Winter at Fort Mandan

Winter at Fort Mandan

At the Knife River Villages, the winter of 1804–05 is brutally cold but the nearby Mandans and Hidatsas prove to be warm hosts. The captains hope to establish trade relations with them, but the Lakota Sioux try to disrupt any alliances they make.

Also at the villages are several employees of the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies. The captains hire one of their employees, Toussaint Charbonneau, as an interpreter on the condition that he bring his Lemhi Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. On 11 February, she gives birth to the couple’s son, Jean Baptiste.

The men go on long hunting trips and visit the nearby villages from time to time. The three blacksmiths forge war axes and trade them and other forged goods for Mandan garden produce. Patrick Gass heads a detachment to make the five dugout canoes which will replace the keeled boat once the river ice breaks up.

Joseph Gravelines

The Arikara-resident trader and interpreter Gravelines proved to be so reliable and so good at the immediate tasks put to him that long after the Lewis and Clark Expedition he was employed by the United States government to represent its interests among the Arikara.


Articles and journal entries

Speaking Hidatsa and Shoshone, she was an interpreter beyond value yet never on the payroll. Still, Sacagawea remains the third most famous member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The Knife River Villages

Reaching the mouth of the Knife River on 27 October 1804, the expedition arrived in the midst of a major agricultural center and marketplace for a huge mid-continental region. The five permanent earth lodge communities there offered a panorama of contemporary Indian life.

Synopsis Part 2

Fort Mandan to the Marias River

Near the mouth of the Knife, in late October 1804, the expedition settled down for the winter. After the river ice broke up, the keelboat left for St. Louis and six new dugout canoes headed the opposite direction, up the Missouri river.

Fort Mandan Winter

The captains ordered work to begin on the Corps of Discovery’s winter fortification on 2 November 1804. The quarters, the storage rooms, and the 16-foot pickets front and back, were designed for defense against hostile Indians, especially the Sioux.

November 2, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND Lewis sets out to trade for corn, Clark picks a location for Fort Mandan, and the men begin felling trees. Arikara chief Too Né leaves with several Mandans.

The Fort Mandan Observations

Celestial measurements from 26 days

In January 1798, Thompson took celestial observations at the villages and determined them to be at a latitude of 47°17’22″N and a longitude of 101°14’24″W. Why then did Lewis and Clark think it necessary to take twenty-six observations?

The Northern Lights

“Late at night we were awaked by the sergeant on guard to see the beautiful phenomenon called the northern light….” What did Meriwether Lewis and William Clark understand about the aurora borealis? Scientific theories of their time may sound a bit fanciful today.

November 11, 1804

Charbonneau’s buffalo robes

Fort Mandan, ND Toussaint Charbonneau and two Indian women bring buffalo robes. The enlisted men continue with construction, and Lewis calculates latitude.

November 12, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND Sheheke (Big White), chief of the Mitutanka village, and his wife, likely Yellow Corn, visit Fort Mandan. She carries 100 pounds of meat and Sheheke tells the Mandan creation story.

November 13, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND The day is cold and snowy. Lewis’s group gets into the icy water and tries to move a pirogue loaded with chimney stones across a sandbar. The keeled boat must be unloaded, and an Assiniboine chief visits Clark.

November 25, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND Lewis, both interpreters, and five men embark on a diplomatic mission to a Hidatsa village. Two Hidatsa chiefs come to Fort Mandan with similar intentions.

December 9, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND Lewis leads a party that will hunt and bring in buffalo meat from previous hunts. Four horses and a dog sled loaded with meat return. Lewis stays at the hunters’ camp about five miles from the fort.

December 18, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND Three visiting fur traders leave the fort, and Clark updates his maps using the geographic information obtained from them. Due to the cold, guard duty is shortened, and a buffalo hunt is canceled.

December 25, 1804

Fort Mandan, ND The men wake the captains by firing their guns and cannon. They celebrate Christmas with special food, rum, and dancing. Three Indian wives watch the men dance until 9 p.m. after which all is in “peace & quietness.”

January 1, 1805

A new year at Fort Mandan

Fort Mandan, ND New Year’s day is celebrated with cannon fire and several men are allowed to visit a nearby Mandan village to celebrate and dance. Clark orders York to dance. The day is warm with rain but the night is cold and snowy.

January 29, 1805

Fort Mandan, ND Lewis must substitute water with spirituous liquor to make a reflective surface for his sextant. The blacksmiths make war axes and others try to free the boats from the river ice.

February 11, 1805

Delivering baby Charbonneau

Fort Mandan, ND After a tedious and painful labor, Sacagawea gives birth to her first baby, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Clark, hunting about 40 miles to the south, heads back towards the fort.

February 16, 1805

Fort Mandan, ND Lewis and his men continue their pursuit of a Sioux war party and come to an old Mandan village where the hunter’s cache of meat that has been pillaged and two lodges set afire.

February 23, 1805

Freeing the white pirogue

Fort Mandan, ND The men take advantage of the warm day to free the white pirogue from the ice that threatens to sink it. The Indian boy with amputated toes is taken home on a sled.

March 9, 1805

Grand Hidatsa Chief Le Borgne

Fort Mandan, ND The Grand Chief of the Hidatsas pays his first visit to Fort Mandan. He is given gifts and Lewis demonstrates the air gun. York is the first black man ever seen by the chief.

March 25, 1805

Fort Mandan, ND The river ice begins breaking up imperiling the new canoes as they travel to the fort. Two men are making a new steering oar for the (keel)boat.

April 3, 1805

Packing up Jefferson’s things

Fort Mandan, ND The men use the day to pack the animal, plant, and mineral specimens, as well as Indian artifacts collected thus far. The collection will be shipped to President Jefferson on the “Big Barge” known today as the keelboat.

Clark’s Fort Mandan Maps

While wintering over at Fort Mandan, Clark made a series of maps based on Indian information and previous traders such as John Evans and François Larocque.