Exploring the History of the Mandan

Exploring the History of the Mandan

South of Mandan, Eagle Nose Butte juts out into the highway. It was the location of an early Mandan village. Dustin White photo

Dustin White

At the height of their civilization, around 15,000 Mandans occupied their Heart River towns. The impact they had on the area has continued to be seen, and felt, to this day. Yet, often, the legacy of the Mandan is thought to be in the past, even though they continue to thrive today. 

Mandan history
While the Mandan are one of the most studied tribes in the United States, for many, their importance has been regulated to their encounter with Lewis and Clark. 

“The Mandan history is much deeper, much richer, than that token Lewis and Clark story,” Elizabeth Fenn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People,” said. 

Part of the history that Fenn points out is that the size of the Mandan communities has often been misunderstood.

“Their cities were much bigger than once expected,” Fenn said.

Looking at the Double Ditch village, Fenn said that it had two extra ditches than once thought. The same held true for the Larson village. 

However, around the 1500s, the Mandan cities started to decline, and at Double Ditch, the residents would recede to the second visible ditch. 

“We don’t know exactly the reason for the decline, but drought did hit around that time, which would have made them likely targets, as they had large food stores,” Fenn said.

Along with drought, the Mandan could also have faced the spread of pestilence, possibly including small pox. 

“The question is did these diseases hit the upper Missouri during the late 1500s,” Fenn said. 

For Fenn, it appears likely, as European items began appearing in these areas around that same time, showcasing the massive size of their trade lines. 

Disease hits 
While small pox may have reached the upper Missouri during the late 1500s, it appeared to strike the area again in the 1700s. 

“The Mandans’ probably got their first horses around 1740,” Fenn said. “It would change plains’ life.”

Horse riders allowed cargo to be carried more quickly. But along with physical goods, invisible cargo was also transported, such as news and disease. 

“Around this time, Double Ditch collapses again, and they retreated behind the smallest ditch,” Fenn said.

By 1781, when another outbreak of small pox hit, the population would be reduced to only 1500, and once thriving cities would become ghost towns. 

Over the next decades, the Mandan population would continue to decline, until they nearly vanished. 

“A great nation was on the brink of destruction, but they still survived,” Fenn said.

Surviving, the Mandan have continued to fight to thrive, and to embrace their culture.

“Here in North Dakota, we all celebrate our history and culture,” Amy Mossett, a history and culture consultant for the Three Affiliated Tribes, said. 

For the Mandan, that has meant picking up some pieces, and rebuilding. One important aspect of that rebuilding has been preserving the Mandan language.

“The Mandan language is an endangered language,” Mossett said. “It’s interesting how much money the federal government invested in wiping out the Mandan culture … but now, here we are, full circle, where they are investing in trying to save it.”

Part of that rebuilding has had some help though, with the Mandan being a highly documented people.

“The Mandan are one of the most researched, one of the most studied, one of the most documented tribes,” Mossett said. 

Pushing forward
While a new focus has been placed on the Mandan people, with works including that by Fenn, their history also continues to be threatened. 

With erosion slowly lapping at the Double Ditch historic site, the area is in danger of being washed away, and with it, a great deal of history. Fighting back, a group of concerned individuals have begun to stand up to try to help preserve the area, before its gone. 

(This begins a new series exploring the history of the Mandan people in the area).