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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 1



Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Western Contact

Because of their role as trade centers and their location on a tributary of the Missouri River, a major artery of western travel, the villages at Knife River received many European American visitors—men drawn by the prospect of wealth in the fur trade, exploration and national expansion, and simple curiosity. For the most part, the Mandans and Hidatsas received these outsiders with openness and hospitality, providing a welcome respite to weary travelers and an important staging area for further travel and fur-trade operations in more remote regions. This frequent and sustained contact with a different culture ultimately transformed the traditional way of life for the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes, while contributing to the economic development and westward expansion of America.

When trader Pierre de la Verendrye—a French-Canadian colonial officer responsible for opening up much of the western Great Lakes region—walked into a Mandan village in 1738, he found a society at the height of its prosperity. Verendrye's arrival marked the first recorded European visit to the Indians of the Upper Missouri River valley and began a relentless process that transformed a culture within 100 years. At first the three tribes remained relatively isolated, although there were increasing contacts with French, Spanish, English, and American fur traders. Their culture was still healthy when explorer David Thompson reached the area in 1797, but the pace of change quickened after the Lewis and Clark expedition visited the tribes. The expedition spent the winter of 1805 a few miles south of the Knife River villages, where the men built a three-sided fort, which they named Fort Mandan. The men of the expedition frequently visited with the villagers. During this same winter, fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sakakawea, were hired to guide the explorers westward. Other explorers, including Prince Maximillian of Weid-Neuwied, whose ethnological and natural history notes are still a primary reference on the Mandans and Hidatsas, and artists such as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, drew clear portraits of a society in transition. Naturalist John James Audubon visited in 1843, but by then the culture had changed radically.

An influx of European­American fur traders set up new trade patterns that undermined the tribe's traditional position as brokers in a long-established American Indian trade network. Villagers grew more dependent on European goods such as horses, weapons, cloth, and iron pots. Diseases carried by the Europeans and overhunting of the bison further weakened the culture. There were several small pox epidemics between 1780 and 1856: the epidemic of 1837-38 was especially tragic with a mortality rate of almost 60 percent. In 1845 most of the remaining Hidatsas and Mandans joined together to establish Like-a-Fishhook Village some 40 miles northwest of the Knife River villages. In 1862 the remaining Arikara joined them, and the tribes became known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. In 1865 they were forced to leave their village and move onto the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Today the tribes continue to practice their traditional ways.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why did the Hidatsa and Mandan receive many European American visitors? How did the villagers treat them?

2. List the visitors mentioned in the Reading. What were their motives for traveling to the Knife River area?

3. How did these visitors change the Hidatsa and Mandan way of life? What happened in later years to the tribes and their allies, the Arikara?

Reading 2 was compiled from the National Park Service visitors' guide for Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, and Thomas D. Thiessen, "Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site Archeological District" (Mercer County, North Dakota) National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987.


Comments or Questions

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