The Mandan

1832 painting of Mandan girl, Shakoka, by George Caitlin.

The Mandan are arguably one of the most interesting of the Native tribes, in part, because of the persistent belief by some that they are not entirely Native….and haven’t been since before the 1400s in the era we describe as that of “European contact.”

The Mandan today live in North Dakota, along the Missouri River, but historically, they lived in Missouri.  They are believed to have migrated from the Ohio River Valley sometime between 700 nd 1300.  They were a more settled tribe than most, establishing year round villages and permanent homes.

The first documented Mandan encounter with Europeans occurred with the visit of the French Canadian trader Sieur de la Verendrye in 1738. It is estimated that at the time of his visit, 15,000 Mandan resided in the nine villages on the Heart River, a tributary of the Missouri River near Mandan, North Dakota.

The encounter with the French in the 18th century created a trading link between the French and Native Americans of the region; the Mandan served as middlemen in the trade in furs, horses, guns, crops and buffalo products. Spanish merchants and officials in St. Louis explored the Missouri and strengthened relations with the Mandan (whom they called Mandanas) in an effort to discourage trade in the region by the English and the Americans. The Spanish sought to establish direct overland communication between Santa Fé and St. Louis.

In 1796 the Mandan were visited by the Welsh explorer John Evans, who was hoping to find proof that their language contained Welsh words. Evans had arrived in St. Louis two years prior, and after being imprisoned for a year, was hired by Spanish authorities to lead an expedition to chart the upper Missouri. Evans spent the winter of 1796–97 with the Mandan but found no evidence of any Welsh influence. In July 1797 he wrote to Dr. Samuel Jones, “Thus having explored and charted the Missurie for 1,800 miles and by my Communications with the Indians this side of the Pacific Ocean from 35 to 49 degrees of Latitude, I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians.”

The Mandan were first plagued by smallpox in the 16th century and had been hit by similar epidemics every few decades.  In 1804 when Lewis and Clark visited the tribe, the number of Mandan had been greatly reduced by smallpox epidemics and warring bands of Assiniboine, Lakota and Arikara. (Later they joined with the Arikara in defense against the Lakota.) The nine villages had been consolidated into two villages.

In 1833, artist George Catlin visited the Mandan near Fort Clark. Catlin painted and drew scenes of Mandan life as well as portraits of chiefs, including Four Bears or Ma-to-toh-pe, shown below.

Between 1837 and 1838, another smallpox epidemic swept the region. In June 1837, an American Fur Company steamboat traveled westward up the Missouri River from St. Louis. Its passengers and traders aboard infected the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes. There were approximately 1,600 Mandan living in the two villages at that time. The disease effectively destroyed the Mandan settlements. Almost all the tribal members, including the chief, Four Bears, died. Estimates of the number of survivors vary from only 27 individuals to up to 150, though most sources usually give the number 125. The survivors banded together with the nearby Hidatsa in 1845 and created Like-a-Fishhook Village.

The Mandan joined with the Arikara in 1862. By this time, Like-a-Fishhook Village had become a major center of trade in the region. By the 1880s, though, the village was abandoned. With the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the Mandan officially merged with the Hidatsa and the Arikara into the Three Affiliated Tribes, known as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

With the second half of the 19th century there was a gradual decrease in the holdings of the Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara).  Between 1851 and 1950, the federal government reduced the holdings of the Affiliated Tribes from 12 million acres originally granted to them to 900,000 acres, and then in the 1950s flooded more than 25% of that when building a dam, mostly prime agricultural land.  The Garrison dam created Lake Sakakawea, which flooded portions of the Fort Berthold Reservation including the villages of Fort Berthold and Elbowoods as well as a number of other villages. The former residents of these villages were moved and New Town was established for them.

Edward Curtis visited the Mandan in the early 1900s and took the earliest photographs of them.  This 1908 photo is of Chief Crow’s Heart.

But let’s take a step back.  Why was John Evans interested in discovering whether or not the Mandan had Welsh words in their language?  That seems rather unusual.  This was not the first report of Welsh Indians however.  In 1608 one of the Jamestown settlers reported that the Mandoag Indians spoke a language that resembled Welsh and he had been asked to interpret.  Later the Tuscarora, called the Doag, included a war captain who spoke Welsh.  A location called Devil’s Backbone about 15 miles upstream on the Ohio River from Louisville, KY was reported to be an ancient home of Welsh Indians.  Fortifications in Georgia and Alabama are also attributed to the Welsh as Indians were not known to use that type of construction.  The Cherokee in Georgia also carried the story of “moon eyed” people matching the descriptions of Europeans having lived in Georgia as well.    

In 1810, John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, wrote to his friend Major Amos Stoddard about a conversation he had in 1782 with the old Cherokee chief Oconostota concerning ancient fortifications built along the Alabama River. The chief allegedly told him that the forts had been built by a white people called “Welsh”, as protection against the ancestors of the Cherokee, who eventually drove them from the region. Sevier had also written in 1799 of the alleged discovery of six skeletons in brass armor bearing the Welsh coat-of-arms.

18th-century reports about characteristics of Mandan lodges, religion and physical features among tribal members, such as blue and grey eyes along with lighter hair coloring, stirred speculation about the possibility of pre-Columbian European contact. Catlin believed the Mandan were the “Welsh Indians” of folklore, descendants of Prince Madoc and his followers who emigrated to America from Wales in about 1170. This view was popular at the time but has since been disputed by the bulk of scholarship, although in some circles is it certainly not considered resolved.

Later speculation has suggested the Mandan may have had pre-Columbian contact with Viking explorers. Controversial interpretations of the Kensington Runestone, found in 1898 in the largely rural township of Solem, Douglas County, Minnesota, have cited the runestone as evidence of Viking presence. There is no known evidence of Mandan-Viking contact, however. This theory is not supported generally by members of the intellectual establishment such as anthropologists and professional historians.  Furthermore, if the Mandan were living in the Ohio River Valley before their migration to the Missouri River area, the would not have been living in close proximity to the runestone if the Vikings were in Minnesota.

DNA evidence in this case might prove interesting, but it would be necessary to be able to identify lines of descent that went back to the survivors of the smallpox epidemic of 1837 and 1838.  After that, they were intermarried with the Arikara and Hidatsa.  The last full-blooded Mandan was Mattie Grinnell who died in 1971.

You can read more about the Mandan at this link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandan

You can read more about Prince Madoc and Welsh Indians at this link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madoc

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About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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4 Responses to The Mandan

  1. Mo Fletcher says:

    One of ~THE~ most interesting of your [ seemingly endless 🙂 ] wonderful articles for your Nat Herit Proj, Roberta.
    * If Caitlin’s painting is ‘true-to-form’, then Shakoka =surely= possessed an unmistakeably great batch of Northwestern or Northern European genes.
    * And thanks so much for enabling my continuing education — in this case, specifically regarding Madoc and the Welsh Indians tales. [ You may just have uncovered the basis of my true, but heretofore elusive or hidden, KY heritage.

  2. Bethel Cuttino says:

    Smallpox, a highly contagious disease, is unique only to humans. The smallpox virus is caused by two virus variants called Variola major and Variola minor. Variola major is the more deadly form of the virus; it usually has a mortality rte of 20-40 percent of those that are infected with the virus. Variola minor on the other hand is much less severe and only kills 1% of its victims. Neither of the Variola’s are bugs that you want to get. Avoid them at all costs!..

  3. Elizabeth Hancock says:

    I am Mandan Indian 1/16th. I cant say how and when but I am.

  4. Kusaw says:

    To Elizabeth Hancock get a Dna test to see the connection.

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