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Likely taken by Job V. Harrison near Rock Lake, N.D. 190?

[Detail] Likely taken by Job V. Harrison near Rock Lake, N.D. 190?

Collection Overview

The Northern Great Plains, comprised of the Hultstrand and Pazandak collections, contains 900 photographs of rural and small town life at the turn of the century. Highlights include images of sod homes and the people who built them; images of farms and the machinery that made them prosper; and images of one-room schools and the children that were educated in them.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

For help with search words, go to The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920 Subject Index. A total of nine Special Presentations for the collection as a whole and for each of its two parts also suggest search terms

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920 is comprised of the Hultstrand and Pazandak collections from the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. It contains nine hundred photographs of rural and small-town life in North Dakota and the surrounding Great Plains between the years 1880 and 1920. Documenting a period of dramatic change, these photographs offer views of both frontier life and the emergence of modern America that can be easily integrated into K-12 historical studies whenever the themes of frontier settlement, westward expansion, agricultural production, and independent third party politics are taught. The collection has a total of nine Special Presentations, referenced throughout these documents, that help to make the images relevant and meaningful.

1) Agriculture and Industrialization

Straddling two time periods, The Development of the Industrial United States (1876-1915) and The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930), this collection provides an excellent opportunity to explore the role of agriculture in industrializing and modernizing America.

The industrialization of the late nineteenth century fueled the final surge westward across the Great Plains. Settlers found that farming the arid land of this region required new, large-scale dry-farming methods and this need fueled the swift growth of the farm equipment industry. With this growth, more land came under cultivation between 1870 and 1900 than in the previous 250 years, bringing the American frontier to a close. Students can trace the changes in farming methods and technology in the Special Presentation "Implements Used on the Farm" and in the three Presentations of the Pazandak Collection. They can also compare images of the same subject taken at different times, reflecting change. Suggested subjects include Agricultural laborers, Binding grain, Drill, Hay racks, Harvesting, and Threshing.


2) Modernizing America

Browse the collection to gain perspective on modern culture. Highlights are found by searching ice, general store, and laundry.

New inventions, forms of communication, and methods of production and distribution all contributed to a modern mass culture. Students can search electrical, telephone, automobile, airplane, and advertisement for evidence of these turn-of-the-century innovations.

They can also search Sears Roebuck for images of a prefabricated house and then visit Prosperity and Thrift, 1921-1929 or Consumers and Catalogues to find out more about the development of the modern consumer culture and its expansion from urban centers into rural America. (Consumers and Catalogues is found outside of the Library of Congress web site. If you have a slow modem, click here to skip its animated introduction).

3) Settlement

As the Midwest filled up, immigration to the western United States increased. Students can learn more about immigrants and their impact upon the settlement of the Northern Great Plains in a Special Presentation on Immigrants or by searching Czech-Americans, Icelandic-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, German-Americans, Swedish-Americans, Danish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Canadian-Americans, and British-Americans. In addition to captions and visual content, take note of the summaries that appear below the captions in the bibliographic information. Exploring settlement, students will also get a broader perspective of immigration than is afforded by the traditional focus upon the Ellis Island experience.


While people shaped the settlement of the Northern Great Plains, the environment of the region influenced this process as well. Search sod houses, town, and snow for images that will help students to better comprehend the sheer effort of migration and settlement, especially in a region with little timber and extreme weather.

Students can further study the mutual impact of human societies and the environment by referring to the Timeline in Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. This will help students to relate the regional images of this collection with national events and trends, including Theodore Roosevelt's conservationism as President. Roosevelt once said "I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota." Search Roosevelt for evidence of his experiences and consider why he felt they were necessary to his Presidency. How far has the impact of one man's experience reached?

Students may understand the demands of settlement upon individuals by closely examining images of men, women, and children, their activities on the frontier, and the places where they learned, worked, and played. Search children, boy, girl, family, play, home, and interior and consider the following questions.

  • What would have been involved in building and maintaining a sod house? What would it have been like to live in one?
  • What did children do for fun? How would school on the frontier have been different from school today? What chores and tasks did children do at home or on the farm?
  • How did parents provide food, shelter, safety, transportation, and clothing for their families? What search words would you use to find out?

The collection is particularly explicit about the many roles women played in frontier society. Many historians argue that frontier women developed a special kind of independence and equality that eastern women did not. Can students support this argument with photographs from the collection? See the Special Presentation on Women or search the collection.    


4) Community

The collection supports an exploration of the nature and role of community on the frontier. What is community? What was the significance of community on the frontier? How was a sense of community created? How do modern day communities differ from frontier communities? Students can browse the Subject Index or conduct searches for images of neighborhood gatherings, weddings, churches, and soda shops that will help them understand how people socialized and supported each other, and what events and places drew people together. Teachers can challenge students to find as many different examples of frontier community as possible.

One element of community well represented in the collection, and highlighted in a Special Presentation, is schools. What do the many photographs of school houses in the collection suggest about the people of the Northern Great Plains? What does the multitude of these images suggest about the photographer? Many of these schools were public institutions. Why might the Government have set aside so much money to establish schools on the frontier? What other roles did State and Federal Government play in the frontier? (Students might want to explore Prosperity and Thrift, 1921-1929 and Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920). What do these roles suggest about attitudes toward the frontier and its communities?

Political organizations such as the Nonpartisan League also contributed to community and can be studied in this collection. Students should refer to the Special Presentations of the "Golden Age of Agriculture" and the "Nonpartisan League in North Dakota Politics" to learn about the growth of corporate, mechanized farming in the West and the mobilization of small farmers against big businesses. Images of the landscape, cultivation, and frontier life can help students understand why small farmers might have felt deprived of the benefits of the nation's economic growth and disaffected from the two party system that represented big business and corporate farming. Students can relate this to other political movements and other geographical regions by searching granger and socialist in Pioneering the Upper Midwest, 1820-1910.

5) Native Americans

While by the end of the nineteenth century the nation had become an advanced industrialized society, it was also still absorbed in conquering a continent, with settlers streaming to isolated farms in the West as Native Americans were pushed off their homeland. The collection's Special Presentation of "Native Americans" in the "North Dakota Historical Overview" provides information about the history of Native Americans of the Great Plains, while a few of the collection's pictures document a particularly difficult chapter in their history. These images are found by searching Indians, bison, and rosebud. Viewed along with images of settlement, they facilitate discussion of the costs of settlement in the depletion of natural resources, the threat this posed to the Native American way of life, and the forced removal of these people from their homeland.


Critical Thinking

The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920 affords students the opportunity to develop their skills in working with photographic historical documents on a variety of levels. And with these images, they can make in-depth explorations of historical subjects, devise questions and strategies for research, and consider controversial historical issues with a sense of their relevance to real past events and present conditions in America.

Chronological Thinking

Using the collection, students can trace change through time in a variety of subjects. They can follow the history of a town or settlement in images and trace the evidence of what settlers might have seen as progress. In one project, students can display a chronology of these images, concluding with a contemporary depiction of their topic, taken from magazines or newspapers, or drawn from imagination.

Other topics include landscape, architecture, clothing, transportation, leisure, and standard of living. An extended study of industrialization is also possible. Using the Special Presentation of "Implements Used on the Farm" and the Pazandak Special Presentations, and doing outside research on inventions, students can use the photographs to create a timeline of technology that changed the frontier.


Historical Comprehension

Students have the opportunity, with this collection, to gain an in-depth understanding of frontier settlement. The collection's images provide evidence of the look and feel of frontier life in a way that only photographs can. Furthermore, the scope of the collection exposes students to multiple aspects of settlement. These include the roles of technology and immigration, farming, weather and climate, daily life, social life and community, and even the costs of settlement upon the land and upon Native American people and culture. Students can supplement this visual data with stories and letters from California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives, 1849-1900 and Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910 by searching pioneer, or agriculture. These documents afford comparisons of settlement in different regions and at different times that will also enrich students' understanding.

Using these and other resources, students can create a board-game in which each space represents a step in the process of settlement. One game might reflect the challenges facing an immigrant family as they travel to and across America to settle in the Northern Great Plains. Another might include the steps of farming as explained in "Implements Used on the Farm". To move ahead a space, each player must successfully meet a challenge. That challenge might be answering questions about settlement or matching captions with images from the collection. A successful pioneer will get across the board and through the process of settlement as quickly as possible. Students can be creative about constructing and decorating their game boards, drawing on the collection's photographs.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Students can learn to analyze and interpret photographs by regarding them as the creative work of specific photographers. Have students read the Pazandak and Hultstrand biographies and consider the following questions.

  • What were each man's interests?
  • What were Pazandak and Hultstrand's reasons for taking photographs and why did they like the medium?
  • What did Pazandak and Hultstrand choose to photograph? What aspects of life did each man choose to leave out of his work?
  • What do the captions suggest about the photographers' attitudes toward their subjects and toward photography? What do they suggest about the purpose of the photographs and their audience?
  • How are the photographers' interests and motives reflected in their photographs?
  • How does this change the way one looks at them?

Students may want to compare Hultstrand and Pazandak's photographs with those of reform photographer, Jacob Riis, or those of the FSA-OWI photographers. How are the interests and goals of these photographers different from those of Pazandak and Hultstrand? How is that reflected in their work? The WPA photographers were largely concerned with social issues of the 1930s and 40s. To what extent are Pazandak and Hultstrand photographers of the pioneer era or frontier community? How much were their interests, not only as photographers, but as people, shaped by their time and location? Has a type of photographer and photograph passed from history with the frontier community?


Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

The collection includes evidence of various changes that, while having many benefits, have also had several costs. For example, settlement allowed many people to establish homes and to make the land productive. However, this was achieved through the depletion of natural resources and the forced removal of Native Americans from their homeland.

Similarly, large-scale farming and ranching, known as bonanzas, made large profits in North Dakota in the late 1800's. However, not everyone had the capital to run such an operation and small farmers, already oppressed by the high interest rates of banks and railroads, felt the weight of such competition and inequity.

Finally, modernization has caused many changes of which students may question the value. Change is illustrated within the collection with, for example, images of automobiles replacing images of bicycles. What have automobiles allowed us to do? How have they affected the environment? How have they shaped our culture? Students can also see changes by comparing images from the collection with contemporary images.

Ask them to consider and explain the benefits and costs of a major change represented in the collection. Students may also want to refer to the "North Dakota Historical Overview" and the online collection, Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

Historical Research Capabilities

The collection provides visual data that students can bring to their research into a variety of topics including the frontier, small-town rural America, North Dakota or the Northern Great Plains, agriculture and technology, pioneer communities, incorporation and industrialization at the turn of the century, immigration, and third-party politics. Furthermore, photographs can provide creative starting points for original research topics based on students' own questions and observations. For example, in examining the picture on the left, a student might wonder what kinds of flags are depicted hanging across the street, or what the people are celebrating. These questions could lead to research into immigration and its role in the creation of frontier culture and community. Or, one of the photographs documenting Fourth of July celebrations might lead to an inquiry into the role of this holiday and its celebration in small-town rural America at the turn of the century.


Arts & Humanities

The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920 is an excellent resource for students studying literature and literary themes related to the West and the frontier. Its images also provide starting points for creative language arts projects that teach students about authorship, the narrative form, and journalism, while reinforcing their understanding of frontier culture.

Frontier Literature

The collection is an excellent companion to several literary works on the West and the frontier, including essays by Frederick Jackson Turner, and novels by Willa Cather. Viewing the collection's primary sources while reading such works helps to illuminate and expand the meaning of both. For example, students can read Turner's account of the evolution of the West as the frontier line moved across the country, and fit the collection's images into that chronology. They can also relate images of farm technology to Turner's announcement of the close of the frontier, and with it the "distinguishing feature of American life." Similarly, the importance of a German-American music teacher to Cather's protagonist, Thea, in The Song of The Lark takes on more authenticity and meaning when students concurrently view images that evidence the impact of immigrants upon the settlement of the Plains and its culture.

Symbolic Hero

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, what had been buffalo range and Native American hunting ground in the Northern Great Plains had been turned into huge cattle ranches. The location of Theodore Roosevelt's celebrated ranch in North Dakota and the literary tradition he helped spark of rough riding cowboys are important legacies of this region. Students can search Theodore Roosevelt for images that provide evidence of this ranch and facilitate a discussion of the American symbol of the hardy frontiersman. Why would a president of Roosevelt's era want to identify himself with this image? How did Americans at this time identify a hero? To what extent is the symbol of the frontiersman based on reality and to what extent is it based on myth? To what extent is any given literary portrayal of frontier cowboys realistic or mythologized? Students may also want to see the Special Presentation of "Ranching" from the "North Dakota Historical Overview" or a list of American Memory resources for studying Theodore Roosevelt.


Rural America

Another related theme recurring in American literature involves the impact of the land and the isolation of rural life on the American character.

Students reading literature with this theme may better understand it by viewing images from this collection that bring home the harsh beauty and isolation of rural America. Students can contrast these images with those of modern rural America.

Classroom Historical Archive

What kinds of images and subjects does one include in a photographic historical archive? What does one leave out? In other words, what makes something historical? What does it mean to be "historical"? What is historical to you?

Students can better explore these questions by creating their own historical photographic archive documenting the time and place in which they live. Or, they can attempt to capture the "historical" through writing. A collection of short vignettes would allow them to create a multi-faceted historical record, much like a photographic archive.


Before the days of radio, television, and film, periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post held important informative and entertaining value. Students can search newspaper to find out if there were newspapers in frontier towns and, if so, what they were like.

Ask them to consider what kind of a role newspapers were likely to have played in frontier communities, given what they know about life on the frontier. What would they expect to find in a frontier newspaper? Then, as a class or in groups, students can work together to make a frontier newspaper based on the collection's images.

Creative Writing

The collection provides a multitude of images that can facilitate imaginative creative writing projects. Students can write a journal entry, taking on the persona of someone pictured in one or more photographs. Or, they can write a short story, examining a scene and imagining what occurred before and after the moment recorded. Though basing their projects in one photograph, students should inform their writing with relevant research of the collection.