The Lost Mandan War Party

This is another in a series of blogs that highlight battles where the Indians won. In this case, the battle was fought Native against Native. Few know what happened that day.

The Setup

The published journals (1834-1839) of trader Francis A. Chardon, an employee of the American Fur Company at Fort Clark, just off US Route 90 near Brackettville in southwest Texas, chronicled the repeated hit-and-run raids of the Lakota Sioux against Mandan (Miiti Naamni) and Hidatsa (Awadi Aguraawi) Indians. Traditionally, both tribes occupied territory following the Missouri River basin extending from present day North Dakota through western Montana and Wyoming.

The Combatants

The Mandan

The Mandan, were Plains Indians who traditionally lived in semipermanent villages along the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. They spoke a Siouan language.

Mandan Village by George Catlin

As an aside, 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. The artist George 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 most historians now disagree.

In the 19th century the Mandan lived in dome-shaped earth lodges clustered in stockaded villages; their economy centered on raising corn (maize), beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, tobacco and on hunting buffalo, fishing, and trading with nomadic Plains tribes. The Mandan also made a variety of utilitarian and decorative items, including pottery, baskets, and painted buffalo robes depicting the heroic deeds of the tribe or of individuals. At this time Mandan culture was one of the richest of the Plains; the tribe hosted many prominent European and American travelers, including American explorers Lewis and Clark, Prussian scientist Prince Maximillian, and artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin.

Mandan Braves by Karl Bodmer

Traditional Mandan villages consisted of twelve to 100 or more earth lodges. Each village generally had three chiefs: one for war, one for peace, and one as the day-to-day village leader.

In 1750 there were nine large Mandan villages, but recurrent epidemics of smallpox, pertussis (whooping cough), and other diseases introduced through colonization reduced the tribe to two villages by 1800.

The Hidatsa

The Hidatsa originally lived in the Devil’s Lake region of North Dakota, before being pushed southwestward by the Lakota. As they migrated west, the Hidatsa came across the Mandan at the mouth of the Heart River. The two groups formed an alliance and settled into an agreeable division of territory along the area’s rivers.

Hidatsa Dog Soldier by Karl Bodmer

The Hidatsa played a central role in the Great Plains Indian trading networks based on an advantageous geographical position combined with a surplus from agriculture and crafts.

In 1800, a group of Hidatsa abducted Sacagawea in a battle against the Shoshone. She was taken as a captive to a Hidatsa village near present-day Washburn, North Dakota. In 1804, Lewis and Clark came to the Hidatsa in their three villages at the mouth of the Knife River, and the Mandan in two villages two miles down on the Missouri River. Sacagawea was hired as a guide by Lewis and Clark and on several occasions saved the expedition from ruin.

The Lakota (Sioux)

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Lakota Sioux lived in present-day Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, then moved to the upper Missouri River about the time the horse was reintroduced to the Great Plains, in this case about 1730.

From then on, Lakota society centered on the buffalo hunt on horseback. However, the large and powerful Mandan, and Hidatsa villages (along with the allied Arikara) prevented the Lakota from crossing the Missouri to buffalo hunting grounds.

Lakota Sioux War Party

Tit for Tat

By 1750, the tribe grew to become the principle military power of the Northern Plains. For that reason, the Lakota had made it a policy to drive out the Mandan and Hidatsa from their homelands in a long-term effort to eliminate competition for food and trade by all neighboring tribes and to gain control of the upper Missouri River. Hit-and-run raids were frequent and brutal to the point the Mandan and the Hidatsa rarely left their fortified mud-domed homes to hunt or to tend their crops.

In 1790, a Lakota attack on the village of Big Hidatsa, near today’s Stanton, North Dakota, went wrong. The Hidatsa killed 100 or more retreating Sioux in a counterattack. Hostilities continued as the Lakota grew in influence and population. Over a five-year period, Chardon’s journal reports nearly seventy Mandan and Hidatsa were killed in Lakota raids. Mandan war parties struck back and destroyed fifty teepees in the winter of 1835 – 36. In response, Lakota depredations increased until, under pressure of a virtual siege, the Mandan and Hidatsa struck again.

Payback Backfires

Chief Wounded Face led a combined party of twenty-eight composed of Mandan and Hidatsa braves out to the Great Plains in search of retribution, in late May 1836.

Most of the evidence concerning the fate of the war party is second-hand, but from existing documents written by persons who knew Sioux participants, we can get an idea of what happened.

On 31 May 1836, Mandan braves, accompanied by some Hidatsa warriors, left their homes near present-day Stanton, southeastern North Dakota, and travelled nearly 240 miles northwesterly. In June, they met a war party of an unknown number of Lakota Sioux led by Chief Wa-Na-Tah (Waneta) at the elbow of the Sheyenne River, near what is now Lisbon in central North Dakota.

The Sheyenne River is a slow-moving tributary of the Red River of the North. The area around the hook of the river where the battle took place is relatively flat. Here ambush would have been unlikely due to the long distance lines of sight, so let’s assume a full-on frontal battle. Chances are good that day in May was sunny and temperature was in the high seventies with a slight wind.

Without witnesses and little documentation, one can only imagine how the fight went down. Maybe it played out something like this:

The Fight

Indians were protective of their hunting grounds, so Lakota scouts hiding in the spare North Dakota grass lands most likely spotted the Mandan war party in their territory. They sent word back to the main camp and the Lakota warriors grabbed their clubs and bows and mounted up. Some of them may have taken time to paint their faces and war horses. The Sioux favored quick hits in broad daylight. They also favored overwhelming force and probably sent a number of much greater size than the 28-man Mandan/Hidatsa force.

Indian Fight by C. M. Russell

Lakota Chief Wa-Na-Tah had briefed his braves on the ultimate goals of the coming conflict and a general idea of what to do, but once his men hit the field, it was every warrior for himself. Wa-Na-Tah’s second concern would have been to limit casualties of his own men. The low number of Lakota lost is testimony to this. At the same time, there was no shame in retreating to fight another day. The only shame for a Lakota was in surrender.

Warriors rode into battle on their best ponies motivated by the chance to earn bragging rights, feathers, praise, horses, and captives. The ultimate act of bravery was to get close enough to touch an enemy with a coup stick without being harmed. A warrior’s status mattered, and competition to count the greatest coup was intense. Touching the first enemy to die in battle also counted as coup.

Imagine that the Lakota charged the Mandan at first sight. There were no preliminary warnings, just a hoard of horses trained for battle with legs stretched to the limit on a dead run. Understand that decades of war had embedded in each brave a burning hatred that resounded in high-pitched ululations amplified by the pounding of hoofs. Picture the feathered bonnets laid back from the wind across the running horses. Envision the hail storm of arrows from the mounted archers. Visualize the weapons of war held high: antler clubs, stone axes, and flint knives. Every warrior intended to obliterate everything in his path.

The Mandan, for their part, charged as soon as they saw the Lakota. Imagine the fear and resignation of the men when they realized they faced a much larger force. Still, they closed at the run. The screams of horses and the bellows of combatants accompanied the collision of animals and men. No warrior would run away, that day.

Native warfare was absolute. The role of the warrior was to fight. The role of the enemy was to die. Dismounted, Lakota used clubs to smash skulls, axes to sever arms, knives to slit throats. Shrieks of the dying mingled with the triumphant shouts of the coup takers. The fighting continued until there was no one left to die.

Aftermath

All Mandan and Hidatsa braves were killed and scalped. The bodies of the Manda and Hidatsa were abandoned where they died, the defeated unworthy of burial. Nine dead Lakota were taken home for the mourning ceremony and burial above ground on scaffolds.

Chief Wa-Na-tah (Waneta)

Weeks after the battle, Wa-Na-Tah bragged that all twenty-eight scalps were suspended in Sioux camps. Rumors spread that two Mandan escaped from the slaughter, but those men, if they existed at all, were never seen again. (One Lakota brave, in love with a Mandan girl, fought alongside the Mandan. The Sioux did not scalp his corpse out of deference to their own, but they did not take his body home.)

By July 20, in an era where news travelled slowly, the Mandan war party was reported missing and given up for dead after sixty days absent. On September 13, news via a trader confirmed that the war party was lost with all dead. A ceremony was held. Mourners showed their grief by wailing and cutting themselves.

The loss of twenty-eight men was a disaster for the Mandan who were to suffer an even greater loss through repeated small pox epidemics. The last was the worst.

A year later, on June 18, 1837, the steamboat St. Peters approached Fort Clark. In addition to supplies, the sternwheeler brought the two-year-old son of Fort Clark’s superintendent, Francis Chardon. Chardon met the boat some 30 miles downstream and removed his son from the boat after hearing that people on the boat were infected with smallpox.

When the steamboat landed at Fort Clark, people came and went from the boat to the fort and the villages. Workers from the boat and the post unloaded goods and loaded bales of furs. All of the activity took place in less than 24 hours amid singing, dancing, and celebration.

There were approximately 1,600 Mandan living in two villages at that time. The disease killed 90% of the Mandan people including Chief Four Bears. Estimates of the number of survivors vary between 27 to 150 persons.

Chief Four Bears by George Catlin

The survivors banded together with the surviving Hidatsa in 1845 and moved upriver, where they established Like-a-Fishhook Village next to Fort Berthold in North Dakota. Today, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, are located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota near New Town.

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