Lewis and Clark
Gifts of the Mandan
Mission of the Corps of Discovery: In 1802 President Thomas Jefferson, recognizing the value of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for trade, made moves to acquire that region from the French (who had just acquired it from the Spanish). He proposed to Congress that an exploration of the region be made. The land was acquired and, in 1804, an expedition called the Corps of Discovery under Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went up the Missouri River to search for a means to cross the continent by water. They had a number of additional missions, one of which was to make contact with the various indigenous people, to inform them that the United States now ruled their territory and try to bring peace between the warring tribes. Perhaps foremost was their commercial purpose to explore the region, report on its resources and to establish United States dominance over the lucrative fur trade.
|West of present day Washburn, North Dakota, along the Knife River, were two Mandan villages (Mitutanka and Ruptare) and their upriver neighbors, the Hidatsa (Minataree). The Corps of Discovery arrived there in October.|
|The expedition stayed with the Mandans from October 27 to April 7, 1805. A relatively peaceful people, they inhabited two villages along the Knife River, north of Bismarck. They raised crops and were an important trading center. Many of the tribes came to the Mandans to trade for their crops, furs and hides. In pursuit of those furs, French and British traders were coming to the Mandans when the expedition arrived in the fall of 1804. One of the most important duties of the expedition was to seize that trade, much of which headed north, and turn it south down the Missouri and into American territory.|
|These people were probably the most important contacts on the Plains for the Corps. They provided assistance, including much needed food, information and a relatively safe haven from the Sioux. Many artifacts were given to the expedition or were collected by them in trade. Buffalo robes, peace pipes and food were received from the Indians. Equally important was the information given to the expedition about people and conditions they were likely to meet. A number of times guides joined the expedition. An old Shoshone man led them through the Rockies going west and Nez Percé guides led them back on their eastward trip.|
|Among the Mandans, generosity was held in equal esteem with
war exploits. Leadership within the nation was determined both by acts of
courage in war as well as the quality of gifts given, both of which might be
memorialized on buffalo robes, the main historical record for these people.
A man gained reputation by the exploits he committed, but established his
reputation through his gifts.
The Mandans said of a warrior who did not give gifts, "He has indeed performed many exploits, but yet he is as much to be pitied as those whom he has killed."
The Mandan people were in precipitous decline when the expedition arrived. In the 1700’s, the Sioux (Lakota), under pressure from their neighbors in the forests of Minnesota, were trying to move westward. The Mandans and other river peoples, relatively large communities, constituted a barrier to this movement. Then smallpox spread up the river, devastating one community after another. The Mandans, who had been in nine villages, lost about two thirds of their population. Thus weakened, they no longer constituted a great threat and the Sioux moved past them to the west. Under pressure, the Mandans moved north and settled near the Hidatsa. On the prairies, benefiting from the recent arrival of the horse, the Sioux population grew. As they expanded their territory, they pushed out one Indian nation after another. About 1797, they led a combined force (with the Arikaras) of around 2000 warriors against the Mandans in their new village. The warriors were turned back but attacks by the Sioux continued. The expedition encountered one small Sioux war party as they approached Mitutanka. While with the Mandans, the Lewis and Clark expedition hunting parties were attacked and lost valuable horses and supplies. Twice the expedition mounted punitive forces against the raiders but due to the weather could not catch them.
In 1831, artist George Catlin recorded the Mandan life while living with them during the summer. In the winter of 1833-4, German visitor Prince Maximilian zu Weid brought artist Karl Bodmer. They made a most extensive survey of the people and took home many gifts. Then in 1837, smallpox again spread up the river. According to James Kipp (in 1833, clerk to the American Fur Company and director of the trading post at Ft. Clark, next to Mitutanka) the Mandan population was reduced from 2000 to about 40. In 1838, Kipp told Catlin these last people were attacked by the Arikara and taken prisoner. Later the Sioux attacked the Arikara and in the ensuing battle killed the last of the Mandans except for the few that had been away living with the Hidatsa. It is believed that the last full-blood Mandan died about 1920.
This exhibition, "Lewis and Clark: Gifts of the Mandan" focuses on the objects collected by the Corps of Discovery.