Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920

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Perhaps in no other state has geography dictated the development of the state more than in North Dakota. North Dakota comprises an area of 70,665 square miles (size of the six New England states and New Jersey), and its geography is seen as four separate regions: the Red River Valley, the Drift Prairie, the Missouri Plateau, and the Badlands.

Photo IconThe lowest point in North Dakota is 792 feet above sea level at Pembina in the extreme northeast corner, and the highest elevation is 3,506 feet above sea level at White Butte in the southwest portion of the state. North Dakota has been described as a rectangle approximately 335 miles from east to west and 210 miles from north to south. It is bordered by Minnesota on the east, Montana on the west, and South Dakota on the south. Its northern border forms part of the international boundary with Canada, bordering the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

North Dakota is considered to have a continental climateŚcold winters and hot summers, low humidity, light rainfall, and much sunshine. Extremes in temperatures may also abound. The climate is the result of North Dakota's location in the geographic center of North America. There are few natural barriers on the northern Great Plains and the winds move freely across the plains and account for rapid changes in temperature.

The Red River Valley region lies along the eastern border with Minnesota. It has the lowest elevation in the state and is very flat. The valley is part of the bed of an ancient glacial lake, Lake Agassiz. The silt of the former lake bottom gives this valley some of the most fertile soil in the world.

The Drift Prairie is the next region westward. It has the second lowest elevation in the state. Some parts of the region are flat while others are hilly. The entire area is covered by glacial deposits or drift, which give it rich soil. The area has many small prairie potholes or sloughs where thousands of ducks and geese nest each year. The geographic center of North America is located in this region near the town of Rugby, in the north central portion of the state, which is approximately 1,500 from the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Arctic Ocean.

The Missouri Plateau covers the part of North Dakota which lies west of the Drift Prairie extending to the western border with Montana. It has the highest elevation in the state, ranging from 2,000 to over 3,000 feet above sea level. Much of the region was once covered by glaciers. The area is hilly and contains minerals like oil and coal.

The Badlands, which lie in the southwestern corner of the Missouri Plateau, were not covered by glaciers. Wind and water have carved deep valleys in the land, and the area features canyons, buttes, and bluffs colored with reds and browns. Much of the rock in the Badlands is bright red scoria, which is the cinders of lignite coal that has burned underground. As the coal burned, the rock became red.

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Northern Great Plains: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Collections