We stopped for lunch at the small town of Mandan, North Dakota. We found a great old-fashioned soda fountain where we feasted on turkey sandwiches and chocolate sodas. There were some nice shops in the downtown area too, including a fantastic Indian craft shop and a crazy used book store. This place is well worth a stop!
The big event of the afternoon was Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip so far. Fort Abraham Lincoln, active from 1872-1891, was the military base where Custer’s 7th Cavalry was posted before they rode out on the fateful Little Bighorn campaign. The same site was home to a Mandan village known as On A Slant, which was occupied from about 1575-1781. Both the fort and the village were reconstructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, making for a wonderful experience for the history buff.
We learned the background to the park’s sites at the informative visitors’ center — don’t miss the vast collection of neat artifacts that a local collector found at the fort site over decades of relic hunting. Then we visited the spectacular recreation of the Mandan village, built directly on the site of the original village. These Indians were not nomadic — instead, they lived in urban centers far denser than all but a few eastern cities at that time; as frontiersmen, Lewis and Clark may never have experienced such a concentration of humanity as the winter of 1804-05 that they spent among the Mandans and Hidatas.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t visit the people of On A Slant, because back in 1781, a terrible smallpox epidemic ravaged the population here, and the survivors moved further up the Missouri. So when Lewis & Clark camped here on October 20 and 21, 1804, they found a deserted ghost town, already in an advanced state of decay. The site of the village was not forgotten, however, and in the 1930s, elderly people from the Mandan tribe helped the CCC build the five earth lodges here.
The result is like something straight out of the paintings of Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. You can explore a bit inside the lodges, which are built of a framework of logs and covered with a tightly woven mat of willow branches and daubed with clay. In the center of the five lodges is a shrine to Lone Man, the patron spirit of the Mandans. The entire effect is so realistic that it makes it easy to imagine the life of the people here. You can almost see Lewis and Clark sitting around with Sheheke, sharing a bowl of buffalo stew, just as they did a few miles up the river. Surrounding the recreations are the depressions in the ground which indicate the actual locations of the earth lodges of the real village.
Next we visited the Infantry post, where three large blockhouses and the outlines of other fort buildings have been reconstructed near the remains of a forlorn cemetery. In 1872, the Northern Pacific railroad was getting ready to start laying tracks across North Dakota, and Fort Abraham Lincoln was built here as a home base for the infantry and cavalry troops that would protect the railroad construction from the Sioux and Cheyenne. Eventually the fort was home to about 650 troops, all under the command of General George Armstrong Custer.
Despite an amazing command of the river and surrounding country, Custer found his fort constantly under siege by the relentless Sioux. And when his soldiers went out to fight, they were usually outmatched by the Indians. After all, the frontier army wasn’t a very attractive life. Custer’s men were mostly penniless immigrants or young men who had gotten into trouble at home and needed to leave town in a hurry. By contrast, the Indians were not only superior horsemen, but much more motivated than Custer’s lonely and scared troops.
We stopped for a refreshing iced tea at the “commissary,” then went on a great tour of the Custer House with a costumed guide dressed as a cavalryman who was really a history student at the University of North Dakota. Custer and his wife Libbie lived here for two years. Like a number of other wives, Libbie was living at Fort Abraham Lincoln in May 1876, when Custer marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln at the head of 700 troops, ready to put an end to Sioux depredations once and for all.
The last stop of the day was the reconstructed barracks, which was unexpectedly moving. At each bunk, you could read a plaque with the name, story, and often a photograph of a soldier who had lived at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Most of them bore the death date “June 25, 1876.” It was on this date that Custer and 268 of his men were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
It’s easy to dislike the arrogant Custer. Earlier in the day, at the visitors’ center, I said aloud, “He had it coming. ” But here I felt the overwhelming tragedy and terrible shock that hit this remote frontier outpost when the news reached them that their comrades had sufferered a devastating defeat, that their buddies and relatives were never coming home.
By this time, it was late. We had a short but hairy ride into Bismarck and the Comfort Inn, which made a somewhat less-than-favorable first impression. Had a nice supper at a big Mexican place called Paradiso. Tired tonight — being a Lewis & Clark fan is hard work!