Community Opinion

Upside Down Under

Obscure ND history

You can find all kinds of treasures when you drive around North Dakota, hidden treasures that aren’t always on the glossy brochures that are handed out. There’s also a lot more history to this land area that became North Dakota. It actually dates back to nearly 50 years before the United States actually existed.

By Marvin Baker

For those who have studied history, or enjoy it as a pastime, they would know of some of the places that were once important and still hold significance in our history. The earliest recorded history dates back to 1738 when French Canadian explorer Pierre La Verendrye trekked through the northern tier of what is now North Dakota looking to bolster his fur trade.

Nearly a century later, in 1822, the Mandan Indians built a village of earth lodges along the bank of the Missouri River in what is now Oliver County. The Mandans were an agrarian tribe, growing crops in the summer and taking shelter during the winter months.

In 1830, James Kipp, an employee of the American Fur Co., built the Fort Clark Trading Post south of the Mandan village in hopes of enhancing trade with the Mandans. By 1834, Francis Chardon, the head trader, documented daily life at Fort Clark, which is why this mostly forgotten trading post retains significance to this day. It was never a military fort like Fort Rice or Fort Ransom; Fort Clark was designed and built for trading.

The first steamboat that navigated the upper Missouri arrived in Fort Clark in 1832 delivering 1,500 gallons of liquor and other trade goods. It later set sail for St. Louis with 100 packs of beaver pelts and bison robes. Soon thereafter, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin and Prince Maximilian would visit. But it was a steamboat called the St. Peters that docked at Fort Clark in 1837 carrying passengers infected with smallpox, that put Fort Clark on the map.

The disease swept through the Mandan village killing 90 percent of the inhabitants. A couple of months later, survivors fled to join the Hidatsas at the Knife River. The epidemic also killed approximately 50 percent of the Arikara tribe, and in 1838, they moved into the abandoned village at Fort Clark to grow their crops and barter at the trading post.

Tragically, in 1851, an outbreak of cholera and a second smallpox outbreak in 1856 further reduced their population. The Arikaras continued to use the village as their summer home until they moved to Star Village near Fort Berthold in 1862 and sometime later became the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

In 1860, half of Fort Clark was lost in a fire, and in 1861, a second trading post called Primeau’s Post and the Arikara village were abandoned after an attack by the Dakota Sioux.

Today, Fort Clark is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been nominated as a National Historic Landmark. More than 2,200 surface features represent the ruins of houses, graves, storage pits and other cultural remains. Clusters of small, circular depressions and donut-shaped mounds near railroad tracks mark graves. The unmarked cemetery, with approximately 800 graves, personifies the epidemics that nearly annihilated the occupants of the Mandan and Arikara villages.

Many casual motorists drive by not even knowing the history that took place at Fort Clark. Signs along N.D. Alternate Highway 200 indicate the historical significance, otherwise, you could drive right past and be totally oblivious to it all.

Fort Clark is located in Oliver County, which is between Washburn (east) in McLean County and Stanton (west) in Mercer County. There was a power plant just to the west of Fort Clark that was imploded in October last year. It was a striking landmark.

If you are coming in from the west, continue traveling east of Hazen and instead of turning north to go to Garrison Dam, continue east toward Stanton, round the bend, drive a few miles and you will have arrived. The drive from either direction is especially pretty in September when the leaves are changing color. In a lot of ways, the winding road, the bluffs, the river, remind us of driving through rural New Hampshire in autumn.

The area is quite different than it was 280 years ago when Verendrye arrived. The history, however, should never be forgotten.