Back to the Bakken

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week, I’m headed back out to the Bakken to revisit some of our study sites and to think a bit about a fun writing project for this fall. Tom Isern, at NDSU, and Bret Weber, my co-direct at the North Dakota Man Camp Project, received a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council to fund a series of public workshops, called the “Man Camp Dialogues” focused on our work in western North Dakota. Richard Rothaus, Bret, and I will be involved and we hope to rope in some of the other participants in our project 

Tom suggested that we produce a study guide for these workshops and publish it as a Circular (no. 2) in a new series produced by his Center for Heritage Renewal. We can then make the study guide available for our talks around the state and, perhaps, for a show scheduled this winter at the Plains Art Museum that will focus on art and the oil patch. Apparently these circulars run 15-20 pages, so this is not a huge writing project, but one that will require a certain amount of thought. Right now, I’m thinking about how we can present the man camps of the Bakken as a kind of living archaeological site of our contemporary age. (I am not sure I’d want to encourage tourism of workforce housing, but the amount of through traffic on Route 2 through the heart of the oil patch makes a certain amount of curiosity only natural. Folks who live in historical homes or in historical neighborhoods have experienced this kind of tourism for over a century.) 

So as I revisited many of our study sites, I began to think about how to present our research to a diverse public audience. I figure the circular would start with a basic description of our work and our study sites. We’re probably introduce our now (in)famous typology and some of the challenges associated with doing archaeology of the contemporary world.

I think then I’d like to introduce four ways of talking about workforce housing in the Bakken.

1. Stories of the Boom. One of the most interesting thing that we’ve encountered are the various ways that people have talked about the oil boom in North Dakota. The media, for example, loves to tell stories of people taking risks to make their fortune as well as folks who found only disappointment in the Bakken. The Bakken is narrated in so many different ways and workforce housing, man camps, are typically part of these stories. We could imagine directing a visitor to the Bakken or someone attending one of our workshops to consider the various ways that people have told the story of the Bakken boom and how the place where many of these new North Dakotans live contribute to these stories.

2. Objects and Arrangements. A key aspect of living in workforce housing is that “home” is often somewhere else. On a practical level, there is workforce housing provides less space for the kinds of objects that most of us associate with him. On a philosophical level, this reduced assemblages makes it more difficult for residents of the man camps to express their own identity through their objects located in and around their residences.  In this context, then, it is useful to consider the objects associated with workforce housing. They typically range from objects associated with domestic life – grills, coolers, refrigerators, lawn or camping furnitures – to those associated with work. The latter category becomes all the more common when the line between the space of sleeping and eating overlaps with the space for working.  

3. Architecture and Innovation. Despite the limited assemblage of material present in many of these camps, there is nevertheless innumerable examples of innovation as residents of the Bakken work to transform RVs from season and occasional vehicles to spaces for longterm habitation. Elaborate mudrooms, platforms, and barriers to block the cold and wind, expand and refine the limited space available in the standard recreational vehicles. Large camps, have a vibrant trade in recycled building material and, in some cases, additions that allow residents to customize their spaces to suit the distinct needs of year-round life in the Bakken. The growing prevalence of mobile housing and the needs of an expanding contingent and transient workforce is ushering in a new chapter in the history of vernacular architecture.

4. Images of Home. Most of the world has encountered the Bakken oil boom through the often-spectacular images published in the national media. These images show a range of experiences associated with extractive industries, but images of the workers in their domestic space are relatively rare. The national media then characterizes the Bakken primarily as a place of work with short-term habitation being a curious, but underrepresented footnote. This has the risk of dehumanizing the residents of the Bakken by making them seem an appendage to work rather than individuals who struggle to make a comfortable, secure, and balanced life just like the rest of us.

Today, we’re going to revisit a bunch more of our study sites around Watford City and Williston and I’ll post an update tomorrow. 

A Working Paper: Contingency, Periphery, and Late Capitalism in the Bakken Man Camps

April 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week has been split between three projects: I revised a paper for the Bakken Goes Boom book on the North Dakota Man Camp Project, I’ve started working on an article for a volume of Internet Archaeology on archaeology and blogging, and I wrapped up a working draft of an article on 7th and 8th century Cyprus.


I’m pretty appreciative of the noon panels organized by the University of North Dakota’s Writers’ Conference. They give me a neatly packaged escape from the persistent glow of the computer screen.

Since I’ve been pounding the good out of the keyboard lately, my post today will be short. The following paper is an evolving draft and it captures my most recent thoughts on the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken boom. I’m becoming more and more interested in the archaeology of Late Capitalism. I think this has grown out of conversations with Bret Weber, Sebastian Braun, and Kostis Kourelis, and with a little bit of luck, I’ll have more to say about this (and another evocative case-study to announce) next week. 

For now, I have been thinking a good bit about Talal Asad’s 1992 essay “Conscripts of Western Civilization” in which he locates the possibilities available to the post-colonial subject within the discourse of modern nationalism. In other words, the modern, national discourse even shapes the strategies for resistance available to the disposed, restive, or politically marginal. Late capitalism, particularly the transnational kind manifest in the Bakken, marks a departure from Asad’s thoughts as it undermines the territoriality of the nation, the moral cohesion of modernity, and obscures the structure and movement of capital. In this context, workforce housing, particular as embodied by the postmodern “non-places” central to the organization of labor in the Bakken, presents a distinct challenge to the kind of developmental regionalism that characterized the expansion of modern, national capitalism. One can easily expand this critique to core and periphery in the Bakken and the absence of true cores and true peripheries in the world of transnational capital. To put this another way (and a way that fits with the repackaged, nationalist rhetoric that portrays work in the Bakken oil fields as a patriotic contribution to national energy independence), the workforce in the Bakken are “conscripts of post-nationalism”.

Enjoy and, as always, feedback is appreciated.


Basement Archaeology

March 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

One of the advantages of riding my bike indoors (on a stationary magnetic trainer) is that I get to look around the basement a bit more closely. Since we moved into this house in 2011, we’ve been trying to sort out its architectural phases. Fortunately, the house has only seen one major addition (but the changes to the interior space of the house are substantially more complicated).

Like many homes in Grand Forks, it received an addition on the back (west) of the house probably with indoor plumbing. The original back wall of the house then became the plumbing wall with both the upstairs and downstairs bathroom (both of uncertain date) being located just to the interior of the original back wall of the house. 


This photograph from around 1900 shows the addition with a drain pipe or a piece of moulding just beyond the second window on the side visible above marking the west wall of the original house.

Looking at the beams used in the new addition, I couldn’t help but notice a few loose nails. So after wiggling a few of them (and noticing that they were not in structurally sensitive places), I decided that I should remove one for closer examination. After reading around a bit on the internets, I was able to identify and date this nail with some confidence. 

Here it is:


What we have here is, if I’m not mistaken, an iron, grain-in-line, face-pinched, cut nail. The crack running along the face is clearly visible as is the nicely pinched face.



The head on this nail is slightly smashed, but is square and consistent with the pinched-face.  The nail type would dates easily to the 19th century with the massive crack along the face suggesting – according to Tom Wells 1998 typology – an earlier rather than later date for this type.

Nail Head

These are the most common nails of this period and while the cracked face makes me wonder a bit, they are nevertheless consistent with the late 19th century date for the addition to our house. As my wife sagely observed, a nail dating to a decade or two earlier than the addition may simple indicate the use of older construction materials available at hand or the relatively outdated supply available in a small, rural community in the new state of North Dakota.

While I’ll never say its fun to own an old house, these little archaeological project do make a blustery, snowy, and cold March morning more interesting. 

Do let me know if you can either refine my chronology of this nail or tell me that I’m hopeless and should stick to Early Christian basilicas.

Man Camps and the American West

February 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the more entertaining challenges that I face as I work on material from the North Dakota Man Camp Project is putting the Bakken Oil Boom in a local and regional context. As readers of this blog know, I was not trained as a historian of the American West or the Northern Plains. In fact, I’m not even able to play one (convincingly) on TV.

(To make this clear, I had an article reject at North Dakota History once, well I think is was rejected in a charmingly North Dakota way. They corresponded with me for about 5 years about this article and then just faded away without ever sending it out for peer review.)

Anyway, below is my first stab at thinking about workforce housing in the Bakken as part of the history of the American West and North Dakota. Feedback, as always, is welcome:

While traditional depictions of the American West present rugged, independent prospectors who set out to conquer the wilds in the hope of untold riches, scholars have increasingly viewed the American West as space for male wage labor and the westward movement of industrial capitalism and its attendant social expectations. In this new construction, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier” (pdf) became less of an untamed wilderness for Americans to draw their dreams and more of an extension of longstanding eastern interests committed to deploying capital, workforce, and infrastructure in their search for profit. This “wage-earner” frontier, as described by Carlos Schwantes, ensures that we understand the historical development of the west as part of a larger trajectory of American and, indeed, global capital. Thus, inscribing the American West with mining camps, timber camps, and oil camps, contributed to expansion of a set of domestic values, hierarchies, and class relations nurtured in the East and then pushed out with the expansion of industry.

That the Bakken formation is geographically part of the American West (as typically defined ) and subjected to a kind of extractive economy most closely associated with historical processes taking place in the American West is a coincidence and should not necessarily impose a geographic limitation on how we understand this phenomenon. At the same time, the historical study of North Dakota has long recognized certain themes fundamental to the development of communities in the state. Elwyn Robinson famously articulated 6 themes: remoteness, dependence, radicalism, economic disadvantage, the “too-much mistake”, and the climate of a sub-humid grassland. While the application of these themes to all historical problems in the history of the state is perhaps ill-advised, the influence of these ideas on how North Dakotans imagine themselves and understand their history is important. For example, the challenges of adapting existing infrastructure to the growing workforce in the Bakken counties could easily be articulated in the context of the “too-much mistake” which described the overly-ambitious investment in infrastructure at the foundation of the state. Moreover, Robinson’s understanding of the remoteness, dependence, and economic disadvantage of the sparsely populated North Dakota prairie fit well within later understandings of periphery favored by world systems theorists and others committed to core-periphery models.

Articulating workforce housing in the Bakken as part of the American West likewise frames how we understood settlement in the area from an archaeological and architectural perspective. Historically, scholars have used archaeology to document temporary settlements associated with extractive industries and construction in the West. As William Cronon reminds us in his remarkable study of the town and mine at Kennecott, Alaska, the remains of these sites serve as physical reminders of the increasingly integrated global economy of the early 20th century which made it possible to extract copper from veins deep within the earth, transport a workforce, supplies and ore via rail, and sustain these activities at a remote location in central Alaska. Likewise workforce housing camps associated with the Bakken oil boom, particularly the Type 1 variety, represents a century old tradition realized in distinctly 21st century materials, infrastructure, and plans.

John Bickerstaff Jackson, another great 20th century student of the American West, recognized in the mobile homes of the four-corners region the direct predecessors of our Type 2 camps. He described the momentary appearance of trailer courts with their solitary cinderblock common room designated for laundry. These settlements appear across the borders of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona often to house a pipeline or construction crew and last only as long as the project. For Jackson, these mobile homes represented part of long tradition of housing in the New World that began with the temporary wooden houses of the first European settlers on the East Coast and continued through the balloon frame homes of the 19th century to the box houses and mobile homes of the 20th century. The latter forms moved west with the surging populations and soon became a defining feature of the Western landscape. While many of Jackson’s essays do not reward too much scrutiny, he nevertheless recognized the importance of mobile housing for the requirements of wartime production, post war shifts in settlement, and the baby boom in the American West.

Just as RVs came to symbolize the leisure time pursuits of the mobile, post-war, middle class, the mobile home and RV emerged as alternate housing solutions for an increasingly mobile workforce who came to work in the American West, including the Bakken, when opportunity called. Low population density, uneven access to utilities and other infrastructure, the presence of large-scale construction projects and extractive industries, and a temporary workforce that is accustomed to mobility contributed a distinctly Western character of the Bakken.


Sun Frogs at Dusk

February 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

Some sun frogs at dusk as I drove to see an ice hockeying contest. 

IMG 1194

Yeah, where I live is cold, remote, conservative, boring, and provincial, but it’s hard not to feel pretty good when you see a sight like this. 

North Dakota Man Camp Project at the Empire Theater’s Backstage Project

February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

There are some cool things happening on the North Dakota Man Camp Project front. Not only do we have a short, but very important Wikipedia page and a nice website, but we’re also well on our way to producing some meaningful scholarly content.

Next Wednesday at 7 pm, Bret Weber, my co-PI, and I will be giving a paper on our work as part of the new International Studies Speaker Series. The talks are in the Backstage Project at the Empire Theater and have a reception! Here’s the flyer:

Series Flyer ALL Talks pdf

And here’s a teaser for my talk!


It is difficult to escape the international context of the Bakken Oil Boom. Between the involvement of ginormous international companies to the explosive impact of Bakken crude in a small Canadian town, the extraction of North Dakota oil stands at the intersection of global supply chains, capital, and markets. The national and international media has become fascinated by the impact of these international trends on the tight-nit, small-town communities of Western North Dakota and play up the impact of the oil industry on “isolated” rural America. Among the standard series of images associated with the Bakken boom, are those of the “man camp.” Just as many of these images appeal to long-held stereotypes of the working classes – especially those involved in extractive industries, the man camp has a long historic pedigree and my talk today will locate this phenomena in a historical and global context.


My perspectives on the Bakken come from a rather unusual place: over a decade of archaeological research on the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. From as early as the Bronze Age (i.e. 1600 BC) the island saw the systematic extraction and processing of copper from the unique geology of the Troodos mountains. The site of Politiko-Phorades, excavated by Sydney Cyprus Survey Project under the direction of Bernard Knapp, preserved the remains of a Late Bronze Age smelting facility set in a region where numerous veins of copper were near the surface. While the site itself showed little evidence for habitation, there are two sites nearby that preserved an assemblage of ceramic material suggestive of habitation. What is surprising at this site and its surrounding area is the dearth of arable land meaning that the community working the vein of copper had to be supplied by an agricultural support village some 2 km distant. The support villages and production sites fell under the control of larger political centers on the island who then benefited from the export of copper around the Eastern Mediterranean.


While I worked in Cyprus, I spent a part of every summer documenting a site in Greece. Situated in the southeastern Corinthia the site of Lakka Skoutara (and here) is a collection of nearly 20 houses scattered through an upland valley and dating to the late-19th and early 20th century. Nearly every house has a cistern and a threshing floor for the processing of wheat grown on the terraced valley walls; the remains of an olive mill and centuries-old olive trees dot the valley bottom.. While this is not an extractive industry in the same way as oil production or copper smelting, it nevertheless took place at the periphery of the region. The site of Lakka Skoutara was about 5 km for the major village in the southeastern Corinthia and only occupied seasonally during the harvest. In other words, these houses represented temporary habitation for the families who threshed the grain or harvested olives. Each house had the barest necessities: a cistern, an oven, and room for sleeping and for animals. These fields fed their families and provided


A world away, in the East Texas oil boom, the Humble Oil company (which would later become Exxon) arranged for housing for their employees near the town of Kiglore, Texas (pop. ca. 500). The facilities ranged from five room houses with electricity and gas for supervisors to lots where hourly employees could build or move more modest homes in the so-called “poor boy camp.” Workers looking for work or filling the myriad lower-paying or more contingent positions in support of the work in the East Texas fields often lived in the woods around Kilgore. Over 300 people once squatted in a camp known as “Happy Hollow” despite regular raids by the police. Corporate interests in providing suitable housing for employees varied. Some looked to workforce housing to attract better quality employees. In other cases, camps provided an opportunity to reinforce social boundaries between the different ranks of employees in the oil patch. Whatever the case, the camps served the needs of a rapidly expanding workforce.


The rapid growth of the Gulf states on the back of oil and gas capital has led to the massive influx in temporary labor. The tiny nation of Qatar, for example, hosts close to 350,000 Nepalese workers in a nation of fewer than a quarter million inhabitants. Tristan Bruslé has recently studied the camps set up to house these workers. The camps housing the guest workers sit in industrial sites at the edge of the desert and consist of portacabins that would not be out of place in the Bakken. The residents struggle with boredom and homesickness and find unique ways to carve out a modicum of privacy, personal space, and community in the austerely function accommodations. The global movement of labor and capital has produced a need for short-term, modular housing for a workforce who contributes to rapidly shifting pace, scale, and needs for contemporary capitalism.

North Dakota

Since 2010, the Bakken counties of North Dakota have seen an almost unprecedented population influx to serve an oil boom fueled by globally high petroleum prices and the advent of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil from tiny pockets miles beneath the surface. Drilling rigs have given the western prairie a decidedly vertical dimension and workforce housing has created a new type of rural sprawl. Man-camps have appeared in agricultural land along the Route 2 corridor through the Bakken counties and RV parks and other facilities offering “workforce housing solutions” have appeared in a ring around almost every settlement in the area. Even nearly abandoned towns have become the focus of workforce housing as vacant lots and parks have become filled with RVs availing themselves to power and roads.

Workforce housing in the Bakken accommodates a fluid population of short-term residents who not only work in the oil patch proper, but also provide support for new building, maintenance on the substantial fleet of trucks, and the construction of pipelines throughout the area. These camps have also absorbed a certain amount of low-wage and independent labor displaced from traditional housing in Williston. Despite their utility, municipalities have been decided ambivalent with regard to work forcing housing and have taken steps to control their spread and appearance.

What History Can Learn from Public Philosophy

February 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

This past week, our department came to the realization that we have to do more to improve our visibility on campus. In general, we are an active, engaged, and professional department, but we largely keep to ourselves and focus on our own work, our students, and being good colleagues and citizens of academia. The university is beginning a process of reflective critique and involves the prioritization of programs across campus. Our fear is that without increasingly our profile on campus, we will slip between the cracks in the process and lose the modest resources that we have at our disposal.

So there is an instrumental value to promoting the work of our department and working to engage a more diverse audience than our academic peers. This week my colleague and neighbor Jack Wienstein published an article titled “What Does Public Philosophy Do?” (pdf) in a volume of the journal Essays in Philosophy that he guest edited. The article focused on the question in its title, but offers useful challenges to  some basic assumptions about the public humanities in general. I think this article puts forward some useful points of consideration as we move forward as a department to make our work more visible and to expand its impact.

In general, once historians move beyond the idea that making our work publicly visible is pandering to the uneducated and unspecialized, we have viewed our work as vital to creating better citizens of a democracy. Historians have hoped (to generalize) that by creating a more inclusive, dynamic, and complex past, we can create more reflective citizen invested in creating a future that both carries forward the best of the past and seeks to redress historic wrongs. In short, the historical method (such as it is and whatever that might mean) produces a valid and usable past to inform decision making in the present. By presenting our work in public and expanding who has access to the tolls of a professional historian, we dream that we can make inform how the democracy functions and make our world better. It has, of course, vaguely troubled students of history (even in my introduction to the historians’ craft class) that despite our best efforts, historical actors rarely seem to learn from the past or, if they do, it is not in a consistent predictable way.

Jack’s article noted that there has never been any convincing link between public philosophy and more sophisticated, consistent, or rigorous political awareness. In fact, he noted that surveys have shown that Americans tend to respond unpredictably even to issues subjected to sustained engagement in the national media and involving basic historical “facts” salient to political decision making. In other words, deliberate critical engagement with historical issues does not lead the general public’s ability to conclusions consistent with careful historical analysis. Walking a “birther” through the process of evaluating historical evidence is not likely to change his or her mind.

Moreover, Jack points out that claims by philosophy (or any of the humanities) to produce “better” citizens are deeply problematic. At least some part of our modern democracy depends upon the idea that we are intrinsically capable of participating in the political life of the community. The idea of being better or worse at being a citizen would imply the there are those whose participation in the political process would be less valuable because they are not citizens of the better sort. This is anti-liberal.

In many ways, Jack’s critique of public philosophy can apply to how historians have approached engaging the public. If historians or philosophers are not engaging the public to create better citizens, but there remains practical and real benefits associated with raising our profile in the community, we need to find ways to articulate what it is that we do when we step out of our offices and into the public sphere.

Jack cleverly parallels the work of the public philosopher with that of the drug dealer. His job is to try to get people hooked on philosophy and to cultivate it as a particular form of entertainment. He does not mean this to trivialize public philosophy and he clearly regards it as a more healthy form of entertainment than say crack cocaine. His arguments are complex and don’t entirely align with what we do as historians, but they do give us a start. The entertainment value of public philosophy provides a point of entry for a range of experiences:

“It models thinking, is individualistic not collective, it is built on personality not ideas, is passionate and not detached, and advocates for people not ideas. It seeks to prepare ground for future philosophical endeavors, and while the questions asked may be about any area of life, knowledge or inquiry, it should become obvious that public philosophical investigation skews towards the individuals who happen to be there. Most public philosophy involves examination of one’s own personal life. It is about self-knowledge before it is about anything else.”

Of particular utility for historians is the idea that public philosophy models thinking. The philosopher lays bare the process of engaging ideas by standing in front of an audience and taking their comments, observations, and ideas seriously. Modeling thinking then becomes one take-away and positions the audiences’ encounter with public philosophy as less of a collective act of community building and more of an individual act of contemplation. Watching the public philosopher think and understand, begins a process of normalizing reflective thinking that carries on after the event. To affect this the public philosopher has to reveal themselves as much as their ideas to the audience.  The audience has to see the philosopher as someone who is not so different from themselves. Making careful, critical, and reflective thought visible gives the audience permission to reflect in their own lives and, as he summarizes: “public philosophy creates the groundwork for philosophical reflection in personal life with the hope and that this reflection may inspire future wide- ranging conversations about culture and meaning in life.”

Porting these ideas to practice of history in the public sphere is not straight forward. Public history has taken on the trappings of a sub-discipline with all those conceits. Public philosophy, in contrast, is more raw and intimate and personal and open-ended. As a department full of historians without the burden of public history (as a sub-discipline), I wonder if we’d be well served to think carefully about Jack’s ideas. To consider public history as a moment where we can show the community what we do as part of who we are. Rather than falling back of problematic platitudes about making better citizens or building “a sense of community” (whose community? for whom?) we can communicate the idea that doing history is one way to mediate between the individual and the community. The entertainment value of public history gets people into the room and our job is, to use Jack’s phrase, “to prepare the ground and to let people figure it all out on their own. I turn the dirt and watch what grows.”

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