The first people to inhabit Oliver County were the Mandan Indians who lived along the Missouri River.  The Mandan were  peaceful people.  They lived in fortified villages with homes made of earth and timber.  The Mandan were also the first farmers in this area, growing crops of corn, beans, pumpkins and more.  The Missouri River served as a corridor for commerce for the Mandan as they traded with other people as far north as Hudson Bay and as far south as New Mexico.


In 1682 the white man began history in this region.  Formerly known as the Louisiana Territory, the United States purchased this area from France in 1803.


Prior to Lewis and Clark, Pierre De La Verendry, a Canadian, sought a water route to the Pacific Ocean in 1738.  De La Verendry and his group visited the Mandan with the intent of establishing future trade agreements.


Later, David Thompson, an English geographer, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, visited the Mandan in 1797.  Thompson recorded, in great detail, his time with the Mandan, which has provided valuable historical information for this territory and its inhabitants.


In 1804 Lewis and Clark arrived not only as explorers but also with the intent of securing the government’s claim to the upper reaches of the territory and to make friends and business contacts with the natives.  During a visit with the Mandan, Lewis and Clark met with a  trader by the name of McCraken, who had brought down wheat seed from Hudson Bay and was instructing the Mandan in wheat farming o the flat where the town of Sanger stood.


After Lewis and Clark’s return from their expedition many Americans from the states became interested in this new territory.  Those who ascended the Missouri River were traders, trappers, Army men, botanists, royal adventurers and artists.  Some of them were on the “Yellowstone”, the first steamboat to navigate the upper part of the Missouri in 1832.  Regular steamboat transportation began in 1860.  The Sanger brothers were early settlers in this area who furnished those steamboats with chopped wood.  In 1885 Oliver County was formed and named for Harry S. Oliver, an early territorial legislator.   The first county commissioners were Louis Connolly, H.E. Fisher and C.H. Sanger.  Sanger was appointed the Territorial Governor.  Raymond, a site near Sanger, was named the county seat. 


Oliver County census records from 1884 to 1885 list

203 Males

124 Females

105 Married

215 Single

159 Under 21

28 Attending School

22 Born in Dakota Territory

213 Born Elsewhere in the U.S.

92 Foreign Born

327 Total Population


In 1889 North Dakota was admitted into statehood.  Center became the county seat in 1902.  The population of the county increased slowly at first but with Northern Pacific railroad extending into this part of the state, a stronger surge of progress developed.  The desire of the government and the railroad to populate the region, combined with the great migration of Europeans who had been coming to the U.S. between 1860 and 1890 and who had continued to move westward were the largest factors in the development of this area.  Immigrants who arrived were mostly German, Russo-German and Scandinavian.  Other immigrants of significant number were Slovakian, English and Celtic. These people were often young and disadvantaged in their native homeland and were seeking new opportunity in this state.  Some hoped to acquire free land by homesteading while others purchased land at a low price.


In order to assist Northern Pacific in its extension through this region, the government granted the railroad large tracts of land so that Northern Pacific might finance its construction.  The railroad conducted an extensive advertising campaign in Northern European countries as well as in the eastern United States, offering attractive inducements for purchase and settlement beginning at $2.50 an acre with rough grazing land as low as $1.25 an acre.  Many of the immigrants to this region had first gone to the eastern United States only to find that land was already taken or the situation was not to their liking.  Others came here directly from Europe.  With great labor, deprivation and self sacrifice they established themselves here.  These people came alone, in pairs or in small groups and not necessarily at the same time.  In other situations whole colonies of people would arrive and settle.


Some of the early pioneers to Oliver County arrived by covered wagon drawn by oxen horses or mule teams.  The contents of their wagons included a plow, some tools, clothing and personal items.  Those who traveled by rail disembarked in Bismarck, Mandan, Washburn, New Salem and Glen Ulin.  Many arrived with the means to purchase items to start their new life while others took on employment immediately.  Settlers who arrived from the Eastern United States by rail would fill immigrant rail cars with their horses, cattle, farm machinery, tools and household goods.


One can ponder just how unprepared these settlers may have been for the raw country in this region.  Good and plentiful water and fuel would be an immediate concern in this semi-arid climate with temperatures that vary from extreme summer heat to extreme winter cold mixed in with fierce blizzards.  Our early settlers found unbroken, uninhabited land of rolling hills and tall grasses.  Nearly every spring and fall prairie fires roared across the open plains burning for miles.


When a settler arrived at his purchased or claimed land, he had much work to do.  Most importantly he would plow a fire break around his building site and find water.  Next he would build a shelter for himself and for his stock.  If he were near a wooded area, he would build log shelters, if not he would use sod or stone.  If he were near a lumber yard, he could quickly construct a board and tar paper shack.  To start his farm he would have to break the sod and seed.  Gardens and livestock required fencing.  Then the work of storing up hay and feed in preparation for the approaching winter.  Gathered buffalo chips, wood and coal would provide sufficient fuel for winter heat.  Soon the opening of coal mines would provide the pioneers earlier access to heating fuel.


Life was difficult and challenging.  In the event of sickness, childbirth or accidents the road to doctors and medical help were ungraded trails.  There were years that drought, rust, grasshoppers or hail ruined crops.  Many settlers failed to adjust to the harsh Dakota conditions and returned to their original homes.  There was no government assistance to fall back on in times of recession, hard times and general economic troubles.  There were many years that called for courage fortitude and determination in the fight for  survival.  And then, with the steady improvement of farming methods and the inventions of more efficient farm machinery, the settlers were able to increase their productivity and thus their holdings.


Before long, the land seekers had settled Oliver County.  They were people of good will and high principles.  They would build schools (The Center School District was formed in 1903) and churches, establish post offices and mail routes, and strung telephone lines throughout much of the county. 


Further adding to the life of the county was the extension of the North Branch line of the Northern Pacific railroad along the Missouri River in 1910.  The railroad carried away the grain held in elevators located at Ft. Clark, Hensler, Sanger and Price.  The stimulated economy brought about small industries such as the Kiebert Cheese Factory and the creameries at Hannover and Center where milk and cream were sold and excellent butter was made.  There  came implement stores, general stores, blacksmith shops, lumber yards, hotels and banks.


In 1910 Oliver County boasted 12 post offices, 11 towns, 5 creameries, 15 churches, 6 grain elevators, 243 miles of telephone line, 31 coal operated mines, 49 schools and approximately 70,000 acres under cultivation.  Grain grown was mostly wheat and oats along with barley, flax and rye.


Now Oliver County is known as Coal Country.  The introduction of coal fired electricity generating plants occurred during the mid to late 1960’s.  The revenue generated by the coal mining and electricity generating has made Oliver County the wealthiest county in the state of North Dakota.


For more detailed information on the continued growth of Oliver County and Center, please refer to the county archives located at the Old Settler’s Log Cabin, Sunnyside School, Oliver County Courthouse and the excellent compilation published by the Oliver County Historical Society titled, “Oliver County 1885 – 1985 Centennial History Book”. 


Works Cited: “Oliver County 1885 – 1985 Centennial History Book” John Dunn et al.