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Elwyn Robinson, historian


Today is the birthday of historian Elwyn Robinson; many Dakota Datebook segments have been helped along because of his exceptional research. Robinson was the son of a photographer and was born near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1905. Elwyn displayed many interests as a child, including tennis, handball, marksmanship, football and the game of chess. He graduated from Oberlin College with an English degree in 1928 and spent the next two years at a small school where he served as the principal, teacher and coach. He was engaged to a colleague, Eva Foster, in 1930, and spent the next six years earning his masters and doctorate degrees in American History.

During this time, Robinson also accepted a job offer from UND. On September 2, 1935, Eva and Elwyn got married and immediately set out for North Dakota. Their first years in Grand Forks were tough, both financially and because Robinson became seriously ill. As for their new home, they fell in love with ND, and Robinson gradually became engrossed in the state’s history.

It’s written that Robinson was popular with students and faculty alike. C. Norman Boehm Jr. was a chemical engineering student who, in 1950, found he needed just two more credit hours to graduate. He writes, “I enrolled in summer school and took...two electives...Music Appreciation and History of the Trans-Mississippi West. The latter course, taught by (Professor Robinson), was a history of the Plains Indians. Never had I experienced such enthusiasm by a teacher who was able to convey that enthusiasm to his pupils (at least this one). Professor Robinson generated within me a lifelong interest and concern for Native Americans, their culture, their history, and their woeful mistreatment and neglect by the U.S. Government,” said Boehm.

From 1947 to 1949, Robinson connected with the public, too, by broadcasting a radio series titled “Heroes of Dakota.” He also introduced a new class into the UND curriculum dealing with North Dakota history, and it quickly became a student favorite.

Robinson’s great life’s work was History of North Dakota, which was the culmination of 20 years of research. The 600-page book traces the state’s history from its early beginnings to the mid-1960s, and it received the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. A review by Hiram Drache in the Journal of American History says, “The title of Elwyn Robinson’s book is a gross understatement. It is anthropology, geography, sociology, economics, ethnology, political science, nature study and theology interwoven into one...volume.”

Elwyn Robinson emerged from his research with a theory he called “Too Much Mistake.” He felt that people who arrived in North Dakota in the 1880s became overly optimistic about settlement, because the state was experiencing above-average rainfall during those years. Easterners who moved here expected weather conditions similar to what they left behind, and the government believed a homestead of 160 acres could adequately provide for any family that worked hard enough. Reality proved them wrong. Robinson believed that these and other factors soon led to “too many farms, too many miles of railroads and roads, too many towns, banks, schools, colleges, churches, and governmental institutions.” The state simply couldn’t support that much growth within such a short period of time, and North Dakotans soon became dependent on the government and abusive Eastern corporations for their survival. “Too much mistake.”

Robinson retired from UND in 1974. His wife, Eva, passed away in 1984, and Elwyn died the following year.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm