Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota

By William C. Sherman with new introduction by Thomas D. Isern

North Dakota State University Press, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, 2017, 152 pages, hardcover.

The NDSU Press has published a new edition of one of the most important ethnic studies ever published in the USA, Prairie Mosaics: An Ethnic Atlas of North Dakota. The first edition was published in 1983. The 2017 new edition provides maps, tables, new photographs and commentary. This work is more than an atlas; it is a basic handbook of the ethnic fabric of North Dakota.  The publication of Prairie Mosaic is a collaborative effort of NDSU Press and the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, Fargo.

Sherman writes: "Sadly, it must be said that we know much more about the soil, crop, weed and water conditions of any particular Dakota township than we know of the national character of the people who reside there."

Included in this new edition is the section of the Father Sherman Photograph Collection from the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Library, Fargo. These 58 photographs are part of the complete collection which encompasses over 13,000 black and white photographs, negatives, color slides, floorplans, and site survey documents. Completed between 1972 to 1978 in central and western North Dakota. More information is available of the Sherman Collection at

The Sherman Photographs cover the subjects of houses, barns, sheds, and various agricultural structures. Today, many of these structures no longer exist. Photographs included in the book are from these North Dakota counties - Stark, Grant, LaMoure, Stutsman, Williams, Dunn, Morton, Hettinger, Burleigh, McLean, McIntosh, Wells, Mercer, Billings, Emmons, McHenry and McKenzie. The North Dakota ethnic groups in the photographs include German Russian, Hungarian German, Bohemians, Ukrainian, Jewish, Mennonite German, Belgian, Norwegian, German, Estonian and English American.

Thomas D. Isern, Distinguished Professor of History, North Dakota State University, writes in The Introduction to the Second Edition: “The ethnic atlas was the product of an energetic, persistent mentor rallying the research efforts of a corps of student researchers. It was Father Bill’s ambitious attempt to trace every landowner, establish ethnicity, and gather other pertinent local details of settlement and persistence. It was an advantage that NDSU was a land-grant university, with students from all over the state. Father Bill spent endless days in the field with students.”

“A key reason for focusing on the Germans from Russia was that Fr. Bill had become acquainted with, sometimes exasperated by, and eventually fond of the Germans from Russia, many of them railroad workers, who constituted about half the parish at St. Michael’s Church of Grand Forks. In the course of his study of German-Russian country he became fascinated with their ways – their festive wedding ceremonies, their Mischholz (dried manure) for home heating, and countless other homely customs.”

“Without a doubt the most notable review of the distinguished geographer, John C. Hudson, in Minnesota History, Prairie Mosaic, he adjudged, “is surely the most detailed set of ethnic maps ever produced for a large area within the United States,” maps that “show the ethnic background of virtually every square mile of North Dakota in 1965.”

“Reappraisal of Prairie Mosaic a generation hence confirms the positive judgements given at the time of the original issue and justifies of a new edition today. Father Bill would agree that a fundamental value of the book is regional. It documents and defines the identity of North Dakota as the most ethnic of all Great Plains states. As Father Bill frequently says, “It is not just the story of the people who settled here; it’s thestory of who stayed.”

William C. Sherman Photograph Collection at
Sherman Photograph Collection Brochure
Father William C. Sherman Handout

About the Author

Father William C. Sherman is a well-known and celebrated North Dakota scholar, writer and educator. He taught Sociology of the Great Plains and Religion at North Dakota State University from 1971 to 2001. He served at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks from 1976 to 2003. Father Sherman has been awarded two honorary doctorates, one from the University of Mary, Bismarck, and one from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. His work highlights the unique and complex history of North Dakota inhabitants, especially that of the Germans from Russia.

Book review

Review of the 1983 first edition of the book by Ronald Vossler appears in North Dakota Quarterly, Spring, 1983.

Hungarian German - Stark County, North Dakota
Estonian - Stark County, North Dakota

German Russian - McIntosh County, North Dakota
Ukrainian - Burleigh and McLean County, North Dakota

Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota

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Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller