It was hard to say whether I was stalking the buffalo, or it was stalking me. But there it was, simultaneously stately and silly, standing high on a bluff overlooking Interstate 94.
I was making my way through North Dakota, tracing my roots for a book that will tell the story of the state’s oil boom through the land that my great-grandmother, Anna Sletvold, homesteaded in 1905. Aiming to find out more about her life, I was in search of records that would explain why she’d ended up in the state mental hospital.
I was facing an emotional day in Jamestown, a small city on the James River between Fargo and Bismarck, so when I saw the “World’s Largest Buffalo” pinpointed just outside the town on my map, I knew that the 60-ton concrete sculpture called “Dakota Thunder” would provide just the touch of levity that I needed.
My journey had actually begun on the other side of the continent, at the National Archives in Washington. As I investigated my family history and plotted the stops on my research road trip, I realized that it would also make for an interesting vacation.
My family has no letters or diaries from Anna’s life, so I’ve been entirely reliant on public records to trace her path. At the Archives, I was looking for the paperwork for the land that she homesteaded. Anna’s was among 439,710 land patents issued to homesteaders from 1911 to 1920, making the documents a rich trove of information for genealogical research.
I unearthed Anna’s original claim early in my search. The documents, more than a century old, appeared to have been untouched after being filed away. Musty and crumbling at the folds, they offered a vivid glimpse of the back-breaking life in a cramped shack that my great-grandparents had led on the North Dakota prairie in the early 1900s, in the days before telephones, roads and radio. It was hard work preparing virgin prairie for cultivation, and my great-grandfather listed the value of the land that the couple “broke” at $480. “I am pulling in flax this year on 80 acres,” he wrote proudly, in the final application that he filed in 1912.
Anna’s file — she’d filed for her own homestead when she was single, before marrying my great-grandfather — was unexpectedly full of gems, including a mix-up over her original homestead. The land wasn’t what she’d thought it would be, so she’d applied for another homestead that she and her husband ended up settling in 1906. Her affidavit, written in the legalese of the time, brought her to life. The original land, her lawyer wrote, was “worthless” for an unmarried 26-year-old woman “dependent entirely upon herself and exertion.”
I also used the free Ancestry.com database at the archives to do some research to trace Anna’s life in North Dakota and western Minnesota. It had Anna listed in an old Fargo city directory from 1905, so I flew there to begin my road trip.
From Fargo, I drove east to Fergus Falls, Minn., where Anna and her brothers and sisters — just how many, I’m still not sure — were raised. I stopped by the Otter Tail County courthouse, where researchers can look through the books that record every birth and death in the county, listed by township in hard-to-decipher writing.
I unexpectedly discovered that Anna’s younger siblings included twins Minnie and Theodore. Excitedly, I texted my sister, the mother of twin girls herself: “Twins do run in the family!” A few moments later, though, I was crushed: Minnie and Theodore showed up in the death index just a few months after their birth.
I ventured next to the Otter Tail County Historical Society, another treasure trove of records. There, archivists have indexed files, including newspaper clippings, on many of the county’s original settlers. I got lost reading through lurid accounts of local politics, of drownings and suicides and fine harvests and hard times. My family never appeared, though, and I’d already spent too much time lingering over the feisty frontier newspapers.
So I drove west, across some of the flattest country I’ve ever seen, to Jamestown. I was too late to see the buffalo that day, other than from a distance. And I wasn’t expected until morning at the mental hospital. So I went in search of dinner.
Much of North Dakota was settled as the railroads expanded, so many towns have a familiar pattern: a main street bisected by the railroad tracks. After the coming of the interstate, clusters of motels and chain restaurants sprang up near the highway, while more independent offerings are closer to the historical center of town.
I was staying at an anonymous hotel next to Wal-Mart, near the interstate. I could have been anywhere in the United States, so I wanted to be sure to get a sense of North Dakota’s unique cuisine. But this can be hard to do. It’s easier to get a permit to drill an oil well than it is to open a restaurant in the state, and the energy boom has made dining in the oil fields a crowded and often mediocre experience — even chains like Subway and Applebee’s have a wait.
I’d found on a previous trip that higher-end restaurants can be shockingly expensive, even by big-city standards. At the Williston, the nicest restaurant in the western North Dakota town of the same name, a glass of wine and the least expensive steak on the menu, a grass-fed buffalo rib-eye, had set me back $48 before the tip. It was a really good steak, though, and there are some excellent dining options throughout North Dakota at more reasonable prices. In a pinch on the road, I’d pull into the local burger chain, Burger Time, where corn dogs were two for $1.29. This isn’t really a place for vegetarians: Many menus are heavy on red meat in all its prairie varieties — elk, grass-fed beef and, of course, bison. The first time, a bison burger was a novelty. By the end of 10 days, I could barely look at red meat.
But on this Wednesday night at the Buffalo City Rotisserie Grill in downtown Jamestown, I was happy with a glass of wine, some rotisserie chicken and my copy of “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” I went to bed fortified for my visit to the North Dakota State Hospital the next morning.
The hospital sits high on a bluff south of town. Its expansive grounds, well maintained and planted with trees so big that they probably date to my great-grandmother’s time, recall an era when people were warehoused in such facilities. Now, it mostly serves as a drug and alcohol rehab center. There’s also a prison on the grounds, separated from the hospital by a razor-wire fence.
I walked into the main building expecting a fight over access to the records, but the hospital willingly handed over a copy of my great-grandmother’s small file. Anna was admitted in 1907, shortly after the birth of her son, died in 1921 and was buried in the hospital cemetery. On her admissions paperwork, a doctor described her as “melancholic — no regard for child.” I suspect that she had what would now be considered a serious case of postpartum depression. Her official diagnosis is an archaic one: “manic depressive insanity.”
I followed the hospital director’s assistant in her minivan to Anna’s grave at the cemetery, some distance away on the grounds. The assistant had been out earlier in the day to clean it for me — a quiet act of kindness of the sort I was learning is common in the Dakotas. In one rural county, a sheriff’s deputy who saw me consulting a map on the side of the road pulled up to see whether I needed help. Landmen, the people who research property records for oil companies, showed me how to search the courthouse records and even let me make photocopies on their courthouse accounts.
I sat alone at the grave, considering the place where my great-grandmother had spent more than a third of her life. She was only 43 when she died, just a few years older than I am now. As I listened to the wind, Anna’s lonely existence came to life in a way that the documents could only suggest. I was walking ground that she had walked, hearing the same train whistles she might have heard a century before, seeing the world in the same autumn light she had seen it in. I was even resting, for a moment, at her own final resting place.
After a short while, it was time to move on. The buffalo awaited.
I drove down the hill and back up a bluff to the monument parking lot. The roadside attraction was designed by an art professor at the local college and built in 1959 to lure people off the new interstate highway. For reasons that no one really understands, Dakota Thunder wasn’t actually named until 2010. (One of the state’s other roadside attractions, a hilltop fiberglass Holstein cow west of Bismarck, is well known as Salem Sue.)
At 26 feet high and 46 feet long, Dakota Thunder dwarfed all the visitors. It’s so big that none of us even reached the ruff on its chin. Children darted around the behemoth’s legs, burning off a little road-trip energy before their parents corralled them for a photo.
For me, the statue was a weighty symbol of the West, my journey and my ancestry. For them, it was just a stop and a snapshot on the interstate. I was still a little contemplative, so before approaching Dakota Thunder himself, I wandered through the museum and the gift shop, where I bought a bushy buffalo hat.
I walked up closer to the statue and found just the right angle with my iPhone, so that it would look as if Dakota Thunder was peering over my shoulder. And I smiled, even though just 15 minutes earlier, I’d been at my great-grandmother’s grave. There was something about seeing the buffalo up close, buying a silly buffalo hat and posting a selfie of me in it that made me feel a little better about the morning.
By the end of the trip, I’d seen a giant otter, a Minnesota-shaped swimming pool, a massive metal roadside sculpture of deer, Salem Sue, a towering red Swedish Dala horse and the monument honoring the geographic center of North America. (Sort of. The exact center is in some dispute.)
Ten days on the road gave me ample mental space to muse about my family history, but there was something about the oversized roadside attractions that helped keep more maudlin thoughts at bay.
From Jamestown, I drove north to Minot, the closest big town to where my great-grandparents had lived. Along the way, I counted hawks. It was harvest time in North Dakota, so the hawks had their eyes on the freshly shorn fields.
I was driving through one of the richest bird-watching areas in the world. In June, the ideal time for a bird-watching visit, birders spotted 148 different bird species at the annual Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington.
I picked up my dad at the airport in Minot. I’d invited him to join me in my research for a few days. Our family no longer owned Anna’s original homestead, but we still owned some of the mineral rights on her land, which my dad had inherited from my mother when she’d died, and I wanted to get him some legal advice in North Dakota.
It would be good fodder for the book — or so I thought. But we ran into two problems: Lawyers were either too overwhelmed with oil-and-gas-related business to meet with us, or they just weren’t interested in potentially ending up in my book.
I’d already done some research in the local courthouses on a previous visit, so my dad and I headed straight toward the old homestead. It took a combination of my GPS, Google Maps on my iPhone and a detailed road atlas of North Dakota, but we think we found the site. It was just south of the small community of Larson, in rural Burke County, on a stretch of empty prairie. We startled pheasants along the muddy gravel roads, but no one else was about. We stopped at the section lines that demarcated my great-grandmother’s legacy. Someone had long ago planted a shelterbelt of cottonwoods. To the south, we could see oil rigs. The oil companies hadn’t yet started drilling on what was once Anna’s land, though.
On that raw, windy day, I once again could place myself in my great-grandmother’s shoes. The sky was an endless, oppressive gray. The wind was damp and cold. I snapped a few photos, and we left.
We never met with a lawyer, but my dad and I made the best of our three days together in Minot. We were in town the same night as the Minot Y’s Men’s Rodeo, so we watched North and South Dakota cowboys and cowgirls compete for slots in the national rodeo finals. We visited one of North Dakota’s only wineries, the Pointe of View, on a hill overlooking town. And we took a day trip to the International Peace Garden, which straddles the Canadian border about 100 miles northeast of Minot in the Turtle Mountains.
Then I dropped my dad off at the airport and headed south through oil country, stopping at the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora, a cowboy-themed town in the heart of the Badlands that abuts Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
It was shoulder season, so there were few visitors — just the pheasant hunters and me. I drove through the park, alone but for a flock of wild turkeys, thousands of prairie dogs, hundreds of pheasants and a family of deer that blocked the road for a few minutes. And of course, a herd of reintroduced buffalo. Framed by the buttes and mesas of the Badlands, they offered a glimpse of what the vistas might have looked like in my great-grandmother’s lifetime. Minus, of course, the fracking infrastructure on the horizon.
Later that night, in the hotel lobby, I warmed up in front of the fire and perused the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, stocked with not only Roosevelt’s works, but also those of other authors drawn to the West. This was one of the final Western frontiers, settled barely a century ago. Medora was briefly a cattle-ranching boomtown, with its own newspaper, the Badlands Cowboy.
Boomtowns are back in North Dakota, this time because of oil. Maybe, I thought, my book would make its way to these shelves. I promised myself that in the spirit of all those feisty frontier newspapers, and to honor a great-grandmother who’d lost her way in the world, I’d write like a bandit.
Bolstad is a journalist in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @erikabolstad.