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.

Interns Explore a Multitude of Resources at the State Archives: Part I

Elizabeth Acheson, Library Processing Intern

Hi! I’m Elizabeth, and I interned in library processing this past summer at the State Archives. The State Archives contains all sorts of resources related to North Dakota, including materials such as manuscripts, photos, books and print publications, oral history records, and digital media records. As a library processing intern, I assisted with various projects involving published materials.

One of my favorite projects from this summer included processing some materials that were being transferred from a different section of the Archives (e.g., manuscripts or photos) to the publications section. One of these collections included the papers of Harry E. Polk (1887-1971). Polk was an editor and owner of the Williston Daily Herald and served as the state director and president of the National Reclamation Association for North Dakota. (You can learn more about him and his materials in the Archives here.) Many of the materials within Polk’s collection concern water management and the Garrison Dam project, a system that was proposed and built in the mid-20th century. The Garrison Dam project was and remains a major factor in North Dakota water management and daily life, and the pros and cons of its building continue to be the subject of debate.

Learning about this event in my college course on North Dakota history gave me a basic understanding of the topic and sparked my interest in discovering more about it. But looking through the various papers, essays, and publications related to water management and the Garrison Dam project gave me a deeper understanding of its full implications.

This is just one brief example of the way the materials within the State Archives can be of use to historians who wish to delve into the history of a subject beyond what a school textbook offers. By preserving and categorizing these materials, the Archives makes historical documents of the past available for use in the present and future.

Kristi Carpenter, National History Day Intern

This summer, I was the National History Day intern at the State Archives. National History Day allows middle school and high school students to create a project on a history topic they find interesting for local and nationwide competitions. It was my job to find those unique areas of documented history and condense them into a guide for these students, and potentially other researchers, to use.

As a University of Jamestown student studying political science with plans to attend law school, I applied for this internship because I like to write and do research. Though I had taken North Dakota history in high school, I had never participated in National History Day and at first had only a very basic understanding of how my research would be used. Our state’s history is known because people took the time to document it. Some of those documents ended up in the collections of the State Archives. I compiled lists of these resources on historical topics into an easy-to-use PDF file. Middle and high school students will eventually be able to access these files for their National History Day projects.

As I gathered this initial research, I learned so much. Every day at my internship, I discovered something I hadn’t known about North Dakota. Some of my favorite finds introduced me to areas of North Dakota’s history that were new to me. One collection contained newspaper clippings about North Dakotan David Henderson Houston. He invented a new type of camera film and sold it to the owner of Kodak. Another collection contained photographs taken by Nancy Hendrickson. As an adult, Nancy used her family homestead as a photographic studio, and her photos were published across the country. Many of her subjects are animals dressed as people. Another interesting collection contained transcripts of letters Theodore Roosevelt sent during his time in North Dakota. I also took an interest in the North Dakota Constitution. A major highlight of my internship was seeing the document in person. The State Archives holds the original, handwritten state constitution, which was created and signed in 1889. This same constitution is still in use despite a failed attempt to rewrite it in the 1970s.

North Dakota history topics are extremely fascinating. I hope that students and all researchers will find these National History Day guides useful!

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.

What is a New Media Specialist?

I often get asked what I do for work. If I say new media specialist supervisor people tend to look at me with a blank stare. I then briefly explain what my team and I do to help them get an idea of the scope of our work. I’ll break down the main areas below.

We are responsible for keeping the agency’s websites updated. This includes not only content but also Drupal updates. What is Drupal you ask? Drupal is the content management system (CMS) most of our websites use. I recently spent many of my days and nights Drupaling. This was due to a major Drupal upgrade that required recoding our websites. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I now know what a Twig file is, and it has nothing to do with a tree.

This code snippet is what makes the menu work on the State Museum website.

We design many, many graphics in all different forms, from ads to brochures and flyers to billboards to PowerPoint presentations to exhibits to store merchandise to publications to digital signage and everything in between. Have you seen the Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum? The logo, all the fabric walls and information panels for each section, exhibit card, ads, and video wall graphics were designed by our team of new media specialists.

This photo of Fashion & Function showcases some of the graphic elements we designed for the exhibit, including fabric walls, rail panel, and logo. On the far right side you can also see part of an upright panel.

Social Media
Some people think social media is just about creating posts, but there’s a lot more to managing these accounts. It also means adding events, responding to messages, monitoring comments, and reviewing insights and stats for posts to see how well they did so we know what content interests our followers. It requires striking a careful balance of posting enough but not too much.

Photography is a big part of our job here. It seems like there’s always something that needs to be photographed, both for marketing and archival purposes. If a new exhibit goes up, we take pictures. If an object needs to be photographed, we take pictures. If we have an event, we take pictures. You get the point.

This is one of my favorite photos and not just because it’s of my niece. We’ve used it in ads with the headline “Anything is fossil-ble.”

Video Production
It seems we are doing more video production every day. We take care of everything involved in video production from start to finish. This includes helping write scripts when needed, hauling equipment, lighting, filming, scanning or photographing items to include, editing the video and audio, captioning, and exporting the final video to the necessary format. Our YouTube channel includes many of the videos we’ve produced.

At the moment, we are working on a fun animation project and plan to do more in the future. One of our animations shows the ground sloth Megalonyx transforming from its skeleton to how it likely appeared with an overlay of fur. This helps people visualize the animal beyond the fossil. We also animated the logo for Fashion & Function to look like a neon light turning on since the sign in the exhibit is neon.

There are other odds and ends that we do as well, but these are the main duties we take care of while also staying on top of design trends and incorporating them into our work. I love the variety my job offers each day and never have to worry about being bored!

Documenting the MHA Nation: Marilyn Cross Hudson Collection Opens to the Public

Here at the North Dakota State Archives we are thrilled to announce that a lifetime of research and writing by tribal historian Marilyn Old Dog Cross Hudson has been processed and is now open to the public. The collection includes research, manuscripts, articles, working and subject files, historical records, photographs, and other materials created or collected by Hudson. Major subjects include tribal and oral histories of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, as well as stories of Native American veterans, rodeos, and ranching, and of the Cross family. The collection also features records, histories, and photos of Elbowoods High School and the city of Parshall, North Dakota, Hudson’s home from 1953 until her death in 2020.

In this May 25, 2015, article from the Six Star Observer, Marilyn Hudson wrote about the names of World War II servicemen recorded in the Elbowoods Community Hall. Hudson, a prolific author, conducted extensive research for her published work. Both her sources and final articles are included in the collection.

Central to the collection are records of tribal, state, and federal government proceedings related to the construction of the Garrison Dam and its impact on the MHA Nation. The collection chronicles all stages of the project, from initial planning to completion of the dam. Significantly, it documents a wide range of efforts to stop the project, which necessitated the flooding of homes and farms and the relocation of hundreds of families. After the dam’s completion, Hudson carefully recorded its long-term effects on the people of the Fort Berthold Reservation.

One of many documents in the Marilyn Cross Hudson Collection that preserves the record of Garrison Dam opposition, this booklet was produced by the Fort Berthold Indian Defense Association in 1946 to galvanize resistance and encourage further study. SHSND SA 11517-0001-040-00001

Hudson’s collection represents the most comprehensive series of tribal records at the State Archives and includes the correspondence and writings of Martin Cross, Marilyn’s father and long-time tribal chairman and council member. Bringing the historical documents to life are photographs, oral histories, and published articles by Hudson about life in the Missouri River bottomlands before the construction of the dam and after the flooding of the area.

Among numerous topics, Hudson’s collection documents Elbowoods High School activities and student life, including the 1951 Elbowoods Warriors High School basketball team. Back row (left to right): Eldon Jones, Leander Smith, Larry Rush, Norman Baker, Arnold Charging, Tony Mandan, and Coach Richard Washington. Front row (left to right): Leroy Yellowbird, Leonard Eagle, Russell Gillette, and Evan Burr Jr. SHSND SA 11517-00009

Born in 1936 in Elbowoods, Hudson graduated from high school there in 1953. Her college education and professional career took her across the country until she accepted a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs working at the Fort Berthold Agency and returned to North Dakota. Hudson retired from federal service in 1992 but stayed active in cultural and historic preservation as well as in the promotion of the state. She served as administrator for the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum in New Town and received the North Dakota State Historical Society’s Heritage Profile Honor Award in 2009. Hudson’s legacy in the state endures through her writings, organizational work, and the memories of those who had the privilege to know and work with her.

Hudson collected historical photographs as well as more modern images in her quest to document events for posterity. Pictured here on All-American Indian Day in New Town, North Dakota, are Martin Cross, Sam Meyers, and Mary Louise Defender. The two men on the far right are unidentified. SHSND SA 11517-00045

Hudson’s passion and love for the history of her people and state is reflected in the breadth of topics she researched and wrote about and in her meticulous gathering of primary and secondary sources. Her collection provides insight into the experiences and lives of members of the Three Affiliated Tribes and is an invaluable resource for current and future generations.

Members of Elbowoods High School’s Class of 1947 at their graduation (above) and at their 50-year reunion (below). Hudson thoroughly documented the people, places, and events in her collection to preserve history. SHSND SA 11517-01043-01044

The public can view the collection at the State Archives in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. For more information, contact us at

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center: So Many Reasons To Go

Here at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center we have period artifacts, world-class art, and interpreters who bring to life the story of Lewis and Clark’s expedition west. On a nearly daily basis, someone rushes through the doors of the Interpretive Center, looking as though they are eager to learn about the valuable history on offer, only to make it a few steps inside and suddenly appear confused. That confusion is usually met by a bright-eyed interpreter (currently me) eager to share knowledge with a member of the public. One hundred percent of the time I get to share knowledge with the person, but it’s often more along the lines of directing them to the restroom.

This road sign found along U.S. Route 83 highlights the important “facilities” at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.

Why the rush on our restrooms? The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center is a designated U.S. Route 83 Rest Area in Washburn with bathrooms available 24/7. We provide a great halfway stopping point between Bismarck and Minot. As a rest area, our site provides excellent amenities. There’s ample truck and car parking, a picnic area, a pet area, water fountains, and Wi-Fi. Even inside the restrooms, we’ve provided clever facts about the Lewis and Clark Expedition for a captive audience! Here are just a few examples of the fun tidbits that adorn the bathroom walls and stall doors:

Monitoring the entrance of the Interpretive Center is a big part of our day-to-day operations. While at the front desk, we are able to accomplish a fair amount of research as well as finish other site work, but we are also called away to help visitors. Even if they don’t explicitly ask which doors lead to the promised land of relief, visitors often have a look of “help me” in their eyes. Sometimes you will encounter a person wandering through the galleries and clearly in need of assistance. Usually that means one of us wasn’t available to redirect the visitor upon entry. Legend has it that the doors to the restrooms only appear after asking an interpreter. I can’t speak for everyone on staff, but for me there’s a sense of understanding and acceptance when you lock eyes with the rest stop visitors. After all, everyone needs a little help navigating the Bermuda Triangles of this world.

This is the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center’s Bermuda Triangle, where visitors have been known to lose their sense of direction and in some cases make life-altering choices!

The magic door that only appears after asking an interpreter where to find the bathrooms.

I think it’s safe to say most of us working at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center are proud of the national attention our site receives; we are grateful for the opportunity to share this bit of North Dakota history with the public. That the site plays a pivotal role not only in our nation’s history but also our state’s history is a pretty a big deal. So if you’re ever on U.S. Route 83, keep an eye out for our road signs and new billboard. There’s so much to see and do here. But we also totally understand if you just need a safe place “to go.”

Our new billboard on U.S. Route 83 invites you to experience all the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn has to offer. Don’t forget we have galleries, too!

Night at the Museum: “Sleeping Over” in the Past at North Dakota’s Only State Historic Site Inn

I awake in my canopied four-poster bed to a peal of thunder from beyond the lace-curtained windows feeling a bit like a character in a “Bridgerton” or “Downton Abbey” spinoff. Where am I? But more importantly what century am I in?

For guests, like myself, of the Totten Trail Inn at Fort Totten State Historic Site near the shores of Devils Lake, such questions are almost inescapable. Located in the former 1st lieutenants and captains’ quarters, the inn invites you to “send your imagination dancing to the tune of a different time and temper,” a time noted for its fainting couches and wreaths made of human hair. But I digress.

Now an Airbnb, the two-story inn, managed by the Fort Totten State Historic Site Foundation, has 10 rooms, each furnished with pieces representing the era from 1870 to 1910.

The grand oak staircase at the Totten Trail Inn.

“[Airbnb] has opened up our inn to people who have never heard of it,” says Gayle Gette, foundation treasurer. She adds that since becoming an Airbnb this year, by mid-July occupancy was already nearly double that of the entire 2021 season. Before fees, rooms run respectively $100 (with a shared bath) and $125 (with a private bath) per night.

Soon after my arrival, Jay Olson, a descendent of early Devils Lake settlers who along with his wife, Vangie, was serving as innkeeper during my stay, appears to lead me and others on a tour of the premises.

Built between 1867 and 1873 and situated within the present-day Spirit Lake Reservation, Fort Totten fulfilled multiple functions before becoming a state historic site in 1960. Initially constructed as a military outpost, by 1891 the fort had been decommissioned and converted into an Indian boarding school, teaching industrial and domestic skills alongside some basic academic education. After a brief interlude as a tuberculosis preventorium for high-risk Native children in the mid-to-late 1930s, the fort returned to an education focus, serving as a day and boarding school from 1940 to 1959.

The walls of the inn amplify the multiple narratives, which animate the surrounding fort’s 16 original buildings. Nearly every inch of surface space in this veritable living museum is covered with memorabilia, framed photographs, and historical tidbits. Corridors feature political, military, and Indian school artifacts, interpolated with gee whiz-style facts, such as: Two-thirds of the 7th Cavalry soldiers who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn with Lt. Col. George Custer “were from companies stationed at Fort Totten,” and “by the turn of the 20th-century North Dakota had three times as many miles of railroad in proportion to its population as did the United States.”

A hall featuring a replica of Crazy Horse’s rifle leads into the elegant parlor and dining area.

In the early 1900s, during the boarding school days, the building was renovated to better meet the needs of the employees who lived there. “What you see now is pretty much what you saw” then, Jay notes.

Rooms and hallways bear the family name of their sponsor. Mine for the night is the Horne Room. (Bev and Ray Horne were influential in the effort to transform the building into an inn, which opened in 2002.) Reflecting the family’s historical ties to flight and air racing, the room is decorated with such items as a vintage aviator cap and goggles, as well as a Charles Lindbergh biography, should insomnia threaten.

Just off the spacious dining room and parlor (outfitted with piano, gramophone, ornate fainting couch, George and Martha Washington portraits, and a circa 1875 hair wreath), there’s a full kitchen with pressed-tin ceilings and walls, where guests can store food or even cook. It’s best to come armed with supplies, as the inn no longer offers breakfast.

Upstairs guests can while away an afternoon over puzzles and poker in the game room (a TV is discreetly tucked away in a cabinet should you need a break from the past) or peruse binders of old photos and site-related articles in the cozy reading room adorned with stained glass, Toby mugs, and a towering globe. And if you are feeling lightheaded or winded after all those steps, a second fainting couch is strategically placed at the top of the staircase.

My digs for the night: the aviation-themed Horne Room.

Given its more than 150-year history, guests inevitably want to know if the inn has any resident ghosts—one popular travel blog dubbed it “notoriously haunted.” Jay is quick to downplay such suggestions, chalking up any alleged unusual occurrences to the “creaks and groans and shadows” that play tricks on your brain.

When my tour concludes, I head out for dinner and then, at Vangie’s suggestion, an evening at the White Horse Hill National Game Preserve, just a few miles from Fort Totten off Highway 57. You may not be able to “roller skate in a buffalo herd,” as the old Roger Miller ditty reminds us, but you can get close enough to see their nostrils (keep your car windows closed, folks). Farther up the hill, the prairie dog town viewing platform provides the ideal perch for taking in unique rodent renditions of barking ballads and synchronized head moves.

Back in my room night descends swiftly, the dim light and pompoms from the bed’s canopy casting eerie shadows up the walls. I slip under the pink crocheted bedspread, drifting off to the sounds of footsteps overhead as guests return for the evening.

By the time I creep out to the dining room the following morning, the thunderstorm has passed, and the reassuring drip of a coffeemaker can be heard. It’s so pleasant in the light airy space I’m tempted to toss aside the day’s sightseeing agenda and assume a new persona as a lady of 19th-century leisure. But after a second cup of Jay’s suitably strong coffee and a chat with Vangie, I venture out to explore the Fort Totten State Historic Site, starting at the visitor center. There you’ll find an overview of the site’s evolution, along with brochures allowing you to experience the buildings through the eyes of a soldier, an industrial school student, and a Native American boy who played on the high school basketball team in the 1950s.

Fort Totten State Historic Site invites you to experience the space from multiple perspectives.

The interpretive content touches on the site’s darker chapters—the military fort’s role vis-à-vis surrounding tribes, the harsh conditions of the boarding school. But the site also details the ordinary life of its various inhabitants, from diets to daily chores to downtime, and even features associated curiosities such as the eccentric headgear of the Odd Fellows order established at the fort in 1879 for the care of military widows and orphans.

At the former military hospital/school cafeteria building, I duck into the Pioneer Daughters Museum. Exhibits highlight the organization’s sizeable collection of items donated by settlers and members of longtime Lake Region families, including the Bergstroms, whose name is on one of the rooms in the Totten Trail Inn. Among the items on display is an anchor from the famed Minnie H steamboat (which once plied the waters of Devils Lake), a 7th Cavalry helmet with horsehair plume (from notorious Devils Lake founder and one-time Fort Totten engineer officer Heber M. Creel), as well as an impressive array of glassware and children’s toys. Though the Pioneer Daughters turned the operation of the museum, on-site since the 1930s, over to the State Historical Society in 2016, they still help with Living History Field Day tours and reenactments.

Produce grown in Fort Totten’s victory garden is donated to the Hope Center food pantry in Devils Lake.

Emerging from the museum, the late morning heat threatens, and I take refuge under some trees looking out on the fort’s victory garden. Bells from the mission across the street echo in the Sunday air. For a moment, the sun’s glare on the surrounding green of the parade ground sets my head spinning. Do I sense I dizzy spell coming on?

Good thing I know where to find a fainting couch.

Totten Trail Inn can be booked online via the Airbnb website from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. For more information, visit