Lewis and Clark Expedition: Fort Mandan

Lewis and Clark Picture

In late October 1804 the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the earthlodge villages of the friendly Mandan Native Indian tribe that were located north of the site of modern-day Bismarck, North Dakota. The Corps of Discovery built its winter encampment nearby alongside the Missouri River, near modern day Washburn, North Dakota.

They called their encampment Fort Mandan in honor of the helpful and friendly Native Indian tribe. The building of Fort Mandan commenced on November 3, 1804 and the structure was completed on December 24, 1804. The members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed at Fort Mandan until April 06, 1805.

Fort Mandan

Fort Mandan

Lewis and Clark Expedition: Facts about Fort Mandan

1. As can be seen by the above picture Fort Mandan was built in a triangular shape surrounded by an 18 feet high fence.

2. The gates faced the Missouri River for easy access to the river and sight of the location of the nearest Mandan village.

3. The construction was made of cottonwood logs from the riverbank of the Missouri. William Clark marked the occasion in his journal on November 3, 1804 stating "We commence building our cabins."

4. Captain William Clark reported in his journal that the "works consisted of two rows of huts or sheds, forming an angle where they joined each other; each row containing four rooms, of 14 feet square and 7 feet high, with plank ceiling, and the roof slanting so as to form a loft above the rooms, the highest point of which is 18 feet from the ground".

5. The highest part of the structure was eighteen feet from the ground and the backs of the huts formed a wall of that height, and opposite the angle the place of the wall was supplied by picketing.

6. The men of the Corps of Discovery were billeted in the rooms. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark shared a room. Two rooms were used as storage facilities for stores and provisions.

7. There were five Native American Indian villages near Fort Mandan which were the  residence of three distinct nations: the Mandans, the Ahnahaways, and the Minnetarees.

8. Fort Mandan was built with several goals in mind:

The fort had to be big enough to provide shelter for the Corps of Discovery and also to hold the stores and provisions
The construction had to be weather-proof against the rain and the snow
It had to be quick and easy to build

9. The roofs of this type of building consisted of a simple ridgepole with split logs running down to the top of the wall, with the gables filled in with planks or timbers. The roofs would have been covered with anything that would prevent them from leaking.

10. The doors would have been made of planks and nails and probably had a wooden latch.

11. Fireplaces would have been made from either stone or mud brick, depending on what was available. chimneys were often placed between two rooms so that each room might share in the chimney.

12. The buildings in Fort Mandan were surrounded by a stockade, as with all military constructions of the period. to build the stockade a trench would first be dug and poles were then planted and the trench was then filled  again. The poles would be held together by fixing them to cross pieces with wooden pegs.

13. The men of the Corps of Discovery had many other skills, besides soldiering and included carpenters and blacksmiths whose abilities were invaluable when building Fort Mandan.

14: The winter spent at Fort Mandan was bitterly cold and some of the men even suffered from frostbite. The Keelboat was frozen solid in the Missouri River and Captain Clark wrote that the Native Indians had to "...to bare more Cold than I thought it possible for man to endure."

15: The construction provided some shelter from the elements and the men spent much of their time indoors making and repairing their uniforms and repairing their equipment.

16. Whilst the expedition wintered at Fort Mandan they met  Sacajawea who was just 16 years old and pregnant. Sacajawea was not supposed to be part of the expedition but her husband, Touissant Charbonneau, insisted that she came with them. The expedition also thought that they could use Sacajawea to help with navigating and in interpreting. Her child, named Pomp, was believed to have been born at the fort in February 1805.

17. Lewis and Clark prepared reports and specimens to be sent back home on the keelboat.

18. Despite the harsh weather conditions the men appeared to enjoy their time spent at Fort Mandan where they spent many nights with the Native Indians celebrating with dancing and singing and witnessing customs such as the famous Buffalo Dance.

19. In the spring of 1804, after wintering at Fort Mandan,  a few members of the Lewis and Clark expedition returned home on the keelboat, loaded with plant and animal specimens and reports that were presented to President Thomas Jefferson.

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