The Arc of North Dakota History

June 21, 2015

Long before white people showed up, what would become North Dakota was the home of buffalo and antelope, elk and grizzly bears, and indigenous people who either roamed the plains on foot in pursuit of the great herds or farmed along the river bottoms. The former lived in tipis and wickiups, and the latter dwelled in round earthlodges. At times the game could be hunted out in some very local sense, but the technologies of American Indians were such, and their understanding of the chain of being so deeply respectful, that there was never a question of killing so many of anything that the resources central to their lifeway would collapse.

Then came Euro-Americans, Verendrye from the north in 1738, Lewis and Clark from the south in 1804. White folks run by a different software. Lewis and Clark saw their first grizzly bear just south of today's Bismarck in October 1804. By the summer of 1805 they were killing every grizzly they could, not for food but because they regarded them as a dangerous nuisance. Today there are no grizzly bears in North Dakota, and though elk have been reintroduced in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, they were hunted out in the age of Theodore Roosevelt (who mentioned several times that he had killed the "last" elk), and they probably could not survive here if it weren't for the protection of the national park.

Once the floodgates of Euro-American settlement were opened, it was only a matter of time before more than 90% of the land base was privatized, thanks to the homestead programs, under which fully 39% of North Dakota was deeded out, what now appear to be obscene land grants to the railroads, and private speculation corporations. When Indians refused to get out of the way or sell out by way of "legal" land cessions, the white newcomers drove them off the lands they coveted, and finally settled them on reservations, which at the time were seen as temporary holding zones for Indians who would soon either disappear altogether or be assimilated into the new dominant culture. The tenacity and resilience of American Indians in the face of the unrelenting pressures white culture has employed against them is one of the most significant (and joyful) developments in the modern history of North Dakota. We are an incomparably richer culture for the continuing presence of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Dakota, Lakota, Assiniboine, and Ojibwe in North Dakota life.

The first homestead in North Dakota was filed in the northeast corner of the state in 1868 (early), but the great homesteading boom did not occur until the period between 1890 and 1920. Fully 39% of North Dakota's 45 million acres were homesteaded, second only to Nebraska, where 45% of the land was homesteaded. The percentage in Indiana was less than 1%, because most of that land had been deeded out by the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. More than ten million acres (23%) of North Dakota were handed over to the railroads in post-Civil War era as an infrastructural economic incentive.

For many decades North Dakota was primarily a producer of wheat (and some cattle). Today, on the Fourth of July, less than a quarter of the state is carpeted in wheat. From 1889 to 1989 we were an essentially agrarian backwater, a broad open land of family farms and ranches. Since 1989, certainly since the millennium in 2000, we have been graduating into a more mixed economy (with or without the oil boom). The day may soon come when agriculture slips out of first place as the engine of the North Dakota economy. That will be a sad day for the agrarian dream. Meanwhile, we are, in the second decade of the new century, knocking on the door of corporate agriculture.

The first population peak in North Dakota occurred in 1930, at 680,845. The second peak is occurring now. At the moment, the best estimates show 739,482 people living in North Dakota, the largest population in our history. Some people believe the population will reach one million in the next twenty years. Where will we put them!?

Think of the transformation. In 1830, none of North Dakota's 45 million acres had been plowed, and very few acres had been planted by the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Indians. Today, there are only a handful of acres left in North Dakota that have never been plowed, and the demise of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) means that we are moving back towards fence post to fence post tilling. Actually, we are tearing up the fences and shelterbelts, too. My point is that North Dakota has been a culturally modified landscape for most of its recorded history. To see it as it looked before the first plow broke the prairie grasses would now be an overwhelming, and perhaps disturbing, experience. I know an artist who ventured to Mongolia to see endless grassland without the rectilinear grid of section and township lines. She felt swallowed up.

Making North Dakota viable for modern white civilization required an amazing sequence of infrastructural "developments." A U.S. military presence (occupation may be a better word) to protect white settlers from the displaced native peoples whose lands we appropriated. This included Fort Totten, Fort Berthold, Fort Abercrombie, Fort Buford, Fort Lincoln, etc. Steamboat service (1832-1870) along the Missouri and the Red Rivers. Railroads, including the two upper latitude transcontinentals, the Northern Pacific (approved 1864, completed 1883) and the Great Northern (completed 1893). Paved roads, including U.S. 10 (created 1926) and U.S. 2 (organized 1919 as the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway), U.S. 83 and U.S. 81. Rural electrification (begun under the New Deal in 1936, finally completed in the remotest hollers of North Dakota in the 1970s). The telegraph, followed by the telephone, followed by fiber optic cable, followed by the Internet. Airports. Microwave towers. Cell towers. An extensive and enviable university system. The Interstate Highways of the 60s and 70s.

Lay the groundwork, and then reap the benefits.

Now, suddenly, thanks to oil, we are rich in an unprecedented way.

If I may use a slang term, the 2014-15 downturn in world oil prices freaked a lot of people out, including many members of the North Dakota legislature. But the experts are almost unanimously confident that oil prices will climb back up, more or less permanently, and that the economic upturn in North Dakota will continue for many decades. Three factors have brought about our unprecedented prosperity. First, there is a giant carbon foundation under western North Dakota, including lignite coal. Sorry Minnesota. Second, a technological revolution in oil extraction has occurred in the last fifteen years, and Continental Oil's Harold Hamm had the insight to bring it to bear on our Bakken shale oil deposits. Third, during the darkest period of our recent history (1980-1995), North Dakota's political leaders, led by former ND Governor Ed Schafer, created a friendly business (i.e., regulatory) climate in the state, which makes North Dakota a more desirable oil extraction platform than Montana and Saskatchewan.

Just what the future holds is unclear. The question will not be how will we pay our bills, but how we should invest public wealth so vast that our grandparents could never have conceived of it, much less expected it to happen here.

This much is sure. We won't be slopping the hogs hereafter, or walking four miles to school through a January blizzard.