The Story of Huff; An early Mandan Village

The Story of Huff; An early Mandan Village

The current site of Huff Indian Village.

The current site of Huff Indian Village.

Dustin White

At one time, legend holds, the Mandan people lived underground. As time passed, four chiefs, headed by Good Furred Robe, obtained leadership. Climbing up a vine, they entered this world through an opening in the surface. It was here that Good Furred Robe laid out their first village, laying the houses in rows, in the fashion of corn. Some believed that this village was at Huff.

Possibly being the first village founded by the culture-hero, Good Furred Robe, the Huff Village site appears to have been settled around 1450 C.E., around two hundred years before Euroamerican influence reached the area.

The village soon boomed to life, with a population soaring to over a thousand, and more than one hundred lodges arranged in the well-planned community. Showing engineering prowess, the early villagers harvested between four to five thousand trees to complete the structures.

Spanning only about 12 acres, life in the Huff village was a bit cramp, yet the small area also allowed a better defense from possible attackers; a worry that the early villagers certainly faced.

In order to protect themselves, a two thousand foot long ditch, five feet deep, was dug, guarding the village on three sides. For added protection, a palisade wall was built to surround the village as well. The construction of the wall, consisting of 2,500 closely-spaced wooden posts, and ten bastions, outwardly projecting loops, had involved a massive amount of labor. Luckily for the inhabitants, a large supply of trees was readily available along the banks of the Missouri River.

Fall into ruins
Unlike the traditional earth lodges of the Mandan, those at Huff were unique. Instead of being circular, as those at sites like On-A-Slant Village were, the predominant form at Huff were rectangular log houses.

Yet, there were signs of a shift; a shift that would help define a portion of the Mandan culture. It was something simple, a single earth lodge that was beginning to be more round. It would be the beginning of a translation continued to be advanced in future villages.

Those future villages would come all too soon. The fears of conflict would prove to be real. Suffering from attacks from the ancestors of the historic Arikara Indians, the residents of Huff would relocate. In just about two decades after Huff Village was settled, the community would move further north, leaving behind the village, which would eventually fall into ruins.

For over four centuries, the site deteriorated, and laid bare. Silently, the historic site remained virtually undisturbed, primarily because of the lands roughness, with only the elements changing the landscape. Sand and dirt drifted in, providing a protective covering over the now abandoned village, while still allowing the telltale signs of a historic settlement to shine through.

In 1919, the site would be visited by George F. Will, a well-known archeologist, and Russell Reid, the curator of the State Historical Museum of North Dakota. Providing a survey of the area, the two were excited for the find.

With the site being possibly the best-preserved of any of the ancient sites in the area, according to Will, the village would prove to be exceptionally informative.

While the layout of the village was easily discernible from a cursory glimpse of the prairie it covered, archeological digs would bring much more to light. Digging into the trash heaps that were present in the village, as well as into storage pits, archeologist were able to get a snapshot of life in 1450 C.E.

It wouldn’t be until the 1930s that Huff Indian Village would really begin to gather interest though. In 1932, the state made arrangements to secure the remaining portion of the site, in order to add it to the Huff State Park. At the time, only about half had been purchased.

Now having the site in historical hands, work began on trying to keep the area preserved. With the Works Progress Administration (later renamed to Work Projects Administration), the village was completely fenced off in 1936. At the same time, a small memorial was built, that would display the name and historical significance of the site (a monument which still stands to this day).

It was during the same year that WPA laborers would also complete the process placing identification markers at the site, to help tourists become informed what had once occupied the area.

However, a new site had begun to develop in the region as well. As the abandoned village was being rediscovered by archeologist, a small town was in the process of forming, and adding its own story to the area. It was the town of Huff.