North Dakota State History

The Missouri Fur Company hired the first Europeans to settle in what is now North Dakota. That occurred in the late 1700s. The Pembina settlement and the Selkirk Colony, which was founded along the Assiniboine and Red rivers, were founded in 1812, fairly soon after those original fur traders came to the area. However, by 1823, nobody was residing in Pembina anymore and the Hudson Bay Company settlement had more or less absorbed Selkirk.

The Dakotas were home to several indigenous tribes, including the Arikaras and the Mandans. Several tribes were also moved to the Dakotas from the east. Those tribes included: Hidatsas, Crows, Cheyennes, Creeks, Assiniboines, Yanktonai Dakotas, Teton Dakotas, Chippewas

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In both 1782 and 1786, smallpox epidemics spread throughout the Dakotas. As a result, about half of the Hidatsas died, and about three-quarters of the Mandans did as well. The Native American populations in the area were also ravaged by an epidemic in 1837, which was probably brought to the area by fur-trading white settlers.

The biggest of the Red River settlements was made up of “half breeds,” or “matis.” Those half breeds were people whose mothers were Native Americans (from either the Creek, Assiniboine, or Chippewa tribes) and whose fathers were from one of several European cultures, including Scottish, English or French. Some Canadian men also fathered some of those so-called half breeds. The majority of the residents in the area were Chippewa-French. As of 1850, most of the residents of Fort Garry were Canadian-born half breeds. The total number of people living at Fort Garry at the time was between 5,000 and 6,000.

When Minnesota and Iowa were settled and Minnesota Territory was organized, around 1849, more settlers began moving into the region that is now North Dakota. On March 2, 1861, Dakota Territory was formed out of parts of Minnesota Territory and Nebraska Territory. Then, several wagon trains were besieged by Indian attacks, as they were passing through Dakota Territory on the way to Montana. That caused the government to build various forts in Dakota Territory. Some of those forts included: Rice, Buford, Stevenson, Totten, Ransom. Fort Pembina followed a bit later, in 1870.

From 1871 onward, steamboats made it much easier to move in and out of North Dakota, but the railroads really helped to popularize North Dakota. The Sioux signed treaties in both 1867 and 1868. That caused settlers to be more comfortable about moving to North Dakota. In fact, between 1879 and 1886, the population jumped from 16,000 all the way up to 191,000.

Several North Dakota settlers came to the area as part of larger groups. Each group settled in certain areas. For example, McIntosh County was settled by a group from Lansing, Michigan. Morton County became home to a group of about 50 German-Russian families, while about 75 German-Russian families settled in Emmons County. Logan County was settled by a group from Iowa. Meanwhile, about 100 Polish families made Crystal Springs, which was located in Kidder County, their home. An excellent resource for information regarding these groups of settlers is Harold E. Briggs, “The Great Dakota Boom, 1879-1886,” North Dakota Historical Quarterly 4 (January 1930): 78-108.

The Timber Culture Act and the Homestead Act made it possible for North Dakota land to be purchased either in government land offices or from the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1871, a land office was opened at Pembina. The preemption law of 1841 made it possible for three million acres to be purchased by 19,500 settlers, as of 1890.

North Dakota’s boom period brought a lot of speculators to the area, but it didn’t lat long. Abandonment and retrenchment soon followed. Low farm prices, droughts, and general economic downturns plagued the settlers who chose to stay in the area.

There were three major themes in the history of North Dakota that were of genealogical importance. The first was that the area was very remote, which caused it to develop late and to be dependent upon resources that came from other areas. The second was that the climate was very different from that which most families who came to the area were used to. The third was that the manufacturing and farm industry incomes were consistently low.

North Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. After that point, there was a major push to get people to move to the area and settle. That created another major boom in North Dakota’s population. Around that time, there were many articles published about the religious denominations, climate, livestock, timber, land, and mineral resources in the area. As of 1892, about 30 million acres in the state were still not being used, out of 45 million acres. Those free acres were “susceptible to profitable tillage,” according to various advertisements. Between 1898 and the end of World War I, about 250,000 foreign-born immigrants settled in North Dakota. The majority of those settlers made their homes around Drift Prairie, the Great Northern Railroad, or the Missouri Plateau. However, many people soon left the state, since its resources couldn’t sustain such a high population.

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Those who immigrated to North Dakota were mainly from Canada and Norway. However, there were settlers from several other countries as well. Some of those countries were: Germany, England, Ireland, Sweden, Russia

As of 1890, about 43% of all North Dakota settlers were from other countries originally. Not only that, but 63% of the population of North Dakota at the time were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. The 1910 statistics for foreign-born settlers were as follows: Norwegians – 21%; Germans – 20% (About 50% of those were Russian-Germans.); Celtic/English (Scottish, Welsh, Irish etc.) – 12%, with 5% being offspring of immigrants.

County histories, family histories and obituaries of Russian-Germans are on file at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, along with various other files, including immigration records and other documents. Records for Russian-Germans across the country are included in that collection, not just records for those settling in North Dakota. The North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies has a similar collection on file, along with an index of publications and books about the Russian-German immigrants.

The Chester Fritz Library is home to books with information on Norwegian immigrants, known as the Bygdeboker (Bygde Books). The inter-library loan program can provide those microfilmed records to interested researchers.

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