Lewis and Clark on the Plains

Day 20, 24-35

September 18, 22-23, 2010

Miles 1711 -2541

Washburn, ND to Billings, MT

Capts. William Clark and Meriweather Lewis with one of their host chiefs (from right) at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn ND

Upon reaching the Missouri River in North Dakota, my journey joined up with that of the Corps of Discovery: Lewis and Clark spent their first winter at Fort Mandan, outside of what is now Washburn, ND.   There is a very good Interpretive Center in town, and a few miles down the road Ft. Mandan had been reconstructed (the original site is now underwater, due to the Missouri’s fickle course… and the dam upstream).  Since I’ve been re-listening to Lewis and Clark’s journals on CD (in Landon Jones’s The Essential Lewis and Clark), I did not learn many new facts here, but I was impressed by the reality of their situation.

Fort Mandan reconstruction - this is pretty much all of it!

Ft. Mandan itself (portrayed actual size) was very small for forty men, which I suppose was good considering the frigidity of that winter (40 and 60 below were not uncommon).  The captains bunked together, and there was a room for visitors (eventually occupied by Charbonneau, who was hired that winter as an interpreter, and his wife Sacagawea).  The other men all lived 6-10 in a room, cooking together over the central fireplace and sleeping on buffalo robes in the lofts.  The “fort” was never used for defense, as the Corps had friendly relations with the residents of the neighboring Hidatsa and Arikara villages at the mouth of the Knife River.  They often visited between the settlements, and

Reconstructed earth home at Knife River NHS

members of each culture sometimes spent several days in the other’s encampment.  They hunted jointly and, on a couple occasions, the Americans hurried to defend the Indians from perceived threats. In this way, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, though employed by the U.S. Army, were less interested in “claiming” the land for their country than in learning more about it, and making peaceful contact with the natives they met.  However, as one of the panels at Washburn’s Interpretive Center pointed out, the white men did honestly believe themselves to be superior to the Indians they met.  They felt that establishing these peaceful relationships would be of long-term benefit not only to their country but to the native tribes themselves, as the Indian nations would be aided by the United States rather than engaged in warfare.  Although Lewis and Clark probably did not anticipate the speed, and certainly not the magnitude, in which these Indians would be displaced, there was never a doubt in their mind that the route they “discovered” would be used for the expansion of the United States of America.  That said, they honestly considered many whom they met to be “friends,” and the Corps enjoyed purely social dancing and other pursuits with Indians, as well as more ceremonial forms of the same interactions.

Depressions in the ground still mark the locations of lodges in the Mandan villages, here at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

The “friends” there in present-day North Dakota lived a couple miles north-west of the Fort in a group of affiliated villages along the Knife River, where it emptied into the Missouri.  The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara are considered to be the “affiliated tribes” of that region of the Plains, and their villages were situated “close enough to remain friends, but far enough apart so as not to become enemies.”  They lived most of the year in permanent settlements of earth huts, with one

The shifting river bank eroded part of the former Arikara village on this site, exposing historical "trash" buried below the homes.

family to a house.  In the winter, they moved to more temporary houses right along the banks of the river, where they could be better sheltered from wind and snow, and have easy access to wood for heat and cooking.  Those huts were rarely re-used from year to year, even if they were not washed away in spring flooding.  They practiced small-scale agriculture along with hunting and gathering.  As the Corps of Discovery often remarked, buffalo were plentiful in that region of the plains in those days, with tens of thousands sometimes covering the hills.  Of course I have seen artists’ renderings of the game-filled plains, and I tried pretty hard to imagine it myself, but I just couldn’t.  Even in the big National Parks out here, where spaces are vast and many of those species have been re-introduced, the herds are comparatively tiny, and the scale on which those early explorers experienced the Plains can never be experienced again. Most of that, as we know, is the result of the “white man,” and fur traders followed soon after the preliminary publishing of Lewis and Clark’s results.  By the early 1800’s, the huge beaver populations had already dwindled, and as the fur companies moved onto the Great Plains, their commerce turned to buffalo hides.  Fort Union was established as an outpost of John Jacob Astor’s

The Yellowstone (nearer) and Missouri (farther) Rivers come together west of Williston, ND

American Fur Company, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.  It was not used for defense, but was simply a trading post for exchanging European goods for the furs brought by various Indian nations.  When Lewis and Clark first came to this spot shortly after leaving Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, they called it the “long hoped-for sight,” and were ready to move into uncharted territory.  On their return journey in 1806, the two captains divided their group into two, with Clark leading one half down the Yellowstone.   He wrote of having to stop the canoes for fully half a day in southern Montana while a herd of bison crossed the river in front of them.  His half of the corps re-convened with Louis’s band on the Missouri in north-west North Dakota.  Twenty-two years later in 1828, Fort Union was

Fort Union National Historic Site - reconstructed on top of the original foundations.

established at that site, fifteen years after that (1837) Indians along the Missouri were nearly decimated by the first of several smallpox epidemics, and twenty-five years after that settlers began arriving in droves

Looking west on the Yellowstone River, just east of present-day Billings, MT. The Yellowstone is the longest un-dammed river in the U.S.

from the east, heightening tensions between the Sioux (including tribes referred to as Asinniboine by the Expedition) and white men.  By that time, buffalo were significantly more scarce than in 1805, the beaver nearly exterminated, and trade relations with natives seriously strained.  In 1867, as gold displaced furs as the treasure of the west, Fort Union was dismantled and its beams recycled to expand the military presence of nearby Fort Buford.   In one human lifetime, the Plains went from a blank spot on a map, teeming with nations, cultures, and the animals on which they depended, to the more barren and homogenous land we know today, fully charted and civilized.

Pompey's Pillar, on the Yellowstone River, was a landmark rock well-known to Indians, and given its present-day name by William Clark in honor of Sacagawea and Charbonneau's toddler son.

Capt. William Clark signed his name on the rock in 1806, alongside Indian carvings. It is the only tangible evidence remaining of the Corps of Discovery's long expedition.

I knew it would be interesting, but I didn't realize how excited I'd be to see this! Here I am, with Clark's signature (right, under glass).

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One thought on “Lewis and Clark on the Plains

  1. This has been very interesting as I often wondered what their trip must have been like . Great stories and photos !

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