North Dakota: Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Interior of Reconstructed Earthlodge at Knife River
Interior of Reconstructed Earthlodge at Knife River

Plazak on Wikimedia Commons

Knife River Indian Villages is a High Potential Historic Site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

During Lewis and Clark’s stay at Fort Mandan from November 2, 1804, through April 7, 1805, they engaged in extensive trade and diplomacy with the Hidatsas and Mandans, who were settled in several nearby villages. Significantly, French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Shoshone-born Sacagawea, were living in the Awatixa Village at the time. Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as an inter­preter. He was accompanied by Sacagawea, who proved to be an invaluable member of the expedition.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site preserves the remnants of several settlement sites near the confluence of the Knife River with the Missouri River, most notably Big Hidatsa Village, the Lower Hi­datsa Village, and the Awatixa Village. There are visible remains of earthlodge dwellings, cache pits and tra­vois trails. Established earthlodge settlements along the Knife River date to circa-1525 CE. They thrived until 1837, when smallpox greatly reduced the population. The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is publicly accessible as a unit of the National Park System. It is located just north of the town of Stanton, on County Road 37. Big Hidatsa Village is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site Archeological District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Missouri River has long supported life as it stretches thousands of miles through America’s heartland. Close to the Canadian border in North Dakota, the stories of a number of Plains Indian peoples intersect along the banks of the Missouri and Knife Rivers. Here, an hour north of present-day Bismarck, several tribes formed great villages on the plains. Today, the remains of some of these villages are preserved in the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

The first people to live in the areas around the Knife River arrived possibly as early as 12,000 years ago. Visitors to the park can see what is left of much later villages of two tribes, the Mandan and the Hidatsa. Like earlier peoples, the Mandan and Hidatsa were hunters, but they also successfully cultivated crops like corn, beans, and squash. The villages grew and the tribes began to trade with the surrounding communities. The Knife River gets its name from the flint found near the river. This flint was used to make knives that were traded. The growing villages along the Knife and Missouri rivers were composed of earthlodges. In addition to touring the location of earthlodge villages, visitors to the park may also explore a reconstructed earthlodge.

Among the Hidatsa, women owned and largely built the earthlodges. The men of the tribe did help with the construction, though women supervised them. Earthlodges consist of a framework of posts and beams covered with branches, grass, and strips of sod. Inside were separate spaces for sleeping, eating, and storage; a shrine and a sweatlodge were also common features. Sometimes, the Indians kept horses inside the earthlodge. An earthlodge lasted about 10 years and housed between 10 and 20 people. The largest villages had roughly 120 earthlodges. By the late 1800s, the Hidatsa built fewer and fewer earthlodges, because they began to live in houses as they were moved to reservations. The dimpled plains along the rivers record the time the Hidatsa lived in earthlodge villages. The main villages within the park are Awatixa Xi’e Village (Lower Hidatsa), Awatixa Village (Sakakawea Village), and Big Hidatsa Village. Built between 1525 and the late 1700s, the villages are connected by a trail system marked by signs describing the history.

The Lewis and Clark expedition recorded life among the American Indian groups at Knife River in the 1800s. Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition was successful in part because of the assistance provided to them by a couple they met while staying at nearby Fort Mandan. Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sakakawea (also known as Sacagawea) served the explorers as interpreters and translators for two years. The village that Sacagawea lived in, Awatixa Village, is also named after her. In addition to helping Lewis and Clark communicate with the peoples they met along their journey, Sacagawea also helped the expedition navigate across the Rocky Mountains. A native Shoshone, she was able to obtain horses from her brother who was chief of the Shoshone tribe. Lewis and Clark gathered valuable scientific information during the expedition and had a good relationship with their American Indian guides.

Life on the plains changed as interactions with Europeans and Americans increased in the following years, and the villages became major trading centers. In the roughly 500 years the villages at Knife River were inhabited, the Hidatsa and Mandan created very developed communities along the Knife and Missouri rivers. The traders and later explorers who came to these communities often remarked on their sheer size. The villages within the park boundaries housed hundreds, if not thousands of people. However, this would not last.

Beginning in the 1830s, steamboat traffic up the Missouri brought more people into contact with the tribes at Knife River. A major smallpox epidemic in 1837 wiped out most of the Mandan and weakened the Hidatsa. Both tribes abandoned the villages within the park about this time and relocated to Like-A-Fishhook Village. A third tribe, the Arikara, joined them. The three tribes formed an alliance known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, although each tribe maintains separate traditions and has a separate history. The Mandan came to the Dakotas beginning in the mid-1200s, while the Hidatsa ancestors appear to have arrived between 1450 and 1550. These Hidatsa ancestors were the first settlers of the villages at Knife River. All three tribes lived only briefly together at Like-A-Fishhook Village before their lands were gradually taken away from them, and they were moved onto the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Later, construction of the Garrison Dam flooded some of their lands.

Knife River Indian Villages, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 564 County Road 37, one-half mile north of Stanton, ND. Within the park, the Big Hidatsa village has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The village has also been listed in the National Register. The park maintains seasonal hours and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Knife River Indian Villages website or call 701-745-3300.

Interpretive signs at each village site explain the history of the region and peoples. Other hiking trails are available; some may be skied in winter. Ranger-led tours of the reconstructed earthlodge are held hourly in the summertime. An online virtual tour is also available. Tours of the Lower Hidatsa and Sakakawea Village are available on weekends. The annual Northern Plains Indian Culture Fest is held at the park in July.

Knife River Indian Villages is also featured in the National Park Service Lewis and Clark Expedition Travel Itinerary and as a site along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The park is the subject of an online lesson plan, Knife River: Early Village Life on the Plains. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Placesprogram, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.

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Last updated: February 27, 2018