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The railroads became the engine of settlement in the state. Its economy has since its early days been heavily based on the production of agricultural products such as wheat, flaxseed, and cattle, however its farming industry has declined and the state has suffered population decline in formerly heavy farming areas.
By the time European trade goods were making their way through native trade routes, the Mandan had developed a notably advanced agricultural and trading society.
La Vérendrye was the first European to explore the area. He visited the Mandan tribes around 1738 and was astounded by their level of development. Limited trade with European powers followed through the end of the century .
The Mandan villages played a key role in the native trade networks because of their location and permanency. Their location at the northernmost reaches of the Missouri River placed them near the closest portages to the Hudson Bay basin and thus the fastest access to French and British traders. Additionally, valuable Knife River flint was produced not far from the villages.
In 1861, the area that is now North Dakota was incorporated into the new Dakota Territory along with what is now South Dakota. On November 2, 1889, North Dakota and South Dakota became separate states.
Eager to attract immigrants, state officials broadcast widely pamphlets and newspaper accounts celebrating the "Myth of North Dakota." This myth included: 1) the myth of the garden; 2) the "work and win" philosophy that promise to the realization of the American Dream of home ownership through hard work; and 3) an image of an empire in the making, settled by good and just people. The settlers came by 1910, with the largest numbers comprising German Americans, Scandinavian Americans, and Yankees; the Yankees concentrated in the towns and cities, while the others became wheat farmers.
The success of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Great Northern Railroad was based on the abundant crops and rapidly increasing settlement in the Red River Valley along the Minnesota border between 1871 and 1890. The initial role of the railroads in opening this area was to commercial agriculture, the relation of James B. Power to "bonanza" farming, the tremendous immigration to this valley between 1878 and 1884, and the extensive efforts of Power and James J. Hill to promote agricultural diversification constitute an important chapter in railroad colonization history.
The railroad was the engine of settlement for the state. Major development occurred in the 1870s and 1880s. The Northern Pacific Railroad was given land grants by the federal government so that it could borrow money to build its system. The federal government kept every other section of land, and gave it away to homesteaders. At first the railroad sold much of its holdings at low prices to land speculators in order to realize quick cash profits, and also to eliminate sizable annual tax bills. By 1905 the railroad company land policies changes when it realized it had been a costly mistake to have sold much of the land at wholesale prices. With better railroad service and improved methods of farming the Northern Pacific easily sold what had been heretofore "worthless" land directly to farmers at good prices. By 1910 the railroad's holdings in North Dakota had been greatly reduced. Meanwhile the Great Northern Railroad energetically promoted settlement along its lines in the northern part of the state. The Great Northern bought its lands from the federal government—it received no land grants—and resold them to farmers one by one. It operated agencies in Germany and Scandinavia that promoted its lands, and brought families over at low cost. The battle between James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway and Edward Pennington's 'Soo Line Railroad' to control access across northern North Dakota resulted in nearly 500 miles of new track and more than 50 new town sites in one year. Many of the town sites were never settled, and were abandoned.
Germans from Russia were the most traditional of German-speaking arrivals. They were Germans who had lived for generations throughout the Russian Empire, but especially along the Volga River in Russia. Their ancestors had been invited to Russia in the 1760s to introduce more advanced German agriculture methods to rural Russia. They retain their religion, culture and language, but the Russian monarchy gradually eroded the relative autonomy they had been promised. Many found it necessary to emigrate to avoid conscription and preserve their culture. About 100,000 immigrated by 1900-1950, settling primarily in North and South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska. The south-central part of North Dakota became known as "the German-Russian triangle".
These immigrants saw themselves a downtrodden ethnic group having an entirely different experience from the German Americans who had immigrated from Germany; they settled in tight-knit communities that retained their German language and culture. They raised large families, built German-style churches, buried their dead in distinctive cemeteries using cast iron grave markers, and created choir groups that sang German church hymns. Many farmers specialized in sugar beets—still a major crop in the upper Great Plains. During World War I their identity was challenged by anti-German sentiment. By the end of the World War II, the German language, which had always been used with English for public and official matters, was in serious decline. Today their descendants speak English and German persists mainly in singing groups. Despite the loss of their language, the ethnic group remains distinct and has left a lasting impression on the American West.
Many entrepreneurs built stores, shops, and offices along Main Street. The most handsome ones used pre-formed, sheet iron facades, especially those manufactured by the Mesker Brothers of St. Louis. These neoclassical, stylized facades added sophistication to brick or woodframe buildings throughout the state.
In the rural areas farmers and ranchers depended on small local general stores that had a limited stock and slow turnover; they could make enough profit to stay in operation only by selling at high prices. Prices were not marked on each item; instead the customer negotiated a price. Men did most of the shopping, since the main criteria was credit rather than quality of goods. Indeed, most customers shopped on credit, paying off the bill when crops or cattle were later sold; the owner's ability to judge credit worthiness was vital to his success.
In the cities consumers had much more choice, and bought their dry goods and supplies at locally owned department stores. They had a much wider selection of goods than in the country general stores, and provided tags that gave the actual selling price. In an era before credit cards, the department stores provided limited credit to selected customers; everyone else paid cash. They set up attractive displays and, after 1900, window displays as well. Their clerks—usually men before the 1940s—were experienced salesmen whose knowledge of the products appealed to the better educated middle-class housewives who did most of the shopping. The keys to success were a large variety of high-quality brand-name merchandise, high turnover, reasonable prices, and frequent special sales. The larger stores sent their buyers to Denver, Minneapolis, and Chicago once or twice a year to evaluate the newest trends in merchandising and stock up on the latest fashions. By the 1920s and 1930s, large mail-order houses such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward provided serious competition, so the department stores relied even more on salesmanship, and close integration with the community.
From the late 19th century, North Dakota's politics was generally dominated by the Republican Party. The Populist movement made little headway among the ethnic farmers. A representative leader was John Miller (1853–1908). Born in New York of Scottish ancestry, he came to North Dakota during the bonanza farm period, 1878-89. A Republican, he entered politics and was elected as the state's first governor, serving two years, after which he devoted his time to farm management. The greatest victory he won as governor was the defeat of a charter for a State lottery. He returned to his bonanza farm business and organized the John Miller Land Company in 1896. Miller became president of the newly incorporated Chaffee-Miller Milling Company in 1906. He was interested in numerous projects for civic and social improvement until his death in 1908.
Republican Senator Asle Gronna was reflected the attitudes of his region - progressive and isolationist. He blamed munition makers for the preparedness movement and World War I and was part of the "little group of willful men," so labeled by President Woodrow Wilson. In 1919 he was a staunch isolationist who opposed the League of Nations treaty because it further entangled the United States in foreign relationships and limited national decisionmaking. Gronna failed to win reelection in 1920.
The Non-Partisan League (NPL) was a faction of the Republican Party which ran farmers as candidates in the Republican primaries. Formed in 1915 with its roots in agrarian radicalism, it was strongest in the north-central and northwestern areas of the state, where Norwegian Americans predominated. The NPL advocated state control to counter the power of the railroads, the banks and the cities. Some of its programs remain in place to this day, notably a state-owned bank and state-owned mill and grain elevator. Conservatives, based in the towns and cities, fought back, and Republican primaries were the scene of intense political battles.
William Langer (1886–1959) in 1916 was elected state attorney general on the NPL ticket, one of the few urban men in the farm group. Langer closed brothels in Minot, became a federal marshal to raid a Minnesota brewery, and enforced school attendance laws. He turned the NPL into a political machine. Elected governor at the nadir of the Great Depression in 1932, Langer declared a debt moratorium, stopped foreclosures, and raised the price of wheat. He also solicited 5% of each state employee's salary for an NPL newspaper, which led to federal conspiracy charges, an initial criminal conviction, and his removal from office in 1934. He was later acquitted and was reelected governor in 1936. Langer moved to the US Senate in 1940, where he served until 1959. Despite his overt political opportunism and rumors about his taking bribes, Langer's interventions during the depression overshadowed any charges of corruption in the minds of voters.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the state's Congressional delegation comprised Senators William Langer and Milton R. Young and Representatives William Lemke and Usher Lloyd Burdick. In foreign policy they formed an isolationist bloc that opposed American involvement in the Cold War, and opposed the UN, the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Korean War, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, the Formosa Resolution, and the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957. They reflected the isolationist spirit that dominated the German American element in the state, and was likewise strong among Scandinavian Americans. Burdick's isolationism reflected his deep fears of communism and world government and, in turn, the threat they could pose to the sovereignty of the United States. Many of his constituents saw global entanglements, particularly war, as obvious dangers to the state's agricultural economy and lifestyle. His sharpest criticisms came in the wake of the outbreak of war in Korea. Burdick is remembered best for his independent voting behavior, his advocacy for the downtrodden, and his leadership in building a rhetoric of opposition to the UN in the United States.
By the 1950s, the NPL had developed into just another part of the political establishment in North Dakota. A group of young insurgents in 1956 merged the NPL into the Democratic party. While the governorship of the state has been held approximately the same amount of time by both parties since the Democratic-NPL party was formed in 1956, the state legislature has been dominated by Republicans.
North Dakota has long been the most agricultural state in the Union. Farms have increased in acreage and decreased in number. Tenancy is diminishing as technological advances are made, and more fertilizer is being used. Cash grains are being replaced by feed grains and roughage, and because of the soilbank and wheat acreage allotments, over 30 percent of the crop land is not harvested. The farm standard of living is high as the farm population decreases. Schools and churches are reduced in number by consolidation and merger.
Since 2000, the state has experienced rapid growth, largely due to the oil boom in western North Dakota's oil-rich Bakken shale. A 2013 census report listed North Dakota's population at an all-time high of 723,393 residents, making North Dakota the fastest growing state in the nation. The population boom reverses nearly a century of flat population numbers.
The profile of the newcomers shows that compared to long-term residents, they generally are younger (60% were between 21 and 40 years old) and better educated (45% were college graduates and another 35% reported some college or postsecondary vocational-technical school experience). The migrants were motivated more by quality of life values than economic incentives; reasons for moving most often cited were desire for a safer place to live (58%), desire to be closer to relatives (54%), lower cost of living (48%), and quality of the natural environment (47%). These residents represent a very productive cohort of people who were needed to augment population strata that were severely depleted by the out-migration of the 1980s.
Robinson's history is to date the only comprehensive history of the state, but his analysis has drawn fire. His assertion of a "too-much mistake" in particular, is controversial. By this Robinson meant that North Dakota had too many farms, railroad miles, roads, towns, banks, schools, government institutions, churches, and people for suitable living in a subhumid grassland. Either the state will revert to a natural grassland, have a future similar to its past, or come to grips with the "too-much-mistake" and rationally control government and the advantages of new technology. Some politicians, including Joe Satrom, blame the book for (un)inspiring a generation of leaders to lower their expectations for the state's future.
The land has been a central theme in North Dakota literature. In fiction, poetry, autobiography, drama, history, travel publications and websites, the same themes appear over and over regarding the land: its beauty, unforgivingness, solace, starkness, sameness, and the hard work it requires to survive and thrive. Many of the state's writers focus on the relationship of the people and the land. The landscape has barely changed since first impressions were recorded, and the relationship between people and land has likewise changed little.