The Mandan were a tribe settled on buttes overlooking the Heart and Knife Rivers, tributaries of the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn won a Pulitzer Prize in history last year for her Encounters at the Heart of the World.
They lived in agricultural communities, growing corn (maize), squash, beans, and tobacco in their fields. Their earthen lodges surrounded a central plaza and were made from timbers of willow trees growing along the rivers, prairie grasses, and sod. They hunted buffalo and from them obtained meat, robes, and many other products, including glue made from boiling their hooves. Eventually the settlements were fortified to protect them from raiders on horseback.
The Mandans were great traders, and their villages were trading centers for other tribes of plains Indians. They also welcomed white traders from three different directions: from the French trading posts on the Upper Great Lakes until France lost Canada; from Britain’s York Factory on Hudson’s Bay; and from the Spanish and later Americans paddling up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from St. Louis.
The Mandans demonstrated considerable market-place savvy, Fenn claims, taking advantage of competition amongst these trading partners. They adopted what we would today call a free trade policy, welcoming all traders. Eventually, however, Europeans began to usurp the ‘carrying trade’ between various grading communities which for centuries had been Mandan.
In exchange for corn and other produce of the land they received manufactured goods made of iron and steel – hoes, hatchets, kettles, and ‘buttons and bows’ which they used for decorating their clothing. Historians have called attention to the ‘buttons and bows’ they received for valuable goods such as corn or animal skins and hides. But the Mandans were well satisfied with the exchange.
The Spaniards held back on selling Mandans and other tribes guns, but the British, French, and Americans were happy to do so.
These settled trade patterns were disturbed by the arrival of two new animals, the horse, spreading out of the southwestern plains, and the Norwegian rat that probably arrived with traders and riverboats from St. Louis. The rats consumed the corn stored underground in cache pits. The horses, Fenn points out, allowed the Mandan to range farther afield in their hunting and trading. She concludes that the horse resulted in the Mandan “reinventing themselves on horseback.” But it also facilitated Sioux raids on their villages.
The greater mobility of Western Indian tribes and the coming of steam boats up the Missouri River meant that pathogens also traveled more widely. The Mandan villages were decimated by a small pox epidemic in 1781. They also suffered from whooping cough and cholera. Travelers through Mandan territory probably exaggerated Indian populations in the 18th century. Nevertheless it is clear that populations plunged precipitously. By the mid-nineteenth century Mandan populations were in the hundreds. Pathogens not only killed thousands, it also disrupted their traditions and their understanding of the worldly order. It shattered clans and fractured families.
The paddle-wheels, steam driven, were powered by wood. There were few trees on the Dakota plains, and they were soon consumed by the boats, robbing the Mandan of their major source of fuel.
The Mandans were known for their hospitality. They invited many traders and explorers into their lodges to accept their food and shelter and the frequent smoking of the calumet or ceremonial tobacco pipe confirmed that hospitality. This openness resulted in numerous accounts of their cultural life, from which Fenn and other historians have drawn. They were fond of games, and ceremonial dances, which she calls “plays.” They were essentially reenactments of past glories. Mandans liked sports: running, archery, and horse races. They were enthusiastic gamblers.
Perhaps their most celebrated guests were the members of the Corp of Discovery, in 1804-1805, better known as the [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark Expedition. It was guided west by Sakakawea, a young slave woman bought by a Mandan. I would have preferred the company of Maximilian of Wied, a tourist-adventurer, who visited the Mandan villages in 1833. He was accompanied by an artist, Karl Bodmer, whose aquatint prints of the Mandans are reproduced in Fenn’s Encounters. She has also included reproductions of George Catlin’s portraits of Mandans that capture their dignity and nobility.
Elizabeth Fenn makes the point that European observers generally found what they were looking for. They designated preferred leaders among the native people, making “first chiefs.” That disrupted traditional hierarchies, but also created individuals with whom U.S. authorities could negotiate. It created opportunities for negotiations amongst feuding tribes as well.