Tracing North Dakota’s history in Bismarck

North Dakota

Giant prehistoric sea turtles lived among other creatures as part of North Dakota’s inland sea.

From giant prehistoric fish and dinosaurs to underground missile silos, North Dakota’s history covers about 80 million years. In its earliest days, the Peace Garden State was part of an inland sea. The heritage center and museum in Bismarck tracks the state’s history through various stages of its growth. In all, four galleries offer a look at North Dakota’s history.

North Dakota

Triceratops were among the dinosaurs that once roamed the North Dakota landscape.

Dinosaurs roamed the Dakota plains about 65 million years ago. In Nebraska, we had mammals, no dinosaurs, so to see the fossil casts of a T-Rex and triceratops that lived about 500 miles from where I call home was intriguing.

Following the extinction of dinosaurs and climate change, North Dakota became a swampland with some unique animals. How about a 12-foot crocodile calling North Dakota home? Or a three-foot long salamander?

North Dakota

Crocodiles existed in North Dakota.

North Dakota experienced the last great ice age between 12,000 and 2.6 million years ago. As the ice age faded, glaciers eventually retreated, resulting in a changed landscape. Animals adapted to the new environment. Giant sloths and early bison roamed the state.

North Dakota

Image of a early bison fighting off a sloth.

The museum’s second gallery – Early Peoples – provides a look at North Dakota’s Native American culture and history. PaleoIndians were the first Native settlers, coming to the state about 13,000 years ago.

North Dakota

Early Indian life in North Dakota.

Tribes that have called North Dakota include the Dakota (Sioux), Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Arikara and the Cree. Today, the state is home to reservations for Spirit Lake Sioux (Devil’s Lake), Standing Rock Sioux, Turtle Mountain Chippewa and the Three Affiliated Tribes (Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan).

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A tipi made from wood.

The exhibit offers a look not into only the history of the tribes, but also into their culture. Displays feature looks at clothing, weapons and shelter used by tribes.

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Display of Plains Native American tribes.

Another gallery – Yesterday and Today – has six sections that look at the state’s history from the early days of farming to pop culture. The gallery features a display involving one of the state’s early homesteads, including women homesteaders.

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A look inside an old cabin.

Sam Holland handmade six automobiles over a 10-year period near the turn of the 20th century (1898-1908). The blacksmith from Park River created a variety of autos – a steam-powered, as well as single- and two-cylinder ones.

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A 1900 Holland Special automobile.

North Dakota ranks among international agricultural leaders in wheat, sunflower seeds, barley, honey, potatoes and sugar beets.

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Farm-related displays highlight the state’s leading ag products.

The state is home to several energy options, including wind, oil, coal and hydroelectricity. North Dakotans were innovative with equipment. Though designed in Minnesota, a North Dakota bought the rights to a self-propelled front loading vehicle. They revised it, becoming known as “Bobcat.” Almost everyone is familiar with or has seen a Bobcat vehicle.

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An early Bobcat vehicle.

Conflicts and War tracks the state’s history from early Native American battles to modern conflicts. Offering a look at early weaponry, the section does an impressive job in communicating the timeline.

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Military weapons and equipment.

The exhibit features a nuclear fallout shelter. It resembles a basement that could be found in any home. A young child asked me about the old television set in the corner. It was running video of programs. I explained to the 10-year-old that TVs once looked like that. He wondered how old it was. I told him it was probably from the 1950s or early ‘60s. We figured it may be older than his grandmother. He was impressed that it still worked.

North Dakota

Replica of an old bomb shelter.

I’m all too familiar with the display featuring the missile launch control center, having worked in the missile field as a security controller and quality control evaluator for several years at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The missile operations at GFAFB ended earlier this century. However, Minot Air Force Base still has a missile mission. The Grand Forks history remains alive with the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site near Cooperstown.

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Remnants of a missile launch control center.

The section covering the state’s people and communities includes a display featuring items from an Indian boarding school to immigrants’ clothing. The 1950s are highlighted with a replica of a soda fountain.

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The Soda Fountain offers a look at part of the state’s history.

The Cultural Expressions section highlights North Dakota’s diversity, including Native Americans and European immigrants. Clothing and musical instruments are featured in the exhibit.

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A look at North Dakota’s diversity.

The fourth gallery – the Governor’s Gallery – houses temporary exhibits. During our visit, the exhibit focused on the “Green Revolution.” It looks at recycling, energy alternatives and reducing our carbon footprint.

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A dress made from recycled items.

Items are featured in corridor exhibits between the galleries. They feature a variety of subjects, including a mastodon fossil.

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A mastodon.

The North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum offers a fantastic look into the state’s history. And it’s free! We enjoyed our visit and strongly recommend visiting when in the Bismarck area.

For more information on the heritage center and museum, please visit, or


  1. Wow~ this looks like a fabulous museum and it’s free! It’s definitely a must see for anyone visiting Bismarck, as it looks like there is something for everyone.

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