Bismarck: The Heart of the Lewis & Clark Trail. (Special Advertising Section)

By Gregory, Steve | American Heritage, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Bismarck: The Heart of the Lewis & Clark Trail. (Special Advertising Section)


Gregory, Steve, American Heritage


TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, THE REGION NOW OCCUPIED BY THE TWIN CITIES OF BISMARCK AND MANDAN, NORTH DAKOTA, STRADDLED THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN THE KNOWN WORLD AND THE UNCHARTED WILDS OF WESTERN NORTH AMERICA. EVEN BEFORE THOMAS JEFFERSON'S PURCHASE OF THE LOUISIANA TERRITORY FROM NAPOLEON BONAPARTE IN 1803, FUR TRADERS AND OTHER ADVENTURERS HAD ROUTINELY FOLLOWED THE COURSE OF THE MISSOURI RIVER TO A CLUSTER OF NATIVE AMERICAN VILLAGES SITUATED ON THE NORTHERN PLAINS--AN AREA THAT TODAY CORRESPONDS TO A STRETCH OF ROLLING PRAIRIE JUST NORTH OF THE NORTH DAKOTA CAPITAL AND ITS SISTER CITY.

What lay west of these settlements was anyone's guess until William Clark and Meriwether Lewis undertook their epic exploration of the continent between 1804 and 1806. The explorers spent more time in the Bismarck-Mandan region than any other stop along their journey, leaving behind a rich historical legacy for modern-day Lewis and Clarks to rediscover.

When Lewis and Clark and their 50-man Corps of Discovery first arrived in the fall of 1804, they had little reason to suspect that the Bismarck-Mandan territory would prove so crucial to their goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean. On October 20, 1804, the explorers pushed their keelboats and canoes past the confluence of the Heart and Missouri rivers--where Bismarck and Mandan now stand--and puzzled over the fate of three abandoned Indian villages they saw nearby. Today, contemporary wayfarers can explore those same ruined settlements at the On-A-Slant, Ward Village and Double Ditch historic sites. On-A-Slant has reconstructed four of the massive earth lodges that were once a common sight within these villages. Visitors from the 21st century can only wonder at the toil involved in erecting these earthen structures that stretched some 40 feet in diameter and stood as high as 20 feet. At Ward Village and Double Ditch, impressions left by the original earth lodges can still be seen in the ground, as can the remains of fortification ditches once used to protect the settlements. On-A-Slant is located in Mandan on the grounds of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, the former base of the U.S. 7th Cavalry and site of General George Custer's last command post before the Battle of Little Big Horn. …

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