Mandan Villages

Friday, June 13, 2008 -- Downstream Campground near Riverdale, ND

We took advantage of an all day rain on Wednesday to get caught up on paperwork and some inside chores around the bus-house. Then we designated Thursday, yesterday, as Lewis & Clark day.

In late October 1804, with winter approaching quickly, the L&C Gang arrived in this area, having spent the summer polling and dragging their boats upriver from St. Louis. Known as the Mandan Villages, this part of the northern plains held a series of villages that together had as many as 4 or 5 thousand Indians -- more people at the time than St. Louis or even Washington DC. It was a sort of trading crossroads on the northern prairie, where native tribes from all over the area would gather and trade what they had for what they needed, their surpluses for their shortages, their strengths for their weaknesses.

We're camped just a few miles away from the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn. If you've read this blog over the past few months, you'll know we've been to a bunch of similar museums along the way, or, as they're called today, Interpretive Centers -- most with a Lewis & Clark theme. I'm generally impressed with how well-done they are and the knowledge and passion of some of the people staffing them. We usually walk away with some new bits of knowledge as each one tends to focus on some local aspects of the expedition.

There were two tribes that made up the villages here: the Hidatsas and the Mandans -- both a friendly and peaceful people. Lewis & Clark knew of the existence of these villages before arriving, but in 1804 this was about the extent of knowledge about the west. Beyond this point, when they headed west in the Spring of 1805, they would travel into uncharted territory -- where no white man had ever gone before. But here, at least, they knew they'd have a place to spend the winter among friendly people.

Besides the Interpretive Center, we also visited a full-sized reproduction of Fort Mandan -- the fort built by the L&C Gang in November of '04 to be their quarters for the winter. Similar in design to Fort Clatsop on the Oregon Coast, the small structure was home to about 40 people during the tough winter that followed.

There are a few places in the area where evidence of the Mandan Villages is still visible. The dwelling of choice for these Indians was called the earth lodge -- earth covered domed structures about 40 feet in diameter that housed extended families of up to 20 or more. These structures were built mostly by the women as the guys were out hunting, playing sports, and keeping an eye out for danger (hmm, do you think we could have learned something from these people??). Earth lodges were sunk a few feet into the surrounding ground for better insulation from the elements and for the sod for the roofs. Where the earth lodges once stood now only circular depressions in the land remain. We walked through a field full of these depressions, where a thriving Indian village existed 200 years ago. We learned about their civilization and their culture. They'd been here for thousands and thousands of years. They didn't just live on the land. They were part of the land.



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