The first known account of white traders/explorers with the Mandan is that of French trader, Sieur de La Vérendrye, in the fall of 1738, and Charles MacKenzie in 1772. Written accounts came from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who arrived among the Mandan in the fall of 1804. Alexander Henry, a trader for the Northwest Company, came to trade fur with the Mandan in 1806. Later, Henry Brackenridge and Bradbury came to the area together in 1810. The next visitor was the artist, George Catlin, who visited in the spring of 1833. German explorer Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, spent the winter months of 1833-34 among the Mandan. (Will, Spinden, pp. 86–88)
According to La Vérendrye and Charles MacKenzie, the nine villages they visited in 1738 and 1772, were the oldest Mandan villages. Vérendrye described the Mandan as being in full power and prosperity. The Mandan had not yet suffered the losses by disease and war, which caused them to leave these villages.
Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals on March 10, 1805, “The Mandan formerly lived in six large villages at and above the mouth of the Heart River.” Maximilian says, “After the first alliance with the Hidatsa, the Mandans lived in eight or nine villages at and above the Heart River.” These villages were abandoned between 1772 and 1804. (Will, Spinden, p. 90)
The Mandan had an origin narrative of coming out of the earth. In relating their story to Maximilian, they came from the east out of the earth and entered the Missouri at the White Earth River in South Dakota.
The eastern origin corresponds with that of the rest of the Siouan speaking people to which the Mandans, both linguistically and culturally, belong. The Ohio Valley would seem to have served as a point of dispersal where the Plains members of the Siouan people are supposed to have moved in four successive migrations. The earliest groups to leave consisted apparently of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Crow. Of these the Mandan were probably a number of years ahead of the other tribes. The Mandans have vivid recollections of the coming of the Hidatsa many years later and established fixed villages on the Heart River. They describe the Hidatsa as a wandering people whom they taught to build stationary villages and to raise corn, pumpkin, and other vegetables, and who soon moved up to the Knife River. (Will, Spinden, p. 97)
In the earliest historical accounts, the Mandan were firmly established in stationary villages in the neighborhood of the Heart River. Vérendrye says they were a large and powerful nation and feared none of their neighbors. The goods they produced were almost necessities among the other tribes, and in trade they were able to dictate their own terms. Their villages were well fortified. The smallest village he visited had 130 lodges. Vérendrye’s son visited one of the larger villages, declared that it was twice as large. There were at least 1,000 lodges in several villages. Lewis and Clark declared that in the two villages of 100 lodges there were 350 warriors. At this rate there should have been at least 15,000 Mandan in 1738 dwelling prosperously in large and well-fortified villages. (Will, Spinden, p. 99)
In 1700, the entire section of the Missouri from the Cannonball to the mouth of the Yellowstone was occupied by groups of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Crow. The largest villages were near the mouth of the Heart River. The Mandans were divided into bands while living at the Heart River. The bands were Is’tope, meaning “those who tattooed themselves;” Nup’tadi (does not translate), which was the largest linguistic group; Ma’nana’r “those who quarreled;” Nu’itadi “our people;” and Awi’ka-xa (does not translate).
The Nuptadi, Nuitadi, and Awigaxa Bands
The Nuptadi and Nuitadi bands of Mandan lived on both banks of the Missouri River; the Awigaxa band of Mandan lived further upstream at the Painted Woods. All these bands practiced agriculture. These groups moved little until the close of the 18th century, when their populations were sharply reduced by smallpox and other epidemics. Each village had an economic unit, hunting and protection for older remaining people, and each had a garden section.
The Mandan had created a focal point of trade on the Missouri River in the Protohistoric period. The Mandan-Hidatsa Trade Center traded garden crops for centuries. Goods bartered on the plains reached as far as the West Coast. Called the “Marketplace of the Central Plains,” the Mandan established what was to be the forerunner of trading posts that came later to the area.
The Mandan prospered and grew powerful up to 1772. Six or seven of these villages were on the west side and two or three were on the east side of the river. In 1782, smallpox struck the villages on the east side of the river. The survivors then proceeded up the river some 40 miles where they settled in one large village.
The smallpox reduced the villages on the west to five. A great many Mandan had died. The five went up to where the others were, in the neighborhood of some Arikara, and settled in two villages. Reduced in number, an alliance was formed with the Arikara against the Sioux. All this happened before 1796 and is chronicled in the journals of Alexander Henry and Henry Schoolcraft.
Lewis and Clark found the two villages, one on each side of the river and about 15 miles below the Knife River. Both villages consisted of 40 to 50 lodges and united could raise about 350 men. Lewis and Clark describe them as having united with the Hidatsa and engaging in continual warfare against the Arikara and the Sioux. The description given by Lewis and Clark agrees with the conditions two years later when Alexander Henry visited them.
In 1837, smallpox struck the Mandan villages again, raged for many weeks, and left only 125 survivors. The Mandans united with the Arikara, many of whom intermarried. They separated, again forming a small village of their own at Fort Berthold. In 1850 there were 385 Mandans, largely of mixed blood living. There are only a few of the full-blooded Mandan left. The culture has changed, the language has changed, and as a nation the Mandan are practically extinct. (Will, Spinden, p. 101) These groups combined as the tribe were decimated with each smallpox epidemic. (Bowers, 1950)