150 Years and Counting

HCSCC program director Markus Krueger.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Right about now – but 150 years ago – railroad crews were hunkering down for the winter on the site where the city of Moorhead would be born.

The Northern Pacific Railroad had just reached the spot it had chosen to cross the Red River. It was part of railroad baron Jay Cook’s ambitious dream: to build tracks across the continent to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. He started building from Duluth in 1870 on the premise that the Great Lakes already flowed to the east.

“The railroad reached the crossing site by September 1871,” recounts Markus Krueger, programming director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Crew members faced the oncoming winter in tents, spending winter days building the bridge that would by the following June carry trains across the Red to the fledgling tent colony that would become Fargo, and then on to the Missouri River by the following autumn.

What would become Clay County, though, was hardly a blank slate. That’s the lesser-known story that Krueger, archivist Mark Peihl and other members of the HCSCC staff have spent the past 18 months exploring … consulting with a quartet of Native American experts on what would become “Ihdago Manipi, Clay County at 150.” The title of the exhibit at the Hjemkomst Center is drawn from the Dakota language. It means “They leave marks as they come through here.”

“When I was growing up in Moorhead in the 1990s, I had no idea of how busy the area was before the days of settlement,” Krueger admits. “It just seems like a quaint Scandinavian college town. But while there was no one of European descent living here before about 1850, a lot of people were moving around here.” Among them were hunting and trading parties of the Dakota and Ojibwe people and Metis traders who gathered furs, then traded them for manufactured goods along the oxcart trails from Fort Garry (north of Winnipeg) and St. Paul.

Their presence illustrates the principle that has always been at the heart of the Fargo-Moorhead economy: “This has always been a transportation hub. We’re at the intersection of everywhere,” he says. In 1871, the railroad became only the latest mode to be introduced, following canoes and steamboats negotiating the twists of the Red and its tributaries, horses and rumbling queues of Red River carts.

During the 1840s and 1850s, several treaties between the U.S. government and tribes that occupied the land pushed the natives out of the way to accommodate white settlement. “Ihdago Manipi” documents those difficult days for the original residents. The eye-opening exhibit draws on the expertise of four Native historians – Moorhead native Kade Ferris, now a tribal historian at Red Lake; writer Liselotte Erdrich of Wahpeton; and state poet laureate Gwen Westerman and Glenn Wasicuna of Mankato.

Europeans began to filter in – some working with Hudson’s Bay Company, which established a fur trade depot at Georgetown 15 miles north of Moorhead, others opening up land along the river for farming. But it remained for the railroad to truly give birth to Moorhead.

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