As has been remarked by the most observant student of this tribe “Information as to the region occupied by the Cheyenne in early days is limited and for the most part traditional. Some ethnologists declare that Indian tradition has no historical value, but other students of Indians decline to assent to this dictum. If it is to be accepted, we can know little of the Cheyenne until they are found as nomads following the buffalo over the plains. There is, however, a mass of tradition data which points back to conditions at a much earlier date quite different from these. In primitive times they occupied permanent earth lodges and raised crops of corn, beans, and squashes, on which they largely depended for subsistence.” 1
According to tradition, which in part is verified by the accounts of early explorations, the Cheyenne at one time lived in the valley of the Minnesota, whence they gradually moved westward. Thus at least a part of the tribe removed from the edge of the timbered region to the plains, a movement which probably took place during the latter part of the eighteenth century.
While living in the vicinity of the Minnesota the villages and camps of the Cheyenne undoubtedly resembled those of the Sioux of later days; the conical skin-covered lodge, or possibly the mat or bark structure of the timber people, as used by the Ojibway and others. But during the same period it is evident other bands of the tribe lived quite a distance westward, probably on the banks of the Missouri, and there the habitations were the permanent earth lodge, similar to those of the Pawnee, Mandan, and other Missouri Valley tribes. Sioux traditions refer to Cheyenne villages on the banks of the Missouri near Fort Yates, Sioux County, North Dakota. These were visited and described by Dr. Grinnell, during the spring of 1918, who wrote: “The Teton Sioux, now allotted and scattered over the Standing Rock Indian reservation, declare that on the west bank of the Missouri river, not far from Fort, Yates, there were formerly two Cheyenne villages, I visited thee two sites. The most northerly one is situated on a bluff above the Missouri river on the south side of Porcupine creek, less than five miles north of Ft. Yates. The village has been partly destroyed by the Missouri river, which has undermined the bank and carried away some of the house rings reported to have been well preserved, but a number remain. Of these a few are still seen as the raised borders of considerable earth lodges, the rings about the central hollow being from twelve to fifteen inches above the surrounding soil, and the hollows noticeably deep. In most cases, however, the situation of the house is indicated merely by a slight hollow and especially by the peculiar character of the grass growing on the house site. The eye recognizes the different vegetation, and as soon as the foot is set on the soil within a house site, the difference is felt between that and the ground immediately without the site. The houses nearest both Porcupine creek and the Missouri river stand on the bank immediately above the water, and it is possible that some of those on the Porcupine have been undermined and carried away by that stream when in flood. This settlement must have been large. It stands on a flat, now bisected by a railroad embankment, slightly sloping toward the river, and the houses stood close together.” More than 70 large house sites were counted, “one at least being 60 feet in diameter,” and in addition to these were a large number of smaller ones. “On the gently rising land to the west of the Porcupine village the Cheyenne are said to have planted their corn, as also on the flats on the north side of the Porcupine river. The village site now stands on the farm of Yellow Lodge, a Yankton Sioux, who stated that he had always been told by the old people that this was a Cheyenne village and that in plowing he had often turned up pottery from the ground.” And in reference to the age of this interesting site: ” Sioux tradition declares that the village on the Porcupine river was established about 1733 or a little earlier. perhaps 1730; they fix the date as about one hundred years before the stars fell, 1833. It was a large village and was occupied for fifty years or more and then the people abandoned it and moved over to a point on Grand river twenty miles above its month. The date of the removal is given as about the time of a great flood at this point, which, it is said, took place about 1784.” 1 This later village existed until about 1840 and appears to have been composed of skin lodges, not the permanent earth structures. Sioux tradition also places the earlier home of the people who erected the village on the Porcupine at some point in the Valley of the Minnesota.
The second of the two sites mentioned stood some 2 miles below Porcupine Creek, and it is the belief of Dr. Grinnell that these were the villages to which Lewis and Clark referred in their journals as having been passed by the expedition on the 15th and 16th of October, 1804. At that time game was abundant and several hunting parties of the Arikara were encountered, and an entry in the journal dated October 15, 1804 reads: “We stopped at three miles on the north a little above a camp of Ricaras who are hunting, where we were visited by about thirty Indians. They came over in their skin canoes, bringing us meat, for which we returned them beads and fishhooks. About a mile higher we found another encampment of Ricaras on the south, consisting of eight lodges: here we again ate and exchanged a few presents. As we went we discerned numbers of other Indians on both sides of the river; and at about nine miles we came to a creek on the south. where we saw many high hills resembling a house with a slanting roof; and a little below the creek an old village of the Sharha or Cheyenne Indians . At sunset we halted, after coming ten miles over several sandbars and points, above a camp of ten Ricara lodges on the north side.” 2
Another ancient village site presenting many interesting features stands on the bank of an old bed of the Sheyenne River, near Lisbon. Ransom County, North Dakota. This would have been about midway between the Minnesota River and the village on the Missouri near Porcupine Creek. A plan of this village made a few years ago is now preserved in the Historical Society of North Dakota and was reproduced by Dr. Grinnell in the article cited. It shows a large number 70 or more earth-lodge sites, varying in size, but closely grouped, and protected by a ditch except on the river side. There’s a remarkable similarity between this site and others east of the Mississippi, where structures of a like form evidently stood in the centuries before the coming of Europeans. The ditch may have been accompanied by an embankment, in turn surmounted by palisades. The river served to protect the settlement on the north, the encircling embankment and ditch reaching the bank of the stream both above and below the occupied area.
Unfortunately no sketch or picture of any sort of a Cheyenne earth lodge is known to exist, but the villages just mentioned must necessarily have resembled in appearance those of the Pawnee of a later generation, remarkable photographs of which have been preserved and which are shown in the present work. And as Dr. Grinnell has said in a recent communication (February 2, 1920) when referring to the places long ago occupied by the camps of the Cheyenne: “I have walked about on the sites of these old villages, and the grandmother of a woman of my acquaintance, and probably the father of that woman, lived in earth-lodge houses, presumably very similar to those occupied in my time by the Pawnees and the Mandans. I have never seen one, however, and do not know anyone who has seen one. Many years ago, I might have procured from old Elk River a description of such houses, though he was even then very old and growing feeble. It is too late to lament that now.”
The conical skin lodge of the Cheyenne resembled that of other plains tribes, and they must in earlier times, when buffalo were so numerous and easily secured, have been rather large and commodious structures. When Lewis and Clark descended the Missouri, on their return from the far west, they reached on August 21, 1806, an encampment of the Cheyenne on the bank of the Missouri, opposite the upper village of the Arikara, not far below the old Cheyenne village mentioned in the journal of the expedition on October 15, 1804. To quote from the entry made August 21, 1806: “arrived opposite to the upper Ricara villages. We saluted them with the discharge of four guns, which they answered in the same manner; and on our landing we were met by the greater part of the inhabitants of each village, and also by a band of Chayennes, who were encamped on a hill in the neighborhood.” After conversing with all concerning the Mandans. “The sun being now very hot, the chief of the Chayennes invited us to his lodge, which was at no great distance from the river. We followed him, and found a very large lodge, made of twenty buffalo skins, surrounded by eighteen or twenty lodges, nearly equal in size. The rest of the nation are expected tomorrow, and will make the number of one hundred and thirty or fifty lodges, containing from three hundred and fifty to four hundred men, at which the men of the nation may be computed. These Chayennes are a fine looking people, of a large stature, straight limbs, high cheek-bones and noses, and of a complexion similar to that of the Ricaras.” 3
The photograph reproduced in plate 14 shows a Cheyenne family group, all interesting example of a travois, and part of a lodge. The latter differs from all described on the preceding pages and evidently resembles those erected by the Pawnee in their temporary camps. This form may have been used in later times in the place of the conical skin lodge, although the latter was not abandoned. but, as among other tribes, the Cheyenne appear to have erected several types of shelters or habitations, governed by the available supply of materials necessary for their construction.
Large lodges, evidently tipis, set up for special purposes by the Cheyenne, are mentioned by Grinnell. In the spring of 1853 the main village of that tribe, so he wrote, stood “at the mouth of Beaver Creek on the South Platte. There a large lodge was set up as a meeting-place for each of the soldier bands. To each such place came the relations of those killed the year before to implore the soldier bands to take pity on them and to help to revenge their injuries.” And at this time many presents were given the warriors. 4
This was before many of the primitive customs of the tribe had been changed through contact with the whites.
- Grinnell, Early Cheyenne Villages. In American Anthropologist, vol. 20. No. 4, Oct.-Dec., 1918, p. 359.
- Lewis and Clark. History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., pp. 108-109.
- Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., II, pp. 413-414.
- Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyenne. New York, 1915, p. 80.