Over the last several weeks I have blogged a series of short biographies of important figures in the history of the Department of History in honor of the University of North Dakota's 125th-iversary. I have received several emails about these biographical notes , and one of the regular questions about working on the history of the university is where to begin. Since I wrote last week about L. Geiger's The University of the Northern Plains, I won't deal too much that important work here. Instead, I'll bring to the fore some of the primary sources and good secondary works on the history of the University and the history of the Department of History in particular.
The Early History
The earliest history of the University is particularly fragmentary. Some of the better fragments derive from the President’s annual reports to the board of trustees and the annual report of the Department of History to the President which either exist as freestanding documents or as embedded within the President’s Report to the Board of Trustees. The minutes of the Board of Trustees’ meeting for the first two decades of the university (1884-1904) contain odd references to Horace B. Woodworth and his activities at the University. Otherwise, Woodworth appears infrequently in the correspondence of President Webster Merrifield, Dean Vernon Squires, Dean Joseph Kennedy, and others. While some of these correspondence preserve information on institutional matters, they contain regrettably little information regarding the man himself, his influences, or the reasoning behind the policies, events, and decisions that affected his role at the university. Some of that information, however, can be gleaned from later reminiscences offered by faculty members, the local press, and the Dakota Student, the University’s student newspaper, which provide some background and color, but little true substance. This general dearth of sources for the University’s early years, plagues the two best studies of the University history – Vernon P. and Duane Squires’s serialized history of the University published in the late 1920s and early 1930s as well as Louis Geiger’s more expansive later work.
V. P. Squires, “Early Days at the University,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.1 (1927), 4-15
--, “The University of North Dakota, 1885-1887,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.2 (1928), 105-118;
--, “President Sprague’s Administration, 1887-1891,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.3 (1928), 201-230;
--, “The First Quadrennium Under President Merrifield,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.4 (1928), 313-344;
D. Squires, “The University Attains its Majority: 1901-1905” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 21.4 (1931), 293-317
The Early 20th Century
The story of the successes and struggles of the university, department, and its faculty during the first half of the 20th century have survived to a relatively remarkable degree in the papers of Orin G. Libby (for Libby see G. Iseminger, "Dr. Orin G. Libby: A Centennial Commemoration of the Father of North Dakota History." North Dakota History. 68:4, pp.2-25; G. F. Shafer, "Dr. Orin G. Libby." North Dakota Historical Quarterly. 12:3, pp.107-110). Libby’s fastidious character ensured that a large quantities of his private papers survived, as did much of his personal and professional correspondence and his annual reports on the Department to the University President. This material has formed the background for Iseminger's modern studies on Libby’s professional and personal character and contributed to Geiger’s general work on the University. Libby’s material on the department found complements in the annual catalogue of courses which were updated throughout this period to show not only the courses but also the faculty responsible for them.
The side-effect of the Libby's large collection of material is that it tends to skew Departmental history toward his somewhat idiosyncratic view of the University and Departmental affairs. Counterpoints to Libby that focus on the internal working of the department appear occasionally in the papers of the President's of the University during the early 20th century: Franklin McVey and Thomas Kane. The continue albeit somewhat more rarely in the correspondence of President John C. West and Dean William Bek, the longtime Dean of the college of the Arts, Science and Literature. Despite the increasingly bureaucratized nature of the University during the first third of the 20th century, the history of the department remains frustratingly fragmentary.
The Era of Elywn B. Robinson
The dynamism of the Robinson Era is captured in a rather remarkable array of documents. The most interesting of these documents, perhaps, is Elywn B. Robinson’s unpublished autobiography. Composed apparently in the early 1980s, Robinson details his life from his early years in Ohio to the publication of his magnum opus The History of North Dakota in 1966. He drew heavily on his family diary, the material in the Robinson Papers in the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collect, and the reminiscence of his colleagues, particularly Robert Wilkins, and his sons Steve and Gordon. One of my long term projects is to edit this manuscript and explore the possibility of getting it published.
The autobiography is complemented by a series of interviews conducted by John Davenport in the early and mid 1970s. Davenport interviewed Elwyn Robinson and his wife, Eva, members of the Departments of the 1950s and 1960s, and in one extensive interview, Robert Wilkins, who taught in the Department of History from 1945 to 1992. The majority of information in these sources focus on the life of the department in the 1950 and early 1960s. I have supplemented this modestly with interviews with Gordon Iseminger, Playford Thorson, and D. Jerome Tweton, although I have only begun to process much of the content from these interviews. The departmental reports to the Dean from 1955-1977 came to light in the files of the Department Head and provide basic information on departmental affairs including a enrolment numbers. These reports are far more robust for the 1950s and early 1960s than for later years. This, perhaps, reflects the awareness of this period as one of particular importance in the development of the department. Finally, Robinson provided a long synthetic article on the post-war expansion of the University: “The Starcher Years: The University of North Dakota, 1954-1971,” North Dakota Quarterly, 39 (Spring 1971): 5-44.
Unfortunately, as is typical for the history of the department and the university in general, several major voices go unrepresented in the available material. Felix Vondracek left almost no papers after his retirement from the department in 1971. Vondracek served as department head from 1945 to 1962. Equally, if not more problematic, is the absence of material from Dean Robert B. Witmer who was the Dean of the College of Science, Literature, and Arts. Witmer served as dean from the death of Bek in 1948 until his retirement in the late 1960s and with the growing complexity of the university, played an increasingly important role in the major departmental affairs. The growing complexity of the university its expanded bureaucracy had made the paper trail larger, more complex, and more dispersed. Consequently, this section will depend more fully, perhaps to a fault, to those limited materials available in the Wilkins and Robinson papers. It is important to note, however, that these substantial and easily accessible collections present only one view of the department.
Other Short Biographies of major figures in the Department of History at UND:
Louis Geiger and the University of the Northern Plains
Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota
Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota