MOORHEAD — For many of its exhibits, the staff at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County goes to its archives for source material.

To assemble its new show, “Idhago Manipi: Clay County at 150,” the staff had to dig a little deeper and reach a little farther. Rather than look at the last 120 years of fertile agriculture-based communities, the exhibit instead looks at the first few decades and how the county went from grasslands inhabited by Native Americans to farmland worked by people of European descent.

“Because we’re completely ignorant of the Native American presence, we had a team of scholars advise us,” says HCSCC Executive Director Maureen Kelly Jonason.

That team of Native American advisers was made up of Lise Erdrich, Kade Ferris, Gwen Westerman and Glenn Wasicuna, who worked with HCSCC Programming Director Markus Krueger and staff to give insight, context and even artifacts to the show, which will be on display through 2023.

The exhibit's name comes from the Dakota language and translates to "They leave marks as they come through here."

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“We wanted to tell the founding story of our community and include the Indigenous perspective,” Krueger says. “For most of the last 150 years, most Native American people weren’t around anymore.”

While Randolph Probstfield was the first white settler of Clay County, arriving in 1859, the land had been occupied by Dakota, Ojibwe and Métis people for hundreds of years.

A photo of Métis teamsters and their carts on the Red River Trails is part of a new exhibit at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County. Courtesy of HCSCC / Special to The Forum
A photo of Métis teamsters and their carts on the Red River Trails is part of a new exhibit at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County. Courtesy of HCSCC / Special to The Forum

Traders had been coming to the area, swapping goods with Native Americans in exchange for furs. In the early 1860s, the Hudson Bay Company set up a warehouse along the Red River, calling the encampment Georgetown, named after Hudson Bay Company Gov. George Simpson.

“Georgetown was really the center of activity. That’s where the crossroad really was,” Kelly Jonason says. “It just happens to be the wind of a capricious railroad and whoever was going to profit that established the railroad crossing in Moorhead.”

But just as the community grew, the fur trade began to wane and tensions between Native Americans and Europeans rose. The Dakota and Ojibwe had signed treaties with the United States government exchanging their lands for supplies, but when the payments fell short or didn’t come at all, the tribes grew hungry and frustrated.

In the late summer of 1862, four Dakota people killed five white settlers in Meeker County, south of St. Cloud, triggering larger attacks and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The U.S. military responded with force and after six weeks the Dakota War was over, but armies continued marching through Dakota Territory, doling out punishments regardless of tribal affiliation or an individual’s role in the conflict.

While most of the hostilities happened over 100 miles from Clay County, repercussions were felt locally as Ojibwe and Métis people felt the need to sell most of their land in the Red River Valley and move on.

Maxime Marion, a hunter who lived in Clay County’s Holy Cross Settlement in the 1870s, is part of a new exhibit at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County. Photo courtesy of HCSCC / Special to The Forum
Maxime Marion, a hunter who lived in Clay County’s Holy Cross Settlement in the 1870s, is part of a new exhibit at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County. Photo courtesy of HCSCC / Special to The Forum

After that, the railroad came through Moorhead and the area boomed, with Moorhead becoming a city in 1871 after a shootout necessitated the need for a trial.

“So much changed from 1850 to 1889,” says Krueger, who will discuss Moorhead’s days as a Wild West town during his History on Tap talk at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4, at Moorhead’s Junkyard Brewing.

Kelly Jonason says some visitors to the exhibit will be surprised to learn of the Native American presence in the area. Census records as late as 1940 identify fewer than a dozen people as “Indian” in Clay County.

“It’s an easy history to ignore or make invisible,” she says.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate about 1,100 Native Americans now live in the area, representing 1.8 percent of the Clay County residency.

The show ends on a hopeful note for Native Americans in the county, including the 2020 election of Heather Keeler, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, as Moorhead’s representative in the state Legislature.

If you go

What: “Idhago Manipi: Clay County at 150”

When: On display through 2023

Where: Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County, Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead

Info: Open daily, admission ranges from $8 to $10; https://www.hcscconline.org