If you haven’t noticed, the country is having a big rhubarb over whether or not we ought to come clean about our history involving African-Americans. This debate has created a lot of soul-searching in the United States.
It just seems to be the time to be transparent about that part of North Dakota history that has been swept under the rug by historians, political leaders, pioneers, editors, legislators and all others not included in the foregoing groups.
When we were founded no one was actually looking for us. Pierre de la Verendrye came upon us in 1738 while looking for a route to the western sea. Of course, discovery by accident occurs frequently. At the universities, we call it research.
President Jefferson was a very curious scientist among other things. It became apparent that he was a Democrat when he bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803 with borrowed money sight unseen. Of course, North Dakota was a beneficiary of this reckless spending so Republicans didn’t make a big issue of it.
Pembina was the first settlement in North Dakota, leaking people over from Manitoba. The newcomers actually thought they were in Canada but there were no markings delineating the international border.
Now as to the albatross hung on us by naming the state “North” Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum and I agreed that we should drop the “North” and it would improve our image immensely. He hasn’t talked about it as a major goal in his administration so maybe I should not have brought it up, embarrassing as it may be.
In spite of the negative moniker, we knew that the state needed people to survive. So we were overjoyed when Abraham Lincoln realized we had a vast surplus of barren prairies and thought giving it away was the best solution.
While we thought giving away land was a virtue in 1862, we have become negative about giving anything away, especially to immigrant foreigners like us.
Actually, more land was sold by land dealers than under the Homestead Act. Land became very cheap when the Northern Pacific got to Bismarck and went bankrupt in 1873, forcing it to have a garage sale on land. Of course, the railroad was resurrected in 1879 and crossed on Missouri ice until a bridge was built in 1883.
(The bankruptcy had nothing to do with the location of the state capitol, although some have made the connection.)
Individual clergy showed up before settlement so they got early dibs on the Indian Reservations with the Catholics taking Fort Totten, Standing Rock and Turtle Mountains. The Congregationalists got Fort Berthold. The Episcopalians traveled the rails with their “Cathedral Car” holding railside church services wherever two or three could be gathered.
By 1899, the Legislature had passed a law declaring the Bible not be considered a sectarian book and giving teachers the option to read it in class for up to 10 minutes. This went on until the U.S. Supreme Court said we were mixing church and state.
Nevertheless, we keep insisting. In the last session, the Legislature put its thumb in the Supremes’ eyes and ordered the Ten Commandments be posted in schools. They are all pretty simple until it becomes necessary to explain adultery to first-graders.
The highlight of the 19th century was having Gen. George Custer at Fort Lincoln, where he paused to consider his ambition to win the nomination for president. In his search for delegates, he heard of a gathering in Montana. He went but he didn’t get any delegates.
During Custer’s reign, the treaty for the Black Hills declared it to be “a nonbinding agreement that remained in effect as long as the grass grows, the sun rises or gold is discovered.” Well, gold was discovered so another treaty was broken.
Transparency is just too embarrassing to continue.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.