A huge day!
We arose early and thundered down to the breakfast buffet at the Comfort Inn, then gassed up and peeled out for Washburn and Fort Mandan — as Sergeant Ordway might say, “the place we have been so longing to see.” We couldn’t have been more excited if Lewis & Clark themselves were actually going to be there.
The drive from Bismarck to Washburn on scenic Highway 1804 was beautiful, even though there were storms in the area. By the time we got to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, it was raining.
This first-class interpretive center, which has a commanding view of the Missouri and surrounding countryside, definitely throws down the gauntlet to Great Falls as competition for the title of “best Lewis & Clark center.” Naturally, the exhibits center around Lewis & Clark’s winter among the Indians at Fort Mandan. Probably the highlight of the museum is the replica dugout canoe carved out of a giant cottonwood log. It was fun to learn about how they made the dugout (with modern power tools, not by hand) and how they got it into the building!
One wing of the museum is called “Karl Bodmer’s America.” About 80 of Bodmer’s famous watercolors are on display, and the exhibit tells the story of Prince Maximilian of Wied, the hunter-explorer-scientist who made a landmark trip through the West in 1833-34, covering much of the same ground as Lewis & Clark. I plan to post more about Prince Maximilian and Bodmer next week. For now suffice to say that before this trip, I never realized that the prince was a great naturalist and ethnographer in his own right, nor did I grasp the degree to which his observations and Bodmer’s drawings became a priceless record of the world of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people — a world that disappeared just a few years later due to the ravages of smallpox.
We outdid ourselves in the great gift shop. By this time the rain had cleared up, and we bugged out for the nearby reconstruction of Fort Mandan, which was built in the 1970s. The original Fort Mandan did not even survive the Lewis & Clark Expedition; when the Corps of Discovery came back this way in 1806, they learned that their old fort had already burned to the ground. The exact location of the real fort has not yet been determined. Maximilian and Bodmer looked for it during their stay here thirty years later, but could find no trace of it and believed it had been washed away by the changing course of the river.
The reconstructed Fort Mandan, built according to Clark’s drawings and specifications, is a stout structure of chinked logs with a catwalk for guard patrol and a gate which could be closed for the night. It’s hard to believe 45 guys survived the winter in this tiny place! The men’s barracks were small and dark with sleeping lofts. The fort also had a pantry, a storage room for the Expedition’s Indian presents and trade goods, a room for the captains (complete with mannequins of Lewis and Clark in full dress uniform), a room where Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea lived (more about how Lewis & Clark met the intrepid Indian girl in an upcoming post!), a room for the guards, and a blacksmith’s shop. Here, the invaluable John Shields made tools which the Corps exchanged all winter for Indian corn.
This is a great place to feel close to Lewis & Clark. A short walk away is another small but good visitor center with a great book shop, and a nice area by the river where kids can play on a great statue of Seaman, Lewis’s dog.
We spent a good four hours touring the museum and the reconstructed fort. Finally we headed back into Washburn, grabbed the fixings for a picnic lunch, and took off for more great Lewis & Clark sites down the road.