The Quartzite Border

Just this week my colleague Gordon Iseminger provided me with a copy of his newly reprinted book The Quartzite Border: Surveying and Marking the North Dakota-South Dakota Boundary 1891-1892




The book itself is handsomely produced with numerous photographs and illustrations.  The thing that drew me to the book, however, was Iseminger’s methodology:

“For the past eight years, I have spent a part of each summer walking along the state line, studying and photographing the monuments. Except for about fifty miles in the area of the Badlands along the Little Missouri River, I have walked the entire length of the boundary, much of it twice, and some of it three or four times.

Because I prefer to work alone, I began my day’s walk shortly after dawn and continued until by my calculations, I was half tired, whereupon I retraced my steps to my car.  Like the man in the legend who wanted to see what was beyond the next valley or behind the next hill, however, I was often drawn onward by the monuments and sometimes miscalculated both the amount of strength and the hours of daylight remaining to me.  Sometimes, at the end of the day, I searched for my vehicle in the dark and collapsed into it — tired, but wonderfully calmed, as one who had been in communion with a close friend…”

Certainly anyone who studies the landscape — whether it be of the Mediterranean or the Dakotas — can relate to this experience.  I have many times outwalked my companions and my common sense just to see what was on top of the next hill in the Korinthia.

Iseminger goes on to tell the story of the marking of the border with regular quartzite markers at half mile intervals.  What is most interesting to me is how the markers do more than simply mark the border between two sparsely-populated states on the Northern Plains, but serve to attach stories, memories, and the history of various places to specific points in the landscape.  Iseminger’s method — walking the border, experiencing the landscape, talking to the folks along the way, collecting stories of the monuments, and documenting their continued place and function in the landscape  — ensured that these monuments represent more than a simply useful contribution to the mapping of the American west (which one could research and read about in the comfort of one’s office!), and bring to life the far more complex process of making the landscape (which to an outsider like myself can appear basically homogenous verging on featureless!) meaningful.

  1. Aaron Barth
    July 28, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Interesting. I do a fair bit of crossing the geopolitical border, from northern to southern Dakota, and back again, while on cultural resource management assignments. While doing this type of archaeological survey on the upper Plains, in the evenings I often retire to my hotel/motel rooms and read primary source accounts from the late 19th-century American West. The Hibernian and Chicago Tribune correspondant John Finerty published “War Path and Bivouac; or, The Conquest of the Sioux,” (likely in the Aandahl library) a collection of essays from the time he was imbedded with General Crook’s outfit in 1876. Finerty remarks on the violent depredations vested on the Sioux in eastern Montana, and also comments on how the Sioux reciprocated.
    In another example, one tends to look at the Tongue River in eastern Montana in a much different light after reading about all the blood that was spilled in and around it during the Indian Wars that followed the Civil War. Archaeologically, the area around Tongue River is significant (at least to your American colleagues) as that is an area where Tongue River Silicified Sediment (aka, TRSS) was quarried for hundreds and thousands of years. Projectile points and bifaces crafted from this material can be found all throughout Dakota. Talk about a deep map. And it gives even more relevance to the idea that All History, and All Archaeology, in the end, is local. I digress.
    Last fall I asked Dr. Iseminger if he had any spare Quartzite copies floating around. It was impossible to acquire one even on the on-line Used and Out-of-Print area of I’m putting in my order. Pronto.

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