|Home|| Some Historical Observations
by Neil Elvick
For most of the last 2.5 million years, North Dakota has been covered by a sheet of ice over 5000 feet thick. In more recent times as the ice began to melt, a massive lake covered the eastern part of the state. At its largest extent, Lake Agassiz had a surface area of 110,000 square miles, larger than all of the current great lakes combined, and it spread out over eastern North Dakota, northwest Minnesota, and parts of Ontario and Manitoba. Until about 8,000 years ago, its outlet to the north was blocked by the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet, so it emptied to the south, carving out the Minnesota and Mississippi River Valleys. When the ice sheet melted, the Red River system developed and began the drainage north toward Hudson Bay. Remnants of the great lake remained as Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis, Lake Manitoba and Lake of the Woods.
The lake bed, when it dried out, became the flat, fertile Red River Valley of the North. Its western shore became the Pembina Ridge, and from there, westward, the land slopes gradually up to the drift plains, low, undulating hills, shaped like drifts of snow.
The climate gradually warmed enough for a sea of prairie grass to grow. The semiarid climate limited trees to the banks of streams, so the grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see. The grass attracted great herds of buffalo, herds so massive that the ground would seem to shake, and it would sound like thunder when they would stampede. American Indians would brave the severe climate to base their whole survival on following and hunting these animals.
The French were the first Europeans to visit and lay claim to this land. In the 1730s, Pierre Gaultier de Varnnes, sieur de la Verendrye, discovered a canoe route from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg, and opened Manitoba to the fur trade. In 1738 he led an expedition into North Dakota, but there were never any permanent French settlements. In 1762, the French ceded their North American holdings west of the Mississippi River to Spain, and the following year with the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the lands east of the Mississippi and all of Canada were turned over to the British. In what is present day North Dakota, the boundary between the British and Spanish land was the north-south continental divide. The areas drained by the Mouse and Red Rivers were British. The rest of the state, drained by the Missouri River was Spanish. The British from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in Manitoba established trading posts along the Missouri River at the mouth of the Knife River, even though this was technically Spanish, French or, after 1803, American land. In 1812 a group of settlers from Manitoba, established the first permanent white settlement at Pembina.
By 1800, French power had again greatly increased under the leadership of Napoleon, and they had persuaded the Spanish to cede back this land to France. Alarmed that the French may hinder American shipping through the port of New Orleans, President Thomas Jefferson began to bargain with the French government, and in 1803, the French, increasingly short of money because of their struggle with Great Britain, agreed to sell the entire property, called Louisiana, to the United States. The final boundary, between the British and the Americans, was fixed by the Treaty of Paris which followed a few years after the War of 1812. It was signed in 1818 and established the 49th parallel as the border between British and American territory from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains.
Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through the state on their way up the Missouri River. They found the British trading post, but otherwise no other European influences. It is in North Dakota that the Shoshone woman, Sakajawea, joins the expedition as a guide. After Lewis and Clark returned home, the area they had explored became of much more interest to Americans. Although it would still be a long time before many permanent settlers would come, fur traders and trappers were soon scouring the territory for animal pelts, which they would bring back to St. Louis and sell for enormous profits.
The buffalo would eventually attract white hunters, and as the 19th century wore on this resource would steadily decline. The Indians would feel pressure from European settlers crowding into Minnesota at the same time as their buffalo were being depleted on the plains. This would lead to the great Minnesota massacres in the Minnesota River Valley in 1862. Three hundred and fifty settlers were killed by the Sioux. Subsequent military campaigns then drove the Indians west of the Missouri River in the Dakota Territory.
The Dakota Territory was established in 1861, and in 1863 the Territory was opened for homesteading. The first segment of the Northern Pacific Railroad was built in 1872. It crossed the Red River at Fargo and extended west. In 1875 the first bonanza farms were established in the Red River Valley. Bonanza farms were very large operations, generally financed by outside investors and were over 3000 acres in size. There were well known bonanza farms at McCanna, and at Larimore, both just a short distance from Nelson County. These farms flourished in the early years before much of the land was taken up by smaller settlers. The North Dakota land boom began in 1879. The St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway entered the Territory that year. This would be built westward from Grand Forks across the state during the 1880s. In 1882 it was built across Nelson County when the line was built from Larimore to one mile west of Bartlett. The first passenger train arrived in 1883 and that was also the year that Nelson County was formed. The railroad was renamed the Great Northern in 1889.
The first settlers arrived in the area around Petersburg and Dahlen about 1881. By 1885 there were just over three thousand residents in the county. Most of the earliest settlers in the county were, of course, farmers and they were attracted here because they could obtain farm land cheaply from the government. There were three ways settlers could do this. Under pre-emption law, a settler could obtain title on one hundred and sixty acres for $1.25 an acre. Before purchase he had to have lived on the land for six months and to have made certain improvements. If it happened to be Northern Pacific Railway land grant land the price was $2.50 an acre. A second way to obtain land would be under the Homestead Act. For a fee, a settler could gain title by living on the land and cultivating it for five years. A $14 fee was due up front and another $4 when he made the final proof of the title. At least ten acres had to be planted in the first year. In 1880 the law was changed so that after 6 months, one could obtain title outright by paying the pre-emption price. This was sometimes done, because after obtaining title, the farmer could then use the land as collateral for a loan. Tree claims were the third way to get land. Anyone could get one hundred and sixty acres of land by planting ten acres of trees on it. Title could be obtained after eight years, provided there were still 675 living trees on the property. There was no requirement that anyone had to live on the land.
Under the above provisions a settler could theoretically file on 480 acres of land. However, he couldn’t do it all at once. What was commonly done was to obtain the first one hundred sixty acres by pre-emption, and six months later, after obtaining title, to then file for a homestead.
Some of the first settlers here would initially build sod houses to live in. However, what was much more commonly done was to quickly put up a wooden shack and insulate it with tarpaper for immediate shelter and then build a proper house when time and resources permitted.
It was productive land, but the drift prairie section of North Dakota would never prove to be as fertile as the nearby Red River Valley. In the Valley, crop failures were almost unknown, but in the drift prairies it was a constant cycle of good and bad years. The first known crop failure occurred in 1888, when the area was hit by a killing frost in early August, before much of the grain was fully ripe. Yields were very low, and barely enough to provide seed for next year’s crop and feed for the animals. The two years following this also produced poor crop yields, but there were good years to follow as well and this has remained as a prosperous agricultural area to this day.