Coalition K. Lughart photo
Ears of corn ready
to be braided.
Drawn by Goodbird, 1915. Black carbon and pencil on paper. MHS Goodbird 1915:fig.
28 (Gilman: 1987).
Thompson's map of 1798, showing the location of the Mandan
and Hidatsa villages, and a portion of his route from the Assiniboin
River. Library of Congress.
Note: Thompson's "Turtle Hills" are the
Killdeer Mountains, source of the Knife River.
River Flint artifacts, photos courtesy of Weber Greiser.
|Knife River > Culture > Intertribal Trade
| Washington Matthews lived among
the Hidatsa in the 1860s, while stationed at Ft. Berthold as medical officer
for the army. With regard to trade, he observed that, "in former days, there
was a trade carried on between these tribes and their Indian neighbors.
Of late years, it has greatly diminished, but it still exists to some extent.
"With the nomadic tribes around, they
exchanged their agricultural produce for horses, and, recently, for robes.
When the Dakotas saw a certain flower (Liatris
punctata) blooming on the prairie, they knew that the corn was ripe,
and went to the villages of the farming Indians to trade. From the time
they came in sight of the village to the time they disappeared, there
was a truce. When they had passed beyond the bluffs, they might steal
an unguarded pony or lift a scalp, and were in turn liable to be attacked.
of North Dakota Game and Fish
"The straight, slender spruce-poles, which
form the frames of their skin-lodges, are not obtained in the immediate
neighborhood of the Missouri, but are cut in and near the Black Hills,
many days journey from Fort Berthold, and in the country of the inimical
Teton-Dakotas. The Berthold Indians, consequently, purchase them of the
Dakotas, giving a good buffalo-horse, or its equivalent, for the number
sufficient for a lodge, about a dozen.
headdress, property of MatÓ TÓpe,
Wied Collection, Stuttgart Linden-Museum (State Museum of Ethnology), inv.
Photo: Anatol Dreyer.
| "To tribes less skilled than were
they in catching war-eagles, they traded the tail-feathers of these
birds; a single tail being worth a buffalo-horse. Their principal
standard of value was a buffalo-horse,
i. e., a horse swift enough to outrun a young adult buffalo in the
"It appears probable that they once carried
on a trade indirectly with the tribes of the Pacific coast, for they had
Dentalium shells similar to those obtained on the Pacific, and they prized
them so highly that the white traders found it advisable to obtain them
for the trade. As late as 1866, ten of these shells, of inferior size,
costing the traders only a cent apiece, would buy a superior buffalo robe,
and formerly only two or three of the same quality were paid for a robe.
Modern (1877) traders, with whom the writer has conversed, obtain their
shells from eastern importers, and know nothing of the original source
of supply. They suppose them to come from the Atlantic coast or the Great
Lakes, and call them "Iroquois shells", which is probably their corruption
of the Chinook "hyakwa"; but it is possible the reverse is the case.
"They also used, and still use, as ornaments, fragments
of the Abalone shells (one or more species of Haliotis) of
Pacific. [ These are now supplied to the trade under the
name of California shells.] Ten years ago, one of these shells,
unpolished, sold for a good robe. There is little doubt that
they used Abalone, Dentalium and other sea-shells before the
traders brought them. Old traders and old Indians say so.
Even as late as 1833, it would seem that they had not yet
become a regular part of a trader's outfit; for Maximilian
says of the Mandans:—'They do not disfigure the bodies;
only they make some apertures in the outer rim of the ear,
they hang strings of beads, brass, or iron rings of different
sizes, or shells, the last of which they obtain from other
Indian tribes. If they are questioned respecting these shells,
they answer that they were brought from the sea" (Matthews:
adapted from Ewers: 1954.
"The Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa were all middlemen who
participated in a trading network that stretched across western
North America. Nomadic groups traded the horses they had acquired
from the Spanish Southwest, the French and British goods they
had received from Canada, and the Euro-American goods they
had obtained from the expanding St. Louis-based fur trade
for the corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins these groups grew
near their semi-sedentary earth-lodge villages" (Orser 1984).
| A network of intertribal exchange had been operating "since time immemorial."
As early as A.D. 350, Dentalium shells from the Pacific Ocean found
their way to a Caddoan village on the Missouri, known to archaeologists
as the Swift Bird Site. Other trade items found in archaeological
sites of the ancestral Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa include steatite
from Montana, obsidian from the Yellowstone Park, copper from the
Great Lakes, catlinite from southwestern Minnesota or adjoining
parts of South Dakota, Marginella and Busycon conch from the Gulf
Coast, and Anculosa snail shell beads from the southeastern United
States (Wood 2001:189). For nearly a thousand years before Lewis
and Clark traveled through this homeland, the occupants of these
farming villages along the Missouri River had been trading goods
with other tribes throughout the West.
The earliest white traders observed some of
the particulars of this established network of trade.
Pierre Gaultier de Varennes La Verendrye,
French trader, describes travelling to the Mandan Villages for the first
time, early in the winter of 1738-39, with hundreds of Assiniboin as escort:
"..everyone was to be in readiness to march the day after next,
the 30th of the month [November 1738], a stay to be made with
the Mandan, who knew well how to profit by it in selling their
grains, tobacco, skins and coloured plumes which they know
the Assiniboin prize highly. The latter brought them in exchange
guns, axes, kettles, powder, bullets, knives, awls. The Mandan
are much more crafty than the Assiniboin in their commerce
and in everything, and always dupe them" (La Verendrye: 1927).
Two Frenchmen of La Verendrye's party
were left in the Villages for eight months, with the assignment of learning
the language and as much as possible about existing trade and tribes in
"... on the twenty-ninth of September
1739 an Assiniboin savage had brought to fort La Reine...the two Frenchmen
whom he [La Verendrye] had left in the country of the Mandan to learn
their language. They told him that they had been well treated among those
people, who were very sorry to see them leave.
"They said also that every year, in the
beginning of June, there arrive at the great fort on the bank of the river
of the Mandan, several savage tribes which use horses and carry on trade
with them; that they bring dressed skins trimmed and ornamented with plumage
and porcupine quills, painted in various colours, also white buffalo-skins,
and that the Mandan give them in exchange grain and beans, of which they
have an ample supply.
"Last spring two hundred lodges of them came; sometimes
even more come; they are not all of the same tribe but some
(La Verendrye: 1927)...
Jean Baptiste Trudeau, in 1795, noted that the Arikara welcomed
the St. Peter's Sioux every spring 'in order to obtain guns,
clothes, hats, kettles, cloths, etc., which are given them
in exchange for their horses' (Beauregard 1912:47). Similarly,
Pierre Antoine Tabeau reported in 1803 that more that 1500
Sioux, Cheyenne, Padouca, and Arapaho were visiting the Arikara
villages as they did every August. They brought buffalo meat,
fat and hides as well as objects of European manufacture acquired
at the Dakota Rendezvous.
David Thompson spent a cold January, 1798,
in the Mandan villages, and made this observation about agricultural surpluses:
"The produce they raise, is mostly
Maize (Indian Corn) of the small red kind, with other varieties all of
which come to perfection, with Pumpkins and a variety of small Beans.
Melons have been raised to their full size and flavor. Every article seen
in their villages were in clean good order, but the want of iron implements
limits their industry; yet they raise, not only enough for themselves,
but also for trade with their neighbours" (Thompson: 1916).
Pierre AntoineTabeau came up the Missouri
with Loisel in 1802, when Fort
aux Cedres was built. Tabeau returned, and lived among the Arikaras
in 1803 - 1805. He describes a vibrant intertribal trade center:
"The Gros Ventres, more numerous than
the Mandanes, are their neighbors and till the soil also. All live about
fifty leagues from the Ricaras and about as many below the mouth of the
Yellowstone River. Their language is the same as that of the Corbeaux,
a nation that can count more than two thousand men, the reputed heroes
of the north. The latter are a wandering people ordinarily roam along
the branches of the Yellowstone where they often meet the Peles, the Alitanes,
and the Serpents, their allies. All these people come every year to the
Mandanes with whom they trade horses for merchandise of various kinds,
for guns and ammunition...
"The Asseniboanes, the Pieds Noirs, the
Chrystinaux, the Tetes plattes, the Leaves, the Panses, and an infinity
of others hunt upon the east bank of the Missouri, more or less above
the Yellowstone River. They furnish the most beautiful peltries to the
companies of the North West and Hudson's Bay which come to seek them with
unbelievable labor and expense. These nations, friendly to the Mandanes,
also visit them every year. They bring merchandise and receive commodities
| "In short, all the rivers, which empty
in to the Missouri above the Yellowstone, are frequented
by a swarm of nations with whom, at the post of
the Mandanes, a trade, as extensive as it is lucrative,
can be carried on" (Tabeau:1939).
Strategic trade map
adapted from Marcia Busch;
used with permission (Cash: 1974).
Tabeau provided advice for articles of
trade with the Arikara:
"There is no need... to consider for the Ricaras any object
the value of which exceeds that of a buffalo robe. They make
great use of vermilion, which is mixed with an equal measure
of flour; but it is regarded merely as an accompaniment to
each article traded. Nevertheless, it is very useful in the
purchase of provisions, shoes, and other trifles of which
there may be need. Ammunition, knives, spears, blue beads,
tomahawks, and framed mirrors are the only articles for which
they are willing to exchange their robes. Hardware of every
kind can procure skins of the common fox and, among the required
presents, they save articles much larger. One should not neglect,
on ascending the river, to hew roughly bows of walnut, for
which the Sioux will trade much fat and the Ricaras, dressed
leather, and to gather turkey feathers, which will suffice,
perhaps, for the supply of maize, beans, etc" (Tabeau:1939).
And on the subject of liquor:
"Intoxicating liquors would be merely useless, up to the present,
among the Ricaras, who are not willing to drink them, unless
they are paid. 'Since you wish to laugh at my expense,' they
say to that one who offers them liquor, 'You ought to at least
pay me'" (Tabeau:1939).
Tabeau describes the wild
berry, and numerous other important foods along the Missouri. He observes
the importance of the prairie turnip, especially in trade.
"...the prairie turnip is the most common and is ... used much
even in times of plenty. This root has almost the shape of
a turnip. It is covered with a hard and very thick black skin
which is easily detached and always removed whether the turnip
be eaten raw or boiled. The women cut it in pieces, which
they dry in the sun and afterwards pound and reduce to flour.
They make of this flour a rich, nourishing, and palatable
soup. All the wandering nations leave regretfully the districts
where the prairie turnip grows abundantly and leave it, too,
only after having dried great quantities of it. The Caninanbiches
(modern Arapaho), Chayennes and others, who, independently
of their chargers, have many horses not laden, are rarely
without this flour and, during the visit that they paid to
the Ricaras, they bartered it for maize at a profit of three
or four measures for one" (Tabeau:1939).
Nature North photo
| In addition to agricultural produce, the
coveted lithic material for the manufacture of stone tools known as Knife
River Flint, was found in the Hidatsa home territory. Knife River Flint
has been found in archaeological sites thousands of miles away from its
source, representing use by native peoples for at least ten thousand years!
Knife River Flint,
photo courtesy of Weber Greiser.
portion of: Outline Map of
Indian Localities in 1833. Indicates