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North Dakota Once ‘Foreign’ Land

Johnson, Larry. “North Dakota Once ‘Foreign’ Land.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 1A.


If we could go back in time to North Dakota’s early days, we would find ourselves in a seemingly foreign land.

The prairie was untamed and was populated by people with widely differing language and customs.

A team of observers from the University of North Dakota set out in 1916 on a 520-mile trip across North Dakota, and found foreign cultures still strong.

It was at the end of the state’s homesteading, which had begun about 1870 and boomed around 1885.

“The tremendous masses of foreign-born is the most striking fact in North Dakota’s social life,” the UND team reported. “During the 35-day drive we succeeded in staying overnight at a farm house almost every night and yet we spent the night in only three American homes.”

They remarked that the immigrant settlers were concentrated in ethnic groups, particularly the Germans from Russia, and that their children did not become Americanized.

They recalled that in one German-Russian home, both parents had been born in North Dakota, but none of the children at home could speak English.

Most of the people who came to North Dakota did so for land, which they either farmed or sold. They had been sought by railroads and officials of Dakota Territory, who sent emissaries to European countries seeking immigrants to help develop resources and manufacturing and secure statehood more quickly.

Brochures were sent out printed in English, German and Scandinavian languages.

The “Emigrants Guide,” published by the commissioner of information for Dakota Territory, informed settlers what to bring, what they could buy and about farming methods, transportation and land laws.

Beginning in 1863, settlers could stake a claim to 160 acres and, by cultivating and improving it, acquire title in five years. They could obtain another 160 acres through a tree claim, which required them to plant 10 acres of trees and grow them for eight years.

A third tract of 160 acres could be obtained by locating on the land, filing intent to purchase and paying for it within 18 months - $2 .50 per acre for railroad land and $1 .50 per acre for any other land.

Those who came found life was not easy on the prairie. Some stayed, while others sold their land after acquiring title.

The isolation of living on the prairie helped preserve the native cultures of those who stayed. To some, cultural preservation was desirable, to others not.

Most settlers were religious, and churches formed the focal point of their social life. Those who attended school often quit after a few grades.

There were no modern conveniences and little entertainment.

The lives of most immigrants were dominated by hard work and great risks.

But they also were eventful, spanning a time from fur traders and ox carts to mechanized agriculture and super highways.

Antoine Girard, said to be the first white settler in Walsh County, was born near Montreal in 1829. As a young man he came west to Pembina, where he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Co. carrying trade goods to the Chippewa. In 1861, he worked on the Anson Northrup, the first Red River steamboat.

During the Sioux outbreak of 1862, he guided parties between Pembina and St. Paul, Minn.

In 1866, he moved to Grand Forks, and while hunting saw the last large buffalo herd around Pembina.

He worked for the Winnipeg, Breckenridge and Acton stage line. Then he became a farmer and was said to be the first man in Walsh County to own a threshing rig, a horse-powered machine he purchased in the 1870s.

Girard’s adventurous life ended in unspectacular fashion in 1912. He died of burns suffered when he lit a lamp, which exploded in his home.

North Dakota settlers ranged from Texas cattle drovers to German-Russians who came all the way from Russia to escape a harsh life and cultural assimilation.

Most of the original culture brought by the immigrants has been lost. But some remains, and North Dakotans have begun taking greater interest in their ethnic backgrounds during the last decade.

“I would encourage people to learn a little bit more about their ethnic (background),” says Armand Bauer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck.

“I think you really get to understand yourself a little bit better ... by understanding or knowing the background and conditions (of your parents and ancestors).

The establishment of ethnic societies and also the Depression have been symbols of overcoming adversity for North Dakotans, says Ted Pedeliski, associate professor of political science at UND.

“That’s very strong in North Dakota culture,” he says, “the coming out of adversity, survival and the ultimate success.”

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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