By 1900, North Dakota’s population was 78% immigrant, the highest percentage out of all other states in the Union. This immigrant population claimed homesteads and took up ranching and farming. Townships sprang up.
Germans, German-Hungarians and German-Russians arrived, as did Bohemians, Danish, Estonians, Finns, French, Dutch, Icelanders, Irish, Norwegians, Polish, Russians, and Swedes, and also Syrians, Lebanese, and Canadians.
During World War I electricity, telephones, radios, cars, and gasoline-powered farm equipment modernized rural North Dakota. It all happened in a few decades. As white settlers took up farming in the Missouri bottomlands, they encountered the same short growing season that had faced the natives. Even corn varieties that grew well in the east, southeast or lower Great Plains did not fare well on the Northern Plains.
The region’s farm economy began to fail during the 1920s, hastening an exodus of people from farms to cities. While the 1920s farm depression may have proved that North Dakota boosters misjudged or even misrepresented the carrying capacity of the land, the immigrants adapted and carried on establishing some of the commercial enterprises and social and political institutions that still exist on the Northern Plains and define its sense of place today.
In 1881 a young man from New York named Oscar H. Will was drawn to the northern prairies by the advancing railroad and the promise of employment in the bustling community of Bismarck. He joined a seed house and eventually started his own firm. Oscar Will’s trees were used in shelterbelts on farms across the plains, promoted by the government as an effective defense against soil erosion from the incessant winds.
The popularity of Will’s trees and shrubs grew across the United States and beyond. However, it was corn that would make Oscar Will’s agricultural fortune and fame.
He understood the hardiness of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa varieties of corn, beans, squash, and sunflower. He acquired heritage seed from tribal members and spent years propagating new strains to advertise as northern hearty, “Pioneer Brand.” Will’s colorful seed catalogs often featured American Indian themes; thus, his marketing also made an important connection between agriculture and its beginnings among the region’s native people. Today, some 5% of all corn grown in the United States is thought to come from Mandan varieties.
A new political direction for the region with roots in the Progressive Era of American history emerged in the early 20th century. North Dakota Socialist Party organizer A.D. Townley had tried unsuccessfully to enlist farmers and concluded that the term “socialism” had a negative connotation. His solution was to form the “Non-Partisan League” in 1915 with a platform that consisted of state-owned-and-operated elevators, flour mills and packing plants, state hail insurance, exemption of farm improvements from taxation, fair grain grading and rural credits at no cost. The goal was to reduce the power of corporate political interests from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chicago. Immigrant farmers were receptive to Townley’s economic ideas and joined in droves.
The NPL created the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned railroad, and a Home Building Association to help residents finance and build houses. Although in 1952 the Non-Partisan League moved into the state’s Democratic Party, it had laid a foundation of enriched ownership and responsibility in publicly operated institutions, such as the state bank which still operates and continues to provide economic security to generations of North Dakota farmers.
In the late 1940s the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on several dams on the Upper Missouri under the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Project to provide flood control, generate electricity, and enhance recreational opportunities. Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea to the north and Oahe Dam created Lake Oahe to the south.
Although the project provided economic benefits to farmers with increased irrigation, the dam locations inundated tribal lands, including Like-A-Fishhook Village, and Tribal citizens were forcibly relocated to upland areas where they had to abandon their traditional ways of life in the lush river bottom. Ramifications of the federal dams are still felt today. A good deal about the Plains Village culture was learned by excavating ancient sites that would be drowned. Many members of the displaced tribes now live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and are known collectively as the Three Affiliated Tribes. They continue to maintain their strong cultural connection to their ancestral heritage at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.
Corn, a staple crop for the Mandan which also sustained Lewis and Clark through their harsh Northern Plains winter, now fuels a booming ethanol industry in North Dakota. In addition, lignite, known to the natives as “the rock that burns” and which was mined in the region during the American energy crisis of the 1970s, is still mined here and uses the waters of the Missouri River in the production process.
North Dakota has been the second-largest oil producing state in the country for several years. The famous Bakken oil shale sits upriver, partially on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Nonetheless, agriculture is still the economic backbone of the Northern Plains. The agrarian way of life that traces its beginnings to the gardeners of a previous millennium has been maintained through two world wars, the Great Depression, and into the 21st century. The resourceful lifeways, pioneering spirit, and sense of community remain with the region’s people today.