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.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: A Tour of the Main Archaeology Lab

In past blog posts, I gave a sneak peek at the initial processing lab, and previous staff have also written about the photography station in the main archaeology lab at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. But if you walk into the main archaeology lab there is still more that goes on—so here are a few additional aspects I would show you were you to take a tour today.

Welcome to the main archaeology lab! “Orange” you glad you came?

The area with the orange tables is where our volunteers and staff work on large projects. Currently we are repackaging artifacts from a site called Bagnell (32OL16) into better storage materials. Bagnell is the location of a village in Oliver County, which was excavated during the summers of 1970-73 by the late archaeologist Donald J. Lehmer. The most recent box of artifacts that our volunteers have been working on was full of seeds, corn cobs, charcoal, and wood.

A corn cob, squash stem, and beans from Bagnell village (32OL16). SHSND AHP 2019A.50, F154 H3 and Square H 1973

A long line of cabinets houses several reference or comparative collections. These collections are used by staff, volunteers, contract archaeologists, and researchers who are trying to better identify and learn more about the artifacts they are studying. Our three major reference collections include a faunal collection (animal bones), a lithic collection (rocks), and a shell collection.

These blue cabinets hold several of the archaeological reference collections.

The faunal reference collection is used to identify different kinds of animal bones found at archaeological sites such as villages, farmsteads, and forts. The kinds of animals present at a site tell us how people in a certain place and time lived and interacted with the world around them—what kinds of animals were raised, used, hunted, or living in the area.

These bones are from the faunal reference collection. All three are right scapulae (shoulder bones). The top scapula is from a bison, the middle one is a cast of a horse scapula, and the bottom example is from a white-tailed deer.

The lithic reference collection helps archaeologists confirm the type of rock from which an artifact—such as a scraper or a projectile point—is made. Some kinds of rocks are only found in specific places or regions. Knowing the type of stone used can often tell us something about where and how far people traveled to get certain tool materials or with whom they were trading.

The Eden projectile point on the left was found in McLean County (32ML1350) and is made from Rainy Buttes silicified wood. Examples of this material from the lithic reference collection are in the lower right corner. This rock is found in southwestern North Dakota. SHSND AHP 2020A.3.2

Likewise, the shell reference collection not only assists us in identifying the kind of shell that a pendant or gaming piece is made from but also where the shell was acquired by people or the extent of their connections and interactions with other groups of people. The peoples of North Dakota had extensive trade networks throughout history, and the presence of pendants and beads made from marine (ocean) shells found in archaeological contexts demonstrates this. As a result, we do have marine shells in our reference collection, which sometimes surprises people when they visit the lab. People living in North Dakota also used available local resources such as freshwater mussel shells and even fossil shells.

This photo shows a few examples from the shell reference collection. On the top row are different marine shells; in the middle row are fossilized shells that can be found in North Dakota; and the bottom row has two halves of a freshwater mussel that is also found in North Dakota.

Finally, the lab includes various study spaces for temporary staff, interns, and researchers to examine and catalog artifacts. It also contains equipment, such as microscopes, ready for use.

Room for research at one of the table spaces in the lab. Ceramics being studied are arranged on trays in a cart. The photography station can be seen in the upper right corner.

The lab’s microscope area. The pottery on top of the cabinets are modern replicas.

If you would like to schedule an in-person tour of the archaeology lab and/or archaeology collections, please contact us here.

Passionate Local Communities Embrace Smaller State Historic Sites

My phone rings, and it is a number I have never seen. Grabbing a notebook and pencil, I answer the call. The person on the other end of the line wants to discuss a small, remote state historic site that is missing a sign. Phone calls like this are a common occurrence. While I primarily manage staffed sites, there is nothing more rejuvenating than seeing people’s passion for their local state historic site.

Often when I get the chance to write a blog post for the agency, I tend to focus on our larger staffed sites, but we also manage numerous smaller properties that we regularly take care of, though do not have daily staff on site. Many of these are campsites relating to the punitive campaigns of Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley and Bvt. Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, places where the army camped for a night or two before moving further west. While the punitive campaigns and their lingering wounds are an important North Dakota story, some of these campsites are not much more than a footnote in history. Some campsites are near local communities that have embraced them and assist with their care.

One of these is Lake Jessie State Historic Site near Binford in Griggs County. This spot marks campsites for several significant expeditions across northern Dakota Territory between 1839 and 1889. Located in the backyard of a family who has farmed the land for generations, the site is often overshadowed by the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site to the southeast. To access Lake Jessie, one must follow a designated path through the private property of the Helland family, who provides public access. Some people may hesitate to drive into the farmyard and through their hay corral to get there. But if you do, you will likely receive a friendly greeting from owner Lowell Helland.

The Helland family developed a love of history from meeting with Dana Wright, a former State Historical Board member and chairman of the State Parks Committee. In 1953, Wright drove out to Rudy and Thelma Helland’s farmyard. He asked their permission to bring members of the Barnes County Historical Society to their farm as part of a tour on Sibley sites. The Hellands agreed and listened to Dana’s presentation that next Sunday.

Wright’s visit left a mark on the Hellands. Nearby sites came alive for Rudy, Thelma, their children, and Rudy’s brothers. Rudy’s brother Fritz would lead the creation of the Griggs County Historical Society and the Griggs County museum in response to a challenge from a local businessman who said he would donate a Case steam engine if these entities existed.

The Hellands are incredibly proud of the site, and their passion is noteworthy. Rudy and Thelma’s children (Arden, David, Lowell, and Karen) have continued to love and take care of the site. I have had the pleasure of meeting with them on several occasions to discuss how the site will be cared for in the future. It is clear that they have a love for history, the Lake Jessie State Historic Site, and Dana Wright.

View of the isthmus between Lake Jessie and Lake Addie. Though barely visible in this photo, Lake Jessie State Historic Site is located on this thin strip of land with the red arrow pointing to its location.

The Helland family has cared for the little state historic site in their backyard since its establishment in 1955. They even created a museum on the site out of an old rail car.

In the far southwest corner of the state sits Fort Dilts State Historic Site. This site marks the end of Capt. James Fisk’s failed wagon train to the gold fields of Montana. The site is recognized as the only documented place where a wagon train circled the wagons during an attack, but there is more to the story. Some accounts include the possibility that Fisk was using the wagon train as a cover for hauling a large load of whiskey to the gold fields for his private profit. The community of Bowman embraces this location as its historic site. It features within several of the exhibits at the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman. For years, one local historian, Dean Pearson, has printed and posted his interpretive panels at the site to tell the story. His work helped inform our panels, which we hope to have up at the site this summer.

Fort Dilts State Historic Site near Rhame not only boasts an exciting story, but the local community often asks about opportunities to promote the site.

Local communities can also become protective of sites. In 1987, the county commissioners in Divide County tried to stop the Rough Riders Motorcycle Club from holding its annual bike rally at Writing Rock State Historic Site north of Grenora. The local community feared the bikers might cause damage to the site. In the end, the bikers were allowed to have their rally, but it did not diminish the community’s perceived sense of ownership. They continue to work with the State Historical Society to improve the site, including during our most recent project, which involved replacing old playground equipment.

The new playground equipment at Writing Rock represented a partnership between Divide County and the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The June 2022 opening was well attended by the local community.

The passion communities have for their local state historic site is always encouraging. I get their passion. I feel the same way about all of the sites I manage. The worst part of my job is sometimes having to tell people that although the project they want is on our list, I can’t move theirs to the top. Our team of staff working primarily on state historic sites is pretty small. We have two historic site managers (including myself), one architecture project manager, a construction supervisor and his crew of four, 12 site supervisors and their teams, and seasonal staff. That is not a lot for nearly 60 sites. Luckily, we get a lot of help from other individuals around the agency. However, some of our biggest helpers are community volunteers and friends groups. If you are interested in assisting with your local state historic site, feel free to contact the State Historical Society, and we will let you know how you can help.

Archaeology Archiving: A Matter of Provenience

Working for the State Historical Society of North Dakota unlocked a childhood dream of mine. Growing up in rural Benson County, I was always fascinated by the history of the North Dakota landscape and the people that called it home. In the eighth grade, I took my inaugural field trip to the ND Heritage Center with my North Dakota Studies class. This maiden voyage was my chance to see in person all the things I had only heard or read about. I was in heaven! Fast forward about 10 years, and I found myself interning for the agency’s Archaeology and Historic Preservation Department—go figure! The internship began in September and finished at the end of November.

My job as an archaeology collections intern included processing, organizing, and cataloging archaeological records pertaining to excavations conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in North Dakota. Uncatalogued records are sometimes temporarily stored in non-acid-free containers and folders and may be riddled with paper clips, staples, and sticky notes. These materials are detrimental to the physical integrity of the records because they cause premature degradation and aging of the files. So the first part of my job was to make sure all records were rehoused in appropriate acid-free archival folders and boxes, which help preserve the records. The next step was to organize the files and catalog them within our database. Depending on the project, I usually organized the files by site, then by type of document—field notes, artifact catalogs, excavation unit forms, etc. Then I cataloged them within the Re:discovery database using an assigned collection number. This allows for greater ease of identification and access to these files if they are ever needed.

Uncatalogued records are temporarily stored in non-acid-free boxes such as these.

Temporary storage for archaeological records such as excavation forms before cataloging.

One of my favorite parts of the job was being able to slap on the blaze orange “All Entered in ReD” sticker on cataloged boxes. This sticker indicates that all the files within the box are correctly cataloged and entered within our database. This may seem like a child receiving a “Well Done!” sticker on an assignment, but to me it means that there are more resources and information available to employees and researchers regarding North Dakota’s rich archaeological history.

To say I learned a lot would be an understatement. I had no previous experience with archival cataloging, so I gained an understanding of how and why archaeological records are kept, and why it is so important to keep them well-organized. Although archival records may not look as interesting as the actual artifacts, they hold the information needed to understand and interpret those artifacts and their surrounding environment. Without records and notes detailing where an artifact was found, how it was situated in relation to other objects, and the features of the overall site, archaeological endeavors would be less relevant to other scholars and the public. As my archaeology professor at the University of North Dakota would say, “Provenience, provenience, provenience.”

The “after” picture: All files organized, catalogued, and entered into Re:discovery, with the orange sticker in the right-hand corner.

Now that I have waded through the weeds of archaeology records, I completely understand why all the seemingly boring data archaeologists collect is so important to keep organized and available. It not only helps us understand a site and the people who interacted with it, but it also enables us to look back on the records to see how or why a site excavation occurred and how we can better help protect North Dakota’s immense cultural resources in the future.

5 Guys With Beards Who Aren't Santa Claus in the State Museum Collection

Santa’s beard may be the most festive during the holiday season. But here are five other beards belonging to famous figures found in our museum collection that might just rival the big man’s.

1. The Swedish Tomte

SHSND 2017.78.10

The fabulous beard and red body might make you think it’s Santa Claus, but this Christmas ornament is a Swedish tomte. Like the Norwegian nisse or Finnish tonttu, the tomte is a Scandinavian spirit that resembles a gnome and cares for homes and farmsteads. According to some legends, leaving a bowl of Christmas porridge for your tomte will keep him happy and prevent mischief around the house. Christmas ornaments with a Nordic theme were used to decorate the tree in the North Dakota governor’s residence from 1985-90. The Three Crowns Swedish American Association provided the bearded tomte along with many other traditional Swedish holiday decorations.

2. William George Fargo

SHSND 1983.447.1

The beard of the city of Fargo’s namesake is looking stellar in this 1870s portrait by Lars Gustav Sellstedt. William Fargo and Henry Wells founded the famous Wells Fargo & Co. in 1852 as an express delivery service and later expanded into banking. Fargo also served as director of the Northern Pacific Railway, which established the city of Fargo in 1872.

3. Czar Nicholas II

SHSND 2017.84.6

Russian Czar Nicholas II’s beard may not be his most well-known feature, but it figures prominently in this wooden nesting doll. Standing 2.5 inches tall, this not-a-saint-Nicholas is sixth in a set of nine nesting dolls purchased by Kurt Peterson at a flea market in Izmailovo Park in Moscow, Russia, in 1990. Peterson, who hails from Mandan, served in the U.S. Army from 1980-96. He was attached to the U.S. State Department in the 1990s as a diplomatic courier, ferrying documents overland between Helsinki, Finland, and Moscow, Russia.

4. Grizzly Adams

SHSND 2013.102.26

If people call you “Grizzly,” you better have a great beard. The Eklund family of Reynolds must have been big fans of the 1977-78 TV show “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.” They kept this doll in pristine condition with its original box and all of Grizzly’s accessories. Just speculation, but they probably didn’t want to mess up the beard.

5. Kenny Rogers

SHSND 1995.21.74

This eight track does something to me that I can’t explain. “The Greatest” is probably how donor Glenn Dill of LaMoure would have described Kenny Rogers’ beard on the front of this 1976 eight-track tape. While Glenn was listening to Kenny croon about “Lucille” on a barstool in Toledo, the solo music career of “The Gambler” was taking off in a big way. Just seven years later, the world would sail away with Dolly and Kenny in “Islands in the Stream.” Glenn started his collection of eight tracks in 1957 when he purchased a blue 1950 Buick Roadmaster with an eight-track player installed. Tapes like this were his primary music source until the mid-1980s when he acquired a new cassette tape player.

These beards in our collection warm the face and heart. They may even have you wishing for your own luscious whiskers to keep you toasty this season. There's a reason why one of the most famous beards of all belongs to the guy at the North Pole.

Christmas pin, 1927. SHSND 1975.19.54

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

Emily Royston, Audiovisual Collections Intern

The North Dakota State Archives houses a large collection of film and magnetic tape in a variety of formats that it continues to archive, preserve, and digitize for public use. From home videos to television news footage to oral histories to professional and educational films, the Archives stores hours upon hours of material.

Since I was new to the audiovisual field, spending 12 weeks this past summer working with different formats, equipment, and software was enlightening and opened new avenues of interest for a career in this area. My training included processing and describing AV collections, using video editing and digitization software, handling and inspecting film and analog tapes, and engaging in preservation practices. Much of my work centered on two large collections: the WDAZ-TV Collection, consisting of approximately 2,200 analog tapes, and the Matthew Werven and Diana (Yeado) Oral History Collection, which includes over 700 interviews of North Dakota residents.

For WDAZ, one of ten North Dakota TV stations in our collection, it was my job to input the data from the tapes’ respective shot sheets—such as news stories, date of broadcasts, names of reporters—into our collections management software to make the clips discoverable. I also processed and digitized part of the Werven collection, using audio cassette decks and the software Audacity to create audio files.

Outside of these collections, I also had the opportunity to digitize other formats such as open-reel audio tapes, video cassettes, and film. Working with film was one of my favorite parts of the internship. I learned how to inspect films for patron requests and carry out preservation practices such as adding a protective leader to the heads and tails of film, rehousing films in ventilated archival cans to prevent off-gas build up, and removing adhesive and other residue using film cleaner. I can’t emphasize enough just how much fun I had working with these materials during the summer. I was so fortunate, particularly as someone from outside of the state (and the country!) to have been able to work with such a supportive and hospitable group of people.

Shelby Kriewald, Reference Intern

During my three-month internship at the State Archives last summer, I was assigned a variety of duties. When patrons visited our reading room, I commonly assisted them in using our microfilm scanners, atlases, or county history books. I also helped patrons navigate our website’s indexes and genealogical resources.

When I wasn’t helping patrons in person, I worked on a number of requests from those who reached out via phone or email. This included locating and sending out marriage records, biographies, naturalization records, obituaries, or other records. Additional projects I worked on at the reference desk included digitizing photos to put on our website, using archival software to find return locations for collections, transcribing oral history interviews, putting statistics into our database, and writing articles for "Dakota Datebook."

"Dakota Datebook" is a radio series broadcast by Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and other local organizations. This was one of my favorite projects to be involved in because it gave me the opportunity to do my own research and writing on history topics related to North Dakota. In doing my research for these articles, I typically looked through old newspaper articles using online resources like Advantage Archives or Chronicling America to find inspiration for stories. I also found sites like very useful in providing census and biographical information related to the topics I was working on. In some cases, I even reached out to archives and institutions out of the state to locate obituaries and information needed for my writing. Several of my stories have aired on the radio and exist on Prairie Public’s website.

My internship with the State Archives was a very valuable learning experience. Not only did it enrich my knowledge of the region and its people, but it gave me the opportunity to learn about the daily operations of an archives firsthand. As someone who is interested in pursuing a career in archival science and special collections, this internship reinforced my career goals in ways that my undergrad education hadn’t ever before.

Clovis Bifaces From the Beach Cache Site

Clovis artifacts represent the earliest material evidence of human occupation in North Dakota. The Clovis tradition appeared on the Great Plains of North America about 12,000 to 13,500 years ago (Huckell 2014). The presence of unifacially or bifacially fluted stone spear points at an archaeological site is the primary distinctive marker of Clovis technology. However, not all Clovis sites contain fluted stone projectile points.

Casts of Clovis points from the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Education Collections. Clovis points are thin, fluted projectile points characterized by concave longitudinal shallow grooves that may have helped the points be inserted into spear shafts.

Various site types are associated with the Clovis tradition, including cache sites, encampments, quarry sites, and kill or butchering sites. Clovis artifacts found in caches more likely contain artifacts manufactured at quarry sites, then transported and placed into temporary storage. Caching behavior may indicate that individuals planned to set aside or hide artifacts for later use. Clovis sites are found all over North America and Central America, with caches often consisting of bifaces, projectile points, blades, flakes, and cores. One of the first caches discovered was named after the town of Clovis, New Mexico, where the ancient culture’s distinctive spear points were found together with mammoth bones.

In North Dakota, the Clovis artifacts were recovered from the Beach Cache site near the town of Beach in the western part of the state. About 103 artifacts (from a total of 135) were recovered from a dozen cache pits between 1970 and 1975, and most pits contained 8 to 10 stone tools. Some of the artifacts came from a disturbed plow zone. These blanks (partially worked/unfinished tools) were formed for easier transportation and could be made into a variety of stone tools. The Beach Cache site did not have Clovis points. It was dominated by bifaces. More than half of the Beach cached bifaces (58) were made of White River Group (WRG) silicates found at Sentinel Butte. Other bifaces were made from black chalcedony (12), quartzite (12), Rainy Buttes silicified wood (8), porcellanite (3), chert (4), and petrified wood (3) (Kilby and Huckell 2013; Huckell 2014). The sources of stone materials used in making the Beach Cache artifacts may indicate the movements of the Clovis hunter-gatherers. Although the Beach Cache lacks diagnostic Clovis projectile points, it is identified as Clovis based upon the presence of distinctive lithic technological attributes and radiocarbon dates (Kilby and Huckell 2013).

Clovis Beach Cache artifacts on exhibit in the State Museum’s Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. SHSND 2007.75.1, .2, .3, .5, .17, .18, .20, .22, .27, .28, .30, .32, .38, and .41.

The Clovis hunter-gatherers were constantly on the move, following migrating game. They hunted mammoths (extinct elephantids), mastodons, Bison antiquus, and other smaller animals. “Consideration of the kinds of caches, their geographic distribution, and the source locations for some of the stone tools present in the caches can provide insights into the patterns of migration of Clovis groups more than 12,000 years ago and may, in turn, shed light on the geographic origins of Clovis technology” (Schroedl 2021: 121). More information on the Clovis Beach Cache artifacts and early peoples of North Dakota is available in “Traces: Early Peoples of North Dakota,” by Barbara Handy-Marchello and the late Archaeology and Historic Preservation Department Director Fern E. Swenson. The book, published in 2018, is available for purchase at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum store in Bismarck.

The small group of Clovis people that camped at the Beach Cache site may have come from the south and west, traveling from what is today eastern Wyoming via western South Dakota. Traces: Early Peoples of North Dakota, 2018


Kilby, J. David, and Bruce B. Huckell. 2013. “Clovis Caches: Current Perspectives and Future Directions.”
In Paleoamerican Odyssey, edited by Kelly E. Graf, Caroline V. Ketron, and Michael R. Waters, 257–72. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Handy-Marchello, Barbara, and Fern E. Swenson. 2018. Traces: Early Peoples of North Dakota. Bismarck:
State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Huckell, Bruce B. 2014. “But How Do We Know If It’s Clovis? An Examination of Clovis Overshot Flaking
of Bifaces and a North Dakota Cache.” In Clovis Caches, Recent Discoveries and New Research, edited by Bruce B. Huckell and J. David Kilby, 133–52. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Schroedl, Alan R. 2021. “The Geographic Origin of Clovis Technology: Insights from Clovis Biface Caches.” Plains Anthropologist 66, no. 258: 120-48.