The Mandan Nation

The Mandans are a recognised Native American tribe who form part of the Three Affiliated Tribes who reside at the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. They call themselves "The People of the First Man".

Legend has it that the Mandans maybe the last remnants of an early Briton colonisation undertaken by Madoc, a prince of the House of Gwynedd in north Wales in around 1170AD. Prince Madoc is alleged to have landed in the Gulf of Mexico with eleven ships and proceeded up the Mississippi.

Surprisingly, a number of Indian Tribes refer to a white indian tribe and indeed their history includes accounts of battles with them over many years but what of the Mandans themselves?

The Mandan's Origins

The origins of the Mandan are unclear. Some experts believe they came from the north. It is also possible they originated in the area of the mid-Mississippi River and the Ohio River valleys in present-day Ohio and they migrated northwards.

Mandan oral tradition, however, asserts the Mandan originate from the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1929 a Mandan woman recounted the story of the Mandan's origins in front of intrerpreters and witnesses as part of a last attempt to record for posterity the Mandan history. Her account was recorded by Martha Warren Beckwith (1871 –1959) the American folklorist and ethnographer and published by the American Folklore Society in 1930 and again in 1937. ( "Mandan-Hidatsa myths and ceremonies). The significance is the reference to an ocean rather than just a river.

Extract from Mandan Elder's oral account

"The Mandan people originated at the mouth of this
river way down at the ocean. On the north side
of the river was a high bank. At its foot on
the shore of the ocean was a cavern, - that is
where the Mandan people came out. The chief’s
name was Ka-ho-he, which means the scraping
sound made by the corn stalks swaying back and
forth and rubbing each other with the sound
like a bow drawn across a string."

Mandan Physical Differences to other Mandans

The first Europeans to make contact with the Mandan's claimed to notice physical characteristics that marked them out from other native American tribes. Most significantly was the presence of blue-eyes, grey hair and 'nordic' features.

North America Unexplored - the French Quest

In the 1730's most of North America was unexplored by Europeans: the key players were Spain, France and Britain and all were vying for more territory. The French had been forced to cede Hudson Bay to the British in 1713 and were keen to push westwards and find a passage through hostile Indian territory to the Pacific. The man charged with pressing forwards was Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye, a military officer and trader.

La Verendrye gathered as much intelligence from friendly indians to draw up routes he could take by canoe. He relied on particular of a Cree Guide who was commended by the French Governor of New France who, in 1729, wrote: "La Vérendrye calls Auchagah 'the man most capable of guiding a party and with whom there would be no fear of our being abandoned on the way.'

Native Americans tell of 'white tribe' who live in houses

To the surprise of the French, the indian guides and other indians who came to trade fur, spoke of a previously unknown tribe they described as white men who live in big houses.

On December 3 1738 the first known European contact with the Mandan occurred de Varennes and his sons made contact with Mandans in what is now MacLean Co., North Dakota, lying between Minot and Bismarck.

"White men with forts, towns and permanent villages laid out in streets and squares." - de Varennes 1738

The rumours of a non nomadic settled tribe was immediately evident. The first settlement was a large and well-fortified town, with palisades and ramparts similar to European battlements and with a dry moat around the perimeter. There were around 130 houses laid out in streets. The French were astonished, La Verendrye described

“Msr. De la Marque and I walked about to observe the size of their fort and their fortifications. I decided to have the huts counted. It was found that there were 130 of them. All the streets, squares and huts resembled each other. Several of our Frenchmen walked around; they found the streets, squares very clean, the ramparts very level and broad; the palisades supported on cross-pieces mortised into posts of fifteen feet. "

After inspection of the fort he declared, 'Their fortifications are not Indian.'

La Verendyre was astonished by the physical aspect of many Mandans who had light skin, fair hair, and "European" features and took the view they were a mix of white and indigenous peoples: "This nation is mixed white and black. The women are fairly good-looking, especially the whites, many with blonde and fair hair. Both men and women of this nation are very laborious." He added, "The men are stout and tall, generally very active, fairly good-looking, with a good physiognomy. The women have not the Indian physiognomy." In their manner, customs and appearance "they were not Indians at all"

George Catlin

The painter George Catlin spent years with different tribes, learning their customs and painting scenes and undertaking portraits. Catin said:

"A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion, and various colours of hair which he sees in a crowd about him, and is almost disposed to exclaim that these are not Indians." He went on to say the Mandan's had "a most pleasing symmetry and proportion of features, with hazel, gray and blue eyes."

So forcibly have I been struck with the peculiar ease and elegance of these people, together with their diversity of complexions, the various colours of their hair and eyes; the singularity of their language, and their peculiar and unaccountable customs, that I am fully convinced that they have sprung from some other origin than that of the other North American Tribes, or that they are an amalgam of natives with some civilized race."

Not until the late 1700s are there reports of other visits. One of the best known is the 1797 visit of the Canadian explorer David Thompson. The most famous White visitors to the villages were Lewis and Clark in 1804 and 1806, George Catlin in 1832, and Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied in 1833-1834.