Mandan and Hidatsa Help Lewis and Clark Survive Winter
Knife River Mandan Villages
April 7, 1805
Lewis and Clark and their men are ready to head west after a hard winter. The leaders of what is called The Corps of Discovery received food and advice from the native people which makes possible continuing the trip.
They have packed their gear, and the Corps of Discovery is once again moving up the Missouri River.
The expedition arrived at the five Mandan villages in late October 1804 and promptly built Fort Mandan. The fort has an outer wall built eighteen feet high. The log wall is so strong it can withstand a shot from a cannon.
The Corps of Discovery had found that winter on the Great Plains can be bitter. Meriwether Lewis noted that the coldest temperature reached 45 degrees below zero. It was so cold that some of the expedition’s hard liquor became frozen solid in fifteen minutes.
Despite the cold, much has been learned. The Mandan have helped chart out the course of the Missouri River above the villages. The Indians believe that the river is navigable nearly to its source in the mountains. William Clark hopes that the river will lead them all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis and Clark have hired an interpreter, Toussaint Charbonneau, a Frenchman who has been living at the Knife River villages. His wife, Sakakawea, will be able to help the expedition when they pass through the lands of her tribe, the Shoshoni.
President of the United States Thomas Jefferson was interested in exploring the western lands even before the United States bought the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson planned the expedition secretly, for he would be sending Americans into lands controlled by France and Great Britain, the most powerful nations in the world. He wants the United States to start to trade for the rich furs and pelts in Louisiana and to learn of the minerals that might be there.
After President Jefferson purchased Louisiana, he saw the need to explore the new lands. Little is known by non-Indians about what they think is a wilderness region. In fact nothing was known about the Missouri River above the Mandan villages. There were plenty of rumors about the new lands. Some believe, for example, that Louisiana contains a mountain of pure salt and cliffs made entirely of gemstones. Others think that unicorns live in the unknown lands along with beavers that are seven feet tall.
Captain Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary, and Second Lieutenant William Clark were chosen to lead the Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark carefully selected thirty men to accompany them. Some of the men are soldiers; others are hunters, carpenters, boatmen and blacksmiths. All are capable frontiersmen.
A keelboat, sixty feet long, served as the main transport up the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark outfitted the boat with swivel cannons for defense. In addition Lewis ordered improved versions of the Kentucky rifle, which has also proved most useful for hunting.
The expedition brought 21 bags of trade goods for the Indians. The presents bring good will and also show that the Americans will be good traders with the tribes.
The Corps of Discovery expects to find the source of the Missouri River soon. They will mark the Continental Divide as the boundary of the Louisiana Territory. In order to get to the Pacific Ocean, the expedition must find a pass through the Rocky Mountains. Lewis and Clark hope to reach the Pacific before next winter.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.