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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Fort Mandan, Big Hidatsa (Minitari) Village, and Other Minitari-Mandan Village Sites
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
North Dakota

Location: McLean and Mercer Counties, in the vicinity of the village of Stanton. For location of individual sites, see the following description.

This complex of interrelated sites in central North Dakota possesses major archeological significance and has important associations with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Fort Mandan, the 1804-5 winter quarters, was erected on the north bank of the Missouri River near the lowest of five Indian villages scattered along the Missouri and Lower Knife Rivers. See map entitled "Fort Mandan (Winter Camp, 1804-1805) and Nearby . . . Indian Villages."

Missouri River bluffs
View from the Missouri River bluffs, along the north side of the river, looking to the southeast over the site of Fort Mandan. The cottonwood forest below the bluffs stretches away toward the Missouri, which is vaguely recognizable in the right top distance. The fort site, lost before 1833 because of the changing river channel in the area, cannot be precisely identified but it was probably somewhere in the bottom land shown here. (National Park Service (Appleman, 1964).)

White traders, Frenchmen, probably first contacted the Minitaris (Hidatsas) shortly after the tribe moved northward about 60 miles from near the junction of the Heart and Missouri Rivers to the mouth of the Knife River, where they were living by about 1740. About three decades later, the Mandans, with whom they shared many cultural traits and had lived in close proximity on the Heart, joined them and established their villages nearby, on the Missouri. Immediately prior to this, the Mandans had resided for a time at a site about 20 miles to the south of the Knife River following their departure from the Heart River.

Even before the direct relationship with traders, the two tribes apparently had served as middlemen in the Northern Plains trade involving white trade goods. The Assiniboin and Cree, who were in direct contact with the French, bartered the goods to the Mandans and Minitaris for corn, which they had grown, and buffalo robes, furs, and meat they had obtained from the Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and other nomadic western tribes. In return, the latter tribes received corn and limited quantities of trade goods.

By the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, Mandan-Minitari trade with the French had virtually ceased, but the British fur companies that replaced the French traders in present Canada resumed the commerce in 1766 even though France had ceded Western Louisiana, in which the villages were located, to Spain 4 years earlier. Spanish traders who visited them in the 1790's were unable to gain a foothold in the fur trade or to expel the Britishers, who were still there when Lewis and Clark arrived late in 1804 despite the U.S. purchase of Louisiana Territory the previous year.

The two captains found the Mandans occupying the two lower villages, on the Missouri; the Minitaris, two others a few miles up the Knife; and the Amahamis, one at its mouth. The latter consisted of various fragments of Indian groups that had been displaced by the tribal wars in the region or had dwindled because of disease and had gathered there under the protection of the Minitaris. Over the years, intermarriage and merger had taken place. This was the most powerful Indian complex on the Missouri River at the time. No other permanent villages were located on it all the way west to the mountains, and the Minitaris hunted and raided westward all the way to the Continental Divide. The less warlike Mandans were essentially an agricultural people.

During the explorers' long stay at the villages, from October 26, 1804, until April 7, 1805, they constructed and occupied Fort Mandan; counciled with the Mandans and Minitaris and learned all they could about the country to the west; recruited Baptiste Lepage and Toussaint Charbonneau, who would be accompanied by his Indian wife Sacagawea and their infant son Baptiste; held conferences with the resident British traders of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies; readied reports and specimens for dispatch to President Jefferson on the keelboat, which was to go back to St. Louis in the spring; and made preparations for the westward trek.

On the return from the Pacific, a stop was made at the villages on August 14-17, 1806. It was found that a prairie fire had destroyed most of the fort; goodbyes were said to Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their son, as well as John Colter, who was released so that he could go trapping; and Mandan Chief Sheheke (Big White) was persuaded to accompany Lewis to Washington.

In the period 1832-34, artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, as well as Prince Maximilian of Wied, visited the villages. Maximilian and Catlin described the Big Hidatsa (Minitari) Village in their journals, and the artists sketched it. Maximilian reported that no traces remained of Fort Mandan and that its site had been inundated or relocated to the south bank by river meandering. Tragically, a small pox epidemic in 1837 almost wiped out the Mandans; seriously weakened the Minitaris and Amahamis; and killed many Arikaras, who were by then living adjacent to the lower Mandan village near Fort Clark, a fur trading post close to the west bank of the Missouri.

In 1845 the surviving Minitaris and the remnant of Mandans moved about 60 river miles up the Missouri. That same year, the American Fur Company began erecting Fort Berthold nearby. In 1861, when fire destroyed Fort Clark, the Arikaras also moved upstream and joined the Mandans and Minitaris. Descendants of these three great tribes, which figured so prominently in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, continue to live on the relocated Fort Berthold Reservation, though Garrison Dam has inundated their historic village sites.

Big Hidatsa Village Site
Big Hidatsa Village Site is situated just to the left of the farm buildings at the right. The Knife River is marked by the closer tree line just beyond the buildings; the Missouri, by the heavy tree line in the distance. The bluffs are on the east side of the Missouri. (National Park Service (Appleman, 1964).)

Although the Fort Mandan site lies in the river bottom land or under the waters of the Missouri, the area may be viewed from Fort Mandan State Park, consisting of about 35 acres. The park is in McLean County on a semilevel bench on the bluff along the north, or east, side of the river just above, or north, of the point where it bends abruptly from a southeast-northwest to east-west direction. The approximate fort site lies about 1-3/4 miles to the south and slightly east of the park marker placed by the State of North Dakota near the edge of the river bluff. County Route 17, which runs westward from U.S. 83 one-half mile north of Washburn, provides access to the park.

The McLean County Historical Society, using local funds entirely, has erected a generalized replica of Fort Mandan, based on a model in the possession of the State Historical Society. The replica, dedicated in June 1972, is in the river bottom land about 10 miles down stream from the actual site and 4 miles west of Washburn along County Route 17.

Fort Mandan (Winter Camp 1804-1805).
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Archeologists and historians have numbered the village sites from 1 to 5, running from southeast to northwest. Village No. 1 (Lower Mandan Village) is situated in present Mercer County on the south, or west, bank of the Missouri. Sheheke was the chief of this community, which at the time of Lewis and Clark numbered 40 to 50 earthlodges and was the closest to Fort Mandan, then only 2 miles directly east across the river. The privately owned and unmarked site is probably near the old Deapolis Post Office.

Village No. 2 (Upper Mandan Village) was the larger of the two Mandan villages. It was on the same side of the river as Fort Mandan but about 4-1/2 air miles to the northwest. Lewis and Clark considered Black Cat, the chief, to be the most influential in his tribe and the most intelligent of all the Indians they dealt with during the winter. The exact site of Village No. 2, in McLean County, has not been determined but was probably about a mile downstream from the village of Stanton, on the opposite bank. Archeological evidence has probably been covered with river silt or carried away in the course of many channel changes and floodings. This privately owned site is not accessible by road.

Village No. 3 (Amahami Village) was the smallest and least important of the five. It was on the south bank of the Knife River at its junction with the Missouri. The town of Stanton, seat of Mercer County, has grown up on the site and nothing remains of the latter today except for one lodge ring in the yard of the Mercer County Courthouse.

Village No. 4 (Lower Minitari Village), the smaller and more southerly of the two Minitari villages near the mouth of the Knife River, is in Mercer County about 1 air mile north of present Stanton and the mouth of the Knife. A road running upstream from Stanton along the Knife, which nearly parallels the Missouri at this point, passes within .3 of a mile of the site, on privately owned farmland. The Missouri River, obscured by a heavy growth of cottonwoods, lies about one-half mile to the east.

farm lane
This farm lane, in the environs of Stanton, N. Dak., leads to the half-eroded site of one of the 1804-5 Minitari villages near the mouth of the Knife River. The stream runs along the near edge of the tree line and joins the Missouri about a mile away downstream and out of the picture at the right. The bluffs in the background are on the far side of the Missouri. Fort Mandan was a few miles to the southeast of this picture on the other side of the river. (National Park Service (Mattison, 1961).)

The Knife River, whose banks are 25 to 30 feet high at this point, has already eroded away about half of the village site. The remaining earthlodge circles, averaging about 60 feet in diameter and marked by depressions 2 to 3 feet deep, are readily distinguishable; the north eastern part of the site is covered with cottonwood trees. The ground is white with bone fragments.

In 1804-5 Black Moccasin was the principal chief of the village, in which Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea were probably residing when they joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition. And their son, Baptiste, whom she carried with her, was either born at this place, or, more likely, at the interpreters' camp outside Fort Mandan.

Village No. 5 (Upper Minitari Village) (Big Hidatsa Village Site), also known as the Olds Site, is a National Historic Landmark primarily because of its archeological status. It is in Mercer County approximately 2 air miles northwest of the lower Minitari village along the north side of the Knife on a terrace about a quarter mile from the river. This village site is accessible via the same road that passes Village No. 4.

The site is in private ownership. Although barns and other outbuildings cover a small part of its 15-acre extent, most of it has never been cultivated and is exceptionally well preserved. Clearly distinguishable earthlodge rings, the largest averaging 60 feet in diameter, are crowded closely together and number more than 100. Also visible are several fortification trenches. The black soil is flecked white by enormous quantities of bone fragments of buffalo and other animals. Powerful Chief Le Borgne ("One-Eye"), feared by Indians and traders alike, ruled this village in the days of Lewis and Clark.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004