Friday, September 15, 2017

Mandan, North Dakota

Statue of Sakakawea at the North Dakota Heritage Center. Leonard Crunelle 1910
October 21, 1804
The explorers idyllic days on the river ended with the first snowfall of the season. 
They had been searching for a good place to spend the Winter and the early arrival of freezing temperatures hastened those plans. They ended up making camp near the Mandan Villages, a settlement that had been described to them by British and French fur trappers.
The Mandan Villages were located on a bluff overlooking the river and downstream from the Knife River where an allied tribe, the Hidatsa also had established communities. There were 5 separate villages that housed over 4000 people. The Mandan had a peaceful reputation and were known to welcome visitors. The Mandan villages were an established Winter trading hub for trappers and Native Americans.
earth lodge village
The Expedition reached them on October 26, 1804.
They had traveled 1600 miles up the Missouri from Wood River camp.
It had taken them 7 months to do so.
The Corps met with Mandan and Hidatsa leaders giving their official Indian speech and small gifts. It was agreed that the explorers could build their fort nearby.  Sheheke, one of the Mandan chiefs told them

 "Our wish is to be at peace with you. If we eat, you shall eat; If we starve you must starve also."

Fort Mandan
Fort construction began on November 3, 1804 with the building of 2 rows of log cabins. The cabins were surrounded by a 12-15 foot tall palisade fence. The only construction material available to them was cottonwood which is poor for building purposes. Its excessive shrinkage as the wood dried over the Winter left them with open spaces where cold air could blow in.
The soldiers readied their own shared quarters. There were officers rooms, a guard house, and blacksmith shop. They moved in on November 20th.

One of the rows of huts.
"We this day moved into our huts which are now completed. This place which we call Fort Mandan, is situated on a point of low ground, on the north side of the Missouri, covered with tall and heavy cottonwood. The works consist of 2 rows of huts or sheds, forming an angle where they joined each other: each row containing 4 rooms, of 14 feet square and 7 feet high, with plank cieling , and the roof slanting so as to form a loft above the rooms, the highest part of which is 8 feet from the ground:"     Nicholas Biddle's published account of the expedition 

Fort Mandan was completed and Winter was upon them. Expedition members stayed busy with hunting parties needing meat for themselves and also to trade for dried corn and vegetables. 
The Captains spent a great deal of time writing their reports for President Jefferson. The blacksmiths made necessary repairs of equipment and created a decorative sort of hatchet out of scrap iron from one of the Keelboat's stoves that was nearly worn out. The hatchets would prove very valuable in trading for food over the long Winter. 
The men worked together to dig out wooden canoes to transport them up the river in Spring.

They entertained. 
Hidatsa and Mandan chiefs as well as fur traders came to visit. 
William Clark interviewed each of them carefully seeking information about the land and people to the West. 
They met Pierre Charbonneau and his young wife Sakakawea, pregnant at the time. Charbonneau and Sakakawea were hired as interpreters and came to live at Fort Mandan. I cannot imagine the complicated communication that these conversations must have been. Clark speaking English to  fur trader/interpreter Rene Jessaume who translated the words into French for Pierre Charbonneau who translated the words into Hidatsa for Sakakawea who spoke them to the native american with a combination of hand signals and words of their own dialect.

It was a severe Winter with heavy snow. 
Captain Clark recorded temperatures as low as minus 21 degrees at the fort. The river froze over enough that the buffalo could cross without falling through the ice. 
The Corps of Discovery spent 146 nights at Fort Mandan.

August 30, 2017

We have reached Mandan North Dakota, near the 1804 Winter home of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Interior of an earth lodge at On a Slant Village
Fort Abraham Lincoln is just south of us, situated not far above the river. The State Park is home to On a Slant Village, a reconstructed Mandan Village. This village would have been one of those abandoned villages spoken about in the expeditions journals. 
Archaeological evidence supports the presence of an earth house village in this place from 1575-1781. A smallpox epidemic and attacks from the nearby Lakota decimated the original Mandan inhabitants. The survivors moved north to join the communities near the confluence of the knife river.  
The current village is a series of earth lodges built in traditional fashion. They are 20-40 feet in diameter with ceilings 10-15 feet high. The lodge is built over a wooden frame. The wood poles are covered with a thick layer of willow branches, then a thick layer of grass and finally a thick layer of earth. As time passes the earth layer blooms with flowers and grasses becoming one of the prairie. A hole is left open in the center to allow smoke from the fire to escape. 
Doorway covered by a buffalo robe
Each earth lodge serves as a one room museum that features an aspect of Mandan life.
Fort Abraham Lincoln is also significant as being the home of George Custer's 7th Regiment.
The North Dakota Heritage Center near the Capitol in Bismark has a beautiful statue of Sakakawea and her son Jeanne Baptist Charbonneau.

Sakakawea is an american folk hero that has inspired books and stories but very little is actually known about here. Even the spelling of her name is disputed. Here I am using the version that the State of North Dakota has officially adopted but other spellings are just as valid. 
Sakakwea was valuable to the expedition for her ability to interpret native language. She was from the western part of the country having been kidnapped from the Shoshone as a teenager. Although not a guide she was able to  recognize some landmarks as they neared her home. The young woman was also able to identify edible plants on their journey west. 
Fort Mandan and the Knife River Villages are about an hours drive from Mandan, located in what is now Washburn, North Dakota. It was a beautiful drive through prairie land with occasional views of Lake Sakakawea.
The fort is a reconstruction and is estimated to be about 12 miles from the original site. That site is currently under Lake Sakakawea, behind the Garrison Dam. 
The fort has a small but informative Interpretive Center and guided tours of the rooms of the fort itself. It was pretty amazing to see the wood structures and tiny rooms that would have served multiple people. Beds and lofts were shared sleeping head to feet and covered with buffalo robes. I had a hard time thinking of sleeping right next to someones feet in an era when bathing was not common. 

Statue of Seaman at Fort Mandan
I think my favorite part of Fort Mandan is a larger than life statue of Seaman, in a park overlooking the river. He is sculpted sitting in his own garden with a very happy expression.
The Knife River Villages were home to the Hidatsa and where Charbonneau and Sakakawea lived before joining the expedition. It is a National Historic Site dedicated to preserving Hidatsa culture. The Interpretive Center had exhibits of the dried vegetables that would have been traded to expedition members. 

Cutaway of food storage cache holding Winter vegetables
It was interesting to see a cutaway example of the cache in which they would have been stored underground. The members Lewis and Clark Expedition owe their health and perhaps even their survival to the planning of the Hidatsa and Mandan farming community, and their willingness to share goods through trade. It would have been difficult to survive the Winter on meat along, especially when the game became so thin that the only thing they could salvage from an animal were the organs.

The circular depressions in the ground are the site of former earth lodges
Outdoors we were able to see an example of an earth lodge and then walk the travois trail down to the banks of the river. As you walk and look out over the grassland you can see circular depressions in the earth that were once the site of lodges. The source of widely traded knife river flint is nearby and has also been designated a National Historic Landmark. 
It was exciting to see where the Corps of Discovery spent so much of their time. Walking in Fort Mandan we could picture them huddled around a fire, writing in their journals and working on various chores. We walked the banks of the Knife River and counted those circles, imagining each one a home, seeing the children playing between them. 
This is a beautiful place but it is not hard to envision the long waiting, the impatience at the halt in the journey and the desire to continue west. 
Up until this point other white men had preceded them, now they were waiting at the edge of unexplored territory. 

"The beginning of the real unknown" Meriwether Lewis 

North Dakota Heritage Center
612 E. Boulevard Ave
Bismark, North Dakota

North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
2576 8th St SW
Washburn, North Dakota

Fort Mandan
838 28th Ave SW
Washburn, North Dakota

Knife River Villages NHS
564 County Rd 37
Stanton, North Dakota

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
4480 Fort Lincoln Rd
Bismark, North Dakota

1 comment:

  1. We are going to be near there this weekend, Bonnie. Hopefully the weather cooperates, as it is pouring right now.