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The Mandan Indians

It was towards the end of November when La Vérendrye and his party reached the point where the Mandans had promised to meet them. When he arrived no one was on the spot; but presently, after he had encamped, a Mandan chief appeared with thirty followers. This chief advanced to La Vérendrye and presented him with Indian corn in the ear and with a roll of Indian tobacco. These were tokens of friendship. He told La Vérendrye how glad he and his countrymen were to welcome him to their villages, and begged him to consider the Mandans as his children.

La Vérendrye was surprised to find the appearance of the Mandans very much like that of the other tribes he had met. Stories told by the Crees and the Assiniboines had prepared him to find them of a different type, a type like that of the white men. In reality they looked like the Assiniboines and dressed in the same fashion. Their clothing was scanty enough, for it consisted of only a buffalo robe worn from the shoulders. It was clear now that the Indians had been telling him not what was true but what they thought he would like to hear. 'I knew then,' he says shrewdly, 'that a heavy discount must be taken off everything that an Indian tells you.'

The Mandan chief invited La Vérendrye to be his guest in the nearest village, and the whole party made ready to continue their journey to that point. Then the chief made a speech to the Assiniboines, very friendly in tone, but artfully intended to make them uneasy and send them back home. He was really anxious to have the white men as his guests, but he was not at all anxious to have as guests and to be obliged to feed an entire village of Assiniboines; and so, thinking to get rid of them, he played on their well-known fear of the fiery Sioux. 'We thank you,' he said to them, 'for having brought the French to see us. They could not have arrived at a better time. The Sioux are on the war-path, and may be here at any moment. We know the valour and courage of the French, and also of the Assiniboines, and we hope that you will both help us to defend ourselves from the Sioux.'

La Vérendrye was at first as much imposed upon by this story as were the Assiniboines, but with a very different effect. They were dismayed, while he rejoiced at the opportunity of having at last a fair chance to avenge the cruel death of his son. After the speech, the Mandan chief took him aside, and explained that the alarm was merely a trick to get rid of the Assiniboines. They had not food enough at the village, he said, to satisfy such a hungry horde. But, to the surprise and disgust of the chief, the Assiniboines swallowed their fears and decided to go forward. At first, in their terror, the majority of the tribe had thought it better to turn back; but one of their old chiefs shamed them into a different course. 'Do not think,' he said, in scornful accents, 'that our Father (La Vérendrye) is a coward,' and he looked about him at the young Assiniboine warriors until each felt that he himself was branded as a coward. 'I know him,' he continued, 'better than you do, and I tell you that the Sioux cannot frighten him or any of his men. What will he think of us? At our request, he went out of his way to visit our village. We promised to conduct him to the Mandans, and to bring him safely back to his fort. And now you talk of abandoning him, because you fear the Sioux. This must never be. Let those of you who are faint-hearted remain here in camp with the women; but let those who are without fear follow our father.' After this scornful eloquence there was no further talk of turning back.

Early on the following morning the camp broke up, and the whole party, French and Assiniboines and Mandans, marched across the plains towards the Mandan village. One can imagine the striking picture made up by the little party of white men in their picturesque costumes, surrounded by hundreds of half-naked savages. Had the Indians cared to exercise their power, they might have overwhelmed the French at any moment, but apparently they had no thought of doing so. Indeed it is quite true that the Indians of North America, when first they met white men, treated them in nearly every case with the utmost friendship. Only after the Indians had been deceived or betrayed by some rascals among the white men did they learn to look upon them as enemies and become cruel and treacherous in dealing with them.

When La Vérendrye had travelled some distance from the camp, he found that the bag containing his papers and many other things that would be required at the Mandan villages had been stolen by one of the Assiniboines. The thief, he also learned, had made off with his spoil. Instantly he sent two young warriors to secure him. The culprit was overtaken on the following day and the bag was recovered. The pursuers, however, instead of bringing it back to La Vérendrye, carried it on to their village to keep for him until his return. This singular conduct was due to their fear of the Sioux. The white man's bag would be safe at the Assiniboine village, but if they ventured to carry it back to La Vérendrye they were not so sure that either it or their own scalps would be safe at the Mandan village, with the ferocious Sioux hovering about. They did not know, of course, that the story of the Sioux was nothing but a hoax.

When La Vérendrye arrived within a few miles of the Mandan village, he found awaiting him another party of Mandans under two of their chiefs. They had lighted a camp-fire and had brought food for their guests. The chiefs welcomed him, led him to the place of honor beside the fire, and presented him with some of their native dishes—corn pounded into a paste and baked in the coals and something that looked like a pumpkin pie without the pastry. The party smoked the pipe of peace and carried on a rather clumsy conversation by means of an interpreter. Then they resumed the journey and presently the Mandan village appeared in sight. If the explorer had been disappointed in finding the Mandans very similar in appearance to other western tribes, now at least he was gratified to find their buildings more elaborate and interesting than any he had before met with. The village was in fact a fort, apparently strong enough to protect the inhabitants from anything less powerful than artillery, of which of course they had no knowledge.

La Vérendrye, knowing that the Indians were always impressed by an imposing ceremony, now drew up his men in military order. He told his son François to march in front, bearing the flag of France. The Mandans, who looked upon the explorer as a great white chief, would not permit him to walk, but carried him upon their shoulders to the gate of the fort. Naturally he did not like this mode of travel, but he submitted to it for fear of displeasing his hosts. As they drew near the fort, he ordered his men to fire a volley as a salute to the Mandans. The principal chiefs and warriors flocked out to meet him, and escorted him within their walls. When he marched in with his force, he saw the ramparts crowded with men, women, and children, who looked with astonishment upon the first white men they had ever seen. The principal chief of the tribe led La Vérendrye into his own lodge, and told him to consider it his home so long as he cared to remain in the village. When the two entered the lodge a crowd of Mandans followed and the place became suffocating. La Vérendrye told the crowd that they should have many opportunities later to see him, and after some difficulty he managed to have the place cleared.

This, however, was not effected before the unfortunate explorer had suffered another loss. He found that, in the confusion, an enterprising Indian had snatched the bag of presents from one of his men, and had made off with it. This was serious. The bag contained nearly all the gifts which he had brought for the chiefs of the Mandans, and he feared that these chiefs might now look coldly upon a white man who was unable to offer the customary presents. He explained what had happened to the principal chief. The chief seemed very much put out and told La Vérendrye for his consolation that there were a good many rascals among the Mandans. Later, when the Assiniboines told the chief that he was himself the thief, he made the weak retort that one of his accusers might be the culprit. He promised to do his best to recover the bag, but La Vérendrye never saw it again.

In a day or two the Assiniboines took leave of La Vérendrye, and, much to the relief of the Mandans, prepared to return to their own village. Before their departure, the chief of the Assiniboines made a speech to the Mandans. 'We are leaving you our father,' he said. 'Take great care of him, and of all the French. Learn to know them, for they are wise; they know how to do everything. We love our father, and we also fear him. Do as we do.' The Mandans promised to take every care of the visitors. Everything the village contained, they said, was at their service for the asking. They begged that the white chief would count them among the members of his family. In compliance with their wish, La Vérendrye went through the usual ceremony of placing his hands on the heads of each of the chiefs. By this ceremony they became his 'children.' The Assiniboines, though they had taken leave of La Vérendrye, still delayed their departure. The Mandans, alarmed at the quantities of provisions their unwelcome guests required, again spread the report that the Sioux were approaching. Indeed, they said, several Mandan hunters had caught sight of them. This time the ruse succeeded. The Assiniboines, in a panic of alarm, marched off in great haste, lest the Sioux should intercept them before they could reach their own country.

Further troubles awaited La Vérendrye. The day following the departure of the Assiniboines he found that his Cree interpreter had gone off with them, although he had promised faithfully to remain. Even with this interpreter communications with the Mandans had been difficult. Before La Vérendrye's thoughts expressed in French could reach the Mandans, they had to pass through the medium of three other languages. One of La Vérendrye's sons, who understood Cree, was able to translate the explorer's questions into that language; then the Cree interpreter put the questions into Assiniboine; and several of the Mandans were sufficiently familiar with the language of the Assiniboines to complete the chain and express the ideas in their own tongue. With the Cree interpreter gone, the problem of communication became much more difficult. Indeed, the only method that remained of carrying on conversation with the Mandans was by means of signs and gestures.

One of La, Vérendrye's principal reasons for visiting the Mandans had been to find out from them as much as possible of the country which lay westward. He had hoped that they would be able to tell him something definite about the Western Sea, something of the best way of reaching it, and of the tribes he should meet on the way. He had had very little time to put questions before his interpreter deserted, and now he feared that he should have to turn back, because he had no means of getting information from the Mandans. With a great deal of difficulty he managed to learn that there were six Mandan villages or forts, some on one side of the Missouri, some on the other, and that farther down this river lived two other tribes, the Panana and the Pananis, who were at war with the Mandans, although they had formerly been their fast friends. The Mandans told him by signs that as one went down the Missouri it became very wide, and that there a race dwelt who were white like himself. These people, they said, rode on horseback both when they hunted and when they went to war; they wore armor and fought with lances and sabers, which they handled with great skill. Their forts and houses were of stone and they cultivated their fields. A whole summer was necessary to reach their country from the Mandan villages.

La Vérendrye did not know how much of this to believe, and he was not even sure that he correctly understood what the Mandans tried to convey to him by signs. He was not at all certain that the quarter in which these people, so different from the Mandans, were said to live was the direction it was necessary to take in order to reach the Western Sea. He did not know the truth, that the river by which he stood, the Missouri, emptied into the Mississippi, and that the settlements spoken of by the Mandans were probably the Spanish settlements on the lower waters of the Mississippi. In order to extend his information, he used every agency to learn as much as possible about the Mandans themselves. He sent his son François to another village near by, to examine it and to make further inquiries.

La Vérendrye himself made close observations. He walked about the village in which he was quartered, and examined the fortifications with a great deal of interest. There were about one hundred and thirty cabins within the walls; the streets and squares were laid out regularly and were kept remarkably neat and clean. The smooth, wide ramparts were built of timber strengthened with cross-pieces. At each corner was a bastion, and the fort was surrounded by a ditch fifteen feet deep and from fifteen to eighteen feet wide. He was astonished to find such elaborate fortifications among a savage tribe. Nowhere else in the New World had he seen anything of the kind.

The dwellings of the Mandans were large and comfortable; they were divided into several rooms and round the walls were beds in the form of bunks. They had earthen vessels in which they cooked their food. The women made very neat baskets of wicker-work. The most remarkable thing about these people was their prudence for the future. They had storerooms underground in which they stored the dressed skins which they preserved to trade with neighboring tribes for guns and ammunition; they had products of Europe in use, though they had not yet come into direct contact with Europeans. In these storerooms they preserved also dried meat and grain for food in the winter. This foresight impressed La Vérendrye. Most of the Indian tribes lived only in the present; when they had food they feasted upon it from morning to night, and when their provisions were gone they starved. The Mandans, however, kept on hand an ample supply of food, both for their own use and for that of strangers who might visit them. They amused themselves with rude sports. Among these La Vérendrye mentions a game of ball, but he does not describe it. Probably it was the game of lacrosse, which was played by many of the Indian tribes long before white men came to copy it from them.

After an absence of a few days, François de La Vérendrye returned from the village which he had visited. He had been warmly welcomed. He reported that the village was much larger than the one his father was living in, and that it was fortified in the same way. He had tried to question the Mandans of this village, but could make nothing out of their answers. They were so impatient to speak that they would constantly interrupt one another; when asked about one thing they would answer about another, because they did not really understand the question. The Mandans tried to make up in hospitality for {68} their inability to answer the Frenchman's questions. 'As we found that it was a waste of time to question them, we had to fall back on feasting the whole time we were with them, and even then we could not attend nearly all the feasts to which we were invited.'

Mandan Girls.
From Pritchard's Natural History of Man

Early in December La Vérendrye decided to leave the Mandans and to make the long return journey to Fort La Reine. He now saw that, even if he could gain useful information from the Mandans about the nearest way to the Western Sea, it would be impossible to attempt the journey without a supply of presents for the tribes he should meet. To get these presents he must return to the fort, but he would leave two of his men with the Mandans for the winter, in order to learn the language. Then, when he returned, he would have interpreters upon whom he could rely. When he told the Mandans by signs that he must leave them, they seemed sorry to lose him, and loaded him with provisions for his journey. They also promised to take care of his two men during his absence. He distributed among them all the small articles which he had in his stores, particularly the needles, which they highly prized. To the principal chief he gave a flag, and a lead tablet bearing an inscription to the effect that he had taken possession of the Missouri country in the name of the king of France. This inscription the chief promised to preserve as his greatest treasure.

Misfortune, however, still dogged the path of La Vérendrye. The day before that on which he had arranged to leave for the north, he was taken violently ill and for three days could not move from his bed. As ill luck would have it, his stock of medicines was in the bag which the Assiniboines had carried off to their village, so that he could do nothing for himself until he reached that place. About the middle of December he was a little better, and made up his mind to attempt the journey. When he and his men set out on their long march across the plains, it was bitterly cold. They had no means of making a fire, and were compelled to sleep at night on the open prairie in a half-frozen condition. We can imagine what La Vérendrye must have suffered before at last he reached the Assiniboine village, more dead than alive. After a few days' rest, he managed to make his way slowly to Fort La Reine. 'Never in my life,' he says, 'did I endure so much misery, pain, and fatigue as on that journey.'

While at the Assiniboine village La Vérendrye reproached the Indians with having lied to him about the Mandans, so as to lead him to believe that they were white men. They replied that he had misunderstood them; that they had not referred to the Mandans, but to another nation who lived farther down the river. One of the Assiniboines sprang up before him and exclaimed: 'I am the man best able to talk to you about this matter. Last summer I killed one of this nation of white men. He was covered with iron armor. If I had not killed his horse first, I should myself have been destroyed.' La Vérendrye asked him what he had brought back to prove his story. 'I had no chance to bring anything,' he said. 'When I was about to cut off his head, I saw some men on horseback, who were trying to prevent my retreat, and I had much difficulty in making my escape. I had to throw away everything I had, even to my blanket, and ran away naked.'

La Vérendrye thought that this man was probably telling the truth. What he said agreed fairly well with what he had himself heard from the Mandans, and was applicable probably to the Spaniards. But he was still as far away as ever from any direct information about the road he should follow to reach the Western Sea, and this was first and always the thought that occupied his mind. He hoped that the men whom he had left behind to winter with the Mandans would be able to obtain from them the facts for which he was so anxiously waiting, and he looked forward eagerly to the spring, when they were to return to Fort La Reine with such news as they had been able to gather.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, Pathfinders of the Great Plains, La Vérendrye Explorations, 1731-43, by Lawrence J. Burpee, 1914


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