North Dakota: State History & Facts

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Get an overview of North Dakota. Learn about the geography and economy of the state today, as well as North Dakotan history. Discover how the Nodak people fought to make the government responsive to their needs.

North Dakota and What It's Known For

The state of North Dakota is situated on the northern Great Plains and was the 39th state to enter into the Union. The state has come to the attention of many in the nation over the past several decades, largely due to the Bakken oil boom in the western part of the state, but also due to its portrayal in media, such as the film and television show Fargo or the television show Blood and Oil. Although many North Dakotans, or Nodaks as they are called, have welcomed this exposure, they often stress that there is much more to North Dakota than strange accents, the barren prairie, and oil.

Quick Facts

North Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. It's largely a rural state, with a population of 739,482 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while Fargo, its largest city, had a population of only 115,863 that year. Other cities in the state include the capital Bismarck, plus Grand Forks, Minot, and Dickinson.

President Theodore Roosevelt once called North Dakota home, moving to the territory in the late 19th century to recover after the deaths of his wife and his mother on the same day. His Elkhorn Ranch later became part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, ND.

North Dakota has an extensive higher education system, with the two notable examples being the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks and North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo. Both schools play NCAA Division I sports, with UND being a major hockey power, and the NDSU Bison having won four consecutive national championships in football.

As one would expect from a rural state, North Dakota produces an abundance of agricultural crops, such as wheat, sugar beets, sunflower seeds, and canola seeds. However, in the past ten years, the usage of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Bakken formation in the western half of the state has turned North Dakota into a major oil producer as well, leading to a population boom in the state's western counties. Coupled with the growth of Fargo, this has led to a vibrant economy with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation in 2015, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

History of North Dakota

North Dakota's history has been marked primarily by its landscape and its interactions with neighboring urban centers, especially the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in nearby Minnesota. Beginning in the decades prior to statehood and continuing into the early 20th century, the sparsely settled and fertile lands encouraged many immigrants to come to the state. Of these, three groups were the most prominent: Yankees, or old stock Americans, who largely settled in the towns; German-Russians, who moved to the southern half of the state; and Norwegians, many of whom settled in the northern half.

The natural features of the land also affected North Dakota in other ways; with no large urban settlements, the wheat crop would have to be transported to the Twin Cities where it could be manufactured into flour and other goods. This forced North Dakota farmers to be heavily dependent upon the railroads, which they needed to ship the crop, and upon the grain merchants who purchased the crop for the manufacturers in Minnesota. The railroad and merchants worked together to dominate the government and make sure that the state government represented their interests. Of these, one man, a railroad executive named Alexander McKenzie, came to represent the corruption of the state government.

Many efforts were made to clean up the North Dakota government between the 1880s and 1910s. Of these, the most successful was the Nonpartisan League. The Nonpartisan League (NPL) was founded by ex-Socialist A. C. Townley as an organization made up of farmers and their allies. NPL members would be instructed to run as members of either the Republican or Democratic parties, depending on which was stronger in their region, but were pledged to a platform that called for the creation of a state-run bank, state-owned grain elevators, hail insurance for crops, and a number of other items. In their first election, the NPL was able to secure control of the state legislature and elect Lynn Frazier, a prominent farmer, to the office of governor. The struggle among the NPL, conservatives of both parties, and moderates would divide the state for the next three decades.

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