Knife River Villages NHS, Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Fort Mandan, Garrison Dam Fish Hatchery

August 6, 2019

Knife River Villages National Historic Site

The Lewis & Clark expedition stopped along the way at this Mandan village along the banks of the Missouri River. Near here they built a small fort, Fort Mandan, where they spent the winter of 1804-05.

More importantly, this was where they came across Sakakawea. That is not a misspelling. In this part of the country, Sacagawea is spelled with k’s. Mandan people still in the area say that is the way the name would have been pronounced. Sakakawea, a Shoshone, was kidnapped by the Hidatsa, and eventually sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper. She accompanied Charbonneau when he joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Replica Mandan earthlodge (L) and visitor center (R)

Summer villages were located on high, treeless terraces overlooking the Little Missouri River floodplain. This location offered good soil for crops, access to trees for firewood, and for building earthlodges. It also provided easy access to game on the prairie and floodplains.

Aerial view of Awatixa village (Sakakawea’s home)

The above photo shows the remains of an earthlodge village. When the dwellings collapsed they left circular depressions in the earth. The base of the depressions would have been the earthlodges’s floors that were pounded down and hardened from years of being walked on.

When walking below the bluff you can see the effects of the river on the remnants of the village. As the river erodes the bluff vertical layers reveal artifacts of village life such as fragments of bone, pottery, and flint. From these archaeologists can create a picture of what life was like.

Depression marking location of earthlodge

The women owned the fields and grew corn (Ko’xati), beans (Ama’ca), squash (Kaku’I), and sunflowers (Mapi). Young girls spent much of their time on the corn watcher’s stage, a raised platform where they could protect the fields from magpies, crows, and gophers. They would spend the day talking and singing to chase away the feathered thieves.

Women collected materials and built the earthlodges although men did the heavy lifting to move and place timbers. Earthlodge etiquette was very important as the lodge was more than a home. Everything in the lodge had its purpose and place. The lodge was also used for meetings and ceremonies.

Interior of earthlodge

The visitor center is chock full of information and artifacts about the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians who lived here.

We learned a lot about how the Mandan and Hidatsa lived. They were not as isolated as we might have thought as the Knife River villages were the center of trade during the summer months. Shells from the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Coasts were found here. Stone from the Black Hills of South Dakota as well as copper from upper Michigan were also found here.

One of the Visitor Center’s exhibit rooms

Brightly colored and decorated footwear, clothing, and jewelry were on display. We also saw examples of the tools, weapons, and pottery that they made. Nothing ever went to waste. When a Bison was killed, every part of it was used for something. Its bones were converted into tools. Its bladder was used as a water container. Its horns were used as drinking cups. Its hair was used for stuffing pillows and saddles.

As always we learned an incredible amount at this Historic Site AND, as always, we wanted to learn more so we purchased the book “Buffalo Bird Woman: Waheenee, an Indian girl’s story” (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991) at their gift shop. It is about a Hidatsa woman who lived in the Knife River Villages long after Sakakawea. Her story fills in so much of what life was like in her tribe and how they lived, loved, played and survived on this vast, windswept plain.

Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan

The Lewis & Clark Expedition, the Corps of Discovery, was a military mission. During the winter they spent here, the Corps’ soldiers and frontiersmen transformed themselves from a rowdy, insubordinate, and drunken crew into a disciplined, more cohesive unit.

“If we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve, you must Starve also.” So said Mandan Chief Sheheke-shote when he met Lewis and Clark. The Mandan villagers shared what food they had with the expedition members. In December the expedition joined Chief Big White to join in a buffalo hunt. Despite the bitterly cold weather and deep snow drifts they returned with a large supply of buffalo meat. In turn, Lewis and Clark treated sick villagers. Their blacksmiths repaired Mandan and Hidatsa hoes, axes, and kettles.

Sculpture of Lewis and Clark with Mandan Chief Sheheke-shote

The expedition located their winter quarters, named Fort Mandan, near the five Mandan and Hidatsa villages at the mouth of the Knife River. More than 5,000 people lived in these villages. The fort’s exact location is unknown but is believed to be beneath the waters of the Missouri River.

View of Missouri River near Fort Mandan

Fort Mandan was triangular in shape, with high walls, and a gate facing the Missouri River. The interior included lodging for the men, storage rooms for the expedition’s supplies, and a blacksmith shop. Lewis and Clark shared a room. Construction of the fort began on November 2, 1804 and was occupied until April 6, 1805. The park has reconstructed Fort Mandan on dry land and furnished it as it would have been so long ago. It was an excellent tour that we highly recommend taking.

Interior of Fort Mandan

Lewis and Clark’s living quarters

The Expedition’s mascot, Seaman, was a Newfoundland dog that Meriwether Lewis bought in Philadelphia. Seaman accompanied the expedition from start to finish, impressing everyone he met. One Shawnee offered Lewis three beaver skins for him. He suffered as much as the men did. While swimming to retrieve a wounded beaver, he was bitten and an artery in his leg was severed. Lewis feared his beloved Seaman would not recover, but he did. Mosquitoes tortured both the men and Seaman, who would howl incessantly. It’s rumored that Seaman lived out the rest of his life near the grave of his owner, who died at Grinders Inn on the Natchez Trace. (Holly and I stopped at the remains of the inn while traveling on the Natchez Trace in April 2014.)

Expedition mascot Seaman

The interpretive center contained an impressive collection of artifacts from the expedition. There is also an impressive map and timeline that traces the route of the expedition to and from the Pacific Ocean.

Interpretive Center

Below Dam Campground COE & Garrison Dam Fish Hatchery

We camped at the Army Corps of Engineers Downstream Campground in Riverdale, North Dakota. The campground is just below the Garrison Dam and is a beautiful shady oasis with nice sites, lots of trees, a few hiking trails and easy access to the river. It is also a short walk or drive to the Garrison Dam Fish Hatchery where you can get a free tour and check out how their hatchery works. We were a bit off season so most of their fish runs were empty as well as all the outdoor ponds but there was still plenty to see and learn about.

Shovelnose Sturgeon

Among other things, the tank room has egg incubators for northern pike, walleye, paddlefish, and sturgeon. Newly hatched fish, called fry, are eventually moved to rearing ponds. By the time they become fingerlings they are about 1.5″ long and ready to stock North Dakota streams and rivers. The hatchery produces up to 10 million walleye fingerlings annually.

Egg incubators

Each raceway can hold up to 170,000 three-inch salmon or 20,000 ten-inch trout. Because salmon are imprinted in hatchery waters, they return to the hatchery during their third year of life, migrating from the Missouri River.

Race room


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