North Dakota — History and Culture
North Dakota has always been on the fringes of America. It was one of the last states to be settled and remains one of its least visited by tourists. The Native Americans have held this beautiful prairie land sacred for centuries, and their cultural presence continues to be strong throughout the state. The outdoor recreation also shapes the local culture, while its few cities like Fargo and Bismarck provide a really unique insight into this remote corner of the country.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, North Dakota had been a major center of Native American settlement for centuries. Tribes like the Sioux, Mandan, and Chippewa considered many areas of the region sacred and spent much of their summer time here. Attractions like the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site have preserved ancient settlements and added modern museums to showcase their rich culture.
French traders were the first Europeans to arrive, reaching the Mandan villages in 1738. Though most North Dakota tribes didn’t trade directly with the French, by the time the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the state in 1804 they were aware that Europeans had made claims to their traditional lands. This first American expedition spent more time in North Dakota than any other state, recruiting the famous Indian woman Sakakawea to be their guide.
The Lewis and Clark Trail is a major historic attraction in North Dakota, with 27 different historic sites of importance marked by the state. In 1861 the Dakota Territory was created by the US government, attracting large numbers of Scandinavian and German migrants to settle the remote area. Frontier towns like Medora were founded in 1883, and still retain much of their western atmosphere.
Conflicts with the Indian tribes were common, and the government built several forts to protect settlers. Sites like Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park are excellent examples of this type of defense. By 1910 the settlers were flowing in, mainly growing wheat in the rich farmland of the Red River Valley. The arrival of the railroad during the late 19th century was a boon for North Dakota, allowing goods to flow in and products to flow out.
US President Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Badlands in southwestern North Dakota in 1883 when he was part of the Rough Riders. He was so enchanted by the natural beauty of the area that when he became president in 1901 one of his biggest acts was to create the US Forest Service and protect the first 18 national monuments. He cited his experience in North Dakota as the inspiration for his presidency, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created in 1948 to honor his legacy.
North Dakota is a vast unpopulated state that hasn’t changed much since the first wave of German and Scandinavian migrants settled here in the early 1900s. The state’s economy is almost entirely based on agriculture, mining, food processing, and tourism. A recent oil and gas discovery has created a new boom period for the state that is attracting a new set of residents bent on earning a good living around Williston.
The people here are among the most self-sufficient and friendly in America. They need to be given the remote location of their state and the few visitors who travel here. Outdoor recreation is the main free time activity in the state, whether it’s ice fishing in winter or hiking in the summer. There is also a strong Native American presence here, both on its reservations and protected at historic and sacred sites. Visitors will get a fascinating look into both the native and pioneer cultures that helped shaped the American West.