Tuesday, March 20, 2007

WPA Tours of 1938: North Dakota

From the NDSU Center for Heritage Renewal's project, Highways and Trails of the WPA...

Tour 1
(Winnipeg, Man., Can.) – Pembina – Grand Forks – Fargo – Wahpeton – (Watertown, S. Dak.). US 81. Canadian boundary to South Dakota Line, 256.5 m.

N. P. Ry. parallels route between Canadian border and Joliette; G.N. Ry. between Hamilton and Fargo; Milwaukee R. R. between Fargo and South Dakota Line. Winnipeg-Fargo route of Northwest Airlines parallels route between Canadian border and Fargo. Graveled roadbed except about 31 m. bituminous-surfaced. Accommodations of all types in principal towns.

US 81 crosses North Dakota along its eastern boundary from the Canadian to the South Dakota border, and passes through the rich low valley of the Red River of the North, a wide level plain that was once the bed of the great prehistoric Lake Agassiz. The route parallels the Red River to Wahpeton, and the Bois de Sioux River between that city and the South Dakota Line. Constantly in sight to the left of the road are the heavily wooded river banks, but except for crossing several timbered tributaries the route runs through almost unbelievably flat green fields, broken here and there by an occasional farmstead.

During the early settlement of this region the Red River provided transportation into the newly opened Northwest, and beside its course slow-moving trains of creaking oxcarts preceded the steamboat into the new land. It was in the Red River Valley that the first white settlements in the State were made. Here in the last quarter of the nineteenth century flourished the bonanza farms--those huge land tracts entirely devoted to the growing of wheat that earned for this valley the title of "the bread basket of the world." Today the Red River Valley produces many other crops—potatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa—in addition to wheat. Its natural endowments of rich soil and good rainfall combine with the man-made facilities of transportation to constitute the most prosperous section of North Dakota.

US 81 crosses the Canadian border 64.5 m. S. of Winnipeg, Can.

PEMBINA (Chippewa, highbush cranberry), 3 m. (792 alt., 551 pop.), named for the berries that lend their flaming color to the nearby woods in autumn, is the cradle of North Dakota white settlement. Here, at the confluence of the Red and Pembina Rivers, the earliest trading posts and the first white colony in the State were established. Charles Chaboillez, representing the North West Co., built the first fur post on North Dakota soil on the south bank of the Pembina River within the present site of Pembina in 1797-98. Rudely constructed and of short duration, it had already disappeared when Alexander Henry, Jr., also of the North West Co., came up the Red River in 1800. The following year he built a post on the north side of the Pembina, and in the same year both the XY and the Hudson's Bay Co. opened posts at the mouth of the river. The three competing companies, with their free rum and unscrupulous trading, brought about a lawless social condition in the new settlement. Drinking bouts and brawls were continuous as the Indians were plied with liquor by the conscienceless traders, who excused their conduct on grounds of competition.

It was during this time that the first child of other than Indian blood was born on North Dakota soil. The child was not white, but Negro, the daughter of Pierre Bonza, Henry's personal servant. The first white child in the State was born at Henry's post in 1807, the illegitimate son of the "Orkney Lad", a woman who had worked at the post for several years in the guise of a man. Her imposture was not generally known until the birth of her child, after which a collection was taken up and she and the child were sent back to her home in the Orkney Islands.1

During the middle of the nineteenth century Pembina was the rendezvous for white and metis hunters, and the town was the starting point for the great Pembina buffalo hunts (see Side Tour 5A).

...Charles Cavalier, one of the most prominent settlers of the State [resident of Pembina, and what would become North Dakota], in the 1860s while making a trip with a party from Pembina..., saw a herd of buffalo like a black cloud on the horizon. The party immediately arranged their carts in a semicircle and prepared for an onslaught. The bison came on with a rumble like thunder, the rumble became a roar, and the earth trembled; but when they reached the carts the heard parted and swerved on either side, upsetting only the outside row of the improvised stockade. Not until the second day could the journey be resumed, and even then there were buffalo in sight for another day. The herd was believed to number two or three million, and in its wake was an area, several miles in width, entirely devoid of vegetation.
The fur trade brought some white settlers to this area, but it was not until 1812 that systematic colonization was attempted. In that year William Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, brought a group of dispossessed Scottish peasants to the Red River Valley to farm under an agreement with the Hudson's Bay Co. Untrained for the rigors of frontier life, and persecuted by the fur traders of the rival North West Co. who did not want settlers in their lucrative area, many of the Selkirk colonists moved to Canada in 1818 after establishment of the international boundary defined Pembina as United States soil. The next 30 years saw a slow influx of settlers into the Red River Valley and by 1851 Pembina had become a fairly important river port. In that year Norman Kittson, a fur trader, was named postmaster, the first in North Dakota; and Charles Cavalier, for whom the town and county of Cavalier were later named (see Tour 5), was appointed collector of customs at Pembina. Cavalier became postmaster in 1852, and, as under his influence newcomers arrived to farm, the fur trade declined and there developed the first permanent agricultural community in the State.

Pembina appears from a distance more like a grove of trees than a town. Most of its buildings are old, reflecting the rococo architecture of an earlier day.

On the Red River at the eastern end of Rolette St. is MASONIC PARK, where a marker commemorates the site of the first Masonic lodge in the State, organized at Pembina in 1863. Each year, both on July 1, which is Dominion Day (the Canadian holiday similar to the U.S. Independence Day) and on July 4, the flag of the United States and the Canadian Union Jack fly together from the park flagpole, a practice illustrating the neighborliness of the border States and Provinces. The Canadian flag is a gift of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Manitoba.

The highway crosses the Pembina River, which in dry seasons is likely to appear more like mud than water. Left on the highway is PEMBINA STATE PARK (good water, firewood, kitchens, and tables), which includes the site of the Chaboillez trading post.

A bridge over the Red River connects Pembina with St. Vincent, Minn., situated on US 59 (see Minn. Tour 17).

At 4 m. is the PEMBINA AIRPORT (R), airport of entry operated by the Northwest Airlines. It is on part of the former military reservation of Fort Pembina, established in 1870. The reservation was turned over to the U. S. Department of the Interior in 1895 and sold at public auction. The fort was situated a mile and a half S. of the city of Pembina on the Red River ...

1 - UPDATE January 29, 2016:  Since I posted this in 2007, I have found out a few more details about the "Orkney Lad" named John Fubbister.  Her name was actually Isobel Gunn, and while her story began with courage and inspiration (not to mention hard work), it ended with more hard work, but sadly. Another recent article shares even more information, along with the sources they came from. Hudson's Bay Company itself has a history write-up about Isobel Fubbister "Gunn", aka John Fubbister, on their website with additional parts of the story.  However, another version claims that Isobel and the father of her son, John Scarth, were not so unknown to one another as others have contended.