washburn, north dakota: the lewis & clark interpretive center and fort mandan

In Washburn, I paid a visit to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.  It was a fabulous museum, but I was feeling rushed because I was determined to see Fort Mandan and get to Bismarck to visit the North Dakota Heritage Center before it closed.

In 1804, a team of young men led by Captains Lewis and Clark set off from the Missouri area on a voyage into the unknown. Their journey west – up the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean – made them the first Americans to document overland travel to the Pacific. They provided a first-hand account of their personal challenges, doubts, and triumphs.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a military operation from start to finish.  President Thomas Jefferson purposefully chose the army, knowing that only soldiers possessed the teamwork, discipline, and training appropriate for this challenging mission.

As part of a military expedition, the soldiers of the Corps of Discovery for North Western Exploration were expected to wear military uniforms.


Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn, North Dakota

With their Hidatsa neighbors, the Mandan lay at the center of trade along the Upper Missouri River, in modern central North Dakota. At the time of Lewis and Clark’s arrival, they lived in two villages, Mitutanka and Ruptáre.  The village was the center of political, economic and ceremonial activity in Mandan culture. The tribe grew crops of corn, beans, squash, sunflower, and tobacco in fields surrounding the villages.

When autumn arrived, numerous Indian tribes and Europeans descended on Mandan villages with the intention to trade.

Hidatsa villages were similar to the Mandan villages.  Unlike the Mandan, the Hidatsa regularly sent war parties westward against the Shoshone and Blackfeet. They did this not only for wealth, protection, and revenge, but for ritual reasons as well. The Hidatsa provided the Corps with key information about the route ahead.  They also indirectly introduced Lewis and Clark to the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition, the Corps of Discovery, began making its way up the Missouri River aboard a 55-foot-long keelboat and two smaller pirogues on May 21, 1804. Clark spent most of his time on the keelboat, charting the course and making maps. Lewis was often ashore, studying rock formations, animals and plants.

By July’s end, they had traveled more than 600 miles upriver, never once meeting an American Indian (May 21 – July 31, 1804).


The start of the journey

The expedition wintered in a small fort, Fort Mandan, they built near the five Mandan and Hidatsa villages at the mouth of the Knife River (Winter of 1804-1805). These villages had a population of over 5,000 people and were the hub of a well-known trade network.

After departing Fort Mandan, the Corps had to make its way further up the Missouri River until they had to cross the mountains overland.  If this part of the journey was covered here, I missed it completely. 🙂


On departing Fort Mandan

Lewis and Clark made camp south of the Columbia River near the Pacific Ocean from December 8-30, 1805.  On a slight rise along the bank of the small river, they cleared the site and built Fort Clatsop, named after the local Clatsop Indians. It rained constantly and their time at the fort was monotonous, spent making moccasins and buckskin clothing, hunting, producing salt for preserving food, and working on journals and maps.  Even Christmas Day was gloomy; the men’s dinner consisted of elk meat and roots.


Winter on the Pacific

The members of the expedition were ready to return home.  The timing of the return journey was critical to avoid snow or an iced-over Missouri River. By the third week in March, the expedition was ready to retrace its steps (December 31-March 22, 1806).

On March 23, the Corps of Discovery left Fort Clatsop and began to travel up the Columbia River.  During this leg of the journey, Chinookan Indians were a source of stress; their repeated attempts to steal supplies nearly provoked open hostilities.

Getting around the falls proved a great challenge. Less than a month after leaving Fort Clatsop, the expedition abandoned its canoes, striking out overland with horses acquired from the Walla Walla tribe (March 23 – April 28, 1806).

The expedition arrived back in Nez Perce territory almost out of food.  They had to wait until the weather improved before trying to cross the snow-covered Bitterroots.

During the wait with the Nez Perce, Lewis studied the American Indians and nature, while Clark treated sick tribe members. By early June, the expedition was ready to continue east, against the wisdom of the Nez Perce, who believed they should wait until July to cross the Bitterroots.  Lewis and Clark left Camp Choppunish and set out for the mountains in June (April 29 – June 9, 1806).

Five days after leaving the Nez Perce, the expedition started up into the mountains. Though it was spring on the Plains, it was still winter in the Bitterroots. The men got lost in the deep snow and returned to the Nez Perce for help.

On June 30, they reached Traveler’s Rest in present-day Montana.  Lewis and Clark decided that Lewis and nine men would explore the Marías River, while Clark and the others would head for the Yellowstone River (June 10 – July 2, 1806).

Soon the expedition was back at the Mandan villages, where they bade farewell to some of their members, including Sacagawea.  On August 17, the expedition departed.

On August 30th, nearly a hundred armed and mounted Sioux warriors lined the banks of the Missouri.  The Corps kept to the middle of the river, however, and the encounter was one of threats and taunts only (August 13 – September 9, 1806).

Now on the home stretch of the journey, the expedition was traveling up to 800 miles per day.  Lewis and Clark began to meet traders who informed them they had been given up for dead (September 10-23, 1806).

The challenges faced by the expedition on the route home were serious. They reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806 – two years, four months, and ten days after they had left.  Many people had given up hope of seeing them again, and they greeted the Corps with gunfire salutes and enthusiastic welcomes.

Thomas Jefferson charged the expedition with numerous goals, and these goals were carried out faithfully. Lewis and Clark were certain they carried out the number one objective of the expedition – to find the most direct route across the continent. They brought back a great deal of scientific information.  They introduced new approaches to exploration and established a model of systematically recording data.

President Jefferson did not order anyone other than the captains to keep journals, but seven of the sergeants also kept journals. Writing was one of the principal tasks of the captains, one that they generally fulfilled. Historian and editor Donald Jackson once observed that Lewis and Clark were “the writingest explorers of their time.  They wrote constantly and abundantly, afloat and ashore, legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose.”


journals of Lewis & Clark


a map of journal entries


The documents and objects sent to President Jefferson are now known as the Fort Mandan Miscellany. The Miscellany is an important expression of the Enlightenment purposes of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.


mineral artifacts and biological specimens from Lewis & Clark


I loved seeing the famous watercolors from Swiss painter Karl Bodmer and Maximilian of Wied’s expedition from 1832-1834.


Winter Village of the Minatarres by Karl Bodmer


Aquatints by Karl Bodmer


Aquatints by Karl Bodmer


Encampment of the Travelers by Karl Bodmer

Another section of the museum had portraits of Native Americans by Karl Bodmer.  I showed them in the post: native american portraits.

There was also a special exhibit at the museum, “Creating Sacagawea,” with paintings or depictions of Sacagawea.

Sacagawea was an American Indian mother who accompanied Lewis and Clark from Fort Mandan to the Pacific Ocean, and back to the Knife River villages. She was one of Toussaint Charbonneau’s two wives. She was industrious, courageous, and endured much to travel with the Corps carrying baby “Pomp” on her back. There are many legends about her from speculative sources.  She was not a guide, but an interpreter. Though she provided secondary assurances about the peaceful nature of the expedition to Indians they encountered, she did so only after the Nez Perce softened the blow of the sudden arrival of the white strangers. Finally, though Sacagawea and William Clark were fond of each other, there was no evidence of a romantic relationship.

Hidatsa women were expert farmers who owned the fields they worked.  After being kidnapped at a young age from her Shoshone people, Sacagawea would have adapted to her new Hidatsa way of life. Women brought their infant children while they worked in the field; Pomp is seen resting in his cradleboard.


Sacagawea (2001) by Michael Haynes

Haynes depicts Sacagawea as she and her son Jean Baptiste may have looked shortly after the Expedition.  Although no one knows exactly what she looked like, images from artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer’s paintings of Hidatsa women in the 1830s provide insight into the style and clothing of the day.


Starting the Fire (2001) by Michael Haynes

On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to Jean Baptiste Charbonneau after a painful and arduous labor.  Many paintings depict her with her child, highlighting her motherhood.


Birth of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (1999) by Vern Erickson

Sacagawea’s death is a mystery.  Two stories emerge: she made it back to her Shoshone people and died an old woman, or she died around age 24 from a putrid fever in 1812.  The latter, and more likely scenario, is depicted here showing Sacagawea shrouded and placed on a scaffold.


Death of Sakakawea (Sacagawea) (2000) by Vern Erickson

This is a smaller version of 21-foot-tall heroic group Bob Scriver made for Fort Benton, Montana in 1976.  It’s a classic 20th century depiction of the expedition.  The figures wear fringed leather clothing and Lewis wears a tricorn hat.  Importantly, the figures are gazing at the trail ahead.


Captain Lewis, Captain Clark and Sacajawea (1974) by Bob Scriver

Here, Sacagawea is depicted wearing a fringed dress, baby in tow, looking off into the distance.


Square Buttes on the Missouri (1950) by Henry Lorentzen

Walter Piehl shows Sacagawea on horseback like a mounted warrior and she and Jean Baptiste have halos like a Madonna portrait.


Mother and Child (2004) by Walter Piehl

Standing stoically in the foreground, Sacagawea’s gaze follows the outstretched hand pointing to the distance, perhaps watching the bison and pronghorn antelope, or maybe gazing at the miles still to travel.


Sakakawea (Sacagawea) (2003) by Vern Erickson

One of the women bringing gifts to the Expedition may have been Sacagawea.  Some gifts were tangible, like the food or beaded belt she gave to help Lewis purchase a sea otter pelt. Others were intangible, like her friendship, her knowledge of the land, her connections to its people, her fluency in Shoshone, and the uplifting presence of her baby, Jean Baptiste.


Sacagawea’s First Gift (2001) by Michael Haynes

In 1972, Vern Erickson was commissioned to paint this mural for the new North Dakota Department of Transportation building.


Big White (Sheheke) Greets the Corps of Discovery (1972) by Vern Erickson

I went quickly to Fort Mandan, where I ran out and looked briefly at the fort and the soldiers’ quarters behind heavy log doors.

Five months into the journey, in the winter of 1804, the Lewis & Clark Expedition broke for winter near this spot.  They built Fort Mandan, named after the local Mandan Indians.  In the company of the Mandan and Hidatsa, the men rested, socialized, and studied their Indian hosts.

The fully-furnished quarters bring to life what it was like for the brave men in the Corps of Discovery during that North Dakota winter over 200 years ago.

By the time Lewis and Clark passed through on their return journey in 1806, Fort Mandan had burned down. Since then, the exact location of the fort has been lost. The replica here today was completed by the McLean County Historical Society in 1972, using the same dimensions and primary materials as the original.


Fort Mandan

The Mandan supplied the Americans with food throughout the winter at their newly constructed home, Fort Mandan.  In exchange, they received a steady stream of trade goods.


Fort Mandan


Fort Mandan

The swivel gun in the courtyard could be loaded with a dozen or more musket balls (called grapeshot) and fired as a last defense in case of attack.  Fortunately, they never had to fire it.


Fort Mandan


soldiers’ quarters at Fort Mandan


soldiers’quarters at Fort Mandan


quarters at Fort Mandan


dining at Fort Mandan


quarters at Fort Mandan

I left Washburn at 3:20 and hightailed it 38 miles to  Bismarck, crossing Painted Woods Creek.  I finally arrived at 4:00 at the North Dakota Heritage Center, with only an hour to spare before closing.

All information is from plaques and brochures from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

*Thursday, September 12, 2019*