25 Impressive Facts About North Dakota

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

For much of the population, North Dakota remains kind of a mystery. There are no obvious tourist destinations, and most people would be hard-pressed to name its capital. (Hint: it doesn’t share a name with a Coen brothers movie.) Here are 25 things you probably didn’t know about the upper Dakota:

1. It’s either the 39th or the 40th state—no one’s sure. Once upon a time, the two Dakotas were joined in the Dakota Territory. Due to various political squabbles, they entered into the Union as two separate states, North and South Dakota. But President Benjamin Harrison purposely made it impossible to tell which state came into the Union first, shuffling the papers and signing them without looking so that not even he would know. However, because of the order of the alphabet, North Dakota is generally listed as the 39th. 

2. It’s the only state with a state-owned bank. The Bank of North Dakota is headquartered in Bismarck. Many other states have considered establishing their own state-owned-and-operated financial institutions recently, in part because the Bank of North Dakota fared so well during the 2007 recession compared to larger banks. 

3. Fargo wasn’t filmed there. Much of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film takes place in Minnesota, and much of it was shot in and around Minneapolis. Only some exterior snow shots of North Dakota’s largest city appear in the film. The town was snubbed by the crew of the FX television show Fargo as well. It’s shot in Canada

Construction in Williston, an oil boomtown. Image Credit: Getty Images

4. It has some of the highest rents in America. A 2014 study found that a one-bedroom in Williston, North Dakota rented for almost $2400 a month, compared to $1500 in New York City. Over the past decade, the rise of fracking has meant an expansion of the oil and gas industry in the state, making cities like Williston boom towns. As thousands of people have flocked to find high-paying jobs in remote areas, housing demand—and rent—has skyrocketed. It’s now the fastest-growing state, with a population that grew 12.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. State officials estimate that North Dakota has 15,000 more jobs than its current population can fill.

5. It’s got a lot of farmland. Almost 90 percent of the state's total land is devoted to farms and ranches.  

6. Your beans probably came from there. The state is the largest producer of dry beans, honey, wheat, flaxseed, and canola in the nation [PDF]. 

7. It birthed a famous cowboy song. “Red River Valley” shares its name with the valley that runs down the North Dakota-Minnesota border from Canada, and has been named one of the top Western songs of all time. The folk song has been published under various names over the decades, including those referring to other regions, like “Bright Mohawk Valley,” but Canadian scholar Edith Fowke contends it was originally about the Red River Valley, which travels from south of Fargo up into Lake Winnipeg.  

8. You probably won’t find a CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreens there. State law requires most pharmacies to be owned by local pharmacists, meaning that national chains can’t operate pharmacies there. A 2014 attempt to change the law failed

Salem Sue. Image Credit: Bobjgalindo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-A 4.0

9. It likes its animal statues big. New Salem, North Dakota is home to Salem Sue, the world’s largest statue of a Holstein cow. It’s 38 feet high, even taller than the world’s largest bison statue, a 26-foot-tall monument to the buffalo in Jamestown

10. It’s the host of North America’s largest Scandinavian festival. Tens of thousands of people attend Norsk Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota every year to celebrate the state’s Nordic heritage. Immigrants from Nordic countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark flocked to North Dakota in the late 19th century, and in 1914, Norwegian immigrants and their descendants owned one-fifth of all the land in North Dakota.

11. It holds one of the nation’s biggest powwows. Every year, 1500 Native American dancers and tribe members come together at the United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck. This past September was the 45th event in Bismarck’s history. 

12. It used to have sea monsters. Some 80 million years ago, North Dakota was underwater. In 2006, an arrowhead collector turned up fossilized vertebrate far bigger than anything he’d ever seen. State paleontologists determined that the bones, found on a farm, were part of an almost-complete skeleton of the prehistoric swimming reptile called the mosasaur. The predator would have been around 50 feet long. 

Image Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

13. It could have been half Canadian. The British ceded almost half of the territory that became the state of North Dakota in the Treaty of 1818. The treaty resolved previous border disputes between Britain and the United States by officially making the 49th parallel the line between the States and British North America, and giving America a big chunk of the territory that would become North Dakota. 

14. It was a hub of the 19th century fur trade. Fort Union, whose trading post is now a national historic site, was a vital stop for traders on the northern stretches of the Mississippi River. Northern Plains tribes traveled there each spring to trade buffalo and furs for other goods. The fort traded around $100,000 in merchandise each year between 1828 and 1867. 

15. Lewis and Clark spent more time there than in any other state. They spent the winter of 1804-1805 at a North Dakota camp they called Fort Mandan. It was there that they met the French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, who became famous for assisting the explorers in their journey to the Pacific. 

16. North Dakota changed Theodore Roosevelt’s life. The future president came to hunt buffalo in the Badlands as a 24-year-old in 1883. After just two weeks there, he bought himself two cattle ranches, and when his wife and mother died a few months later, North Dakota became his escape. His time in the Dakota Territory helped him transform from an asthmatic New York City aristocrat into the rough-riding cowboy and game hunter he later became known as. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Image Credit: Desertson67 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

17. It’s pretty good writing fodder. Prominent culture writer Chuck Klosterman grew up in the 400-person town of Wyndmere and got his big break with Fargo Rock City, his debut memoir about growing up as a metalhead in North Dakota. He has gone on to write several more books of essays and fiction, and credits his unique voice with being from Roughrider Country. "Every year there are thousands of new writers coming out of places like New York, and there are a lot less coming out of places like North Dakota," he told a Minnesota newspaper in 2015. “The valuable thing about the writer is their unmatched perspective."

18. It’s the home of the International Peace Garden. In 1932, the United States and Canada established a park as a symbol of peace and cooperation between the two countries. The 3.6-square-mile garden straddles North Dakota and Manitoba. It’s technically part of neither country, so you have to go through border patrol to get back to whatever country you came from—meaning you better bring an ID. 

19. It’s where Phil Jackson learned to play basketball. The former championship-winning coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers got his start playing varsity basketball at his high school in Williston, North Dakota. The school later named its sports complex after him.  

20. It holds an annual Potato Bowl. The Potato Bowl USA dates back to 1966, when the University of North Dakota’s football coach organized a competition between his team and Idaho State, a team from North Dakota’s rival in potato production. Now the event has expanded to include potato pancake breakfasts, the self-described “World’s Largest French Fry Feed,” and fry eating contests (as well as football). 

21. Yes, it’s cold. The Daily Beast has named three North Dakota cities on its list of “America’s 25 coldest cities.” Grand Forks, Bismarck, and Fargo rank No. 2-4, respectively. 

22. But summer is extreme there, too. The state’s highest temperature on record was set when the town of Steele reached 121° F in July of 1936. 

Sitting Bull around 1885. Image Credit: David Francis Barry via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

23. Sitting Bull might be buried there. The Lakota spiritual leader, whose forces defeated General Custer at Little Bighorn (one of the most significant victories of Native Americans against the U.S. Army) was initially buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota, where he was killed in 1890. In the 1950s, a group of businessmen acting with the blessing of some of the chief’s descendants dug up his remains and moved them to Mobridge, South Dakota. But there’s some controversy over whether it was Sitting Bull who was actually exhumed in the middle-of-the-night raid. Some still theorize that the real body of Sitting Bull remains in North Dakota. And to throw a little more mystery in, one Sioux historian claims he was actually buried secretly in Canada.  

24. It has its own state horse breed. The Nokota horse is descended from feral horses that were hemmed in when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created, accidentally protecting the herds from being killed by ranchers or government agencies that viewed them as competition for grazing livestock. Some of them still run wild in the park, while others have been captured and adopted out. It became the official state horse breed in 1993. 

25. There are more cattle than people. North Dakota has about 1.75 million cattle, and just under 740,000 people, meaning that there are more than two cows for every person in the state.