Dakota Datebook

Robinson’s History

Monday, November 30, 2009


The great North Dakota historian, Elwyn B. Robinson, wrote to his mother on this date in 1958, telling her about a recent paper he gave at a convocation to celebrate the 75th aAnniversary of the founding of the University of North Dakota. The paper, titled “The Themes of North Dakota History,” went on to form the basis of a book by Robinson that is considered the definitive history of the state and is still used by scholars today.

Robinson was born in 1905 near Cleveland, Ohio and traveled to North Dakota in 1935 to teach American History at UND. It was UND President George Starcher who asked Robinson to deliver an address on the state’s history. The 75th Anniversary Convocation was organized by a committee of faculty members, who selected the topic “Themes of North Dakota History.” Robinson would later write that the invitation “…was one of the great good fortunes of [his] life.” He would have nearly a year to reflect on the topic and write a suitable address, and the result was nothing less than extraordinary. Robinson selected six themes, which he viewed as foundational for understanding the trajectory of North Dakota’s unique past. These themes included remoteness, dependence, radicalism, economic disadvantage, the “too-much mistake,” and adjustment to a sub-humid grassland.

The “too-much mistake” became a controversial theme for the author, but he argued that North Dakotans built too much, too fast, and that this resulted in retrenchment in the mid-twentieth century – cutting back on the excess farms, schools, banks, towns, newspapers, and churches.
On November 6, Robinson delivered his address in the UND Fieldhouse to a full house, and was rewarded with a standing ovation. Roy Johnson, a reporter for the Fargo Forum, called the paper “a great document,” and that it should be required reading for every resident of North Dakota. President Starcher asked Robinson to publish the address so he could have it sent to every member of the North Dakota legislature. The State Historical Society’s quarterly publication, North Dakota History, published the paper in 1959, and Robinson later used the essay as a foundation for his epic History of North Dakota, which is considered “one of America’s great state histories.”

Robinson retired from UND in 1974, after nearly forty years of teaching. His book remains one of the state’s great works, and was reissued as recently as 1995.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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