Our next stop on the Lewis & Clark trail was Fort Clark, once the site of a major American fur trading outpost and a Mandan village named Mitu’tahakto’s (pronounced me-toot-a-hank-tosh). Fort Clark was named after William Clark and was situated very near the site of Lewis & Clark’s original Fort Mandan. However, Lewis & Clark never visited Mitu’tahakto’s, because the town was not founded until 1822. The fur trading fort was set up adjacent to the village in the early 1830s; American trade goods and liquor arrived by steamboat each year and were exchanged with the Indians for beaver pelts and bison robes.
Before exploring the site, we decided to eat our sandwiches at a little picnic shelter in the parking area. It was a day for unstable weather, and in just a few minutes a fierce rainstorm drove us back to the Kia Rio for refuge! We munched the rest of our lunches in comfort and watched a downpour of rain and tiny hail sweep across the park.
Fortunately, the storm passed as quickly as it had arrived, and we took a great walk around the site, which at first glance looks like an empty field beside the river. But as the excellent interpretive signage and hundreds of circular depressions scalloping the earth testified, that wasn’t always the case. Once, there was a bustling town, a busy fort , and a nexus in the world-wide trade in furs.
Fort Clark played host to all the travelers on the Upper Missouri, but the most notable visitors ever to spend time here weren’t even Americans. The German nobleman Prince Maximilian of Weid was a self-taught but seasoned explorer, naturalist, and pioneering ethnographer who had cut his teeth on a major exploration of the plants, animals, and native cultures of Brazil. Karl Bodmer was a 24-year-old Swiss artist hired by the prince to paint landscapes of the country and portraits of the Indians they encountered. Together they would preserve the memory of an ancient way of life that was about to be swept from the scene.
By 1832, the 50-year-old prince had decided to undertake a second expedition to the Americas, this one to the Upper Missouri of the United States. Not since Lewis & Clark had any serious scientist traveled up the Missouri; and since Lewis & Clark’s journals were only partially published, many of the region”s unique cultures and natural wonders remained largely unknown.
In 1833, with help from 63-year-old William Clark, by now the country’s leading Indian diplomat, Maximilian and his entourage, including Bodmer, boarded a steamboat operated by the American Fur Company and set out on their exploratory tour through Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. The prince hoped to replicate Lewis & Clark’s journey and made plans to cross the Rocky Mountains and strike out for the Pacific Ocean, but the Blackfoot Indians turned back his expedition at Fort MacKenzie, near present-day Fort Benton, Montana.
Maximilian’s loss was history’s gain. The Prince returned to Fort Clark to winter over, and devoted his time to a complete study of the Mandan and Hidatsa people he encountered, writing thousands of words on their customs, language, culture, and ceremonies. As for Karl Bodmer, the painter was producing the work of his life. Over the course of the expedition, the watercolorist produced 81 scenes of the West and North American Indian life, painstakingly reproduced in almost photographic detail.
The prince, the artist, and the expedition departed the United States in the spring, never to return. And in a few short years, everything changed. On June 19, 1837, the steamboat St. Peters docked at Fort Clark with the usual trade goods and at least one passenger infected with smallpox. Within days the disease was rampaging through the Mandan village. The toll was absolutely horrific. By the middle of August, over 90% of the residents of Mitu’tahakto’s were dead. The survivors fled to live with relatives, abandoning the village forever.
Surprisingly enough, though, Mitu’tahakto’s did not remain uninhabited for long. The Arikara Indians, who had also suffered a terrible toll in the smallpox epidemic, came in and cleaned up the village and took it over. The Arikara and the fur traders hung on at Fort Clark, weathering fires, another smallpox epidemic, and a cholera outbreak, until attacks by the Sioux finally led to the abandonment of the village and the fort in 1861. Before long, the earth lodges fell to ruins, and the remains of Fort Clark were completely scavenged for firewood by passing steamboats.
Mitu’tahakto’s people and ways were gone–but not forgotten. In 1839, Prince Maximilian published a detailed two-volume account of his travels in North America; he continued to publish scientific and ethnographic articles about the Upper Missouri until his death in 1867. Bodmer’s drawings illustrated the work. Together they provided the most complete and reliable eyewitness accounts of life on the Upper Missouri ever recorded, a treasure for history and a delight for the art lover.
The ghosts of Fort Clark made us want to linger here for some time. The thrilling sight of a long train crossing the rugged landscape brought us back to at least the 20th century. The skies had brightened again, and we had more to see before the day was done.