From Fort Clark it is a pretty drive to Stanton, North Dakota, and the Knife River Villages. This national historic park encompasses three village sites where the Hidatsa Indians (also called the Gros Ventres or the Minitarees) lived from about 1500 to 1845. One of these villages was the home of a pregnant teenager named Sacagawea. Back in the winter of 1804-05, as she got ready to become a mother for the first time, she couldn’t have imagined that one day this village would be named for her–let alone that she would become the most memorialized woman in America.
This turned out to be another great site. We started off in the visitor center, where we looked at the museum exhibits and saw a touching film narrated in the words of Buffalo Bird Woman, a real Hidatsa woman who supplied interviews in the early 20th century with precious details about the all-but-vanished life and culture of the people here. In lifestyle, the Hidatsas lived in large agricultural communities with earth lodges, just like the Mandans. Interestingly, though, their languages were completely unrelated and unintelligible to one another. The Hidatsas were much more warlike than the Mandans, and made frequent journeys into Montana in the summers to hunt buffalo and raid their enemies.
We then attended a presentation of a park ranger, who told us that the Knife River was so-named from ancient times because of the outstanding quality of the flint near this place. The Hidatsas and their ancestors were known throughout the North American trade network for the high quality of the knives and arrowheads they produced here.
We then took a great walking tour of the site. The weather was beautiful again. It was easy to see the many earthlodge depressions and imagine the vibrant community that once lived here. The river itself is gorgeous and peaceful.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but over 6000 people lived at this spot during the time of Lewis and Clark’s visit. This was a very large urban area by the standards of early America! But of all the people there, the girl everyone remembers wasn’t even a Hidatsa. Sacagawea (spelled Sakakawea in North Dakota) was a Shoshone who had been captured at about age 12 in a Hidatsa raid on her village near present-day Salmon, Idaho. Not much is known about the girl’s next few years or how she ended up one of the two wives of Toussaint Charbonneau, a 47-year-old French-Canadian trader and local ne’er-do-well who had lived with the Hidatsas for about five or six years. “Consensual” isn’t the word that comes to mind.
Charbonneau most often found employment as an interpreter between the French-Canadian traders and the Hidatsas. When Lewis and Clark hit town, with their blank check for exploring the continent, it didn’t take long for Charbonneau to hustle over and offer his services for the journey. Since Charbonneau didn’t speak English, or any Indian languages except Hidatsa, the captains weren’t too interested–until they found out about Sacagawea. Sacagawea was a Shoshone and spoke both her native tongue and Hidatsa. Lewis and Clark would need to make friends with the Shoshones and buy horses from them when they reached the Continental Divide. The captains agreed to hire Charbonneau, provided he brought the Shoshone girl along. Within a week, Charbonneau had moved into Fort Mandan bag and baggage with his two wives, and it was there that baby Jean Baptiste (Pomp) was born on February 11, 1805. Three months later, the little family (minus wife #2) sailed west with the Corps and into history.
Lewis and Clark and the men of the Expedition made close friends with the Mandans; their relations with the Hidatsas were reasonably cordial, but not so tight. The Hidatsa chief, a much-feared warrior named One Eye or Le Borgne, made only one visit to Fort Mandan, which Lewis reciprocated. But it seems the Hidatas weren’t too impressed. As one chief later explained to a British trader, only the “worker of iron and the mender of guns” (probably Alexander Willard and John Shields) seemed to have any sense.
Part of the reason for Le Borgne’s attitude may have been that the Hidatsas, much more than the Mandans, were already deeply involved with the British fur trade and their French-Canadian representatives. Relations between the United States and Great Britain were terrible during this period, and the fur company representatives doubtless encouraged Le Borgne to keep his distance from the upstart Americans. As for Meriwether Lewis, a trader recalled, he “could not make himself agreeable” in encounters with the British representatives. Perhaps the captain was just carrying out Jeffersonian policy; or perhaps he was recalling his father, who died in the Revolution when Lewis was only six.
In addition, the Mandans weren’t such good neighbors that winter. They saw a lot to be gained from making friends with the Americans. Here was their chance to get one up on the more enterprising Hidatsa, and they took advantage of their opportunity, telling the Hidatsas that Lewis and Clark were probably going to attack Knife River as soon as they got the chance. It was a loss for Lewis and Clark too. With their extensive raiding experience in Montana, the Hidatsas could have given them a lot of good information about the journey ahead.
Fast-forwarding ahead, the Hidatsas, like the Mandans, were devastated by the 1837 smallpox epidemic. They stuck it out along the Knife River until 1845, when they moved to Like-A-Fishhook Village near Fort Berthold. Tragically, this home too was destroyed by the construction of the Garrison Dam in 1953, which flooded over 550 miles of Indian reservation land and dealt a terrible blow to the surviving members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people.
This was a day to drink deeply of history. These North Dakota sites connected me of the present with Lewis & Clark, and back to the whispers of the generations of people who lived here for centuries before. Our day spent seeing Fort Mandan, Fort Clark, and Knife River was as enlightening and satisfying as I dreamed.
We putted on back to Bismarck, where we had a very good dinner at the Hong Kong Chinese buffet across the street from the hotel. A tremendous, fine day in the annals of our Lewis & Clark explorations.