A Case of Mistaken Identity Corrected

Aerial view of grass and trees.
Aerial view of Menoken Indian Village site, North Dakota.

National Park Service.

The Menoken Indian Village Site, a short drive east of Bismarck in Burleigh County, North Dakota, has been a National Historic Landmark (NHL) since 1964. At the time of designation, it was thought to be the site of a native village mentioned as a stopping place in the journals of French explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye (1685-1749).

Largely for that long-held belief, North Dakota acquired the property in 1937 to preserve it as a state historic site. In recent years, however, intensive archeological research has shown that the village was abandoned hundreds of years before La Vérendrye passed through the region in 1738.
Such a revelation could well have provided justification for withdrawal of the NHL designation, as it is now established that Menoken is not what its statement of significance initially claimed it to be. Nevertheless, consultation with authorities on prehistory of the region and the State Historic Preservation Office garnered consensus that the site is probably more important for what it can reveal about life in the past.

Therefore, the National Park Service contracted with Paleo Cultural Research Group of Flagstaff, Arizona, to initiate a new study of Menoken’s significance. When the merits of the Menoken Indian Village Site were reconsidered in 2004, its status as an NHL was upheld—but for different reasons. Menoken is now recognized as a nationally significant site, not for a spurious association with exploration of the continent, but for the unique scientific information it has produced and still contains.
A man sitting in the remnants of an ancient house.
Excavation of a prehistoric house feature at Menoken Indian Village Site.

National Park Service.

As shown in the new nomination, archeological data derived from Menoken have the power to inform us about processes involved in the development of village-dwelling, farming-based cultures in the Northern Plains during the period A.D. 1000-1300. Indeed, the site is critical to understanding the profound cultural change taking place at roughly the same time across much of North America east of the Rocky Mountains.

The Menoken Indian Village Site offers an object lesson in how local lore—and even the work of early scholars—can lead us astray and be disproved through further study. This is especially true of archeological sites that are restudied with newly available techniques and in light of cumulative research carried out at related sites. Even ideas about what is significant may change in response to advances in archeological theory. Accordingly, documentation improvement projects for existing NHLs are often worthy undertakings.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 3, 2008, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Vergil E. Noble.

Last updated: June 29, 2018