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North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center


Our First Famers

The region surrounding the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan has hosted small farming communities for hundreds of years. This is because of the resources of the Missouri River and the rich farmland that lines its banks. In Lewis & Clark’s day, these communities consisted of five Mandan and Hidatsa towns and represented a major North American center of travel and trade.

First Farmers
The agriculture of these nations had lasting effects. Mandan and Hidatsa farmers, most of whom were women, bred corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers to survive the challenging climate of their region. They mastered a dozen or more varieties of corn and established a reputation for its superb flavor, such that surrounding tribes travelled great distances to buy it. By the later 19th century, the new farmers moving in from the east learned to appreciate this farming expertise and adapted the same crops. The most famous example is probably the Hidatsa Shield Bean, which, through the efforts of the Hidatsa man Son-of-a-Star and the Oscar H. Will seed company in the 1880s, was bred into the Great Northern Bean, one of the most popular and successful white beans in the world.
Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark

When Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804, there were two Mandan towns (Mitutanka and Ruptare) and three Hidatsa towns (Awaxawi, Awatixa, and Big Hidatsa). As a group, these five towns had a larger population than St. Louis! Thus for Lewis & Clark, the winter at Fort Mandan was not so much about surviving in the wilderness as it was about surviving in an urban area. They had to get along with their neighbors, negotiate for resources, and try to understand these very different cultures.

Lewis & Clark had some very specific jobs for that winter from President Jefferson. They were to announce that American fur traders would be coming to the area, to try to persuade one or more chiefs to join them on their return journey, negotiate peace treaties between enemies such as the Mandan and Arikara, and to try to gain intelligence about their unmapped route to the west.

The Mandan and Hidatsa had goals, too. All was not peaceful in the five towns. The Lakota nations had established a territory in today’s South Dakota and southern North Dakota, but they were also expanding northward, leading to conflict with the Mandan and Hidatsa. For the Mandan especially, Lewis and Clark and the Americans represented an opportunity to gain powerful allies. The Hidatsa were a little more reserved towards Lewis & Clark. They were the first point of contact by British and French traders coming south from establishments in today’s Manitoba and evidently did not want to give up those ties lightly.

On their return journey, the Expedition spent a few more days among the Mandan and Hidatsa, hoping to persuade a chief to accompany them to Washington D.C. and meet President Jefferson. Finally the Mandan chief Sheheke-Shote agreed on the condition that his wife Yellow Corn and son White Painted Lodge be permitted to accompany them.

On August 17th, 1806, they stopped briefly at the site of Fort Mandan, where Clark reported that a fire had destroyed most of the building. He understood the fire to be accidental.

Fort Clark and the Fur Trade

In the years after the Expedition, Lewis and Clark’s promise that American fur traders were on their way to the five towns was gradually fulfilled. Plains tribes eagerly looked forward to such opportunities. Fur traders asked for relatively abundant bison and beaver hides, and in exchange offered both immensely helpful tools and exotic luxury items. By 1830 there was enough activity among the Mandans and Hidatsas that the American Fur Company built Fort Clark, named after William Clark, as a permanent fur-trading establishment less than a mile from the original site of Fort Mandan.

In 1832, the American Fur Company introduced a breakthrough that changed life in the Mandan and Hidatsa towns forever. That year, the first steam-powered riverboat, named the Yellow Stone, reached Fort Clark. Now bringing goods was much faster than before, but other things started coming, too.

One was explorers. George Catlin arrived in 1832 and wrote about and painted the people of the two tribes. The explorer Maximilian zu Wied and the painter Karl Bodmer followed in 1833-1834.

One of the other things the riverboats brought was disease. When the steamboat St. Peters docked at Fort Clark in 1837, many crewmembers on board had smallpox, which quickly spread to the Mandan and Hidatsa neighbors. It is estimated that in less than a year a majority of Mandan people and about half the Hidatsa died. To this date historians struggle to explain why the crew of the St. Peters docked at Fort Clark when they knew the danger, and the epidemic is considered to be a holocaust to the Mandan and Hidatsa people.

Later Site History

The shifting currents of the Missouri River gradually eroded away and most likely obliterated the original site of Fort Mandan. As early as 1833 Prince Maximilian tried to find it and reported it gone. Despite repeated efforts, even today the exact spot has not been found. The reconstruction you can see today was built in 1972 by the McLean County Historical Society using careful research of the Expedition journals, but it stands several miles downstream of where the original must have been.

In 1997, the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, in cooperation with the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department and both private and public funding, built the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center overlooking the Missouri River at the junction of US Highway 83 and ND 200A, just two miles from the Fort Mandan replica. Forming a cooperative agreement with the McLean County Historical Society, they also secured donations and grants to improve and furnish Fort Mandan, adding a visitor center near the fort in 2002. In 2015 the Foundation transferred day-to-day operations and its assets to the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department. The Foundation continues to support the Interpretive Center and Fort in a fundraising capacity.