Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North and South Dakota, morning and early afternoon of July 25th, 2017
I wake up at Prairie Knights Casino and Resort at the north end of Fort Yates in Standing Rock Reservation, on the North Dakota side. It’s by far the nicest place I’ve stayed at this trip and one of the cheapest. Thanks, gamblers, for subsidizing my roomy bed, my nice bathtub with its complimentary tasty-smelling chokecherry bath products, and my ultra-clean room!
I head south on Highway 1806, otherwise known as the Native American Scenic Byway, towards the tiny unincorporated community of Kenel, in search of the site of old Fort Manuel. Counting the road just across from Kenel’s general store, I turn left on the third road, a dirt road, guided by a little brown road sign. Then I head straight, past the turnoff that curves off to the left back towards Kenel. After a little while, this road curves to the left as well and arrives at a simple, tall, broad gateway made of three large poles with a pair of antlers in the center of the crossbeam, indicating the entrance to someone’s private property, likely a farm or ranch. The place for which the gate marks the entry is encircled by a thick grove of trees. I pull off to the right of the road in before I reach the gateway. Then I look around and see what look like historical marker signs in the field around and beyond the left side of the wooded boundary. There are some wood structures rising from the grass beyond that. I take the little footpath heading in that direction.
I’m here following my trail of discovery to the site where Sakakawea lived her last year, and where she died. She was a Shoshone girl captured and enslaved by the Hidatsa people, and became one of three purchased Native American wives of an inept, and by at least one account brutish, French Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Sakakawea died at only twenty-five years of age after a long illness, probably secondary to the rigors of the Lewis and Clark expedition. During that trek, which was otherwise only undertaken by strong, travel-hardened men, she gave birth to her first child, a son, which she carried and nursed the rest of the way. Despite what would seem to us as a rather grim life story, she was loved and admired for her ability to navigate most difficulties with aplomb and for her cheerful and willing disposition. Sakakawea went on to become one of the most famous and beloved women in American history.
According to most histories, Sakakawea, sometimes spelled Sacagawea or Sakajawea (the first two are preferable because they most closely indicate the correct pronunciation in the name’s Shoshone language), died here at Fort Manuel on December 20th, 1812. There are some sources which place her death much later and far away, at the Wind River Shoshone Reservation in Wyoming on April 9th, 1884. However, that evidence is much more circumstantial and based on hearsay, and later attempts to corroborate those sources are irreconcilable with better-recorded contemporary evidence.
Sakakawea had moved to Fort Manuel the year before her death with her husband and a troupe of fur traders in August of 1811. Her death in December of the following year was recorded by John Luttig, clerk of the Missouri Fur Company for which the fort was founded as an outpost. This company, in turn, was founded in St. Louis in 1809 by Manuel Lisa, the Spanish entrepreneur for whom the fort was named, and William Clark was elected its president. This was the Clark of Lewis and Clark; he and Meriwether Lewis led the great exploratory expedition ordered by President Thomas Jefferson to discover a more direct trading route across the continent. From 1804 – 1806, the expedition wound northwest up the Missouri River then straight west across land to the Pacific Ocean. It was Charbonneau who was recruited by Lewis and Clark, but it was Sakakawea who lent her invaluable assistance to this mission as interpreter, trail guide, identifier of wild foods to gather, and on one occasion, rescuer of the all-important contents of a tipped boat. Clark later adopted her son, Baptiste, whom he called ‘Pomp’; he had become very fond of this tiniest member of the expedition. He later made sure Baptiste received a quality education. Charbonneau, evidently, was also rather a deadbeat.
By the way, I remember being annoyed a couple of years ago while visiting Theodore Roosevelt’s monument in Washington, D.C. Among the monuments was a row of large stones engraved with quotes. On one of these, Roosevelt equates manhood with daring and courage. I commented in a piece I wrote at the time that virtues such as these are human ones, and are not distributed in human nature according to sex. Sakakawea is just one of the countless women who demonstrate this, though she performed her brave acts within a cultural milieu that inculcated these virtues primarily in men while encouraging shrinking, even shuddering, modesty in women. To be sure, she showed fear at times and wept at others. But she not only did what it was her duty to do regardless, she took on men’s duties when they weren’t fulfilling them, and then went beyond that! And she did so in a way that made others love, admire, and remember her for her ability and excellent personal qualities long after others were forgotten.
But back to my story… The wooden structures I see here today at Fort Manuel were built in 1965. They replaced a 1941 facsimile of the old stockade that had been built according to the details of a 1938 study of the fort’s records and of the grounds. The reconstructed stockade was not built on the exact site: its walls tracked more or less the shape of the original ones but about 6 feet away, to keep the ground open for a planned excavation that was done in 1965-1966. Fortunately, since the fort was built on high ground, it escaped the flooding of Kenel’s original location three miles north of its current site as a result of the construction of the Oahe Dam in 1944. Unfortunately, the original remains of the fort were eroded away shortly after its excavation by unusually high waves. But at least the archaeological information about the fort was retrieved before that happened. The reconstructions standing here today near the old site likely portray the original structures quite accurately, since they’re based on the very meticulous archaeological and historical research work done on the site.
The excavation discovered the remains of seven structures within the original stockade walls. According to an archaeological and cultural report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in ‘Four of these units were dwellings (Structures A-C, E), one probably a storehouse (Structure 0), one a blacksmith shop (Structure F), and one possibly a stable or barn (Structure G). It is not known whether the post had other buildings, although extensive stripping of the site failed to reveal more. Luttig’s  list of structures at the post does not tally exactly with the seven sites found by excavation and it may be incomplete.’ At first, I wonder why I see only five structures here today, but then I realize three of them are linked together like row houses, making seven in all.
Very, very few artifacts were found in the dig except for remains of the structures themselves. Fort Manuel was abandoned in the spring of 1813 after it was attacked by Native Americans allied with the British in the War of 1812. Any remaining goods were likely taken by the fort’s captors before it was burned down. Luttig, the clerk who admired Sakakawea and recorded both her death and his esteem for her, her little daughter Lizette, and her husband were among the survivors. Lizette likely died as a child, Charbonneau went on to enjoy a long life, and I don’t know what became of Luttig.
I leave Fort Manuel and head south a short ways, turn right towards Kenel Road, stop for gas and an ice cream sandwich in McLaughlin, then turn south onto Highway 63. Just south of Little Eagle, I arrive at the bridge over the Grand River, the same bridge I crossed to come to Standing Rock and Fort Yates. I pull over at the head of the bridge and stop. I have more information this time. I’m here seeking the site of Sitting Bull’s death.
Based on Francis Craft’s late nineteenth-century map, Sitting Bull’s camp was on the north bank of the Missouri River, a good ways west of it, and a little ways east of Bullhead. I compare this map with the lay of the land and water here as shown on Google Maps. If Bullhead and the course of the Grand River are more or less the same as they are today and this map is accurate, the site of Sitting Bull’s camp would be a little ways west of where I’m standing, near the center of the curve where the river dips south. However, when you zoom out further, the lines of the river in the old map and in Google Maps track each other only loosely. Many years and weather systems have passed and the course and flow of the Missouri River, of which the Grand River is a tributary, have been tinkered with a lot since then. The first certainly, and the second likely, would affect its course over time.
I think of Sitting Bull’s death… no, martyrdom; he was killed for his beliefs. His real ones, and those that others ascribed to him.
Others believed he believed in the Ghost Dance movement because he tolerated it, and that the Ghost Dance movement was really a secret plot to violently overthrow white authority because it envisioned a blessed future in which the whites couldn’t oppress Native Americans anymore. Never mind that a specific doctrine of this cult was strict non-violence. Others believed he was a threat because he didn’t believe in white people, because he didn’t trust them as he should. Never mind that white soldiers and settlers had treated him and his people so badly for so long.
He believed that the world was big enough to hold many people with their different ways of living and that his people and their way of life deserved to exist, too. He believed in self-sacrifice and that convenience and luxury are not worth betraying your values for. He believed it was worth fighting the white people who were destroying his people’s ability to survive so long as it seemed there was a chance to drive them out. Then, he believed in peace when it became clear that was the only way left to survive. He believed in giving individuals, white ones too, the benefit of the doubt but he also believed you shouldn’t trust people who were crazy enough to value money and putting up fences above everything else. He believed in promises but not in written treaties: promises were the way of his people, but written treaties were invariably broken, as soon as they became inconvenient, by the very people who insisted on them.
Those are a few things I believe that he believed. I think I’m right about these, but I’m still learning, and I believe there’s more.
I cross the bridge and continue south towards Pine Ridge Reservation, south and west of here, about a 5-hour drive.
To be continued….
Sources and information:
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970
Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984
Courchane, John Chalk. ‘Toussaint Charbonneau: In the Pacific North in 1805‘. Oregonpioneers.com
‘A Cultural Resource Inventory of Portions of Lake Oahe, Corson County, South Dakota, Volume I‘
by Paul H. Sanders, Dori M. Penny, Michael L. McFaul, Keith H. Oueholm, Kurt P. Schwetgert, and Thomas K. Larson, for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District
Foley, Thomas W, ed. At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis Francis M. Craft, 1888-1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009
Howard, Helen Addison. ‘The Mystery of Sacagawea’s Death.‘ The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1967), pp. 1-6, University of Washington
Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Kenel, South Dakota. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004
Nelson, C.B. ‘South Dakota State Historical Society Markers.‘ (#391 Fort Manuel.) For the South Dakota State Historical Society
Perry, Douglass. ‘Lewis & Clark Expedition‘. Educator Resources, National Archives website.
Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010
‘Sacagawea‘. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail – People, National Park Service website
‘Sacagawea‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932
Wood, W. Raymond. ‘Manuel Lisa’s Fort Raymond: First Post in the Far West (November 1807—March 1813)‘. Discovering Lewis & Clark
See also: the South Dakota State Historical Society Markers in place at the Fort Manuel Site:and:
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Bldg. #1 N Standing Rock Ave.
P.O. Box D, Fort Yates, ND 58538
(701) 854-8500 http://standingrock.org/visit-us/