19th Century Archeology at the Garden Coulee Site

Crow-Flies-High on horseback (Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota)
Crow-Flies-High on horseback.

Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota.

The Garden Coulee site, located on the grounds of Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, represents an historic Hidasta occupation that occurred during the 1870's -1880's after the trading post was abandoned in 1864. Even though this site is not associated with Ft. Union, it contributes to our understanding of land use and politics in the northern plains during the turbulent 1870's.

The Missouri River valley in North and South Dakota was home to Native American village-dwelling peoples for nearly the last millenium. These peoples included the Siouan-speaking Hidatsa and Mandan and the Caddoan-speaking Arikara. They lived in semi-permanent villages of earthlodge structures, with an economic system based on a combination of horticulture and hunting, supplemented by gathering wild plant foods.

For the Hidatsa, the historic period was a time of complex culture change and social interaction with Europeans and Euro-Americans. The history of the Crow-Flies-High band of Hidatsa is a reflection of the drastic changes that affected Hidatsa culture and social organization between 1837 and 1900, the time when disease, warfare, and relocation were having significant impacts on the Hidatsa people.

From the first contact with Europeans during the 18th century the people that became known as the Hidatsa lived as three separate and distinguishable groups, the Awatixa, Awaxawi, and the Hidatsa proper. In 1837 a massive smallpox epidemic took the lives of nearly two-thirds of all the villagers living near the mouth of the Knife River at what is today Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.
Hidatsa section of Like-a-Fishhook village; (photograph by Stanley J. Morrow 1872). Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota
Hidatsa section of Like-a-Fishhook village.

Photo by Stanley J. Morrow 1872. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

By 1845, the extreme mortality rates suffered from the small pox epidemic and continual warfare with Sioux and Blackfeet tribes necessitated the merger of the three Hidatsa groups, and along with the Mandan and Arikara tribes, they set up a new settlement named Like-A-Fishhook Village on the left bank of the Missouri River. Soon after the assortment of tribes settled at Like-A-Fishhook Village, Euro-American fur traders from competing companies established two trading posts (Forts Berthold and Atkinson) at opposite ends of the village. This created a truly multi-cultural environment with intensive interactions between many Native American groups and Euro-American fur traders, which would have profound effects on Hidatsa culture.

By 1862, Like-A-Fishhook Village had taken its final form with individual sections for the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara groups living at the village. During the 1860’s and into the 1870’s, the three tribes were becoming increasingly dependent on government allotments because of the reduced numbers of bison herds and other animals important for trade. This led to a decline in the standard of living through diminished trading opportunities with Euro-Americans and other native tribes. With the increasingly squalid conditions becoming prevalent at Like-A-Fishhook Village, unrest began to manifest itself in the form of infighting between tribal members. Numerous individuals began to assert themselves through military accomplishments and were at odds with traditional tribal leaders who held status based on inheritance and ownership of sacred medicine bundles. Political disputes and disagreements surrounding the traditional modes of status acquisition caused the factionization of the Crow-Flies-High band of the larger Hidatsa Tribe.

Crow-Flies-High was a radical chief who refused to accept the traditional authority of the medicine bundle holders and led his band of followers into self imposed exile in the early 1870’s. Historic accounts documented from band members also suggest that Crow-Flies-High was in danger of being murdered by two sub-chiefs, Poor Wolf and Crow Paunch, and took refuge by leaving the reservation and moving his band to the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers near the site of the then abandoned Fort Union. With the earlier establishment of Fort Buford in 1866 at the river confluence area, the Crow-Flies-High band was able to build an initial settlement nearby sometime between 1869 and 1872 to continue traditional ways of hunting, trading, and growing limited amounts of crops. The soldiers stationed at Fort Buford were able to provide some measure of protection from the Sioux tribes that frequently raided the Hidatsa and Mandan villagers at Like-A-Fishhook.

Archeological and ethnographic studies have located at least two of the Crow-Flies-High villages on the Missouri River. The first village, known to archeologists as the Garden Coulee site (32WI18), was located a short distance east of the then abandoned Fort Union. Ethnographic accounts describe a substantial village with seven log cabins and twenty-three earthlodges. Archeological evidence in the form of numerous “bell shaped” storage pits similar to those commonly used by Plains Village tribes such as the Hidatsa and Mandan were also recorded by archeologists working at the Garden Coulee site.

In the summer of 1884, the Crow-Flies-High band moved down the Missouri River from the Garden Coulee site to what is known as the Crow-Flies-High Village (32MZ1) near the mouth of the Little Knife River. The site, located on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River to the north, was archeologically excavated in 1952 as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s River Basin Surveys program. Numerous log cabin remnants and storage pits were uncovered at the site during the archeological excavations. Although heavily disturbed by plowing, site 32MZ1 provided insight into the nature of archeological remains associated with the Crow-Flies-High band.

By 1893, game had become scarce and the Crow-Flies-High band had little choice but to accept government food rations. However, the U.S. Indian Agent Captain William Clapp would not provide the band with any rations unless it moved back to the Fort Berthold Reservation and accepted land allotments. The strong stand made by Clapp forced the Crow-Flies-High band to return to the reservation in 1894 under U.S. Army escort. When they arrived, 126 Hidatsas, 23 Mandans, and 1 Arikara accompanied Crow-Flies-High. Once settled on the reservation, the Crow-Flies-High band continued to function as powerful faction of the Hidatsa tribe into the 20th century.

Archeological and Geophysical Investigation

In 1976, archeologists working at the Garden Coulee site found a charcoal lens, ash, butchered bone, and historic artifacts eroding from a roadcut through the terrace edge east of Fort Union. The following year, three pit features and numerous 19th century artifacts were documented during a waterline excavation project east of Fort Union. The relative stratigraphic position of the pit features, the classic “bell shape” of two of the pits, and numerous items of 19th military origin provided sufficient archeological evidence to suggest that this was a site used during the post-Fort Union period (1864 or later) by a group of Plains villagers. In 1982, archeologist Gregory L. Fox used historic map references and a proton magnetometer survey to further locate the site. Analysis of diagnostic artifacts, documentary records, and ethnographic evidence suggests that the Garden Coulee site (32WI18) predates the Crow-Flies-High site (32MZ1) in McKenzie County and was abandoned in 1884.

In 2002, the Midwest Archeological Center (MWAC) investigated the Garden Coulee Site (32WI18) to determine the spatial limits of the historic village. The first phase consisted of the establishment of a grid over the area of the site and the mapping of artifacts on the surface of the site. The 2002 survey covered a total of 48.25 acres within which, a 240 meter x 280 meter area was established as the grid for the geophysical survey. The second phase of this study, undertaken by geophysical contractor Archaeo-Physics, LLC consisted of subsurface geophysical investigations of 15 acres within the grid area to identify subsurface cultural features associated with the 19th century occupation of the site. The investigation consisted of electrical resistance and magnetic field gradient surveys.


The data presented here go a long way toward improving our understanding of the historic resources related to the Crow-Flies-High band occupation and provide key knowledge necessary for effective management and planning. The park now has critical information regarding the ongoing impact of the active roadway, and probable impacts of any new trails traversing this area. As this site comprises the only existing archeological evidence of occupation for the Crow-Flies-High band, and it represents such a pivotal time in United States and Native American history, it is a significant and valuable resource.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

Last updated: March 6, 2023