The famous “Corps of Discovery” made its expedition along the Missouri River in North Dakota, near fur-trading forts and Indian villages.
By Candice Helseth
Near the start of the 19th century, the Corps of Discovery, a group of men led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, set out to explore America’s newest land acquisition “” the Louisiana Purchase. They departed on their journey from St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1804 and arrived at the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. While traveling to the ocean and back, the Corps spent more time in the region that would become North Dakota “” 146 nights “” than anywhere else.
As the United States observes the bicentennial of the exploration “” which will continue through the anniversary of the Corps’ return to St. Louis in the fall of 1806 “” thousands of visitors are flocking to North Dakota to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail. FMCA members who attend the association’s 74th International Convention in Minot, North Dakota, will find many of the Lewis and Clark sites within easy driving distance. You can plan a two- or three-day trip prior to or after the convention, or make a day trip to any of these locations.
The fort and the winter
Lewis and Clark’s group stopped in late October 1804 near villages inhabited by Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. Across the Missouri River from these settlements, they began to build a fort they dubbed Fort Mandan. It was their home until early April 1805.
Commemorating the Corps’ encampment are two sites located one hour south of Minot via U.S. 83. They are near the little town of Washburn, population 1,500. Together they compose one of the official sites on the national Lewis and Clark Trail “” and a very good place to start your own exploration.
Just north of Washburn, at the intersection of U.S. 83 and State Route 200A, is the $3 million Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, built in 1997. The center’s attractions include American Indian artifacts; American history exhibits; and a collection of watercolors by artist Karl Bodmer, who chronicled the lives of the 1800s Plains Indians. In an area that overlooks the Missouri River rests a canoe, similar to the six canoes Lewis and Clark built that winter at Fort Mandan. Area volunteers felled a cottonwood tree with handsaws and then spent two months using hand axes to complete this replica.
Two miles west of the interpretive center on McLean County Highway 17 is the authentically reconstructed, fully furnished Fort Mandan. It appears to be almost as the Corps left it. Fort Mandan buzzes in the summer as historical re-enactors relive the late 1800s. A blacksmith works at the forge, telling stories about that long winter when he and other members of the expedition likely would not have survived without the assistance of the nearby Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. Other re-enactors, clad in 1800s garments, make lead balls for muzzle-loaders, build canoes, and perform tasks similar to those undertaken by Corps of Discovery members.
At Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark met Sakakawea, the young Indian wife of a French fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, a man they hired as an interpreter. She gave birth to a baby boy named Jean Baptiste “” nicknamed Pomp “” during the winter in the fort. Sakakawea’s presence with the group as it traveled during the following months proved to be of great assistance as they encountered other Indians.
The interpretive center and Fort Mandan are open daily year-round “” 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in summer. Admission to both is included in one ticket price. The cost is $7.50 for adults and $5 for students in grades kindergarten through college. For more information, call (877) 462-8535, (701) 462-8535, or visit www.fortmandan.com.
In downtown Washburn, local artist Bill Reynolds decorated the length of a building with a hand-painted mural depicting the expedition’s winter in Fort Mandan. As you drive down Main Street in Washburn, be sure to stop by two museums operated by the McLean County Historical Society. They contain everything from bison hide coats to antique typewriters. Call (701) 462-3660 for more information.
Fur traders and local tribes
Fifteen miles west of Washburn along State Route 200A is Fort Clark State Historic Site. The fort was erected in 1830-31 by the American Fur Company to serve a Mandan Indian village built there in 1822.
On a self-guided tour of the fort, you’ll learn about the steamboat era, including events significant to the site. The first steamboat to travel the Upper Missouri River, the Yellow Stove, arrived in this area in 1832. The St. Peters docked there in 1837, its passengers infected with smallpox, and the disease soon created a tragic epidemic among the Indians.
Another fur trade bastion, Primeau’s Post, was constructed near Fort Clark in 1850 by a competitor. Its remains are situated on the southeastern edge of the village. Depressions in the ground mark locations of earth lodges built by Mandan and Arikara Indians, and other marks indicate where produce once was stored. Fort Clark Trading Post is open daily in the summer, and admission is free. Rest rooms, a picnic area, and an observation deck are provided.
Nearby Cross Ranch State Park offers camping in a world of unspoiled beauty. This nature preserve is home to wandering buffalo herds, part of a diverse community of plant, bird, and animal life. The land remains nearly the same as it was 200 years ago when the Corps of Discovery came through. The park campground imposes a 35-foot length limit, and a small number of sites come with electricity.
Step into a full-scale reconstruction of a Hidatsa Indian earth lodge at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site and learn how the Northern Plains Indians lived. It is located a few miles north of Fort Clark, a half-mile north of Stanton on County Road 37.
The lodge features authentic furnishings. As at Fort Clark, the archaeological remains of actual Indian homes are still visible on this land, which has been largely untouched since Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traded there with the Hidatsas.
At the time of Lewis and Clark’s visit, the village was one of the largest, most sophisticated trade meccas in the region. Its influence spread as far as New Mexico to the south and Ohio to the east. Miles of trails reveal the remains of earth lodge dwellings, cache pits, fortification ditches, and travois trails, including Sakakawea’s home village. Evidence suggests this site was occupied for more than 11,000 years.
You’ll also want to check out the on-site visitors center. The foyer, the same size and shape as an earth lodge, contains a fire ring and smoke hole in the center. The facility also includes a bookstore, interpretive displays, a 15-minute orientation film, and a museum.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is open year-round, from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer, and admission is free. For more information, call (701) 745-3300 or (701) 745-3309, or visit www.nps.gov/knri.
Travel through time
Depending on the amount of time you have, you may want to incorporate other sites into your Lewis and Clark itinerary. The North Dakota Tourism Division has developed an official “North Dakota Lewis and Clark Trail Guide” with descriptions and a map of 26 sites (see the accompanying “Further Info” for contact information).
If you decide to travel northwest to the remainder of the sites noted here, you may want to rest and relax in some of the fine parks along the way. Lake Sakakawea’s shoreline meanders for 1,300 miles and covers two time zones and six counties. Three state parks and at least six privately owned campgrounds, several with RV hookups, are nestled within its domain. Boat rentals are available in several places. Fishing, birding, biking, hiking, and picnicking are popular activities at the parks. Primary fishing is for walleye, northern pike, and smallmouth bass.
Fort Stevenson State Park, named for a late 1800s frontier fort, offers a marina with fishing boat and canoe rentals; a swimming area; hiking trails; and a picnic area. It is located along Lake Sakakawea near Garrison, and has a campground with electrical hookups.
In the little town of Parshall, east of New Town near the intersection of state routes 23 and 37, is a fascinating place. The Paul Broste Rock Museum contains cut, ground, and polished rocks “” collected by a local farmer “” that are so rare it’s said that their counterparts can be found only in such repositories as the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. One room is dedicated to “trees” made from polished rock spheres.
Rock hounds “” and those who typically are not “” will be impressed. The museum is open May through September, Tuesday through Sunday, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; for more information, call (701) 862-3264.
From Parshall travel west to New Town and then northwest on State Route 1804. In April 1805 the Corps of Discovery camped at what is now Lewis and Clark State Park, located on the upper bays of Lake Sakakawea off State Route 1804. The park’s campground offers sites with electrical hookups and a dump station.
We conclude this journey near Williston, where in April 1805 Lewis and Clark noted in their journals that the place where the Yellowstone River joins the Missouri River would be an “excellent spot for a trading post.” Fort Union was constructed at the confluence of these rivers in 1828, and became the top fur trading post in the region.
The Fort Union Trading Post has been reconstructed and is a must-see for FMCA visitors traveling to Williston.
Stone bastions, interpretive markers, and an Indian trade house stand again. The Bourgeois House, once the dwelling of the man in charge of the fort, serves as the visitors center today and includes exhibits and a bookstore.
Fort Union is open daily in summer, and admission is free. For more information, call (701) 572-9038, or visit www.nps.gov/fous.
Built in 2003, the $2.2 million Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center “” located near Fort Union “” depicts the story of the joining of these two mighty rivers. Largely unchanged since Lewis and Clark were there, the area’s unusual geology will interest you. You’ll also learn about the settlers who arrived once the expedition had paved the way for them.
Next door to this facility is Fort Buford State Historic Site, once a key frontier Army post and best known as the spot where Chief Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881. Three of the original buildings remain, and two have been restored to reflect the time period when they were used. A museum is located in the original field officers’ quarters.
The Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center and Fort Buford have a combined admission price of $5 for adults and $2.50 for children ages 6 to 15. Both are open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer. For more information about either site, call (701) 572-9034.
After exploring these sites, you will have a better understanding of what Lewis and Clark encountered on their historic journey, and a better appreciation for the people who lived here long before they arrived.
North Dakota Tourism Division
1600 E. Century Ave., Suite 2
Bismarck, ND 58503-2057
Commercial campgrounds are located throughout the area. Check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com, for listings.
More information about the North Dakota State Park campgrounds mentioned in this story is available by contacting:
North Dakota Parks & Recreation Dept.
1600 E. Century Ave., Suite 3
Bismarck, ND 58503-0649
(800) 807-4723 “” campground information/reservations
(701) 328-5357 “” campground information