North Dakota

With a 1997 population of approximately 641,000, North Dakota ranked forty-eighth among the fifty states in population.

History of North Dakota

With a 1997 population of approximately 641,000, North Dakota ranked forty-eighth among the fifty states in population. Its total area of 71,000 square miles makes it the seventeenth largest state in land mass. Its population density of 9.3 people per square mile is among America’s lowest.

Bordered on the north by the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, on the east by Minnesota, on the south by South Dakota, and on the west by Montana, North Dakota runs 360 miles from east to west and 210 miles from north to south.

Early History

North Dakota had human inhabitants more than ten thousand years ago. Millions of years earlier, dinosaurs and mastodons roamed the area. During the Ice Age, the Dakotas were covered by glaciers, which melted around 10,000 b.c.e., leaving a huge lake in what is now the Red River Valley in eastern North Dakota. Topsoil trapped in the glacier was deposited in the lake as the ice melted. When the lake evaporated, that topsoil created fertile fields.

Prehistoric settlers lived beside the Red and Missouri Rivers. The Mandan Indians around 1300 c.e. were the earliest of the Native American settlers, followed some three hundred years later by the Hidatsa and Arikara, all groups that created settlements and engaged in farming, growing mostly squash, sunflowers, corn, and beans. They hunted indigenous animals, particularly bison, for their meat and fur.

The more migratory Sioux and Chippewa entered the area in pursuit of the bison. Other tribes lived in North Dakota for short periods, notably the Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Cree, and Crow. The first Europeans in the area were Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, his sons, and a nephew, who visited Mandan villages in 1738.

The Fur Trade

Relations between North Dakota’s Native Americans and visiting Europeans were amicable initially. The American Indians had an abundance of furs, and the European traders had ready markets for these furs. By the 1780’s, a thriving fur trade flourished in the region, largely stimulated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered in Manitoba. In 1801, Alexander Henry established a fur-trading post at Pembina, the first European settlement in the area.

In 1713, the French gave England the northern part of North Dakota, which bordered Canada. In 1812, a group of Canadians started a town at the Pembina trading post, building a school and some permanent buildings. In 1818, however, the United States, through a treaty with Great Britain, was given Britain’s section of North Dakota, establishing the territory’s northern border. Canadians living there returned to Canada.

Early Growth

Few people other than American Indians came to North Dakota in its early days, although Congress established the Dakota Territory in 1861. By 1870, the territory had 2,405 inhabitants. By 1880, however, the population had ballooned to about 37,000.

Three major factors brought this increase. The Homestead Act of 1862, designed to encourage settlement of the sparsely inhabited territory west of the Mississippi, permitted people to stake claims for the 160 acres allotted to each homesteader, to improve the land and live on it for five years, and then to receive a clear title to that land. Although homesteading became more prevalent in the 1870’s, there was no immediate rush of homesteaders to the Dakotas.

Homesteading was difficult. In a land bereft of forests, timber was scarce, forcing early settlers to build sod houses made by cutting square chunks of sod from the prairie for roofs and walls. Sod houses extended below ground; these small houses offered adequate shelter and were warm in winter but were quite unlike the dwellings to which homesteaders were accustomed.

The establishment of towns in the area also spurred population growth. Fargo and Grand Forks were established in 1871, and the following year Bismarck was founded in the middle of the state. By 1874 Bismarck was publishing its own newspaper, the Bismarck Tribune. Concurrent with the establishment of towns was the spread of railroads, first from Minnesota to Fargo in 1872 and, in 1873, to Bismarck. Railroad service enabled farmers and cattle ranchers to send their products to eastern markets.

By 1875 farmers in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota were producing huge amounts of wheat on their fertile soil. North Dakota is second only to Kansas in the amount of wheat it produces, and it ranks first in its production of sunflower seed and barley. Long, hot summer days and abundant topsoil make the eastern half of the state agriculturally productive.

In 1878 large-scale cattle ranching began in the western Dakota Territory, whose stubby grasses proved perfect for grazing. Growing railroad service made it easy to transport cattle to markets in Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

American Indian Relations

Although North Dakota’s Native Americans generally had amicable relations with the early European traders, relations became strained when the federal government reneged on treaties it had entered into with Native Americans. In 1875, when the government permitted white settlement on American Indian lands in abrogation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, major Indian uprisings occurred.

The following year, in neighboring Montana, the Sioux killed many American settlers, including Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In 1877, the federal government confiscated Sioux lands in the Dakotas. Within a year, most of the Native American population was deployed to reservations.

Achieving Statehood

The Dakotas were growing and moving irrevocably toward statehood, although Congress resisted admitting the entire territory as a single state. Between 1880 and 1900, North Dakota’s population increased tenfold to about 320,000. In 1883 the territorial capital was moved from Yankton in the southeast to Bismarck.

In 1889 the Enabling Act passed by Congress divided the Dakota Territory into two separate states and guaranteed statehood as soon as each territory submitted acceptable constitutions. North Dakota drew up a constitution that the electorate approved, and late in 1889 President Benjamin Harrison signed papers admitting North Dakota as the thirty-ninth state and South Dakota as the fortieth.

The Early Twentieth Century

Between 1900 and 1915, inequities existed for North Dakota’s farmers and cattle ranchers. Their labors were enriching the state’s banks, flour mills, and railroads, but life was difficult for those providing the basic labor. In 1915, discouraged by these inequities, thirty thousand farmers joined the Nonpartisan League, which helped to elect Lynn Frazier, a reform candidate, governor.

Frazier helped establish the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck in 1919. This state-operated bank offered farmers and cattle ranchers low-interest loans. In 1922 the state opened the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, in which wheat farmers could store their crops until they could sell them at favorable prices. Farmers’ taxes were lowered, and an increased percentage of state revenues was earmarked for rural schools, which extended educational opportunities to farm children.

During World Wars I and II, North Dakota provided produce to feed members of the armed forces. Although North Dakota opposed entry into both of these wars, the citizens served valiantly in the armed forces.

During the 1920’s, agriculture boomed in North Dakota. Sugar beets and red potatoes became profitable crops. The upsurge in agriculture caused the population to more than double between 1900 and 1930.

No state was more severely damaged by the Great Depression than North Dakota. During most of the 1930’s, widespread droughts and dust storms that blew away precious topsoil plagued the state. By 1936 half the state’s citizens required public assistance. A third of North Dakota’s farmers lost their farms. Nearly forty thousand people had left the state by 1940.

In 1937, realizing the need for water conservation, North Dakota established the Water Conservation Commission. All its fifty-three counties embarked upon water-conservation projects. It was not until 1960, however, that the Garrison Dam was completed, creating Lake Sakakawea, which provides irrigation and whose dam generates hydroelectric power.


During the 1950’s, many farmers moved to cities, entering new walks of life. The state’s first television station opened in Minot in 1953. Interstate Highway 94 crossed the state in 1956. Air transportation too became more accessible, and North Dakota, which had suffered from isolation, was now linked more closely to mainstream America.

Oil was discovered in Tioga in 1951, but not until 1978 did an enormous oil boom begin around Williston. In the same general area is substantial mining of lignite, which is burned to fuel electrical generating plants.

North Dakota again experienced an upsurge in population near the end of the twentieth century. People are drawn to it from more populous states by its fine schools, which boast the lowest dropout rate in the nation, its clean air and water, and its low crime rate.