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North Dakota State History

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1682—France claims much of Northern America, including North Dakota

1713—England receives the northern part of North Dakota from France

1738—French explorer Pierre Vérendrye makes the first explorations in North Dakota

1803—The United States acquires North Dakota through the Louisiana Purchase

1804-1806—Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pass through North Dakota and meet Sacajawea, a Native American that travels with them on there expedition to the Pacific coast

1812—Scottish and Irish people from Canada attempt a settlement at Pembina

1818—The United States acquires the northern section of North Dakota

1861—Congress establishes the Dakota Territory

1863—The Dakota Territory is open for settlement

1872—Bismarck is founded and the first railroad reaches North Dakota

1875—Bonanza farms begin in the Red River Valley

1883—The University of North Dakota opens

1889—North Dakota became the 39th state

1897—The first public library of North Dakota opens in Grafton

1915—The Nonpartisan League was established to help the farmers

1919—The Bank of North Dakota is established at Bismarck

1922—The North Dakota Mill and Elevator opens at Grand Fork

1937—The North Dakota Water Conservation Commission is created

1951—Oil is found near Tioga

1960—The Garrison Dam is completed

1968—The Garrison Diversion Project is begun

1978—Theodore Roosevelt National Park is established

1986—The Garrison Diversion Project is modified and passed by Congress

When European explorers first visited North Dakota, there were several Native American groups living there.  The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara lived along the Missouri River, farming corn, sunflowers, beans, and squash.  The Sioux, Chippewa, and Assiniboine lived in the northeast and were mainly hunters.

During the early 1600s, France established trading posts in Canada.  René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed all land surrounding the Mississippi River for France in 1682.  This included the southern half of North Dakota, because the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River.  France also claimed the northeastern half of North Dakota, but in 1713 gave this land to Great Britain.

The first known explorer to actually visit North Dakota was French-Canadian Pierre La Vérendrye.  He and his sons visited Mandan villages near present-day Bismarck.  In 1762, France gave Louisiana to Spain.  Spanish traders began traveling up the Missouri River to exchange goods for furs.  In 1797, David Thompson explored English North Dakota, including the Turtle Mountains and the land along the Souris River.  Alexander Henry built Pembina, the first permanent trading post of North Dakota, in 1801.

In 1800, Spain had given Louisiana back to France.  The United States bought Louisiana from France in 1803.  The following year, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore this new territory and establish a trail to the Pacific Ocean.  In October 1804, Lewis and Clark reached North Dakota and built Fort Mandan across from present-day Stanton.  As they made friends with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians they were introduced to Sacajawea, a young Shoshone woman who had been kidnapped years before by the Hidatsa.  Lewis and Clark set out again in April 1805.  With them were Sacajawea, her baby, and her husband, a French-Canadian fur trader.

In 1812, Scottish settlers from Canada established a settlement at Pembina.  In 1818, Great Britain gave the United States the northeastern region of North Dakota.  All of present-day North Dakota was then U.S. territory.  Many of the Canadians moved north onto British territory and by 1823, all had left North Dakota.

Congress created the Dakota Territory in 1861.  The territory included North and South Dakota, and a large part of Wyoming and Montana.  The territory was open for settlement on New Year’s Day 1863.  Settlers could receive free land if they improved it.  However, few settlers came to North Dakota due to poor roads, harsh winters, and Indians attacks.  In 1862, Sioux Indians massacred hundreds of settlers in Minnesota.  Some of these then fled to the Dakota Territory.  By 1870, North Dakota only had a population of around 2,400 people.

During the 1870s, settlers began to establish towns in North Dakota.  Fargo and Grand Forks were begun in 1871.  Bismarck was founded in 1872.  That same year North Dakota’s first railroad reached Fargo, then Bismarck in 1873.  Large-scale farming began in 1875 in Red River Valley.  These farms earned such large profits, they became known as bonanza farms.  Where there were trees, people built wooden houses.  But, most people built sod houses by piling huge chunks of ground together.

During the 1880s, people in the Dakota Territory sought statehood.  However, they wanted two states to be formed, as the north and south had very little in common.  Congress divided the territories and North Dakota became the 39th state on Nov. 2, 1889.

North Dakota’s population grew rapidly following statehood.  Farming increased as well.  In the early 1900s, farmers grew angry at banks, railroads, and mills that were making a lot of money.  In 1915, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) was established in North Dakota.  It worked in behalf of the state’s farmers.  The following year, the NPL helped to elect Lynn Frazier as governor.  He opened state-owned businesses such as the Bank of North Dakota at Bismarck in 1919 and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator at Grand Forks in 1922.  The bank gave low-interest loans and the mill gave farmers better prices.  The state reduced farm taxes and more money was given to rural schools.

North Dakota became the country’s top barley producer in 1925.  Sugar beets and red potatoes also became important.  As farming diversified, new people came to the state.  By 1930, North Dakota’s population reached 680,845 people. 

The Great Depression (1929-1939) caused many in the nation to lose their jobs and their land.  North Dakota experienced a drought during the 1930s as well.  This led to a severe drop in farm production and population for the state.  By 1936, almost one-half of North Dakotans were receiving government aid.  By 1939, one-third of the state’s farmers had lost their land.  During this time, the state and federal governments took steps to help North Dakota farmers.  The North Dakota Water Conservation Commission was created in 1937.  Other agencies worked to help provide irrigation methods and prevent erosion of the soil.

World War II (1939-1945) also helped North Dakota’s economy to recover.  Farmers supplied large amounts of food for the armed forces.  But, after the war farm prices fell and the increased use of machinery led many workers in search of employment elsewhere.

The Garrison Dam near Riverdale was completed in 1960.  It is one of the world’s biggest earthen dams.  The dam provides flood control, hydroelectric power, water for irrigation, and recreation on Lake Sacajawea.  In 1951, oil was discovered in Tioga.  By 1984, North Dakota had become a leading oil producer by generating 53 million barrels of oil a year.

In 1957, North Dakota founded an economic development commission that works to attract industry to the state.  The state’s rate of industrial growth was the highest in the country from 1958-1969.  The U.S. Air Force built bases in Grand Forks and Minot during this time.  In 1968, the Garrison Diversion Project was started.  It was designed to bring water for irrigation from the Missouri River to North Dakota.  However, environmental concerns slowed the progress of the project until 1986.

During the 1970s, coal, oil, and natural gas production increased while the farming industry struggled.  Blizzards and floods destroyed the animals and land.  During the 1980s, heat and drought did the same.  The number of farms fell from 45,000 in 1970 to 33,000 by 1993.  Oil production also fell during the 1980s.  Thousands of North Dakotans again left the state in search of better opportunities.

Today, North Dakota is a state where there is little air or water pollution.  During the early 1990s, North Dakota gained 25,000 new jobs.  Trade with Canada and Mexico is growing and tourism is increasing as well.  State leaders still strive to broaden North Dakota’s economy that depends heavily upon agriculture.  Increased industrial growth would raise the per capita income and create more job opportunities for North Dakotans.