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, and North Dakotans hope the Lewis and Clark bicentennial and an official commemoration that will last until 2007 will change that. The state passed a 1% lodging tax to double its tourism budget to $2.9 million and the Three Affiliated Tribes--Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa--are selling 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.
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 2004 is 634,000. Wheat is not the only crop here, there are also pinto beans and soybeans and sunflowers, and as the plains become more arid in the west, ranching and livestock grazing--along with strip mining and oil and natural gas production--are important; hardy root crops like potatoes and sugar beets grow as well. But wheat is still number one. Typically the state produces about one-tenth of the U.S. crop, and a fair percentage of the world's; its durum wheat is the main ingredient of American pasta.
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 years. 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.
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 around 1960. 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. 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 only three states with an all-Democratic congressional delegation (Massachusetts and Hawaii are the others: the three don't have much else in common). The two senators and 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. In hundreds of small towns, local city halls are padlocked, banks are open just three hours a week, and bars have closed. Yet 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 317,000 in 2000, while the state's other 49 counties dropped from 546,000 to 325,000; in 2000, these four counties cast half 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 is now the state's third largest employer; U.S. Bancorp is the second largest. Alien Technology has a plant in Fargo that produces the tiny radio frequency tags used by Wal-Mart and the military. In 2004 North Dakota's unemployment rate was the lowest in the nation; its wages and incomes were rising more than the national average, with per capita income rising from 81% of the nation's in 1997 to 91% in 2003; its farm incomes were the highest ever; its state government faced the problem of dealing with a surplus.
North Dakota may even be solving the problem it has agonized about for years: how to retain its young people. It spends more per capita on state colleges than any other states, only to see graduates go off to Minneapolis and Denver, Chicago and California. But the outflow may have been stanched. The Census Bureau estimates that the state's population rose between 2003 and 2004, for the first time in years, and the percentage of native North Dakota State University graduates rose to over two-thirds. In 2003, for the first time in 10 years, North Dakota was not at the top of Allied Van Lines's list of outbound moves. 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.
On balance, these developments tend to undermine 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). Democrats Byron Dorgan and Earl Pomeroy were reelected by large margins in 2004, but George W. Bush carried the state 63%-35% and Republican Governor John Hoeven was reelected 71%-27%. Democrats used to win many of the downballot races in North Dakota, but in 2004 they won only one, with 50.3% of the vote, and Republicans won better than 2-1 majorities in the legislature. It's too soon to say that North Dakota has moved away from its radical political roots, but a conservative strain in its heritage is asserting itself.