the north dakota heritage center {the horse, native peoples & north dakota history}

I left Washburn and Fort Mandan at 3:20, crossed Painted Woods Creek, and hightailed it 38 miles to  Bismarck, the state capital of North Dakota and the second largest city in North Dakota with only 67,034 people. The town was named for the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in hopes of encouraging the chancellor’s investment in the railroad.

I finally arrived at 4:00 at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum, with only an hour to spare before closing. Here, I found exhibits in four museum galleries which traced North Dakota history from 600 millions years ago to current events.


North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

The Horse in North Dakota

I first saw an exhibit about “The Horse in North Dakota.”


The Horse in North Dakota

Millions of years ago, many species of horses – some as small as a dog – roamed the Great Plains of North America.  About 55 million years ago, global temperatures abruptly rose, turning North America into an environment similar to the Amazon rain forest. The first members of the horse family, the dog-sized Hyracotherium, lived in these forests. For more than half their history, most horses remained small, multi-toed forest browsers, thriving on leaves, bark, and green plant stems.

Then about 35 million years ago, global temperatures dropped, creating a climate similar to today’s. Dry grasslands replaced much of the North American forest, leading to rapid evolution among horses. Horses became larger, their toes reduced from three to one, and they adopted a grazing diet. By about nine million years ago, most forest browsers had disappeared, leaving primarily the grazers alive today.


artistic horse

About three million years ago, the first species of Equus, the ancestor of living horses, spread to several continents including South America.

Then about 10,000 years ago, horses became extinct in North America and South America. The prime causes of their extinction were changes in the environment, disease, and overhunting by humans.

Equids survived only in Eurasia and Africa; they thrived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  Prehistoric people in Eurasia valued ancient horses as a food source, which is likely the reason they first domesticated them, around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

By about 1500 BC, people had harnessed the power of horses, using them for transportation and as beasts of burden.

The Spanish reintroduced horses to the Americas over 500 years ago.  Recognizing that horses were an advantage in war, the Spanish tried to keep horses out of Native American hands. Gradually, however, Native peoples created their own herds from horses captured in raids and collected as strays.

The horse changed the nature of hunting to allow large groups of hunters to harvest more animals, especially bison.  Hunting from horses increased a group’s hunting range and made hunting more efficient.

In 1680, when the Pueblos rebelled against colonial rulers in Santa Fe (now in New Mexico), the hundreds of horses left behind passed into Native American hands and became the ancestors of many tribal herds. Horses were then dispersed across North America via established trade routes.  By 1740, nearly every tribal group on the Great Plains possessed horses.

Long before horses were domesticated, people tried to capture their wild beauty and majestic strength through images, poetry and song. Art records and celebrates the role the horse had played in human history – from the mundane plowing of crops or a glorious charge into battle to bravely carrying us to new destinations or offering quiet companionship.


Greet the Dawn, 2012 by S.D. Nelson, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Member (Lakota)

The horse family today is quite small.  All domesticated horse breeds, from tiny ponies and plow horses to thoroughbred racehorses, belong to a single species, Equus ferus caballus.  Domestic horses are thought to have been bred from the European wild horse, or tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), which went extinct in 1909.

Wild Horses, 1936, was one of a six-panel series painted by American artist Frank Mechau (1904-1946).


Wild Horses, by Frank Mechau

Tribes came to value horses and guns for how they improved their ability to hunt, defend their resources, and expand their territories. Power gradually began to shift from the settled agricultural tribes to nomadic equestrian tribes such as the Lakota and Crow. A good horse could make a great hunter or warrior, and possessing many horses could make a family wealthy.  Horse adornment was one way to show a family’s wealth.

Before the arrival of horses, Native peoples traveled by waterways or on foot.  With horses, people could travel farther and faster. Greater hauling power meant tribes could acquire more food (primarily bison) and transport it, which supported larger populations.

A horse’s speed, agility and power gave tribes with horses an advantage during warfare. Tribes with horses could expand their hunting territories, putting them in conflict with other groups over resources. Horses also enabled Native peoples to better defend their lands against encroaching Euro-American settlers and U.S. soldiers.

Native people had to learn to care for the horses, especially during harsh northern winters. Among the Mandan and Hidatsa, prized horses had a place in the earthlodge during the winter, and were fed the tender bark and branches of cottonwood trees. Native plants such as cow parsnip, curlycup gumweed, and pineapple weed were given to horses for medical ailments. The Hidatsa regularly fed hunting horses small amounts of corn to make them swift runners.

Settlers pushing west sought land for their crops and livestock, but it was the same land Native Americans called home. Responding to the sometimes violent culture clashes, the US Army moved soldiers and ammunition westward in horse-drawn wagons.  Draft horses hauled settlers’ wagons and pulled plows that broke sod for crops.  Cowboys drove cattle through the grasslands of western North Dakota on well-trained quarter horses.  Later, horses became integral parts of firefighting teams.

The cowboys of North America favored the American quarter horse, bred to run short-distance races.  The men led grueling lives, toiling in the sun and spending most of their days on the back of a horse. In today’s remote and often rugged grazing lands of North Dakota, horses remain integral to ranching operations.

Rodeos had their roots in a time when cowhands would gather to compete for fun after cattle roundups. Events tested cowhands in accurate roping, and fast and agile riding. Bronc riding, where a bucking bronco tries to throw the rider off, is based on an old method of taming horses.

Horses are herd animals without fixed territories.  They naturally form groups for safety, develop social bonds with other herd members, and look to a leader.  People utilize this instinct when training horses by taking on the authority of a herd leader. The horse instinctively submits to a more dominant individual. Humans also provide companionship that horses seek.

I saw a small exhibit about birds of the wetlands, including grebes and whooping cranes, and birds of the prairie, including horned larks.

Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today

Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today had an exhibit about North Dakota history from the mid 1800s to contemporary times. It covered farming, pioneer days, and technology.

According to the website, the gallery tells the story of North Dakota and its people through six themes that continue to shape the state’s history:

  • Agricultural Innovation
  • Industry and Energy
  • Newcomers and Settlement
  • Conflict and War
  • Our Lives, Our Communities
  • Cultural Expressions

According to the exhibit, one hundred years ago, North Dakota was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse states in the country.  More than three-quarters of its people were immigrants or the children of immigrants. They lived alongside Native Americans of many different nations. In the state can be found Norwegian Lutheran churches, lutefisk suppers, Knoephla soup, Ukrainian pysanky eggs, or Lakota beadwork.

As different groups settled in North Dakota, they brought the traditional dress, designs and techniques from their homelands.  Immigrants from across Europe brought tools like spinning wheels and the knowledge and skills to knit, weave, and stitch intricately patterned pieces.

Musical traditions from many cultures melded in the state.


Musical traditions

Those who grew up in North Dakota in the 1950s and 1960s saw a world in transition.  The end of World War II brought an era of prosperity and change.  North Dakota’s economy was thriving.  More women entered the workforce.  North Dakotans became connected thanks to rural telephone systems, interstate highways, and eventually, television.  For the first time, young people enjoyed new freedoms that came with cars, spending money, and leisure time. The rise of television and the portable transistor radio helped popularize rock and roll. Soda shops became popular hangout spots of young North Dakotans.


Soda shop


soda shop

Louis and Cyril Keller from Minnesota designed a maneuverable, self-propelled loader for poultry farmers.  The design was refined and renamed “Bobcat” in 1962.


Melroe M200 Self-Propelled Loader

This oil rig model was built at 1/48 scale and reflects what an oil drilling rig would have looked like in the 1990s.


Oil rig model


Superior Storage bin



Oscar H. Will is the best known North Dakota commercial seed developer. His success was tied to the horticultural knowledge he gained from the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. After establishing the first North Dakota plant nursery in Bismarck, Will began experimenting with native corn varieties.  From a bag of beans given to him by a Hidatsa man, he developed the Great Northern Bean, which is still grown today.

Oscar H. Will & Company continued to grow and prosper.  The mail-order seed catalog, first published in 1884, had international circulation and offered a wide range of seeds, vegetables, flowers, trees and more, all adapted to flourish in northern climates.  The company closed in 1959.

Plants grown in North Dakota include flax, hard red spring wheat, sunflowers, honey, barley, lentils and peas.

Water is crucial to raising crops and livestock.  Beginning in the 1850s, windmills were used to pump water from deep underground. Once electricity arrived, other sources of power were used to pump water.  Today, windmills are still used to pump water for livestock in remote areas.


windmill used to pump water

Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples

The Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples was devoted to the Native peoples of North Dakota. It includes artifacts from prehistoric cultures, the international story of the fur trade, oral histories, and collections from prehistoric tribal life to the 1860s.

The story of the Early Peoples begins more than 13,000 years ago when people first began to migrate into North Dakota, beginning with the Paleoindians, the first hunters.

I saw exhibits about Native Peoples, bison, tipis, lodgings, clothing and artifacts.

A single bison drive by Native Americans could easily kill hundreds of animals, which created the immediate problem of how to process this large quantity of meat without waste and spoilage. Most members of the tribe participated, using guns as well as bows and arrows. After removing the hide, women quickly sliced meat into strips and hung them on racks to dry.

At one time tens of millions of bison roamed across North America.  By 1900, fewer than 100 wild bison were living on the Great Plains.  Professional hunters armed with large-caliber guns killed hundreds of bison a day in the late 19th century for their hides and tongues.  The completion of the railroad made shipping hides cheaper and more profitable for bison hunters. Settlers and their cattle moved west, competing with the bison for grasslands and contributing to the animals’ decline.  It was not until 1894 that the first federal legislation protecting these animals was enacted.

Today, more than 500,000 bison live in North America under both public and private ownership.  Many Plains tribes have established their own herds in order to maintain a spiritual relationship with them.  In North Dakota, hundreds of bison are protected in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.



One way Plains Indians recorded details about the past was by drawing symbolic pictures, or pictographs, on hide or cloth, called a winter count. Keepers of winter counts added one event to the count each year, the time between one winter and the next.


Indian symbols to record and remember the past

People on the Northern Great Plains have used tipis for thousands of years.  A tipi is a moveable dwelling made of long wooden poles covered with a material. Stones, earth or wooden pegs held the covers down.  People controlled air and vented smoke from cooking and heating fires by moving flaps located at the top. Tipis could weigh up to 450 pounds.



The remains of the earliest house found to date in North Dakota were discovered on land along the James River.  It was occupied during the autumn and winter and was destroyed by fire between 550 and 410 BC. It was made of wooden posts covered in bark or hide. This house is a reproduction of that house.


This painting was in Sitting Bull’s home when he was killed.  One of the Indian policemen ripped the hole in it with his carbine.  Colonel Mathew F. Steele stopped the officer from destroying the painting.


Painting of Sitting Bull by Catherine Weldon, 1890

North Dakota’s earliest villages were spread out and relatively small, with each housing about 300 individuals.  By the 1400s some village populations grew to an estimated 1,000 people. These settlements were fortified and well-planned cities.

Around the 1500s, the Mandans started building circular earthlodges.  The fortification system consisted of a dry moat and a wall of wooden posts that formed a palisade around the village.  The Mandan people occupied some of these bustling trade centers for nearly 300 years, from 1490 to 1785.

One of the largest of these villages was located on the east side of the Missouri River.  Known to the Mandans as Yellow Earth, today it is called Double Ditch State Historic Site.


Double Ditch, AD 1550

My visit was entirely too rushed!  I decided I would go back the next morning as the museum opened at 8:00 a.m.


I drove by the North Dakota State Capitol building, also known as the “Skyscraper on the Prairie.”  It is a monument to North Dakota’s development.


North Dakota State Capitol

I then checked into my hotel, the Ramada Wyndham.

I tried to go to the recommended Pirouge Cafe for corn and bison soup, but the police had all roads around the cafe closed off.  I didn’t know if it was a crime scene or what, so I sought out another place instead.

I had dinner at Shogun: a Sapporo beer and a Super Girl Roll: Tempura shrimp avocado and jalapeño with chili sauce on top. It was delicious! 🙂

Here was my journal page for today, Thursday, ,September 12, from Bottineau to Bismarck, North Dakota:


journal pages from Bottineau to Bismarck, North Dakota, Thursday, September 12, 2019

All information is from signs at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

*Drove 240.6 miles; Steps: 10,049, or 4.26 miles*

*Thursday, September 12, 2019*