Fort Mandan – Washburn, ND
In previous posts we have been able to visit some of the historic Lewis and Clark sites such as Three Island Crossing in Idaho, as well as Baker City, Oregon City, and Fort Catsop in Oregon. We knew that Lewis and Clark had followed the Missouri River hoping to find a waterway to the Pacific. Unfortunately, those Rocky Mountains got in the way!
Celia and I enjoyed visiting Fort Catsop, the second winter encampment, in Astoria, Oregon. We also knew that the expedition’s first winter was spent in Fort Mandan along the Missouri River in North Dakota. While there were many days of subzero Fahrenheit temperatures, the explorers actually like this camp better than their second winter camp in Astoria. The Pacific Coast experienced rain on all but six days during their winter stay and they were ready to leave as soon as possible. In other words, in their opinion, it was better to be cold than wet.
While traveling through North Dakota, we realized that we were near the Interpretive Center for the Corps of Discovery’s first winter home so we decided to make a detour and visit it. Unfortunately for us, the area was receiving some much needed rain, accompanied by the high winds for which North Dakota is known. We also realized quickly that North Dakota’s weather forecasts typically do not reflect reality. When we arrived on what was predicted to be a nice sunny day, the wind and rain were blowing so fiercely that we could barely open the Silverado’s doors.
The Mandan Fort replica site is located in Washburn, North Dakota approximately 10 miles from the historic fort’s undetermined original location. It is believed that the original site is now under water. The National Parks Service has constructed a copy of the fort which was named after the friendly Mandan Indians who lived near the Missouri River. The nearby Hidatsa Indians also proved to be friendly but the Sioux Indians were not friendly so the explorers had to build a fortified site for their own protection.
The Corps of Discovery encamped here from November 2, 1804 to April 7, 1805 as they waited for the frozen Missouri River to thaw so they could continue their journey to the Pacific Ocean. They built their fort during the month of November and made preparations during the winter for their trek farther west.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is quite large and has numerous displays and artifacts. There are also art galleries and a museum store on site. The Visitor Center itself is a few miles from the riverfront fort site.
Fort Mandan itself is a full-size replica of the Corps of Discovery’s fort with many items on display in the various rooms of the fort. There are daily tours available which are provided by the park staff. You can sign up and pay for these at the Visitor Center. Given all the rain and wind, we decided to sign up for the last tour of the day hoping for a break in the weather.
Our interpretive guide braved the rain and took us on the last tour of the day and seemed unfazed by the weather. She was very knowledgeable and shared with us extensive history of the stay of the Corps of Discovery in Mandan.
The fort had storerooms, sleeping quarters, and areas for food preparation. Even though the winter temperatures sometimes fell to -45 degrees Fahrenheit (-43 degrees Celsius), the rustic fort offered some protection.
One of the added benefits of their stay was the fortuitous meeting of Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, who served as a Hidatsa interpreter.
The Birthplace of Sacagawea – Salmon, Idaho
Later in our trek across Montana and into Idaho, we stayed in the town of Salmon, ID which is considered the birthplace of Sacagawea. She was born in the Lemhi River Valley. The town of Salmon is located on the beautiful Salmon River. It was a breath-taking drive through the Chief Joseph Pass from Montana and along the North Fork of the Salmon River into the town. We could not imagine how difficult that journey would have been for the Lewis and Clark expedition.
In Salmon, there is the Sacagawea Center which is located in the heart of town. This small building houses information about the town’s most famous resident and has some trails adjoining the center.
There is also a Sacagawea statue near the main building to commemorate her contribution to the Corps of Discovery’s mission. Sacagawea was Shoshone but had been kidnapped and taken to what is now North Dakota. She was reunited with her family when the explorers journeyed west and reached Idaho’s Lemhi Valley.
We were able to visit the center, tour the grounds, and spend some time walking along the Center’s riverside trail. We still marvel at how a woman with a newborn child was able to make the difficult journey to Oregon and back and the important role that she played in the Lewis and Clark expedition’s success.