Section 1: Introduction

How do we know what happened in the past?  Can we trust historians to tell us the truth?  The process of collecting our history through the preservation of historical documents and objects is closely linked to the writing of history.

Knowledge about life and events in the place that eventually became North Dakota began centuries ago. As the first residents told and re-told the stories of their ancestors, the stories became part of their traditions and a guide to their way of life. By the early 19th century, the Lakotas and many other tribes recorded their stories (called oral traditions) on bison or deer hides or on cloth. The images, painted on cloth, are called Winter Counts. Today, Winter Counts are an important source of Lakota history.

When European Americans began to settle in North Dakota, they knew that they were part of the historical process of settlement of the North American continent. They formed organizations to preserve their history. They wrote letters about their experiences, collected documents and photographs, and saved objects they thought were important. In 1895, pioneers formed the State Historical Society of North Dakota to protect and preserve documents and objects that tell people today about what earlier residents did in the past.

Another process in preserving history took place in the early 20th century. Anthropology was becoming an area of professional scholarship. People such as Frances Densmore and Gilbert Wilson recorded stories, songs, and traditions of American Indians so that those cultures could be shared with non-Indians. Both Densmore and Wilson hoped that with more knowledge, there would be better understanding between the tribes and non-Indians.

The collectors of historical objects and documents sometimes took the wrong path. They let their quest for knowledge overcome their sense of respect for the people they studied. The process of identifying and correcting those mistakes is also part of the story.

Why is this important? All of these methods of collection provide the evidence (or facts) that historians use to write history. Historians study Winter Counts, pioneer letters, photographs, documents, Frances Densmore’s recordings, and even the seeds of plants to write our history. The historian’s job is to put these pieces together to tell the whole story of our past.

We continue to collect documents, photographs, and objects. Some of these are everyday objects, such as a Dakota Maid flour sack. Other objects may be unusually important such as the key (no longer in use) to a missile launch system. Documents might include a map showing the location of oil wells in McKenzie County or a grocery shopping list. Future historians will be able to use these objects and documents to explain how people lived in the early years of the 21st century.

As you study all of the lessons in North Dakota: People Living on the Land, you will find references to resources. You will have a chance to study documents, photographs, and objects that were collected in the past and preserved for your study. These documents ensure that our history is based on verifiable facts.