"This place we have named Fort Mandan in honour of our Neighbours," wrote Meriwether Lewis. In this podcast episode, we focus on an important chapter during the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition, and their interactions with the nearby Mandan and Hidatsa communities.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
On November 2, 1804, the Corps of Discovery paused their journey westward along the banks of the Missouri River. Winter was fast approaching, and the expedition decided to set up camp and wait out the winter before proceeding to the Pacific Ocean, over a thousand miles away. The expedition at this stage numbered around forty men. One of them, Patrick Gass, recorded in his journal that the company began constructing a fort nearby:
“The following is the manner in which our huts and fort were built; the huts were in two rows, containing four rooms each, and joined at one end forming an angle. When raised about 7 feet high a floor of puncheons or split plank were laid, and covered with grass and clay; which made a warm loft. […] The outer walls about 18 feet high. The part not inclosed by the huts we intended to picket. In the angle formed by the two rows of huts we built two rooms, for holding our provisions and stores.”
More than three weeks later on November 27, members of the Corps of Discovery finished their work. They called it “Fort Mandan.”
The Corps of Discovery was led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark. They were tasked by President Thomas Jefferson with finding a navigable path to the Pacific Ocean, documenting the flora and fauna of the North American continent along the way, and establishing diplomatic ties with the Native peoples living there.
It would be perilous, however, for the Corps to continue westward at this stage. They had established their fort near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, and this part of the continent was still experiencing what scholars today call the “Little Ice Age.” William Clark recorded temperatures that winter in the negative twenties, thirties, and forties. The river could not be relied upon for travel, as it regularly froze and thawed.
Instead, Fort Mandan was seen as an opportunity to prepare for the arrival of spring and the continuation of the expedition. Horses were shoed, animals were hunted, meat was processed, tools were repaired, and information about river tributaries, minerals, weather, and plant life were documented for posterity.
It was a challenging environment for the Corps of Discovery. On November 13, expedition member John Ordway recorded that a traveling party led by Lewis had to endure two hours of icy water: “their [clothes] froze on them. one of them got 1 of his feet frost bit. it [happened] that they had Some whiskey with them to revive their Spirits.”
But there were also more positive experiences, like the Aurora Borealis. That November, Clark wrote:
“We [were] awoke by the Sergeant of the Guard to See a northern light, which was light, but not red, and appeared to Darken and Some times nearly [obscured], and divided, many times appeared in light [streaks], and at other times a great Space light & containing floating [columns] which appeared opposite each other.”
And then there was Christmas Day, snowy, fifteen degrees, and filled with holiday celebrations. Patrick Gass wrote in his journal that the fort was awoken to the sound of gunfire:
“Captain Clarke then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. — The men then cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing. […] None of the natives came to the garrison this day; the commanding officers having requested they should not.
“This place we have named Fort Mandan in honour of our Neighbours,” wrote Meriwether Lewis. The Corps of Discovery had established their fort near villages belonging to the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. These communities comprised an important center of trade and agriculture in the region. Mandan corn and Hidatsa sunflower seeds, among other products, were traded to nearby tribes, as well as to the expedition; some of these plants eventually made their way to Thomas Jefferson.
While the Corps of Discovery lived in a fort mostly constructed from wood, the Mandan and Hidatsa communities had earthen lodges that protected them from the cold weather. Members of the expedition occasionally visited these lodges and witnessed important ceremonies and religious practices. Whether they fully understood what they experienced is another matter, and their recorded impressions of Indigenous people are often offensive and clearly demonstrate their biases: Joseph Whitehouse, for example, wrote that the Native peoples were “Ignorant” and “possess very strange and uncommon Ideas of things in general”; John Ordway repeatedly referred to them as “Savages.” These records provide an important lens through which we can consider the impacts of colonization on Indigenous Nations, and we can see how the prevalent attitudes of American explorers resulted in conflict.
Throughout this winter season and beyond, the Corps of Discovery were greatly aided by the hospitality and knowledge offered to them by the Mandan, the Hidatsa, and many other tribes. The Mandan chief Shehek-Shote, for instance, shared with Clark information about the Missouri River and its tributaries that would prove important as the Corps journeyed toward the Pacific Ocean. He also told Clark that the Mandan would be generous with the expedition: “if we eat you Shall eat.”
But these interactions also existed within a wider framework of consequential European and American encroachment westward into parts of the world that had been home to societies already living there for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The Corps of Discovery were exploring land that the United States considered its own after the Louisiana Purchase from France. Indigenous tribes and nations were not consulted about the future of their communities. The Louisiana Purchase set in motion a process by which many Indigenous communities were slowly and systematically removed from their ancestral homelands, oftentimes violently so. The legacies of these conflicts remain in Indigenous communities throughout the Americas today, and arguments over tribal sovereignty and equitable access for Native nations continue.
Whether members of the Corps of Discovery recognized it then or not, that cold winter at Fort Mandan would prove invaluable to the expedition. Among the Native Americans that they met, one would go on to capture the hearts and minds of many others through her story. In our next podcast episode we will focus on the life of Sacagawea.
Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.