Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara
Traditional Culture
  Who's Who
Since Time Immemorial
All My Relations
Village Life & the Turning of the Seasons
Great River
Eagle Trapping
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
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Recommended Web Sites

  Relationship with U.S.
  Intertribal Trade
The Fur Trade
Story of a Medal
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

image Blackfeet Buffalo Horse
Coalition K. Lughart photo
Dentalium shells
Trade beads
Busycon conch
Ears of corn ready to be braided.
Drawn by Goodbird, 1915. Black carbon and pencil on paper. MHS Goodbird 1915:fig. 28 (Gilman: 1987).
David 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.


Knife 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.

Sentinal Buttes
Photo courtesy 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.

Feather headdress, property of MatÓ TÓpe,
Mandan, 1833/34.
Wied Collection, Stuttgart Linden-Museum (State Museum of Ethnology), inv. no.: 036110.
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 fall.

"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 the 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, in which 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: 1877; 27-28).

Abalone Shell
Map 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.
Busycon Conch

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 the region.

"... 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 are only allies"
(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 and horses.

"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 grape, buffalo 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).

Prairie turnip
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! image
Knife River Flint,
photo courtesy of Weber Greiser.

Background: Catlin,G. portion of: Outline Map of
Indian Localities
in 1833. Indicates buffalo range.