Population booms and busts in North Dakota history

Update 3:46 p.m. July 10, 2009: I see that the AreaVoice template’s piss poor use of space has foiled me again. I would just copy and paste the table or read this post by way of the RSS feed.


Some friends of mine were talking last night about them good ol’ days and they thought that, at one time, Inkster, N.D., which is celebrating its 125th this weekend, had a bigger or equal population to Grand Forks. They thought this was the case of some other towns in the region.

This intrigued me because, well, I’ve never looked at historical Census figures before so their scenario seemed about as plausible as any to me. After I got home around midnight I couldn’t resist trolling the Census Web site. I came up with the following sets of numbers.

First, I listed the state’s population from 1870 onwards. I don’t know how the Census figured that since North Dakota wasn’t even a state in 1870. The data came from a later Census, that had data from earlier Census for comparison.

Then I listed Grand Forks County along with the other three big counties in the state from today’s perspective, these being Cass, which has Fargo; Burleigh, which has Bismarck; and Ward, which has Minot. Notice how teensy Burleigh was in the beginning. Pembina County was bigger!

Then I listed all the counties in northeast North Dakota. Sorry. I was really wiped out from an early day at work (7:30 a.m.) and listing northwest Minnesota would’ve just killed me.

Then I listed Grand Forks and the three other major cities in North Dakota.

Then I listed two other somewhat larger towns in northeast North Dakota, these being Devils Lake and Grafton.

Then I listed all the towns in Grand Forks County, including Inkster.

Unfortunately, the Census doesn’t provide data for all counties or towns for the entire period since 1870. There were lots of townships but few towns and I didn’t have the energy to figure out what other towns in what townships. So this lis is as complete as I can make it.

By the way, my friends were wrong. Inkster has never had a population that’s been remotely close to Grand Forks’.

I list my sources below the table in case you get the Census itch yourself.

Select Census population data for North Dakota
  1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
North Dakota 2,405 36,900 190,983 319,146 577,056 646,872 680,845 641,935 619,636 632,446 617,792 652,717 638,800 642,200
Grand Forks County   6,248 18,357 24,459 27,888 28,795 31,956 34,518 39,448 48,677 61,102 66,100 70,683 66,109
Cass County   8,998 19,613 28,625 33,935 41,477 48,735 52,840 58,877 66,947 73,653 88,247 102,874 123,138
Burleigh County   3,246 4,247 6,081 13,087 15,578 19,769 22,736 25,673 34,016 40,714 54,811 60,131 69,416
Ward County     1,681 7,961 25,281 28,811 33,597 31,981 34,782 47,072 58,560 58,392 57,921 58,795
Benson County     2,460 8,320 12,681 13,095 13,327 12,629 10,675 9,425 8,245 7,944 7,198 6,964
Cavalier County     6,471 12,580 15,659 15,555 14,544 13,923 11,840 10,064 8,213 7,636 6,064 4,831
Griggs County     2,817 4,744 6,274 7,462 6,889 5,818 5,460 5,023 4,184 3,714 3,303 2,754
Nelson County     4,293 7,316 10,140 10,362 10,203 9,129 8,090 7,034 5,807 5,233 4,410 3,715
Pembina County 1,213 4,862 14,334 17,869 14,749 15,177 14,757 15,671 13,990 12,946 10,728 10,399 9,238 8,585
Pierce County     905 4,765 9,740 9,283 9,074 9,208 8,326 7,394 6,323 6,166 5,052 4,675
Ramsey County   281 4,418 9,198 15,199 15,427 16,252 15,626 14,373 13,443 12,915 13,048 12,681 12,066
Rolette County     2,427 7,995 9,558 10,061 10,760 12,583 11,102 10,641 11,549 12,177 12,772 13,674
Steele County     3,777 5,888 7,616 7,401 6,972 6,193 5,145 4,719 3,749 3,106 2,420 2,258
Towner County     1,450 6,491 8,963 8,327 8,393 7,200 6,360 5,624 4,645 4,052 3,627 2,876
Traill County   4,123 10,217 13,107 12,545 12,210 12,600 12,300 11,359 10,583 9,571 9,624 8,752 8,477
Walsh County     16,587 20,288 19,491 19,078 20,047 20,747 18,859 17,977 16,251 15,371 13,840 12,389
Grand Forks   1,705 4,979 7,652 12,478 14,010 17,112 20,228 26,836 34,451 39,008 43,765 49,425 49,321
Fargo   2,693 5,664 9,589 14,331 21,961 28,619 32,580 38,256 46,662 53,365 61,383 74,111 90,599
Bismarck   1,758 2,186 3,319 5,443 7,122 11,000 15,496 18,040 27,670 34,703 44,845 49,256 55,532
Minot     575 1,277 6,188 10,476 16,099 16,577 22,032 30,604 32,290 32,843 34,544 36,567
Devils Lake     846 1,729 5,157 5,140 5,519 6,204 6,427 6,299 7,078 7,442 7,782 7,222
Grafton     1,594 2,378 2,229 2,512 3,136 4,070 4,901 5,885 5,946 5,293 4,840 4,516
Emerado                   328 515 596 483 510
Gilby                   281 268 283 262 243
Inkster     100   353 368 257 310 304 282 198 135 127 102
Larimore     553 1,235 1,224 1,089 979 1,222 1,374 1,714 1,469 1,524 1,464 1,433
Manvel             183 209 278 313 265 308 333 370
Niagara         157 199 207 179 163 157 115 76 73 57
Northwood     268 697 769 935 971 1,068 1,182 1,195 1,189 1,240 1,166 959
Reynolds       173 159 184 143 138 176 133 111 115 107 126
Thompson                   290 291 785 930 1,006

The sources are as follows:

  • The 1890 Census. Look in "Population of the United States by Minor Civil Divisions."
  • The 1920 Census. Look in "Number of inhabitants, by counties and minor civil divisions."
  • The 1950 Census. Look in "Number of Inhabitants."
  • The 1980 Census. Look in "North Dakota – Ch. A, B, C, D."
  • The 1990 Census. Look in "North Dakota (CP-1-36)."
  • The 2000 Census. Look in "PHC-1 Summary Population and Housing Characteristics."

Note that the years in between are available in some of the Census for comparison. That’s why I have 1870 data even though I only looked in 1890. The 1870 data was hard to understand anyway because it was all Dakota Territory at the time.

When I get some time, I might make some charts. It’s interesting the population booms of the early years with the stagnation of the recent decades. Maybe this North Dakota chronology will help with data interpretation. I’d heard of the Homestead Act, but had never heard of the Great Dakota Boom or that it didn’t take place until decades after Congress passed the act.

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6 Responses to Population booms and busts in North Dakota history

  1. spearman says:

    I just saw new data that says ND could see increased rainfall as MMGW takes effect and as Minnesota becomes dryer. Considering the reason for ND’s pop. loss being due to lack of rainfall in the west we should see a pop. boom as areas to our south become desertified and we become warmer and wetter. Crops will benefit in the western part of the state to support larger labor forces etc.

  2. ec99 says:

    Given the speed at which climate changes, I imagine we’ll all be long dead before the speculated scenario proposed above occurs.

  3. Sauer says:

    Spearman: I agree this is a distinct possibility. Of course, the winters, even if “warmer” by 10 degrees (which would be a SEVERE warming that would probably mean all sorts of other global catastrophes) are going to be hard sells to anyone. An additional lot of this has to do with the general national trend toward urban populations over rural ones. This is true all over the country; ND’s numbers are just more severe but really not a wild anomaly.

    Can I also just compliment Tran on such a great bunch of data lately. Whatever the numbers mean, the work pulling them together is appreciated.

  4. akm says:

    What caused Fargo to boom so much since 1980?

  5. akm says:

    There are several reports on how ND will be affected by climate change, and it’s not quite as simple as we think. The state’s climate is quite different from the west to the east.

    To see projected impacts of climate change on ND, go to:
    http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/UniqueKeyLookup/SHSU5BUTXV/$File/nd_impct.pdf (which shows that the western part of the state is getting drier)

    and

    http://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/documents/environ/ClimateChangeND.pdf (a short, concise and easy to understand–it was made for politicians–version of the report below)

    http://www.cier.umd.edu/climateadaptation/North%20Dakota%20Economic%20Impacts%20of%20Climate%20Change%20Full%20Report.pdf (the long version)

    and

    http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/state-level-economic-impacts.pdf (state level economic impacts – another long report)

  6. spearman says:

    ec99, Slow changes true but climate experts are already starting to categorize deaths in relation to their likely connection to MMGW.

    AKm, I didn’t say anything about it being simple. The point is there are scenarios for more rainfall in w. ND which would reverse the loss of pop. there due to settlers initial lack of understanding of what they were up against with dry land farming 100 yrs. ago.