million Teenie Beanies within two weeks.

Plastic McDonalds TY Beanie Baby package with a yellow billed purple platypus

This purple platypus Teenie Beanie appeared in kids’ Happy Meals during the late 1990s. SHSND 2019.43.1

A purple Princess Diana TY Beanie Baby with a white rose on its left chest area. A plexiglass container sits behind it and collectors clipp for the tag sits in front of it.

Commemorative Princess Diana Beanie Baby bear released in the months after her 1997 death. SHSND 2019.43.4

The donor of the Beanie Babies, Becky King, and her daughter started collecting them in 1994, eventually amassing more than 500. All were kept with their Ty tags intact, and some even came with plastic tag protectors and in plexiglass protective boxes.

Toys are not the only items in the Black Friday danger zone. Electronics often go on super sale, causing people to throw elbows in the quest to check off their shopping lists. One such item was the fourth generation iPod of 2004. Apple sold 4.5 million iPods during the holiday season that year.

A white apple iPod

Fifth-generation iPod from 2005 featuring a colored screen and a larger memory than its predecessor. You can all but hear the sounds of Fall Out Boy as you gaze upon it. SHSND 2018.40.1

The Nintendo Wii was released in November 2006 and sold over 600,000 consoles in its first week on the market. Due to its immense popularity, the Wii was soon hard to come by in many markets. The Wii is a different kind of video game option because the controller is a hand-held remote with motion-sensing controls that have gesture recognition. Might one of the contributors to this blog post have accidentally flung a controller across the living room during a particularly intense game of Wii Tennis? You’ll never know.

A Nintendo Wii with its cords, sensor, and operations manuals

The Nintendo Wii in the state museum collection was a Christmas gift to our donor from herself and her husband in 2008. She liked to play the games because she could get a workout and have fun at the same time. SHSND 2018.9.10

The most popular must-buy gifts each year are usually the iconic toy or cutting-edge electronic item of the moment. Our collections are missing some of these. If you have any of the following, please consider donating them to the State Historical Society. In particular, we would like to add objects with stories (i.e., something loved and used by its owner) to our collection such as Teddy Ruxpin, Transformers, Nintendo NES, Game Boy, Castle Grayskull from “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” Tickle Me Elmo, Furby (the non-haunted version, please), a Razor scooter, a television with built-in VCR, a Tamagotchi virtual pet, an Instant Pot, an air fryer, and a flatscreen TV. You can offer items to our collections by filling out the donation questionnaire online here.

We hope you had a safe, trample-free Black Friday!

The Kennedy Assassination 60 Years Later: North Dakota’s Secret Service Connection

a man is shown partially in a convertible with one leg hanging across the back while he protects the passengers as the convertible drives off to safety

The limousine carrying mortally wounded President John F. Kennedy races toward the hospital moments after he was shot in Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill climbs onto the back of the car, as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president. Justin Newman, AP Photo

A few critical seconds from Nov. 22, 1963, still replay in Clint Hill’s mind—even 60 years later. On that horrific day when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Hill, who grew up in Washburn, was serving as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s United States Secret Service agent in the presidential motorcade.

Photographs from bystanders and the infamous Zapruder film immortalize images of the events that changed history and Hill’s life. Footage shows President Kennedy clutching his throat after being hit by a bullet about 40 minutes into a city parade. Seconds later, Hill, from a position on the running board of the follow-up car, sprints toward the presidential convertible, scrambles onto the trunk, then pushes the first lady—crawling on her hands and knees on the trunk—back into her seat before throwing himself across Mrs. Kennedy and the slain president.

According to accounts by Secret Service agents, President Kennedy had wanted the limousine top off during the motorcade so he could be closer to the people. When the fatal bullet shattered the president’s skull, Hill selflessly turned his body into a living convertible canopy. He clung to the car with his left hand, his feet positioned to protectively cover the first lady and the president lying in her lap as the limousine sped four miles to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Eleven years ago, I interviewed Clint Hill about his courageous actions that fateful day and his lingering sense of guilt. The retired agent was still struggling with the death, his voice cracking at times with emotion.

“I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility and guilt that I was unable to get there quick enough to intercede and really make a difference,” he said then. Hill believed it was his bullet to take. “Every day I think back to November 22. It never leaves me.”

an older man takes a portrait photo in a black suit with a black background

“I’ve never emotionally left North Dakota,” former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill told me in 2012. “North Dakota has a very special place in my heart that will never go away.” Photo by Michael Collopy

Read my article based on a 2012 interview with Clint Hill in North Dakota History, which includes his telling of the story and details he shared for the first time. For more on Kennedy, read another article in this journal issue by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson, “John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt: Parallels and Common Ground, Including North Dakota.”

Since our conversation, the 91-year-old Hill and his wife, Lisa McCubbin, have co-authored books about his time in the Secret Service serving multiple presidents. Until recently they’ve traveled the world representing the United States and our state. Hill has never forgotten his North Dakota roots. He continues to provide interviews about his Kennedy experiences. In 2018, Gov. Doug Burgum presented him with North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state’s highest honor.

As Hill continues to share his personal memories about Nov. 22, new theories have surfaced about the killing of JFK. Just a few weeks ago Hill’s Secret Service colleague Paul Landis released a new and differing firsthand account of the “magic bullet.” Nevertheless, Hill remains true to his version of the tragic events he witnessed in Dallas.

While Hill’s actions that day can be viewed as part of his professional duty, no other Secret Service agent took the risk to their own life. President Kennedy could have been describing Hill when he once remarked, “The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.”

Thank you, Mr. Hill, for serving as a magnificent ambassador for North Dakota and your courageous service in various Secret Service positions, protecting Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, as well as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. We are grateful.

President John F. Kennedy, William Guy, an Quentin Burdick, all wearing suits and ties, are shown smiling as they look towards the person taking the photo

On June 19, 1960, John F. Kennedy flew into Fargo to attend then-Rep. Quentin Burdick’s 52nd birthday party. JFK is pictured at the bash along with William Guy (center), who was making his first run on the Democratic ticket for governor, and Burdick, who was facing off against popular Republican Gov. John Davis for an open U.S. Senate seat. In a perfect trifecta, all three men won their elections, changing the political landscape of the state and the country. SHSND SA 1960-00021