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North Dakota Becomes a State

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

124 years ago on November 2, 1889, North Dakota became a new state. This is 11.5 years after the Icelanders first arrived in Dakota Territory in the area that we now know as Pembina and Cavalier Counties. Our ancestors were the pioneers that shaped our state and country.

Pembina County was organized 12 Aug 1867 by the Dakota Territorial Legislature. “Pembina” is derived from a Chippewa name for the high-bush cranberry that grows along the rivers. Between 1873 and 1887, eleven new counties including Cavalier County were created and changed from the original huge area known as Pembina County.

In the spring 1878, Pastor Pall Thorlaksson (Páll Þorláksson) along with a small group of others from Canada, came to explore this corner of Dakota Territory. Johann Petur Hallson and his son, Gunnar, built the first home in the settlement. Pastor Pall or Séra Páll as he was known by his fellow countrymen became known as the Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota. I wrote about him here.

By the fall of 1879, about 50 Icelandic families had moved to the Pembina Hills area. The first two pioneers to the Gardar area arrived from Wisconsin in 1879. A large number of Icelanders arrived in the area in 1880 coming from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Manitoba. The Great Northern Railway was completed in 1887 and the Soo Line in 1893. New towns sprung up. The population increased slowly at first and then very rapidly during the “Dakota Boom” after 1870 with the growth of the railroads. The Pembina Hills area had a growth explosion from 1879 – 1886.

In 1880, the church congregations at Gardar and Mountain were both officially formed. Religious services were first held in private homes and later in the school houses. The churches were built in this order:

  • Vikur at Mountain in 1884

  • Pembina in 1885

  • Gardar Pioneer in 1888

  • Vidalin in 1888

  • Thingvalla (Eyford) in 1893 and HERE

  • Fjalla in 1894

  • Hallson at Akra in 1897

  • Peter’s at Svold in 1897

  • Luther’s at Gardar in 1910

The Icelandic families settled in close proximity to each other and pretty soon all the available land was homesteaded. They named their settlements and the townships after places in Iceland and worked hard to survive and thrive in America. The Northeastern North Dakota Heritage Association and the Pembina County Historical Museum do great work telling the story of the pioneers to northeastern North Dakota.

In 1890, the legislature discussed legalizing lotteries and alcohol prohibition among other things. It is interesting to read the newspaper archives and learn more about these stories.

From the storyboard panel that I designed in 2006 for the Thingvalla Memorial site: ”We respect their courage and determination to leave a beloved homeland in search of a better life in America. They worked hard to build a life and a community based on strong moral values, faith in God, devotion to family, and the importance of education.”

So, thank you to our ancestors and a Happy 124th Birthday to the state of North Dakota!

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