The rich soil of Pembina County is the sediment of a once huge glacial lake, Lake Agassiz, which covered the area for some 5000 years. After it drained, lush grasses sprang up to provide grazing for large herds of bison which in turn were the basis of the Indian cultures of the area. The bison cultures came to a rather abrupt end with the rapid settlement of Dakota Territory and the disappearance of the bison. The US Army was keeping a watchful eye on the Dakotas in the 1860s. In 1867, Governor Andrew J. Faulk appointed a commission to organize Pembina County, the first county in what was to become the state of North Dakota. The area encompassed the present counties of Cass, Traill, Grand Forks, Steele, Pembina, most of Nelson and Walsh, plus parts of Richland, Barnes and Ransome. In 1871 Pembina grew again more than doubling in size, acquiring non-county land to the West and South. In 1873, however, the trend was reversed. Pembina shrank to approximately one and 1/3 of its present size. In 1885 it lost land to Cavalier and attained the size we are familiar with today. The name of the county is derived from the Chippewa Indian term for the high bush cranberry which grew in abundance along the Pembina River.
(Those doing census searches should be aware that Pembina was an organized county of Minnesota Territory from 1849 to 1858. From 1858 to 1861 it was unorganized. It became part of Dakota Territory in 1861.)
Like the county itself, the people who inhabited the area were dynamic. Pembina was the first county with white inhabitants, many of whom were French who migrated from Canada in the 1800s. They intermarried with the native peoples forming a new culture, called the Metis. The Metis culture was strong in Manitoba and conflict developed there when English settlement of the area ignored Metis concerns. In North Dakota the Red River Carts were symbols of Metis ingenuity and sturdy determination. Their carts were ideally adapted to conditions of the time, having no metal parts and with high wheels to traverse mud, brush and streams. Pulled by an oxen, they carried 900 pounds of furs and meat from the hunt, furs to Canada and St Paul and supplies on the return trip. The coming of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s, however, began what could be termed the beginning of the modern era of transportation and with them the demise of all forms of long distance animal transport. They also brought rapid settlement to the area.
The largest single group to settle here was the Icelanders who tramped south from Gimli, Manitoba and settled in what is now Mountain, Hallston, Akra and Pembina. The hardships they had known in Manitoba continued here until they became established. But even then, not being accustomed to the soil conditions, their lives were not easy. They were the largest single ethnic group to settle here. Others included Irish, English and Scotch from Ontario and from their home countries and also Quebec, and French Canadians from Quebec. Settlement continued with Scandinavians, Germans, Russian, Belgians, Ukranians along with settlers from other parts of our own country. This rich mix of cultures has homogenized into the dynamic North Dakota we know today.
Agriculture has always been and remains the backbone of the economy. Early on wheat was the mainstay crop. However, to travel here in August now is to see mountains of sugar beets coming in from the fields, awaiting transport to the sugar processing plant at Drayton. Potatoes in large quantities are also grown primarily for the potato chip factories farther south. Wheat, pinto beans, sunflower seed and other crops make up the agricultural bounty. But this area also has many attractions for the tourist. Wahalla has always been known for its scenic beauty as well as the Renwick dam area. The City of Pembina has a beautiful new museum with many geological and historic displays. And Icelanic State Park and Arboretum, a gift from G. B. Gunlogson, are among the must see places in Pembina County.