Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #19

Tom Elpel at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Touring a reconstructed earthlodge at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

“The Main Chief Big White & 2 others i e the Big Man or Sha-ha-ca and [blank] Came early to talk, and Spoke as follows, after Smoking, Viz… We were Sorry when we heard of your going up but now you are going down, we are glad, if we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve you must starve also.”

—William Clark, November 1, 1804

Forts and Villages

With his words of welcome, Chief Sheheke invited the Corps of Discovery to winter near the Knife River Mandan villages, north of today’s Bismarck, North Dakota. French traders dubbed the chief “Big White” due to his size and complexion. Without the friendship and hospitality of the Mandans and other tribes along the journey, it is doubtful that Lewis and Clark would have made it to the Pacific Ocean and back. 

Our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery has also benefited from the tradition of friendship and hospitality as we retrace their route and move backwards through the journals to 1804.

Stormy weather greeted our return to the free-flowing river. Grey clouds turned to dripping rain as we paddled downstream from Garrison Dam in search of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Lacking clear access from the Missouri, we docked our canoes at a boat ramp and walked down the road in the rain, not sure if it was public or private land. The landowner drove up moments later and rolled down his window. We explained our mission, and Bill Marlenee offered a ride, then told us about this guy he knew named Churchill Clark who carves dugout canoes. Such is the serendipitous nature of our journey that we would stumble into an unknown friend nearly a thousand river miles from home. 

The Knife River site was settled around 1525. Lewis and Clark found two independent Mandan villages and three independent Hidatsa villages totaling up to 5,000 citizens. The Mandans and Hidatsa spoke different languages, but shared similar cultures and often lived near each other for mutual defense.

Inside look at earthlodge at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

A look inside the earthlodge provides an enchanting glimpse into life in an earthlodge village.

French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone-born teenage wife lived among the Hidatsa in Awatixa Village. Lewis and Clark hired him as an interpreter, bringing Sacagawea and her newborn son along as the newest and youngest members of the Corps of Discovery. 

A reconstructed earthlodge at Knife River is outfitted with the furnishings of the day to provide an enchanting glimpse into life in an earthlodge village. Gardens feature the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash that complimented each other and provided the main staples of these horticultural tribes.

Bill drove us to nearby Fort Clark Trading Post State Historic Site, where interpretive signs mark grassy mounds of long-gone structures. The fort was built by the American Fur Company in 1830 beside another Mandan village. The steamboat St. Peters docked there in 1837 carrying passengers infected with smallpox. The subsequent epidemic killed at least 17,000 Indigenous people along the Missouri River, in some cases wiping out entire villages. The village was abandoned as survivors joined the Knife River Villages, and all soon migrated north to form Like-a-Fishook Village, which now lie beneath Lake Sakakawea.

Bill and Debra Marlenee kindly invited our unexpected entourage to stay in their cabin, a greatly appreciated gesture on a cold, rainy night. Hot pizza for dinner and a hearty big breakfast of eggs, sausage, hash browns, and rolls didn’t hurt either. How can we repay such kindness everywhere we go?

A solid day of paddling brought us to Washburn, where we found courtesy camping in the waterfront city park. Renewed hunger brought us to the Ice Burg for burgers, fries, and chocolate shakes, as if we have completely forgotten how to cook for ourselves.

Fort Mandan

Scott and I toured the reconstructed Fort Mandan near Washburn, North Dakota.

Spending two nights and a day in town, we toured the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and the reconstructed Fort Mandan. Having built my own home, it is difficult to conceive how the Corps of Discovery managed to construct the substantial fort in a matter of weeks, let alone make it livable to survive severe winter weather with temperatures dropping to 45ºF below zero.

The original fort burned down before their return in 1806, and the river has since washed away the site, so the replica fort was constructed downstream. Our tour guide and interpreter, Shannon Kelly, remembered buying books from me at a Lewis and Clark event years ago while still a teenager. She brought a pumpkin cake out to our camp in celebration of Lewis’s 245th birthday. 

We found our way back to the Ice Burg numerous times, where we were served by Kirsten Olson. She gifted us her amazing homemade bacon and breakfast sausage for the trail. 

Wild grapes at Cross Ranch State Park

Wild grapes at Cross Ranch State Park

Seven miles later, we camped at Cross Ranch State Park to hike the extensive park trail system. One huge “grandfather” cottonwood tree was alive and growing even before Lewis and Clark passed by. Wherever we go, we’ve enjoyed snacking on ripe chokecherries, buffalo berries, and now wild grapes. I cooked a batch of wild grape syrup for our pancakes.

We also stopped at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, so named for defensive earthworks built around earthlodge communities featuring a wooden palisade surrounded by a dry moat to deter attackers. As the population declined, the ditch was reduced in size, leaving two visible defensive ditches. The site was abandoned after a smallpox epidemic decimated the population in 1781. Ground squirrels are now the primary inhabitants, dragging scraps of bone, pottery, and flint to the surface as they tunnel through old waste middens.

Preparing to get back on the water, we were approached by three guys on a pontoon boat, who shouted out, “Are you guys the Corps of Rediscovery?”

“Yeah, you found us,” I replied, assuming they were tracking our progress online. But they had not heard of the expedition; it was just a lucky guess made in good humor. Shortly thereafter, we pitched our tents on the lawn at Clete and Lesley’s riverfront home, joining them and guests Bill and Alexander from Montana for a big steak dinner with fresh corn, mashed potatoes, and a big green salad. 

Clete drove us around Bismarck in the morning to catch up on errands. We hoped to get Jubilee into the vet for puppy shots, but no openings were available. However, Clete’s next door neighbor happened to be a retired veterinarian. John gave Jubilee a courtesy distemper/parvo vaccination just before we piled back into the canoes. Chalk another one up to serendipity. 

Paddling into an afternoon headwind gained us only four wet miles. We camped on a protected beach on a willowy island waiting for the wind to abate.

Infantry post at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Infantry post at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Six miles in the morning brought us to the Missouri’s confluence with the Heart River at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.  We camped for two nights as another storm front rolled through. Established as an infantry post named Fort McKeen, the fort was later renamed after Lincoln and expanded to include a calvary post, led by General George Custer before he marched his forces to their doom against the Sioux at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.

The park includes On-A-Slant Indian Village, established in the 1500s and inhabited by the Mandans until the 1781 smallpox epidemic killed most of the population and survivors moved north to join the Hidatsa at the Knife River site. Reconstructed earthlodges provide another glimpse into the lives of these horticultural peoples. The main ceremonial lodge seems small outside, but huge inside.

Finally back on the river, we paddled to Sugarloaf Recreation Area. Glenn, the park manager, was super helpful in giving us a good campsite. His wife cooked up a big lasagna in anticipation of guests that didn’t arrive, so they gifted it to us. We are surely the most spoiled group to ever paddle the Missouri River!

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books and president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River trip, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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