Smithsonian Institution Logo Oahe Reservoir
Archeology, Geology, History>
NPS Logo



During the last decades of the 18th century, the wide canyon of the Missouri River was the homeland of two, markedly contrasting cultures. The Arikara, the Mandan, the Hidatsa and their close relatives were old residents, or so the long archeological record implies. They built substantial fortified towns and, despite frequent hunting forays into the open plains, were dependent upon riverside fields of corn, squash and beans for their livelihood. The Dakota, on the other hand, were buffalo hunters who only recently had moved out of their traditional home in the woodlands to the east. The Siouan speaking Dakota were an aggressive people who put their faith in warfare. Their predatory ways often brought them into conflict with the sedentary villagers This was not a question of building empires, or of territorial aggrandizement; rather the Dakota raided for food and sometimes merely for glory and scalps.

By the end of the 18th century, the village farmers were few. In 1795 the Caddoan speaking Arikara were living in two villages a short distance downstream from the mouth of the Cheyenne River. A generation earlier, their villages clustered in the vicinity of modern Pierre, 30 or 40 miles to the south. In 1743 the la Verendryes visited les Gens de la petite cerise (people of the Little Cherry), probably the Arikara, in this vicinity. A number of villages in the area seem to have been occupied at this time but we cannot identify the specific site in question. The meager historic sources agree that the Arikara were once much more numerous. The fur trader, Truteau, writing in the late 18th century, stated that they had once formed thirty-two distinct bands who may have lived in as many separate villages. Smallpox, introduced by the fur traders, and increasing pressures from the buffalo hunters, who by now possessed horses in substantial numbers, were forces that could not be resisted. By the time of Lewis and Clark, the Arikara had moved far to the north, settling in three villages a short distance above modern Mobridge, South Dakota.

The story of the Mandan and the Hidatsa, or Gros Ventres, is less clean. These people speak Siouan languages, allied to that of the Dakota, but they seem to have been in or near their historic home for a long period prior to contact by Europeans. When visited by la Verendrye in 1738, the Mandan were living near what is today the upper end of the Oahe Reservoir. The exact locations have not been precisely determined. In 1804 Lewis and Clark found the Hidatsa in three villages at the mouth of the Knife River, and the Mandan in several villages a short distance downstream. At the time, Big White, a famous Mandan chief, stated that he was born about 40 years previously in Slant Village, one of seven villages then held by his people. Here again it was the smallpox and raids of the Sioux that had reduced the population to the pitiful remnant found in 1804.

Unfortunately the villagers fared little better during the following years. In 1837, the Mandan and Hidatsa again suffered severely from smallpox, and raids by the Dakota continued. Shortly before mid-century the situation had so deteriorated that survivors moved to a point above the modern Garrison Dam, in North Dakota, where they built a single village, called "Like-a-Fishhook" because it was situated near a sharp, hook-like bend of the Missouri.

The Arikara followed a more devious career. Despite their small numbers they controlled a strategic section of the Missouri River. As the fur trade increased in importance the villagers exacted their toll. By the 1820's the Arikara, now reduced to two adjacent villages, had earned an evil reputation and had made the journey up the Missouri a perilous venture for the traders and trappers. The climax came in 1823 when the Arikara clashed with a large trapping party commanded by William H. Ashley. The trappers were badly mauled and were forced to retire downstream in order to reorganize and to await reinforcements. A military force under the command of Col. Henry Leavenworth ascended the Missouri from Fort Atkinson, near modern Omaha, and attacked the villages. Despite the help of trapper volunteers and Dakota allies, the results were inconclusive. The villages were shelled, and ultimately the troops held the field, but the Arikara remained as pugnacious as before. Their subsequent history is one of roving, into the Plains as hunters, unwelcome visits among their Pawnee kinsmen in Nebraska, back to their old villages, then a period in the all but deserted Mandan towns, and finally, in 1862, to Like-a-Fishhook village, where they settled with the remnants of the Mandan and Hidatsa.

Despite their combined strength of numbers, the villagers were still not secure. Raiding parties of horsemen were a continuing menace; retaliatory raids and even the presence of military detachments failed to solve the problem. Only after the hunters were forced onto reservations, following the Indian wars of the 1870's, did the danger end. By this time the culture of the villagers was drastically changed. Except for bits and pieces, the old life was gone.


There is good evidence that men have lived in the Great Plains for at least ten millenia, first as hunters and later as primitive farmers. The earliest hunters wandered over the western Plains following the giant bison and other "herd" animals. These were not the mounted hunters of a later day, the typical equestrian warrior made famous by the Indian wars of the 19th century. Instead, they were foot hunters, driving the bison into traps on spearing those that had become mired in waterholes. The mounted warrior came only in the 18th century when horses, introduced from the Spanish frontier in modern-day New Mexico and Texas, became common throughout the Plains.

Thus far no evidence of the early hunters has been found within the Oahe area. This is not to deny that they were here, but there are few exposures of sediments in which their remains might be found and the search so far has been fruitless.

The earliest peoples of the agricultural tradition did not appear in the northern and central Plains until several centuries after the birth of Christ. While they too were hunters, they appear to have cultivated small plots of corn and probably other crops as well. The name Plains Woodland has been applied to these people because they seem to be part of the widespread Woodland tradition that once flourished in the forested country to the east. The westward movement into a new and seemingly hostile environment must have brought many changes, yet the pottery and other artifacts found in the village sites suggest that the basic way of life probably did not differ markedly from that of their relatives in the northern Mississippi Valley.

The Plains Woodland people were never numerous and their villages were widely scattered. In the Oahe Reservoir only a few archeological sites have produced evidence of this early occupation. There is no suggestion of houses, or any real notion of the village plan, but from what is known elsewhere we can reason that dwellings were probably impermanent structures, perhaps covered with cottonwood bark or hides. Similarly, villages, or more correctly hamlets, were small, consisting at most of five or six houses scattered over the river-cut benches or terraces which are usual features along the Missouri.

Strangely enough, we know much more about Woodland burial practices than we do about dwelling sites. The dead were interred beneath low mounds of earth. Usually a number of individuals are included, some as primary burials, and others as secondary burials—that is, reburials, or burials of the skeletal remains after the flesh had been removed, perhaps as a result of previous exposure to the elements. The bodies were placed in a timber-covered cist or pit, and the mound heaped over it. The burial pattern and the included funeral goods—atlatl or spear-thrower weights, cut and polished pieces of human jaw bones and the like—suggest a close relationship to certain remains in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys.

The central burial pit beneath Mound 1 at the Swift Bird Site, a group of low Woodland mounds in northern South Dakota. The remains of eight persons were found in the pit and a number of bison skeletons lay within the mound fill. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

Sometime prior to the 1200's, a new and much more complex way of life emerged in the Middle Missouri country. A new stability and a larger population are apparent, probably resulting from an increased emphasis upon agriculture. Hunting was still of importance, particularly hunting of the bison, but the very size of the new towns argues for relatively large-scale farming.

The new villages were established on the lower alluvial terraces of the valley. The flood plain or "bottoms" may have been occupied seasonally and were certainly used for farm land but the periodic floods of the Missouri and its tributaries made them poor choices for permanent residence. The river bottoms were well suited to primitive agricultural techniques because they were easily cultivated with bone and wooden tools. The heavy sod of the uplands remained unbroken until the advent of the modern farmer and his steel plows.

Many, and perhaps most, of the villages were fortified by a deep ditch or dry moat backed by a wall of timber. Evidently it was a time of troubles; possibly intertribal warfare was a continuing threat to security. At any rate, villages were protected by well engineered, well built fortifications that imply a high degree of ability and organization. One might even guess that some sort of strong, centralized village authority was responsible for the planning and direction of the work. The situation is analagous to that found in the villages of the Middle Mississippi tradition of the central south—in fact, the fortifications and many other traits found in the Oahe Reservoir must have spread from there.

Artist's reconstruction of the Dodd Site, an early village near the Oahe Dam. The village was protected by a deep ditch and was probably surrounded by a timber picket or stockade. The long-rectangular houses are typical of the early village-farmer peoples of the Missouri. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

These early townsmen of the Dakotas constructed large rectangular houses framed with massive cedar timbers. The largest such structures were more than 65 feet long and 45 feet wide, sizable even by modern standards of house construction. The floor was usually excavated to a depth of one or two feet below the surrounding surface. Entrance was by means of a gently sloping ramp leading from a framed door at the middle of one of the narrow ends. Wall posts were set just inside the margin of the floor excavation, while other timbers on or near the center line supported the roof. A simple gabled roof was probably most usual, although variants such as the gambrel or double pitched type may have been used. What sort of material was utilized for sheathing the wall and roof is not known, but irregular burnt fragments of clay in certain houses destroyed by fire suggest that the walls may have been plastered with clay or daub. One or more fireplaces were usually found along the centerline of the house and a number of large storage pits were excavated into the floor. The size and interior arrangement of such houses suggest that they were occupied by more than one family. Perhaps this is an indication of lineages, or groups of related families of the sort found among many other primitive groups.

Remains of a long-rectangular house at the Dodd Site. The entrance passage, outlined by two rows of posts, is in the center foreground. The house lay beneath a circular house of the type still used by the Village Indians during the historic period. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

The tools, pottery, weapons and ornaments made by the early villagers were remarkably varied. Pottery vessels, with surfaces roughened by means of a cord-wrapped paddle, digging tools made from frontal bones of bison skulls, bison scapula hoes, and a varied kit of projectile points and other stone tools were characteristic. Ornaments of copper and shell are relatively infrequent but are often present in small numbers. Many of the shells originated in the Gulf of Mexico, while others came from the coast of British Columbia, attesting to widely ranging trade contacts.

A long-rectangular house excavated at the Breeden Site near Pierre. The house is less complex than those at the Dodd village but the floor plan and other features are similar. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

The last of the early villagers lived in the Oahe Reservoir as recently as 1500 A.D. One of their towns, the Huff Village, now a North Dakota State Park, was elaborately fortified with a wide moat and projecting bastions or strong points. The Corps of Engineers has recently protected the river frontage of the Huff Village Site by riprapping the bank for about a quarter of a mile so that rising waters of the Oahe Dam will not erode the river bank here. Other village sites lack defenses but they appear to reflect an essentially similar way of life. At the same time a new culture, carried by people from the south, was establishing itself along the Missouri in South Dakota. These people built circular and nearly square houses of quite different design, but these too were surrounded by strong fortifications. It is a fair guess that the older, long established population was contending with the intruders for dominance.

We do not know how many battles were won and lost, but it is apparent that neither group subdued the other. By the middle 1500's something new had emerged, which combined elements from both of the preceding cultures. The new villages were rambling and rural in nature—houses were sometimes scattered for miles along the river, with fortified centers here and there. The latter were small and lacked the complexities of the earlier defensive plans. This suggests that conditions were more settled; perhaps peace was the usual condition, rather than the implied warfare of the earlier period, but fortified strong points were built to serve as refuges during infrequent times of trouble.

Reconstruction of the Huff Village, a late example of the long-rectangular house tradition. The village was defended by a moat and stockade with projecting bastions. This village represents a high point of skill in the design and construction of fortifications within the Missouri area. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

Aerial view of the Molstad Site, a small fortified village near Mobridge, South Dakota. The village, with a deep encircling moat and a single bastion, is a typical fortified center of the early circular house period. The depressions within the enclosure are the remains of earth-covered lodges. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

Houses were now constructed on a circular plan, with a short, covered passage leading to the out-of-doors. Excavations for the floor were usually shallow; often only the sod was removed, or surface irregularities smoothed before house construction. The framework consisted of four or more large posts set about the central firepit and connected by sloping rafters to a series of short vertical timbers set around the perimeter to form the wall. Except for a central smoke hole serving as a chimney, the entire framework was covered with layers of grass, twigs, and finally a thick mantle of earth. The resulting domed house was essentially the same as the earth lodge used by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara during the historic period.

Accompanying the new houses were new styles of pottery and variations in tools and ornaments, but much of the old continued. By the early 18th century, larger fortified villages again became usual, perhaps in response to increasing depradations of the Dakota and their relatives. At this time we can begin to distinguish historic peoples and tentatively, to apply the names Arikara and Mandan to specific villages. Even the up-river movement of the Arikara is becoming apparent, although the details are far from clear.

Aerial view of the Potts Site, a fortified village of the early circular house period in the upper Oahe Reservoir. A bastion with its looped section of moat (right foreground) and the encircling stockade have been exposed and the archeologists are excavating an earth-lodge near the center of the village. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

A section of the stockade at the Potts Village. Although most of the timber posts had decayed long ago, the postholes were readily traced and excavated. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

Artist's reconstruction of the Potts Site. The loop bastion shown in the preceding photograph is at left center and the earth lodge is indicated by an arrow. The other bastion-like structures projecting from the stockade are fortified postern gates. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

The villages of the 19th century are better known. It is abundantly clear from both historic sources and the archeological record that the village cultures were in sharp decline. The population had been decimated by disease—chiefly smallpox—and warfare, and the villagers were being thrust into the modern world. The last of the fortified towns, Like-a-Fishhook Village in present-day North Dakota, was progressively abandoned after the defeat of the mounted hunters, until by the 1880's the old life came to an end.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 08-Sep-2008