Wednesday, December 6, 2017

History Of North Dakota, A Book Review

History of North Dakota, A Book Review
Environment Determines Character
By Dakota Wind

Robinson, Elwyn Burns. History of North Dakota. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1966. Out of print. (Fargo, ND; ND Institute for Regional Studies, 1995. $40.00.) 610 pages + viii. Preface, table of contents, maps, illustrations.

Robinson’s History of North Dakota is a dense read. Twenty-three chapters take readers on a journey of remoteness from the formation of the prairie, a modest “Indian” occupation, through exploration, settlement, booms, WWI & WWII, to the culture and character of North Dakotans.

Robinson’s History’ features indigenous history, but the human occupation history only begins with Pierre La VĂ©rendry’s 1838 fall encounter with the Mandan on the Missouri River. Robinson disguises ecological history as pre-contact history, describing the conditions in which the Indians lived and hunted.

The Opening of the West unapologetically includes frontier military history. Lt. Col. Armstrong gets a two-page mention here regarding his role in the Black Hills Expedition of 1874, and his last failed command which concluded at the Little Bighorn Fight of 1876. The military was placed in an odd position, to the natives, the forts represented a permanent advancing presence, and to the pioneer, the military represented the furthest most edge of western civilization. Robinson describes the military as practically impotent, a token might that couldn’t hold back its own citizens from entering and occupying the Black Hills, but a might that was exercised only after American citizens died in escalating conflict with the natives.

The environment, the dry, semi-arid plains, industrial technology, and a desperate need to help and be helped or utterly fail developed the cooperative character of the North Dakota farmer. If environment determined the pioneer spirit, it would seem that one could make the argument that the vast open plains did the very same to the indigenous for millennia. One simply couldn’t survive or progress without the help of another soul. For farmers, this real need to cooperate extended beyond the social confines of church and field, and developed into cooperations.

The completion of settlement teeters on a few things, not just immigration. War in the Philippines and Cuba, industrial and technological advances in agriculture, contributed to the development and settlement of the plains.

The Character of a People offers an answer to the spirit of North Dakota citizens: common experience and conditions of existence (the environment). It’s the environment that Robinson determines is the factor in character development and cites the work of psychologist and part-time ethnohistorian Dr. James H. Howard, that even the natives were affected by the environment because plains Indians differ in personality and disposition than their woodland kin.

Robinson touches on the “country mouse” mentality of North Dakota citizens, and feelings of inferiority and non-adjustment of rural citizens among city-folk, even among the city or townfolk in the state. Politicians reacted to their rural constituents by dressing down. The two characteristics that both the indigenous and colonist must posses are courage and faith in the future.

Robinson wrote his History’ for the citizens of North Dakota, perhaps to instill a sense of pride that the people of the state could live and thrive to a time then a history of book could reward their patience and faith. Though Robinson recognizes the struggle settlement, and acknowledges the displacement and confinement of the indigenous, his work is too optimistic. Fifty-seven years after the first printing of History and North Dakota is still dealing with the consequences of native dispossession and treaty issues decades before the territory entered the union as a state. Perhaps Robinson would attribute his optimism to the North Dakota experience.

Robinson’s book is dense, and it’s certainly not a recreational read. It’s dated material, but that’s probably why one should read it, for its insight to North Dakota as someone who’s experienced North Dakota; a retrospect from the middle of the twentieth century.



Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.