The first farmers in the region of whom there is definite knowledge were Native Americans of the Mandan tribe. Other agricultural tribes were the Arikara and the Hidatsa. Seminomadic and nomadic tribes were the Cheyenne, Cree, Sioux, Assiniboin, Crow, and Ojibwa (Chippewa).
With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 the northwestern half of North Dakota became part of the United States. The southeastern half was acquired from Great Britain in 1818 when the international line with Canada was fixed at the 49th parallel. Earlier the Lewis and Clark expedition had wintered (1804–5) with the Mandan and the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company had established trading posts in the Red River valley. These ventures introduced an industry that dominated the region for more than half a century. Within that era the buffalo vanished from the plains and the beaver from the rivers.
From its post at Fort Union, which was established in 1828, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company gradually gained monopolistic control for a time over the region's trade. Supply and transport were greatly facilitated when a paddlewheel steamer, the Yellowstone, inaugurated steamboat travel on the turbulent upper Missouri in 1832. Additional transportation was provided by the supply caravans of Red River carts, which went westward across the Minnesota prairies and returned to the Mississippi loaded with valuable pelts. In 1837, the introduction of smallpox by settlers decimated the Mandan tribe.
An attempt at agricultural colonization was made at Pembina in 1812 (see Red River Settlement), but the first permanent farming community was not established until 1851, when another group settled at Pembina. This was still the only farm settlement in the future state in 1851 when the Dakota Territory was organized. The territory included lands that would eventually became North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.
Several military posts had been established starting in 1857 to protect travelers and railroad workers. Even when free land was opened in 1863 and the Northern Pacific RR was chartered in 1864, concern with the Civil War and the eruption of open warfare with Native Americans discouraged any appreciable settlement. Gen. Alfred H. Sully joined Gen. Henry H. Sibley of Minnesota in campaigns against the Sioux in 1863–66. A treaty was signed in 1868. In 1876, after gold was discovered on Native American land in the Black Hills, the unwillingness of the whites to respect treaty agreements led to further war, and the force of George A. Custer was annihilated at the battle of the Little Bighorn in present-day Montana. Ultimately, however, the Sioux under Chief Sitting Bull fled to Canada, where they surrendered voluntarily; they were returned to reservations in the United States.
The first cattle ranch in North Dakota was established in 1878. With the construction of railroads in the 1870s and 80s, thousands of European immigrants, principally Scandinavians, Germans, and Czechs, arrived. They worked the land on their own homesteads or on the large Eastern-financed bonanza wheat fields of the low central prairies. Borrowing the idea from Europe, they founded agricultural cooperatives.
Local politics were rapidly reduced to a struggle between the agrarian groups and the corporate interests. Alexander McKenzie of the Northern Pacific was for many years the most important figure in the state. Republicans held the elective offices. Agrarian groups formed the Farmers' Alliance and in 1892, three years after North Dakota had achieved statehood, the Farmers' Alliance combined with the Democrats and Populists to elect Eli Shortridge, a Populist, as governor. Later, when the success of the La Follette Progressives in Wisconsin encouraged the growth of the Republican Progressive movement in North Dakota, a fusion with the Democrats elected "Honest John" Burke as governor for three terms (1906–12).
Much of the agrarian discontent was focused on marketing practices of the large grain interests. Although many small cooperative grain elevators were established, they did not prove effective, and the farmers pressed for state-owned grain elevators. When this movement failed in the legislature of 1915, the Nonpartisan League, directed in North Dakota by Arthur C. Townley, was organized on a platform that included state ownership of terminal elevators and flour mills, state inspection of grain and grain dockage, relief of farm improvements from taxation, and rural credit banks operated at cost.
Working primarily with the Republican party because it was the majority party in North Dakota, the league captured the state legislature in 1919 and proceeded to enact virtually its entire platform. This included the establishment of an industrial commission to manage state-owned enterprises and the creation of the Bank of North Dakota to handle public funds and provide low-cost rural credit. The right of recall was also enacted, by which voters could remove an elected official. However, the reforms were disappointing in operation.
Dissension arose within the league, and the Independent Voters Association was organized to represent the conservative Republican position. The industrial commission was accused of maladministration, and the provision of recall was exercised three times, the first against Gov. L. J. Frazier in 1921. William Langer, who had been active with both the Nonpartisan League and the Independent Voters Association, was elected governor in 1932 running as a Nonpartisan. Langer was convicted on a federal charge of misconduct in office in 1934, although the conviction was later reversed. Langer again became governor in 1936, running as an individual candidate and not on the ticket of either party; subsequently he was elected to the U.S. Senate four times.
The state's heavy dependence on wheat and petroleum has made it unusually vulnerable to fluctuations in those markets; North Dakota has undergone a number of booms and busts in its petroleum industry. Red River flooding in 1997 devastated Grand Forks, adding to economic problems. In recent years North Dakota has become more urbanized, and telecommunications and high-tech manufacturing have created jobs, but between 1990 and 2000 it had the slowest rate of population growth of all the states.