History,  Native Americans,  North Dakota History,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

Lewis and Clark in North Dakota

Winter at Mandan, courtesy of NDSHS

Published in the Cowboy Chronicle, Publication of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, June 2022

Captain William Clark wrote in his journal on August 3, 1806: “Last night the Musquetors were so troublesom that no one of the party slept half the night.  For my part I did not sleep one hour. Those tormenting insects found their way into my beare and tormented me the whole night. They are not less noumerous or troublesom this morning at two miles passed the entranance of Jo. Fields Creek. “ 

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was on its way home. On the morning of August 2, 1806, Clark and his detachment from the expedition, paddled past the location of the future town of Sidney and out of present day Montana along the Yellowstone River. They spent their first night back in North Dakota camped by the mouth of what is now known as Charbonneau Creek, and the Yellowstone River.  The creek was named for Toussaint Charbonneau, an interpreter that accompanied them from North Dakota to Oregon and back. 

While their welcome back to North Dakota was by all accounts fairly miserable due to the onslaught of summer mosquitos, it remained an important part of their journey.  Their time in North Dakota made the rest of their trip possible and successful.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, spent 214 days, one quarter of the expedition, in North Dakota on two separate stopovers; the longest time in any state.   After a year of preparation, the Corps of Discovery left Camp Dubois outside of St Louis, Missouri, on May 14, 1804. They were to explore and chart the unknown territory of 825,000 square miles that had been purchased from France by the United States in 1803; The Louisiana Purchase. The land west of the Mississippi River was unknown and there was much to learn before this vast expanse could be settled.  President Jefferson decided to send an exploratory expedition west, and named his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition. Lewis had been a captain in the U. S. Army. William Clark had served with Lewis. In 1803 Lewis recruited him to share command of the newly formed Corp of Discovery.

 Along with exploring this mysterious land they were to establish trade with the Native Americans, confirm American sovereignty, and find a waterway that could be traveled all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  Jefferson knew they would encounter things they couldn’t even imagine, perhaps even giant volcanoes, mountains of salt and the wooly mammoth. With 45 men and three boats they set off.  On October 14, 1804, five months and 1200 miles up the Missouri River from their start, the expedition entered North Dakota near present day Fort Yates.  As they traveled upriver they passed the remains of a Mandan Village abandoned after the smallpox epidemic of 1781.  South of present day Bismarck they saw their first grizzly bear, which caused much excitement.  They had become enthralled with the plains.  In his journal Lewis commented on the beautiful scenery they encountered, but also noted, “the leaves are fast falling.” As they traveled north, huge flocks of geese and other birds were flying south. The nights brought frost, and even though it was early there were occasional snow flurries. When they left St. Louis, they had hoped to reach the headwaters of the Missouri River before winter set in.  This was not going to happen. On October 26, 1804 Clark estimated they had traveled 1600 miles up the Missouri, but were still nowhere near its source or the fabled Northwest Passage.   They were now at the last fixed point on their map of the great Missouri. They were truly at the edge of the unknown. They knew traveling during the impending winter would be impossible and so stopped.  

They had reached the Mandan and Hidatsa earthen lodge villages near present-day Washburn and Stanton. The Mandan lived by the Missouri River and the Hidatsa along the nearby Knife River.  The Mandan and Hidatsa raised crops and engaged in trade. All together the population of these villages was greater than the population of St. Louis.  Lewis and Clark found the people here to be friendly, hospitable and helpful. Picking a site near by the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, they began cutting cottonwoods on November 4 to build a fort for winter. They named their winter home Fort Mandan. Completed on December 24, the American flag was raised over it on Christmas Day.

The expedition carried some food supplies such as flour, dried soup, lard and liquor, but they relied greatly on what was in abundance around them. In North Dakota the game; buffalo, deer and antelope was bountiful.  Sometimes they would eat up to nine pounds of meat per day. While in North Dakota they also obtained corn, squash, and beans from the Mandan and Hidatsa.

The winter of 1804-1805 was extremely harsh.  Their cottonwood cabins were not well insulated like the earthen huts of the native people, and many suffered from frostbite. The expedition’s blacksmith made numerous items that they were able to trade to the Mandan and Hidatsa’s for corn, meat and other foods. The help of the natives and the ability to trade for food was key to their survival.

Their winter in North Dakota proved to be invaluable.  It gave the men time to hunt, repair equipment and make preparations for the next leg of their journey.  They spent part of their time carving out six dugout canoes.  In addition to the physical preparations, time was spent with their native neighbors learning about the tribes and terrain they would be encountering along the way. To illustrate, the warriors drew rivers and trails on tanned skins and used piles of soil on the ground to depict elevations. Clark took this information and made a map that turned out to be indispensable.

The Hidatsa warriors made periodic trips to the Rockies and could explain the rivers and mountains along the way. However, their mode of travel was by horseback, not down the Missouri River by boat.  Lewis and Clark realized they would have to get horses from the Shoshone to get across the mountains.

They also learned from the Mandan and Hidatsa about moccasins.  Moccasins were far more comfortable and practical that the boots they had been wearing. They wore moccasins for the rest of the journey.

Sakakawea statue at the State Capital. Bismarck North Dakota

And then there was Sakakawea; taking her with them on their journey was one of the best decisions they made.  Shortly after stopping for winter, they met Toussaint Charbonneau and one of his two Indian wives, Sakakawea.  He was hired as a cook and interpreter.  Sakakawea, who was only 16 or 17 years old and pregnant with his child, was born Shoshone but had been kidnaped at a young age and brought to live with the Hidatsas. They decided to bring this young Indian girl with them to help when they met with the Shoshones and bargained for horses. Charbonneau spoke French and Shoshone, and Sakakawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. They needed to be able to communicate in all these languages. Captains Lewis and Clark also felt that having this young woman with them would signal they were coming in peace. 

Sakakawea paved the way for friendly encounters with other Native Americans. Having a woman and an infant traveling with the group clearly showed they were not a “war party” and would only have peaceful intentions.  Clark noted on two occasions the calming effect Sakakawea and her son had on tribes that otherwise might have been hostile.  Sakakawea also proved instrumental in foraging for food they had no idea about. While Sakakawea was not officially a “guide,”  she did know when they were going the right way. Recognizing landforms through Montana, she was able to give them reassurance they were indeed on the right track. On the return journey she led the way through Bozeman Pass between the Bridger and Gallatin Mountain ranges. Over the sixteen months they were together the expedition came to hold Sakakawea in high regard.

Toward the end of March in 1805, the geese were flying north again and the ice was beginning to break up. Not all were going forward with the expedition.  On April 7, 1805 twelve men headed downstream returning to St. Louis with furs to be sold and items to be delivered to President Jefferson. Among these were bison robes, bows and arrows and samples of the different plants they had discovered. They also sent stuffed birds, bones, antlers and other items to show what new creatures they found.  They even sent back a few live animals and birds.  All these had never been seen east of the Mississippi. There were also extensive written reports and maps.   The rest of the expedition pushed off into the unknown. 

As the expedition left their winter home, they continued to be amazed by the abundance of wildlife and the varieties of animals never seen before.  The most valuable animal for the fur trade was the beaver which they found in abundance along the river. They became fascinated with the prairie dog referring to them as “barking squirrels”.

On April 25 they reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers near present day Williston.  Lewis noted in his journal that the location would be a good place for a fort. Twenty five years later Fort Union was built near that spot.

Fort Union near the confluence

On April 27 Lewis made an extensive journal entry: “This morning I walked through the point formed by the junction of the rivers…here a beatifull  level low plain commences and extends up both rivers for many miles, widening as the rivers recede from each other, and extending back half a mile to a plain about 12 feet higher than itself:…on the Missouri about 2 ½ miles from the entrance to the yellowstone river, and between this high and low plain, a small lake is situated about 200 yards wide extending along the edge of the high plain parallel with the Missouri about one mile…”

This is today’s Nohly Lake near the state line between North Dakota and Montana.  The Corps stayed that night on the north side of the river about a mile below where the future town of Nohly would stand, and where today’s Nohly (Snowden) Bridge crosses the river.   They had left North Dakota and crossed into what is now Montana.

Sixteen months later they would step back into North Dakota on their way home.   They had made it to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, and continued to make amazing discoveries about the land and all it held. On August 12, 1806 they reached the Mandan Villages where Sakakawea and Charbonneau left them.  They would soon be home, leaving North Dakota on August 20 and arriving in St. Louis on September 23, 1806.

The Corps of Discovery laid the groundwork for our nation to expand. While they did not find a waterway from the Mississippi to the Pacific, or the wholly mammoth, they did document more than 100 animals and 178 plants never seen before, as well as providing 140 maps of the region. With its completion, the Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery was one of the most significant endeavors in our history that in many ways has never been matched. The land we now know as North Dakota was an integral and significant part of this epic journey.  







Lewis and Clark in North Dakota, edited and annotated by Russell Reid, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota, c 1988

Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Alfred A Knopf, New York, c 1997


  • Robert Primeaux

    I’m Robert Primeaux, Ph.D., my great, great Grandfather is Louis Primeau, Sitting Bull’s interpreter for about 12 years. I’m also an Elder among my Lakota people and a Disabled Vietnam combat veteran of the Vietnam war. The two books I have written “Will Chase: The Sioux Lands” released August, 2021 and “Will Chase: The Black Hills” will be released August, 2022 based on true stories within the Lakota Nation.
    Thank you,
    Robert Primeaux, Ph.D.

    • Mary Patricia Martell Jones

      Thank you for reading! It seems yiu have had an extraordinary life and have a lot of knowledge and stories to tell. I will be looking for your book.

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