The Mandan


MandanSince I did Black History Month during February, I thought that it was only right that I should also commemorate Native Americans this month. This week, I am sharing what I learned about the Mandan while I was researching for The Locket Saga.

In my upcoming book Two Rivers (Book VII of the Locket Saga), my fictional character, Isaac Thorton, joined the Lewis and Clark expedition as far as the Mandan tribe where they spent the entire winter of 1804-1805 before going west into uncharted territory.

Mandan Origins

The English name Mandan is derived from the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de la Verendrye, who in 1738 heard it as Mantannes from his Assiniboine guides, which call the Mandan Mayádąna. He had previously heard the earth lodge peoples referred to by the Cree as Ouachipouennes, “the Sioux who go underground”.
The Mandan referred to themselves as Numakaki (Nųmą́khų́·ki) (or Rųwą́ʔka·ki) (“many men, people”) was inclusive and not limited to a specific village. This name was used before the smallpox epidemic of 1837-1838. Nueta (Nų́ʔetaa), the name used after this epidemic (“ourselves, our people”) was originally the name of Mandan villagers living on the west bank of the Missouri River. The name Mi-ah´ta-nē recorded by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden in 1862 reportedly means “people on the river bank”, but this may be a folk etymology.

The Mandan language belongs to the Siouan language family. It was first thought to be closely related to the languages of the Hidatsa and the Crow. However, since the Mandan language has been in contact with Hidatsa and Crow for many years, the exact relationship between Mandan and other Siouan languages (including Hidatsa and Crow) has been obscured. For this reason, linguists classify Mandan as a separate branch of the Sioux. Mandan has two main dialects: Nuptare and Nuetare. Only the Nuptare variety survived into the 20th century, and all speakers were bilingual in Hidatsa.

The exact origins and early history of the Mandan is unknown. Early linguists believed the Mandan language may have been closely related to the language of the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago people of present-day Wisconsin. This idea might be confirmed in their oral history, which refers to having come from an eastern location near a lake.

Ethnologists and scholars studying the Mandan subscribe to the theory that, like other Sioux people (possibly including the Hidatsa), they originated in the mid-Mississippi River and the Ohio River valleys in present-day Ohio. If this was the case, the Mandan would have migrated north into the Missouri River Valley and its tributary the Heart River in present-day North Dakota where Europeans first encountered the historical tribe. This migration might have occurred possibly as early as the 7th century but probably between 1000 CE and the 13th century, after they started cultivating maize during a period of a major climate change where warmer, wetter conditions favored their agricultural production.

After they arrived on the banks of the Heart River, the Mandan constructed several villages, the largest of which were at the mouth of the river. Archeological evidence and ground imaging radar reveals changes in the defensive boundaries of these villages over time. The people built new ditches and palisades circumscribing smaller areas as their populations declined.

The Double Ditch Village was located on the east bank of the Missouri River, north of present-day Bismarck. Rupture Mandan occupied it for nearly 300 years. Today the site has depressions showing evidence of their lodges and smaller ones where they created cache pits to store dehydrated corn. The name comes from two defensive trenches built outside the area of the lodges. Construction of the fortifications here and at other locations along the Missouri has been found to have correlated to periods of drought, when they raided other villages for food.

At some point, the Hidatsa people also moved into the area. They too spoke a Siouan language. Mandan tradition states that the Hidatsa were a nomadic tribe until the Mandan taught them to build stationary villages and cultivate agriculture. The Hidatsa maintained a friendship with the Mandan and constructed villages north of them on the Knife River.

Later the Pawnee and Arikara moved from the Republican River north along the Missouri River. They were Caddoan language speakers, and the Arikara were often early competitors with the Mandan, although both grew crops. They built a settlement known as Crow Creek village on a bluff above the Missouri.

The Mandan all practiced extensive farming, which was carried out by the women and included drying and processing corn. The Mandan traded crops and other goods were traded from the Pacific Northwest to the Tennessee River, Florida, the Gulf Coast, and the Atlantic Seaboard.

The bands did not often move along the river until the late 18th century, after their populations plummeted due to smallpox and other epidemics.

European Encounter

The Koatiouak, mentioned in a 1736 letter by Jesuit Jean-Pierre Aulneau, are identified as Mandans. The first European known to visit the Mandan was the French Canadian trader Sieur de la Verendrye in 1738. The Mandan carried him into their well-fortified village. He learned that about 15,000 Mandan lived in nine well-fortified villages along the Heart River. According to Vérendrye, the Mandan were a large, powerful, prosperous nation who could dictate trade on their own terms.They traded with other Native Americans both from the north and the south, and from downriver.

Mandan acquired their horses from the Apache to the south. They used them both for transportation, to carry packs and pull travois, and for hunting. The horses helped the Mandan expand their hunting territory on to the Plains. Their encounter with the French in the 18th century created a trading link between the French and Native Americans. The Mandan served as middlemen in the trade in furs, horses, guns, crops and buffalo products. Spanish merchants and officials in St. Louis (after France had ceded its territory west of the Mississippi River to Spain in 1763) explored the Missouri and strengthened relations with the Mandan.

The French wanted to discourage trade with the English and the Americans, but the Mandan carried on open trade with all competitors. They would not be limited by the Europeans. French traders in St. Louis sought to establish direct overland communication between Santa Fé and their city; the fur trading Chouteau brothers gained a Spanish monopoly on trade with Santa Fe.

A smallpox epidemic broke out in Mexico City in 1779/1780. It slowly spread northward through the Spanish empire, by trade and warfare, and reached the northern plains in 1781. The Comanche and Shoshone had become infected and carried the disease throughout their territory. Other warring and trading peoples also became infected. The Mandan lost so many people that the number of clans was reduced from thirteen to seven; three clan names from villages west of the Missouri were lost altogether. They eventually moved northward about 25 miles, and consolidated into two villages, one on each side of the river, as they rebuilt following the epidemic. Also affected by smallpox, the Hidatsa people joined them for defense. Through and after the epidemic, Lakota Sioux and Crow warriors raided them.

In 1796, Welsh explorer John Evans visited the Mandan. He hoped to find proof that their language contained Welsh words. Evans had arrived in St. Louis two years prior, and after being imprisoned for a year, Spanish authorities hired him to lead an expedition to chart the upper Missouri. Evans spent the winter of 1796–97 with the Mandan but found no evidence of any Welsh influence. British and French Canadians from the north carried out more than twenty fur-trading expeditions down to the Hidatsa and Mandan villages in the years 1794 to 1800.

The Mandan and their language received much attention from European Americans, in part because their lighter skin color caused speculation they were of European origin. In the 1830s, Prince Maximilian of Wied spent more time recording Mandan over all other Siouan languages and prepared a comparison list of Mandan and Welsh words. (He thought that the Mandan may have been displaced Welsh.) The theory of the Mandan/Welsh connection, was also supported by George Catlin, but researchers have found no evidence of such ancestry.

Visited by Lewis and Clark Expedition

By 1804 when Lewis and Clark visited the tribe, the number of Mandan had been greatly reduced by smallpox epidemics and warring bands of Assiniboine, Lakota and Arikara. The nine villages had consolidated into two villages in the 1780s, one on each side of the Missouri, but they continued their famous hospitality, and the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped near their villages for the winter because of it. In honor of their hosts, the expedition dubbed the settlement they constructed Fort Mandan. Here, Lewis and Clark first met Sacagawea, a captive Shoshone woman. Sacagawea accompanied the expedition as it traveled west, assisting them with information and translating skills as they journeyed toward the Pacific Ocean.

Upon their return to the Mandan villages, Lewis and Clark took the Mandan Chief Sheheke (Coyote or Big White) with them to Washington to meet with President Thomas Jefferson. He returned to the upper Missouri. He had survived the smallpox epidemic of 1781, but in 1812 he was killed in a battle with Hidatsa.

In 1825 the Mandan signed a peace treaty with the leaders of the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition. The treaty required that the Mandan recognize the supremacy of the United States, admit that they reside on United States territory, and relinquish all control and regulation of trade to the United States. The Mandan and the United States Army never met in open warfare.

Why did some Mandan have Bluish Eyes and Lighter Skin?

18th-century reports about characteristics of Mandan lodges, religion and occasional physical features among tribal members, such as blue and grey eyes along with lighter hair coloring, stirred speculation about the possibility of pre-Columbian European contact. Catlin believed the Mandan were the “Welsh Indians” of folklore, descendants of Prince Madoc and his followers who emigrated to America from Wales in about 1170. This view was popular at the time but has been dismissed as not true.

Hjalmar Holand had proposed that interbreeding with Norse survivors might explain the “blond” Indians among the Mandan on the Upper Missouri River. In a multidisciplinary study of the Kensington Runestone, anthropologist Alice Beck Kehoe dismissed, as “tangential” to the Runestone issue, this and other historical references suggesting pre-Columbian contacts with ‘outsiders’, such as the Hochunk (Winnebago) story about an ancestral hero “Red Horn” and his encounter with “red-haired giants”. Archaeologist Ken Feder has stated that none of the material evidence that would be expected from a Viking presence in and travel through the American Midwest exists.

The Locket Saga

The Locket Saga 5 books

Read the books of The Locket Saga
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1 comment
  1. Billybuc said:

    I’m enjoying the history lesson….keep it coming.

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