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Unit 1: Set 1. The Natural World - Introduction

Introduction | "No Ordinary Plain" | Resources | Activity 1 | Activity 2

Dinosaurs and wooly mammoths roamed the northern Great Plains without benefit of tourist maps, rest areas, or paved highways. All of these niceties of travel are produced by agencies of the state government. Mammoths cared little whether they were in North Dakota, South Dakota or Montana. They looked for food, water, shelter, and other individuals of their species.

Our state has a shape, determined by Congress in 1889, that depends only in part on natural features.  The Red River forms the state line on the east, but the other three boundaries were determined by Congress, not natural land forms, and are called political boundaries.

Within the boundaries of the state are varying types of soil, climate, and topography. While Congress paid no attention to these characteristics, they had a major impact on agriculture, railroad and highway construction, and industrial development. In order to better understand how the various economies of North Dakota developed, we need to learn a bit about the climate and landscape.

The Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act were enacted by Congress in 1862 to encourage settlement in the American West. These two laws, more than any others, brought people to Dakota Territory from eastern states and Europe. The laws, however, took no notice of a few important facts about the landscape and climate of the area that would become in 1889, the state of North Dakota.

Much of North Dakota was located in the Great Plains. This geographic region is defined by the absence of forests, a semi-arid climate, and a relatively flat topography (the shape of the land's surface). A semi-arid climate means that sometimes there is too much rain, sometimes too little rain, and sometimes, there is just enough. In other words, farmers will have a hard time planning their crops because the rainfall is irregular. While the actual line of the Great Plains is debated, some geographers place it west of the 20 inch rainfall line. Others place that line at the 98th meridian, or the 100th meridian. In this area, farmers could not make a living year after year working a 160 acre farm. Though crops did not grow in years when the rains did not fall, the hardy native grasses could support cattle, sheep, and horses unless extreme drought or winter snows hampered their access to water or feed.  So, North Dakota’s agricultural practices depend on what the land has to offer.

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