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Native American peoples lived in what is now North Dakota for thousands of years before the coming of Europeans. The known tribes included the Mandan people (from around the 11th century), while the first Hidatsa group arrived a few hundred years later. They both assembled in villages on tributaries of the Missouri River in what would become west-central North Dakota. Crow Indians traveled the plains from the west to visit and trade with the related Hidatsas after the split between them - probably in the 17th century. Later came divisions of the Dakota people - the Lakota, the Santee and the Yanktonai. The Assiniboine and the Plains Cree undertook southward journeys to the village Indians, either for trade or for war. The Shoshone Indians in present-day Wyoming and Montana may have carried out attacks on Indian enemies as far east as the Missouri. A group of Cheyennes lived in a village of earth lodges at the lower Sheyenne River (Biesterfeldt Site) for decades in the 18th century. Due to attacks by Crees, Assiniboines and Chippewas armed with fire weapons, they left the area around 1780 and crossed Missouri some time after. A band of the few Sotaio Indians lived east of Missouri River and met the uprooted Cheyennes before the end of the century. They soon followed the Cheyennes across Missouri and lived among them south of Cannonball River. Eventually, the Cheyenne and the Sutaio became one tribe and turned into mounted buffalo hunters with ranges mainly outside North Dakota. Before the middle of the 19th century, the Arikara entered the future state from the south and joined the Mandan and Hidatsa. With time, a number of Indians entered into treaties with the United States. Many of the treaties defined the territory of a specific tribe (see the map).

The first European to reach the area was the French-Canadian trader Pierre Gaultier, sieur de La Vérendrye, who led an exploration and trading party to the Mandan villages in 1738. guided by Assiniboine Indians.

From 1762 to 1802, the region formed part of Spanish Louisiana.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
European Americans settled in Dakota Territory only sparsely until the late 19th century, when railroads opened up the region. With the advantage of grants of land, they vigorously marketed their properties, extolling the region as ideal for agriculture. Congress passed an omnibus bill for statehood for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington, titled the Enabling Act of 1889, on February 22, 1889 during the administration of President Grover Cleveland. His successor, Benjamin Harrison, signed the proclamations formally admitting North Dakota and South Dakota to the Union on November 2, 1889.

The rivalry between the two new states presented a dilemma of which was to be admitted first. Harrison directed Secretary of State James G. Blaine to shuffle the papers and obscure from him which he was signing first. The actual order went unrecorded, thus no one knows which of the Dakotas was admitted first. However, since North Dakota alphabetically appears before South Dakota, its proclamation was published first in the Statutes At Large.

Flag of North Dakota

Unrest among wheat farmers, especially among Norwegian immigrants, led to a populist political movement centered in the Non Partisan League ("NPL") around the time of World War I. The NPL ran candidates on the Republican ticket (but merged into the Democratic Party after World War II). It tried to insulate North Dakota from the power of out-of-state banks and corporations. In addition to founding the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and North Dakota Mill and Elevator (both still in existence), the NPL established a state-owned railroad line (later sold to the Soo Line Railroad). Anti-corporate laws virtually prohibited a corporation or bank from owning title to land zoned as farmland. These laws, still in force today, after having been upheld by state and federal courts, make it almost impossible to foreclose on farmland, as even after foreclosure, the property title cannot be held by a bank or mortgage company. Furthermore, the Bank of North Dakota, having powers similar to a Federal Reserve branch bank, exercised its power to limit the issuance of subprime mortgages and their collateralization in the form of derivative instruments, and so prevented a collapse of housing prices within the state in the wake of 2008's financial crisis.

The original North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck burned to the ground on December 28, 1930. It was replaced by a limestone-faced art-deco skyscraper that still stands today. A round of federal investment and construction projects began in the 1950s, including the Garrison Dam and the Minot and Grand Forks Air Force bases.

Western North Dakota saw a boom in oil exploration in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as rising petroleum prices made development profitable. This boom came to an end after petroleum prices declined.

In recent years, the state has had lower rates of unemployment than the national average, and increased job and population growth. Much of the growth has been based on development of the Bakken oil fields in the western part of the state. Estimates as to the remaining amount of oil vary, with some estimating over 100 years worth of oil remaining in the area.

For decades, North Dakota's annual murder rate and the violent crime rate was regularly the lowest in the United States. In recent years, however, while still below the national average, crime has risen sharply. In 2016, the violent crime rate was three times higher than in 2004 with the rise mostly occurring in the late 2000s, coinciding with the oil boom era. This happened at a time when the overall US violent crime rate declined slightly. Workers in the oil boom towns have been blamed for much of the increase.

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