Historians write of the conquest of Indians by European Americans in the 19th century. However, before, during and after military conquest there were encounters that led to cultural and material exchange. In the early years of contact between Native Americans and European Americans, the exchange was often beneficial to both parties.
By 1700, northern Plains peoples knew of European presence in North America. Iron and other metals began to affect the way American Indians made arrowheads and stored and cooked their food. Missionaries began to bring new ideas about religion to tribes all over the continent. Horses may have had the greatest impact changing the way people traveled, carried their possessions, and hunted.
The first written account of European men to visit the northern plains is that of Pierre Gaultier deVarennes et de La Vérendrye (1685-1749), a French Canadian-born explorer and trader. La Verendrye had established trading posts in southern Canada and was actively engaging in the beaver pelt trade near Lake Winnipeg when he heard of a tribe of Indians who were
“whites, . . . Frenchmen like ourselves, who said they were descended from us.” (p. 316).
Curious, and ever interested in expanding his business opportunities, La Verendrye organized an expedition to meet the so-called French men of the northern Plains. The Assiniboine who were already trading partners led La Verendrye to a Mandan village in 1738.
La Verendrye’s party consisted of fifty-two people including two of La Verendrye’s sons, twenty hired men (French or descendents of Frenchmen), and twenty-five Assiniboine men and women. The journey took forty-six days. Along the way, La Verendrye met the residents of an Assiniboine village he had not yet brought into his trading system. He told them that they would now have the French as trading partners and must hunt beaver for the trade. According to La Verendrye’s reports, the Assiniboine welcomed the French and their trade system.
Finally, on 28 November 1738, La Verendrye met the first Mandans who had come from their village to meet him. La Verendrye was deeply disappointed.
"I confess I was greatly surprised, as I expected to see people quite different from the other savages according to the stories that had been told us. They do not differ from the Assiniboin, being naked except for a garment of buffalo skin carelessly worn without any breechcloth. I knew then that there was a large discount to be taken off all that had been told me.” (p. 319-320)
Nevertheless, La Verendrye traveled to the Mandan village with his hosts and wrote the first known report by a European of the Mandan and their ways. The Mandan were wealthy, not in money or gold, but in food supplies and all of the things necessary to a comfortable life.
“Their fort is very well provided with cellars where they store all they have in the way of grains, meat, fat, dressed skins and bearskins. They have a great stock of these things, which form the money of the country. The more they have the richer they consider themselves.” (p. 342)
The “fort” was the Mandan village with a stockade of posts that defined and protected the village.
“There were about one hundred and thirty [houses]. All the streets, squares, and cabins are uniform in appearance; often our Frenchmen would lose their way in going about. They keep the street and open spaces very clean; the ramparts are smooth and wide; the palisade is supported on cross pieces mortised into posts fifteen feet apart with a lining. For this purpose they use green hides fastened only at the top in places where they are needed. As to the bastions, there are four of them at each curtain well flanked. The fort is built on an elevation in mid-prairie with a ditch over fifteen feet deep and from fifteen to eighteen wide. Entrance to the fort can only be obtained by steps or pieces [of wood] which they remove when threatened by the enemy. . . . Their fortification indeed has nothing savage about it.” (p. 339-340)
By “savage,” La Verendrye meant Indians. His report reflects the European notion prevailing at that time that Indians were savages with few skills and little intelligence. Everything about this village suggested that his views were misinformed though he really did not change his mind. His business practices were designed to insure that the French remained superior among the peoples of the Northern Great Plains. He states that Indians addressed him as father. A Mandan leader told the Assiniboine who accompanied La Verendrye to the Mandan village that he would be well cared for and supplied with all the food they needed, for
. . . he is master here as much as if he were at home; we beg him to admit us to the number of his children. (p. 331)
Modern historians can only speculate whether this statement is accurately reported or not. We don’t have the Mandan view of La Verendrye and his French trade system. But we do know that the Mandan were well stocked for trade and had participated in trade with other Indian tribes for many long years. La Verendrye was impressed by the quantity and quality of trade goods he saw in the village. He watched as the Assiniboine traded for
“. . . coloured buffalo robes, deer and buck skins, carefully dressed and ornamented with fur and feathers, painted feathers and furs, worked garters, head-bands, girdles. Of all the tribes they [the Mandan] are the most skilful in dressing leather, and they work very delicately in hair and feathers . . . . They are sharp traders. . . .” (p. 332)
La Verendrye also reported details about daily life in the village. Mandan homes were
“. . . large and spacious, divided into several apartments by wide planks. Nothing is lying about: all their belongings are placed in large bags hung on posts . . . .” (p. 340-341)
The Mandan also made baskets, woven mats, and clay pots. Horses had not yet come to the Mandan and La Verendrye did not bring any having traveled on foot and by canoe.
The lives of the Mandan would change in the next several decades. They acquired horses which eased the burden of transport, and metal pots which were especially helpful in cooking. Soon guns and knives with metal blades would make hunting more efficient and improve their position in trade with both European Americans and other Indian tribes.
For more on La Verendrye, read his entire report on his visit to the Mandan in:
The Publications of the Champlain Society Journals of La Verendrye (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1927). La Verendrye’s complete journals are also available on the internet at http://www.champlainsociety.ca.
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