Printed in the Jan. 5, 2005 edition of the I.V. News
In 1682 Robert La Salle, a Frenchman, traveled from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River to its mouth and claimed all the land draining into the Mississippi for France. This region came to be known as Louisiana, named for Louis XIV of France. New Orleans was founded in 1718 and French settlers begin moving up the Mississippi River and establishing settlements. In 1762 all the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River was given to Charles III of Spain for a wedding present but it took nearly two years before the settlers were notified of the change. The land east of the Mississippi passed to England as a consequence of the French and Indian War or the Seven Year’s War, as it was known in Europe.
As part of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe, Spain was forced to give back the Louisiana region to France in 1800 but not until 1803 did the official transfer ceremony actually take place. 1803 was also the year when the United States purchased the territory from France and Lewis and Clark were sent to explore the northern part of the region and then continue west to the Pacific Ocean. On Nov. 2, 1804 the Lewis and Clark expedition began construction of their wintering fort at the point where the Knife River enters the Missouri River, near the location of Bismark, North Dakota. This was also the location of a large encampment of Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, therefore the fort was called Fort Mandan. It was constructed primarily from cottonwood trees that were growing along the river banks. The men were able to move into their new quarters on Nov. 30. It would be a long cold winter. After putting in the finishing touches on their new home, the men spent the winter collecting firewood and hunting for fresh food supplies. It wasn’t all work however, because the next spring they had many complaints of venereal disease among the men ..
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the winter at Ft. Mandan doing varied activities. Lewis organized his notes and collections that he had made on the trip so far. The keelboat would be sent back to St. Louis in the spring with his valuable scientific information. The trip down the river and on to Washington D.C. by way of the Gulf of Mexico, ruined much of his collections and notes, but a surprising number still survive to the present time. Lewis and Clark both spent a lot of time collecting information about the area which they would travel through on the next stage of their journey.
British and French had also found these two tribes to be very friendly and helpful in the fur trading business and had been visiting the area for many years. Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trapper, was hired as a translator and guide. This brought Sacajawea, or Sacagawea, into the expedition as well. Later, in the Rocky Mountains, Sacajawea would speak in her original Shoshoni language to the Indians. Then she would translate into Hidatsa, Charbonneau translated Hidatsa into French, several of the expedition members could translate French into English for the captains. Answers went back through the chain in the reverse order. It was a long and cumbersome process but was successful in most cases. When all else failed, they could always rely on George Drouillard, the expedition’s hunter who was very proficient in sign language, to overcome any communication problems.
The expedition leaders were able to obtain much knowledge about their proposed route and difficulties to be expected from the Indian tribes along the way. The winter of 1804-05 at Fort Mandan was a five month rest from traveling but a very busy time keeping warm and fed and even attempting to go out on a war party to punish the Sioux.