|"We commence building our cabins."
- William Clark, November 3, 1804
This simple journal entry marked the construction of Fort Mandan, the Corps of Discovery's winter home from 1804-1805. According to the journals, they built the fort slightly downriver from the five villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa nations. The fort was built of cottonwood lumber cut from the riverbanks. It was triangular in shape, with high walls on all sides, an interior open space between structures, and a gate facing the Missouri River, by which the party would normally travel. Storage rooms provided a safe place to keep supplies.
The fort replica, built in 1972, is comprised of 7 rooms surrounded by walls that climb to 18 feet high on the outer edge. It holds original items, such as Meriwether Lewis' field desk, William Clark's map-making tools, bunks the men slept in, equipment they carried in the field, clothes they wore, and the blacksmith's forge. The rooms included storehouse & smokehouse, blacksmith shop, guardroom, enlisted men's quarters (7 to 8 men in each of the two rooms), the interpreters room & Captains Lewis & Clark's room, which they shared. Out front stands Seaman Overlook, featuring a 1,400-pound steel sculpture of Lewis' dog. The Newfoundland dog accompanied the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, chronicled in their journey logs as a faithful companion and even a hero, carrying food to an injured explorer and fending off predators around the camp.
Through the winter, Lewis & Clark interviewed members of the nearby Mandan-Hidatsa villages to plot maps and plan the next phase of their journey to the Pacific Ocean. They also had the good fortune to meet a remarkable young woman named Sacagawea. Her husband Toussaint Charbonneau served as a Hidatsa interpreter for the expedition, and the journals imply that she lived at the fort with him. The most important event of the winter was the birth of Sacagawea's son on February 11th. On the advice of Rene Jessaume, a trader who had long lived with the Mandans, a brew containing the rattle of the rattlesnake was administerd to Sacagawea and she gave birth soon after. The baby was named Jean Baptiste, but would be nicknamed "Pompey" or "Pompi" by William Clark.
The Corps spent much time during the winter to prepare for their travel in the spring, repairing equipment, making clothing, processing dried meats, etc. In addition, on the way to their winter site, they had used maps made by previous explorers. From that point on in their westward journey, they would enter territory unfamiliar to Europeans according to known documentation. Clark noted that he gathered information from chief Sheheke about the route to the west in order to make a preliminary map.
Not knowing if they would survive the journey, Lewis and Clark used the winter to compile their descriptions of tributaries of the Missouri River, their observations about the Native nations encountered, and their descriptions of plant and mineral specimens which they had collected; all were compiled into a manuscript which they called the Mandan Miscellany.
When the Corps passed back through the area in August 1806 on their return journey to the East, they found the fort had burnt to the ground. The cause is unknown. Since that time, the Missouri River has slowly eroded the bank and shifted course to the east, putting the former site of the fort underwater. Which is of course why the replica was built at it's current location. Our visit here really brought to life what it was like for the brave men in the Corps of Discovery during that North Dakota winter over 200 years ago. So glad we visited!