Accounts of recorded history in the early 18th century identify three closely related village groups. These groups were identified as the Hidatsa Proper, largest of the three, the Awatixa, a smaller group, and the Awaxawi.
The three Hidatsa village groups spoke distinct dialects. The largest of the three were the Hidatsa Proper (Hiratsa) whose own name for themselves meant “willows.” The French and English traders called them Gros Ventre, mistaking them for an Algonquian-speaking tribe living in north-central Montana. A smaller group, the Awatixa, lived near the Hidatsa Proper. Lewis and Clark referred to them as the “Little Mentarre Village” in contrast to the “Grand Village of the Minetarrees.” The most separate group, in culture and dialect, from the others were the Awaxawi, who lived further south of the Knife River and were closely associated with the Mandans. Another name traders and travelers used for this group was Wiitas how nu, a Sahnish term used to name all the Hidatsa groups, which translates both as “well dressed men” and “people of the water.” (Matthews, 1877, p. 36)
During 1600–1700, these groups of Hidatsa moved westward, occupying sections of the Missouri River and its tributaries. The Awatixa band of Hidatsa became agricultural and settled at the mouth of the Knife River. According to the traditions of the Mandan and Hidatsa, the last migration was of a nomadic people who had lived northeastward of Devils Lake. This group separated after quarreling over the division of a buffalo. Those who moved farther upstream along the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers were the River Crow who became known as the “Paunch” Indians. Those who remained near the other Hidatsa villages were known as the Hidatsa.
During the period of recorded history, beginning with David Thompson in 1797 and continuing to 1837, the Hidatsa were three, independent, closely related, village groups whose size remained unchanged. Thompson visited these groups in their winter camps in 1797 and gave the following figures for households by village groups: Awatixa, 31 earthlodges and 7 tipis; Hidatsa, 82 earthlodges; Awaxawi and Mandan, 15 Awaxawi and 37 Mandan; Mandan 153 earthlodges. Thompson estimated the population to be 1,520 Mandans and 1,330 Hidatsa. In 1833, Maximilian estimated the total population to be 2,100 to 2,200. (Bowers, 1992, p. 11)
Subsequent explorers and fur traders such as Mackintosh in 1771, LeRaye in 1802, Lewis and Clark in 1804–1805, and Alexander Henry in 1806 were aware of the different cultures of the three Hidatsa villages and the Crow. Catlin in 1832 did not recognize the Awaxawi as a separate tribe.
In 1833, Maximilian reported that the Hidatsa groups were in the same villages when Toussaint Charbonneau came to the Missouri in 1797. The Awatixa and Awaxawi were not living at the mouth of Knife River when Maximilian described an attack by the Sioux. This incident provides a date for the final union of the three Hidatsa village groups at the mouth of Knife River. There they remained in close associations until 1837 when they scattered to escape a second smallpox epidemic. (Bowers, p. 17)
The Awaxawi at one time lived as nomads in the east as agriculturists, and later at Devils Lake. They later lived downstream of the Heart River and beyond the Crow to the west and the other Hidatsa/Crow group to the northeast and upstream. They lived in the Painted Woods region around the Square Buttes where they remained on friendly terms with the Mandan. The Awaxawi were downstream near the Mandan of the Hensler-Sanger region where Lewis and Clark described ruins of their villages in 1804, near old Fort Clark.
Prior to the epidemic of 1782, they had few enemies. The Hidatsa hunted upstream from the earthlodge villages at and below the Knife River. Here, between the Knife and Yellowstone Rivers, they were numerous enough to withstand attacks of the Assiniboine, who hunted in the area but rarely wintered on the Missouri River.
During this time, the Awaxawi moved upstream and attempted to build a permanent village above the Knife River only to be driven out by the Hidatsa Proper. War broke out between them that lasted three years. The Awaxawi moved downstream near Fort Yates and built a village near the friendlier Cheyenne. This conflict with the Hidatsa Proper and temporary residence below the Mandan was prior to 1782, as the Awaxawi were in the Painted Woods region during the first recorded smallpox epidemic. (Dunn, 1963, p. 159)
Early history and migrations of Awatixa have them occupying positions on the Missouri River, specifically around and upstream from Painted Woods. They have no traditions of permanent residence elsewhere. It was in this area that they believe the clans originated.
The Hidatsa Proper
The group known as the Hidatsa Proper lived on the north bank of the Knife River. They were an agricultural and nomadic group. Their territory ranged upstream along the Missouri River, its tributary regions to the west, and the Mouse River and Devils Lake regions to the northeast.
The Hidatsa Proper was recognized by Thompson to be formerly agriculturists living at the headwaters of the Red River. They were a confederation of nomadic Hidatsa who came from the north to settle near the Mandan, where they adopted agriculture and permanent villages.
At the close of the 18th century, Canadian fur traders from the north, and St. Louis traders from the South, reported that the Hidatsa had 2,000 members living in three villages located near the mouth of the Knife River close to the two villages of the Mandan.
During the years 1804, 1832, 1833 and 1834, travelers to the Knife River villages indicated these villages remained the same since 1796. There was no change until the epidemic of 1837, when the survivors of the three villages formed as one on the Knife River. They remained there until 1845, when the Hidatsa and the Mandan moved up the Missouri River and established Like-A-Fishhook Village. (Matthews, 1877, p. 40)