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Unit 1: Set 3: Ancient Villages - Double Ditch Intro

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The Mandan village known as Double Ditch was occupied for nearly 300 years from AD 1490 to 1785. Double Ditch is actually misnamed for the two ditches still visible at the site; it actually has 4 ditches which mark the progression of this village’s history.

Ditch 4 is the oldest and outermost ditch of the site; it formed the protective boundary of the original or founding village. Like Huff and Menoken, the people of Double Ditch also depended on the steep bank of the Missouri River to provide protection on the southwest side. The residents of Double Ditch used bastions and palisades to fortify the ditch. The village surrounded by Ditch 4 was about 22 acres in size. This founding village may have had as many as 160 long-rectangular earth-covered lodges and perhaps 2000 residents. It was an unusually large and heavily populated plains village.

A smaller village surrounded by Ditch 3 was constructed in the 1500s. Ditch 3 had fewer bastions and formed a village of about 15 acres. During the 1500s, the people of Double Ditch switched their house style from rectangular earth-covered lodges to circular, domed earthlodges. The change may have been brought about by several factors: earthlodges use less wood and they are easier to heat. In addition, the people of Double Ditch were probably influenced by the Arikara style of earthlodge. By the late 1500s, Ditch 3 was abandoned and the outer edges were filling up with earthen mounds.

Ditch 2 surrounded an even smaller village and the fortifications were constructed in a different pattern. The ditch utilized mounds of earth and trash instead of bastions as strong points for defense. It is supposed that defenders stood on these mounds for a better view of approaching strangers. In addition, the people of Double Ditch constructed a wall or berm that rose 10 feet above the lowest level of the ditch. However, by the time this village was constructed in the 1600s or early 1700s, the village was much smaller and enclosed only 12 acres. The population had shrunk to about 1200 people and there were approximately 90 to 100 houses. Again, subsequent building on the site disturbed the foundations of the third village.

The last village constructed on this site was surrounded by the shortest of the protective ditches. Ditch 1 comprised only 4 acres, or less than 1/5 the size of the original village. Archeologists have counted 32 earthlodge depressions within Ditch 1 and estimate a population of 400 people. By this time, the people of Double Ditch constructed circular, domed earthlodges and probably used the area of the outer ditches for their gardens and midden (garbage) mounds.

Over the three hundred years that thousands of people lived in Double Ditch, they followed a life style that had been established hundreds of years earlier. They hunted bison mostly, but also antelope, deer, elk, and birds. They fished the big river. The women raised many varieties of corn as well as squash, beans, and sunflowers. They picked ripe fruits in season. All of these foods were gathered in surplus and dried for winter use or for exchange for exotic items distant travelers brought. By the mid-18th century, the Mandan of Double Ditch certainly would have seen or heard of horses, brought to the Great Plains by the Spanish in the mid-16th century, and some may have acquired a few horses.

Double Ditch was not the only Mandan village of its era. There were perhaps a total of 9 other Mandan villages along the Heart and Missouri rivers. Families were free to leave one village and move to another, especially if they had relatives there. Occasionally, the people of many villages came together for festivals or defensive purposes. Though conflict was a constant concern as shown by the defensive ditch around the village, the Mandan generally welcomed those who came to trade. Indeed, so well-known was their trading center, that some of the earliest maps of this region created by European and North American map-makers correctly label the Mandan villages along the Missouri River. (See Unit 1 Document Set 2 1772 General Map)

In 1781, small pox came to the northern plains. The disease struck the Mandan particularly hard, perhaps because they often had outside visitors among them and were more likely to encounter the disease. Shortly after the epidemic, Double Ditch and other river villages were abandoned. The survivors moved up the Missouri River to begin life again in new villages.

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