Archaeology and Man-camps in Western North Dakota

North Dakota recorded a 4.7% increase in population in the 2010 census. Most of these new residents appeared in the western counties of North Dakota and particularly Williams, Montrail, and McKenzie counties. You can check out the basic statistics here or check out the map below.  Note that for North Dakota “below average” is really quite exceptional.  The two “high growth” counties are Burleigh and Cass where Fargo and Bismarck are located.


The growth in population in the western counties is primarily tied to the North Dakota oil boom and particularly the recent efforts to extract oil from the Brakken and Three Forks oil fields.  For some basic information on these fields check out the Bakken Blog or the wikipedia page.  For a live GIS map, check out the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, or check out the more basic map below:


The boom in oil production in western North Dakota (and presumably Eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan) has led to significant problems with housing. The community of Williston and outlying area, for example, has found it impossible to accommodate wide range of people who have come to work in the oil fields or as engineers or other support.  As a result, these areas have experienced a building boom. Note in the map below that North Dakota is one of the few states with a positive number of housing starts in the last year:


This map does not capture the significant number of people living in temporary accommodations.  Across the western counties of the state a whole series of so-called “man camps” have sprung up to serve temporary residents in the area. These camps typically consist of prefabricated trailers purchased or leased by one of the companies involved in prospecting or extracting oil.  They are then grouped in accordance with local regulations.  The most dramatic group of trailers to enter the area came from the support area of the Vancouver Olympics.  The construction of temporary “company towns” has a long tradition in the western United States dating back to the mining and logging camps of the 19th century.  Recent archaeological work on the site of Ludlow Massacre sought to document the mining camp organized, in part, by the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Mining Company. This work has contributed to the site being designated as a National Historic Monument

In the spirit of this work, the material culture of life in these boom counties has attracted my attention. It is almost impossible in Ancient or Medieval contexts to identify the impact of short-term and rapid settlement change in settlement patterns on the local social, economic, and natural landscape. For example, the work crews who labored to build or repair the Hexamilion wall in the Corinthia have left almost no trace of their living and working conditions. In western North Dakota, however, rapid settlement change is producing a new archaeological landscape even as we speak.  Temporary or sub-standard living conditions, gender imbalance (man camps, are, apparently overwhelmingly male), transient labor, limited engagement with the social or cultural life of the more permanent, local communities, difficult working conditions, and, by all accounts, significant wealth, all should leave a distinct imprint on site formation in the local archaeological record.

I’ve begun to think about collaborating with some colleagues here at the University of North Dakota to document the material and social conditions of the North Dakota man-camps.  Ideally this project would be a combination of voluntary collaboration with the various companies that operate these camps (including Halliburton) and some guerrilla archaeology (inspired, for example, by Adrian Meyer’s recent article in World Archaeology 42 (2010), 455-467 where he used Good Earth images to document changes at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay).  Working with social workers, environmental policy folks, geographers, public historians, photographers, geologists, and environmental scientist types could produce a holistic approach to documenting rapid, localized, settlement change.

The possibilities for this kind of project are pretty exciting so I’ve created an entry and put it in my idea box.

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