This week takes us to North Dakota and the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site located just north of Stanton, the county seat of Mercer County. How would I know that you ask? It’s because it’s about 20 miles from where I grew up. The Villages was not designated a national historical site until 1974, some years after I left the area for college and some Army time so didn’t have the opportunity to learn about it in school or during a visit on a field trip like many kids living near by do today. I’ve visited the Site on previous occasions but really didn’t take the time to appreciate it’s significance to the Northern Plains Indians. This visit was also the first time I viewed the Site through the lens of a camera. First a little background.
The Villages are located on the Knife River, a tributary of the mighty Missouri River that flows about a half mile away. For many centuries, the Northern Plains Indians lived and thrived in this area because of the good, rich soil, access to water, and the abundance of game. While these Indians (from the Hidatsa, Mandan and Arikara tribes) hunted for food, they were mainly farmers, growing crops (corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers) on small plots of land and storing that food in caches for the long, cold winter ahead. Since these Indians were not very nomadic, they constructed and lived in earthen lodges much like the one pictured here.
Note the bison skull that was hidden in the grass on top of the lodge.
This type of lodge was their summer home and was more permanent with about a ten year life span until a new one was built. The very informative ranger told me that the residents were constantly doing maintenance work on these earthen lodges. About 20 people lived in each of the lodges and was under the authority of the matriarch of the family. She slept closest to the fire and occupied the seat of honor. The following are a couple of photos from the interior of the lodge.
In the winter, the villagers move into smaller lodges close to the river where there was shelter from the winter winds and easier access to firewood. These lodges were more temporary, lasting no longer than two years being subject to spring floods. The following are a few photos of the Knife River where they spent the winter months.
Each of the three villages located within the Historic Site consisted of about 120 people. The photos below show the area where one of the villages existed, the depressions in the ground indicating where a lodge once stood.
The first recorded contact with a white man, Pierre de la Verendrye, occurred in about 1738. Verendrye was a French Canadian military officer, fur trader and explorer who opened up the area west of Lake Superior in the 1730’s and was the first known European to reach the upper Missouri River area. Soon after there were increasing contacts with French, Spanish, English and American traders and explorers. In 1804-05 Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery spent the winter at what is now the Knife River Indian Villages. The Corps build a fort for the winter, naming it Fort Mandan in honor of their Native friends and neighbors. During their stay, Lewis and Clark met Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader who was living with the Hidatsa tribe. He offered to serve as a guide and interpreter for the journey west. Carbonneau brought along his wife, Sakakawea (sometimes spelled Sacagewea), a Shoshone living in one of the Knife River Villages. She provided valuable help to the Corps on the trip to the Pacific Ocean and the return trip in 1806. The lake behind the nearby Garrison Dam is named after her.
About 100 years (1837-40) after the first contact with outsiders the villages were nearly wiped out by smallpox, with about 90% mortality. In the 1870’s, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara were moved to the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation west and north of the Villages.
In addition to the three Villages, this Historic Site preserves the natural landscape of the mixed grass prairie of the Northern Great Plains. As you can see, there are some small trees and shrubs in addition to the wheatgrass, bluestem, needlegrass and other species of native grasses so important to the bison, deer and other wildlife. During my visit, I heard the call of the state bird of North Dakota, the meadowlark; the honking of Canada geese; quacking of ducks, and I think the screeching of some sandhill cranes. And I could see the nest off in the distance of a bald eagle, with the male protecting the nest from above by riding the thermals. Here are a few more scenic photos from the Site.
If you visit this National Historic Site, which I recommend, know that admission is free and there is a very nicely done visitor center with a short film describing the history and geography of the area. The rangers are really friendly and willing to share their knowledge about the Site and the area.
I should point out that this area of the country is probably known more for it’s extraction of coal from the ground to power the Upper Midwest. Nearby there are a number of coal fired generating plants such as the one below that can be seen from the Site. While these plants provide the critical electricity that powers the nation, I’m glad that some land was set aside for current and future generations to see the landscape as it was and to preserve the cultural assets of our great country.
Hope you enjoyed our stop off the beaten path at this National Historic Site.
Until next week, travel safe.