updated 7/15/2008 7:30:51 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:30:51

Two hundred years ago, in late 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition paddled up the Missouri River and reached what is now North Dakota. There they bivouacked for the winter across the river from what is now the state capital of Bismarck. Lewis and Clark, North Dakota proudly proclaims, spent more nights in North Dakota, 146, than in any other state. And here you can still see on the Lewis and Clark Trail much of the pristine land that the expeditioners saw. North Dakota has long been the state least visited by other Americans, but some 3.9 million visitors stopped along the state’s Lewis and Clark Trail between 2002 and 2005, and some 54,000 copies of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea cookbooks were sold. The Three Affiliated Tribes—Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa—sold pottery, basketry, quill and bead work and the traditionally crafted leather pouches commissioned by the U.S. Mint to hold the commemorative Lewis and Clark Westward Journey nickels.

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What Lewis and Clark and later venturers into this territory—George Armstrong Custer, Theodore Roosevelt—saw was Indian country, a vast unfenced land where the Indians built a civilization based on the buffalo and, a Spanish import, the horse. The history of North Dakota is short: Roosevelt did not arrive until nearly 80 years after Lewis and Clark, and bicentennial tourists came just a little more than 120 years after Roosevelt. There are still a few North Dakotans alive today who knew the men and women that settled this land and saw the state enter the Union in 1889. As children, they walked in the ruts left by the early settlers’ wagon trains; they saw the Indians, recently defeated, herded onto reservations. This was some of the best wheat land in the world, empty by then of buffalo, connected to markets by rail, ready to become a cog in the industrial world.

And so, in a sudden rush of settlement during the 20 years before World War I, North Dakota filled up to pretty much its present population. There were 632,000 people here in 1920 and in counts since the number has fluctuated between 617,000 and 680,000. In the 2000 Census it was 642,000—when it was the state with the lowest growth rate since 1950—and the Census estimate for 2006 is 636,000. Wheat—mostly spring wheat but also durum used to make pasta—is the biggest crop here but not the only one: North Dakota ranks number one in sunflowers, barley, dry edible beans, oats, and dry peas, and ranks high in sugar beets and rye; there is plenty of cattle ranching and livestock grazing in the arid plains in the western half of the state.

Its dependence on agriculture shaped North Dakota’s politics. Farmers, as much as they like to extol their way of life, are seldom content with the workings of the market. When prices are high, it is often because of low production; when they are low, farmers seek protection. The boosterish optimism of the first settlers was soon followed by cries reverberating with varying intensity for government protection against market forces. Since commodity prices tend to fall during periods of economic growth, there has been a countercyclical element in North Dakota politics, a tendency to vote against the national trends, and a radical strain going back to the 1910s and still lively in recent decades. That radical strain also owes much to the immigrant origins of so many of North Dakota’s early settlers: Norwegians in the eastern part of the state, Canadians along the northern border, colonies of Poles and Czechs and Icelanders, and Germans throughout the state. German is still spoken on the streets of some towns, and the state is proud of its Nordic Initiative which welcomed Princess Martha Louise of Norway to Grand Forks in April 2006.

These immigrants produced orderly small towns and grain and other cooperatives; they also provided support for the Non-Partisan League, which flourished from its founding in 1915 to its alliance with the Democratic Party in 1956. It appealed to marginal farmers, cut off in many cases from the wider American culture by language barriers and seemingly at the mercy of the grain millers in Minneapolis, the railroads of St. Paul, the banks of New York and the commodity traders of Chicago. The NPL’s program was socialist—government ownership of railroads and grain elevators—and, like most North Dakota ethnics, it opposed going to war with Germany. The NPL often determined the outcome of the usually decisive Republican primary and sometimes swung its support to the otherwise heavily outnumbered Democrats, instituting reforms and creating a state-owned bank and grain elevator. By 1960, the NPL had more or less merged into the Democratic Party, a merger symbolized by the election of the late Democratic Senator Quentin Burdick, whose father, Usher Burdick, served 20 years in the House as an NPL-endorsed Republican. North Dakota’s leading Democrats of recent decades, Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, have championed a politics clearly of NPL lineage: For government farm programs, wary if not hostile to American military involvement abroad, and cheerfully championing the little guy from North Dakota against out-of-state corporations.

This is a place where everyone knows everyone else; for years there has been no voter registration because people obviously spot anyone not eligible. People have been around practically forever: the 2000 Census reported that North Dakota had the highest proportion of any state, and tiny McIntosh County the highest proportion of any county, of residents 85 and older. This communal closeness has produced an innate conservatism in North Dakota. Divorce is as uncommon here as anywhere in the United States, the two-parent family is still very much the norm and abortions are available in only one clinic in the state. Politics is personal, too, in a state where every politician is known to many voters. North Dakota is one of four states with an all-Democratic congressional delegation (Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii are the others: the four don’t have much else in common). The two senators and one congressman are all allies who have worked together for years.

Yet there are signs of change even in this settled commonwealth. The land, it seems, is emptying out. Increasing agricultural productivity has meant fewer farmers living directly off the land, and more people living in towns and off other industries. Out-of-staters are buying up farmland for vacation hunting: North Dakota sits below the North American Flyway. Bison have been reintroduced, and the idea circulated two decades ago that North Dakota would become a “buffalo commons” may be coming true. But energy is also a North Dakota product: the lignite coal fields in the west fuel enough power plants that North Dakota exports much of its electricity to other states, and the unproven Bakken oil formation in the west may prove to be one of the nation’s biggest oilfields.

At the same time, North Dakota’s small cities have grown. Back in 1955 North Dakota-born sociologist Carl Kraenzel predicted in The Great Plains in Transition that “sutland” communities (places on transportation lines) would grow and “yonland” communities (places away from transportation lines) wane; and so it has happened. North Dakota’s four biggest counties, containing Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot, grew from 134,000 in 1930 to 329,000 in 2006, while the state’s other 49 counties dropped from 546,000 to 307,000; in 2004, these four counties cast 52% of the state’s votes. In effect, North Dakota is developing the demographics of the Rocky Mountain states, with population concentrated in a few cities and towns. And these are the engines of its economic growth. Microsoft bought Great Plains Software in 2000 for $1.1 billion and the Microsoft Fargo campus is the headquarters of its business systems division and is the state’s third largest employer. Alien Technology has a plant in Fargo that produces the tiny radio frequency tags used by Wal-Mart and the military. Grand Forks, devastated by flood in 1997, generously provided its “lessons learned” to its sister city Biloxi, Mississippi, in 2005. It is the home of the University of North Dakota and its splendid Ralph Engelstad hockey rink; its president defended its Fighting Sioux sports team against outsider protest, and pointed out that they’re strongly supported by North Dakota Indians and that UND graduates more Indian professionals than any other school in America. North Dakota is number two in academic research and development dollars per $1,000 of gross state product, after Maryland and ahead of Massachusetts. North Dakota may even be solving the problem it has agonized about for years: how to retain its young people. North Dakota spends more per capita on state colleges than any other states, and a smaller proportion of graduates seem to be heading off to to Minneapolis and Denver, Chicago and California. Fargo and Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot still have the coldest winters of American cities, but they are also spouting hip restaurants and Starbucks, industrial parks and office buildings. The Census Bureau estimates that North Dakota’s population started rising after years of decline in 2003. The declining number of farmers seems to be yielding place to another story: economic success. North Dakota’s unemployment rate lately has been one of the lowest in the nation; its wages and incomes have been rising more than the national average, with per capita income rising from 81% of the nation’s in 1997 to 91% in 2005; its farm incomes are among the highest ever; its state government faced the problem of dealing with a $500 million surplus in a $2 billion budget.

You can make the case that these developments are undermining the state’s radical tradition. If the typical elderly North Dakotan is a hard-working retired farmer, with fond memories of NPL agitation and a belief in government programs (those over 60 voted only 52% for George W. Bush in 2004), the typical young North Dakotan is a family person with a college education more trusting of markets and the private sector (those under 45 voted 69% for Bush). Bush carried the state 63%-35% and Republican Governor John Hoeven was reelected 71%-27%. Yet the heirs of that radical tradition continue to do well. The state’s two Democratic senators continue to be reelected by wide margins—Byron Dorgan by 68%-32% in 2004, Kent Conrad by 69%-30% in 2006—and Democratic Congressman Earl Pomeroy won by 66%-34% in 2006. These were consensus elections: Hoeven in 2004, Dorgan and Conrad carried all 53 counties, and Pomeroy carried 52, losing Billings County by 5 votes. Republicans hold most of the downballot statewide offices and have majorities, reduced in 2006, in both houses of the legislature. North Dakota prizes frugality in government, and values Senate Budget Committee Chairman Conrad’s denunciations of federal budget deficits. But it was happy to receive some $10 billion in farm subsidies in 1995–2005 and fought against Air Force base cutbacks in Grand Forks. The issues here can be intensely local. Consider Devils Lake. It sits in a basin with drainage neither to the Mississippi nor to the Red River of the North, which flows north to Manitoba and Hudson Bay. Starting in 1993, water began to accumulate and Devils Lake rose 26 feet, expanded in size and inundated farms, roads and houses. North Dakotans’ solution was to drain the water through an outlet to the Sheyenne River and then to the Red. Canada and Minnesota objected: the water might be impure or contain invasive species; it might flood parts of their territory. Governor Hoeven proposed that the state build a $28 million outlet to the Sheyenne, with crude rock filtering of the water; objections would go to the International Joint Commission set up by the U.S. and Canada. Dorgan and Conrad objected: ILC review could take years, and there might be objection to introducing Missouri River water to the Red River basin. Hoeven agreed and got Minnesota and Canada to go along in August 2005; testing of the pumps began and North Dakota would be open to more intensive sand filtering of the water if someone else—the federal government or Canada—was willing to put up the necessary $18 million. North Dakota seems to have gained a certain confidence from its recent successes, and its economic transition. Case in point: In 2006 the North Dakota Farmers Union opened a restaurant, Agraria, on the Washington, D.C., waterfront, with decor suggesting the plains of North Dakota and a sophisticated menu and wine list. North Dakota, which successfully navigated a turn of the century 100 years ago, seems to be turning a century successfully again.


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