Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lewis & Clark Adventure: Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota

Bismarck, North Dakota, is a treasure. I think all I knew about North Dakota was from the movie, Fargo, which Debbie and I both loved. We pictured the whole state as snow covered, one large blizzard. As we drove from Pierre, SD to Bismarck, ND we went through several hundred miles of rolling hills, semi-desert, barely a tree. Mostly empty of people (and gas stations!). But then you get to Bismarck and what a difference. This place is BOOMING. Both Bismarck and North Dakota itself are experiencing the largest population growth of the entire USA. About 7% in the last 3-5 years. The northwest corner of North Dakota, especially Williston, are growing even faster, roughly doubling in the last 5 years. This growth is spurred almost entirely by oil. There is more oil in North Dakota than in all of the Middle East.

Lewis and Clark spent more time in present day North Dakota than any other place during their 2+ years of exploration, 220-ish days. They lived among the indigenous people here, the Mandan, the Hidatsa,  and the Arikara. They spent a brutal winter in Fort Mandan, near present day Washburn, ND, where the Knife River empties into the Missouri River. The interaction with the American Indians*, was peaceful and mutually beneficial. It was here that they met a French trader, Charbonneau, and his 16 year old pregnant wife, Sacagawea**. 

Debbie and I are really starting to feel the excitement that the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery must have felt, seeing this beautiful land and meeting the American Indians.

Fort Abraham Lincoln really has nothing to do with Lewis & Clark. It wasn't built until 1872, as part of the United States effort to control the American Indians and to protect those building railroad lines. It was the home fort of George Custer, of Little Bighorn fame. It does have a nice exhibit of the Mandan and Hidatsa people and the On-A-Slant Indian Village is about two miles away.

General Custer lived at the Fort for a while. He had two luxurious houses built for him at tax payers expense.

The On-A-Slant village was an actual Mandan village. It was abandoned 50 years before Lewis and Clark. The population may have been wiped out by measles, smallpox, and/or syphillis transmitted by French and Brittish traders.

This reconstructed house is covered with soil. There is a large opening in the center to allow smoke to escape.

The structures were built to last. They generally stayed in use for 10 to 15 years.

This is a diorama of the entire village. There were 75 house found at this site. The trench to the left was dug by the community. It was defensive. The houses were built and owned by women. 
Captains Lewis and Clark meeting with White Coyote, the Mandan Chief, on their return trip 1806.
At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn, ND

This painting, in the interpretive center, depicts a mandan village

Two artists, George Catlin and Karl Bodner visited the area, separately, in the 1830's on a mission to capture the Indians existence and preserve it before it was destroyed.
This is a reconstruction of Fort Mandan. This is where the Corps of discovery spent the winter of 1804-1805.

Each room had several beds and a large stone fireplace. Most of the men slept in the lofts above the room.

The captains had their own room.
This expedition that Debbie and I are doing, while not as bold as the original Lewis and Clark exploration, and done in much more comfort, thanks to our beautiful Airstream, Diva, nevertheless has been exhilarating. There is nothing like seeing the places for yourself to allow you to imagine the hardships they faced.

Ciao, Frank

* In 1492, when Columbus "discovered" America and misnamed it as the Indies, there were about 50,000,000 people living in North America. These people were called "Indians" by Europeans for centuries. Other terms, including aboriginal, indigenous, "First People", Native Americans, and the derogatory terms "red skins" and "savages", have been used. In a recent census poll of people who self-classified themselves as indigenous, 50% preferred "American Indian" or just "Indian". 35% preferred "Native American" and the rest had no preference. So I will use  American Indian in these blogs (out of deference to my India, Indian friends).

** No one knows how to  spell or say her name. She was a Shoshone girl who was captured by the Hidatsa and sold or traded to a French trapper. Her name in Shoshone was translated into Hidatsa and then interpreted by Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark were very inventive with their spelling of common English words let alone a Shoshone/Hidatsa girl's name. Wikepedia says, " Lewis and Clark's original journals mention Sacagawea by name seventeen times, spelled eight different ways, each time with a "g". Clark used Sahkahgarwea, Sahcahgagwea, Sarcargahwea andSahcahgahweah, while Lewis used Sahcahgahwea, Sahcahgarweah, Sahcargarweah and Sahcahgar Wea." In North Dakota she is generally called Sakakawea.  There is a Lake Sakakwea in North Dakota. There is also a Sakakwea Trail in North Dakota. Hidatsa uses very little stress in words so that Sacagawea or Sakakwea is said evenly without stress. I asked several guides at the various interpretive centers to say her name and each time I got something different.


  1. It is Saw-Kah-Kah-We-Ah
    not the french basterdation. :)

    1. Yea, Danny. but you're from North Dakota. She was Shoshone from Idaho. Anyway, even at the interpretive centers, everyone says it different. They also seem to hesitate before saying it as if they are not sure themselves.

  2. I like Danny's pronunciation; but i would write it as "Saw-kah-kah-Wee-Ah." Is the "wee" sound correct?

  3. Are Danny and Egg Man one and the same?

  4. Yes I am Danny the Egg Man (We raise chickens thus the name)
    Wee is correct - however it isn't so blatant when it is spoken in the Shoshone language.
    It is a bit smooth sounding. Hard to explain. The Kah Kah is a soft guttural sound. The SacaGAweah pronunciation came about because Lewis was French thus the GA became more pronounced when he said it and it became the norm to say it with the French accent

  5. Thanks, Frank. Interesting post. What a great odyssey you guys are taking. And Happy Anniversary! Was that cake as amazing as it looked?! :)