"North Dakota" a National Trading Center Long Before Lewis and Clark Visit

Mandan and Hidatsa Villages, the Upper Missouri, 1800s

Long before Lewis and Clark arrived to winter here with the village people at the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, these Mandan and Hidatsa carried on an active trade with other tribes of the western part of the North American continent.
The Cree and their allies the Assiniboin came from the north, the Crow from the southwest, and former residents the Cheyenne and their neighbors to the south came to the villages with meat and hides which they traded for corn, beans, and other crops. Later the nomadic visitors brought horses, which they traded for guns from the Europeans in the north.

An illustration from Patrick Gass’s A Journal of the Voyages and Travels . . . to the Pacific Ocean, showing Lewis and Clark holding a council with the Indians. State Historical Society of North Dakota Archives 917.8.

Even before La Verendrye arrived in 1738, the Mandan, who then lived south of their present location, welcomed tribes from the south each summer. The two men the French explorer left to learn the Mandan language reported that the Mandan traded their excess “grain and beans” for “dressed skins trimmed and ornamented with plumage and porcupine quills, painted in various colors, also white buffalo skins.”

Trading with other native peoples, which resulted in obtaining goods from as far away as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, has been going on in the area since at least the year A.D 1000. (Archeologists have found flint from the area at sites in Alberta, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. In North Dakota, archeologists have found seashells from the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Northwest.)

Building huts, an illustration from Patrick Gass’s A Journal of the Voyages and Travels . . . to the Pacific Ocean, published in 1807.  State Historical Society of North Dakota Archives 917.8.

By the time of the Lewis and Clark visit, native peoples were trading not only guns and horses but also arrowheads of iron and brass, tomahawks, axes, knives, metal kettles, some cloth and “made clothes.”

Typical trading involved reselling the items for twice the amount paid for them. For example, the Crow sold to the Hidatsa 250 horses they bought from the Shoshoni. In payment, the Crow received 200 guns the Hidatsa had bought from the Assiniboin and Cree. Both traders marked up the price by 100 percent. The Mandan and Hidatsa kept few of the horses or guns they “bought” in these trades. Instead, they “sold” all but a few at a handsome profit.

All the early white visitors to the area remarked about the trading skills of the native peoples they encountered. The white traders were often surprised at the way native peoples use some of the European goods exchanged for furs and foods. For example, the Arikara melted the trade beads they acquired and made pendants. They also cut off the end of the guns they bought and used the metal for arrowheads and knives.

Lewis and Clark obtained food from the Mandan during their winter stay by trading sheet iron, which the native people fashioned into arrow points and tools to scrape and dress buffalo robes. The Mandan broke apart a metal corn mill given to them as a present and used some of the pieces for arrowheads. They used a big piece as a hammer for pounding bones to get marrow.


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.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

  1. Lewis and Clark Pathways: The Mandan People
    Video: The Mandan Indians developed an advanced society along the Knife River.

Related Links

http://www.nps.gov/fous/historyculture/tribes.htm The Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site web site offers information on the many (at least 10) Northern Plains tribes who were engaged in trade at Fort Union, primarily the Assiniboine. http://www.nps.gov/knri/forteachers/upload/Chapter1part1.pdf The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site provides educational material on tribes, trading patterns, and Native American history. Illustrations and maps are especially useful. W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen. Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738-1818. University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.