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Setting the Stage

The 1,758-acre Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota preserves historic and archeological remnants of the culture and agricultural lifestyle of the Northern Plains Indians. More than 50 archaeological sites suggest a possible 8,000-year span of inhabitation. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the site was a relatively urban settlement with three large villages occupied by the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes. Three of the most striking cultural aspects of the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes were their practice of living in large villages with houses set close together, their skill as architects and builders, and the richness of their culture, due in part to their role as brokers in a widespread trading network and their control of an important product--Knife River flint--which was valued for the quality of tools and weapons it produced.

As centers of trade, these villages attracted Indians and European Americans alike. Direct contact with Europeans began in 1738 when Frenchmen from Canada came to the region. Soon British and Canadian traders began to filter into the region for the prized beaver pelts and for the skins of wolf, fox, and otter. The Knife River villages also became known as a trading post for high quality horses that would be exchanged for guns and ammunition. In this manner, the Hidatsas and Mandans obtained considerable affluence and power among the Northern Plains tribes.



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