Bull-boat and paddle, obtained from the Hidatsa. Marked "Fort Buford, Dak. Ter. Grosventres Tribe. Drs. Gray and Matthews." (U.S.N.M. 9785)

Houses of the Hidatsa Tribe

The Hidatsa, also known as the Minnetaree and designated by some writers the Gros Ventres of the Missouri, a name which must not be confused with Gros Ventres of the Prairie often applied to the Atsina, lived when first known to Europeans near the junction of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, in the eastern part of the present Mercer County, North Dakota. Some are of the belief that it was the Hidatsa and not the Mandan whom the French, under La Verendrye, visited during the autumn and winter of 1738, but in the present sketch the Mandan are accepted as undoubtedly being the tribe at whose villages the French remained.

The Hidatsa villages as seen by Catlin and Maximilian during the years 1832, 1833, and 1834 had probably changed little since the winter of 1804-05, when Lewis and Clark occupied Fort Mandan, their winter quarters, some 8 miles below the mouth of Knife River. Describing the villages, Catlin said the principal one stood on the bank of Knife River and consisted of 40 or 50 earth-covered lodges, each from 40 to 50 feet in diameter, and this town being on an elevated bank overlooked the other two which were on lower ground “and almost lost amidst their numerous corn fields and other profuse vegetation which cover the earth with their luxuriant growth.

"Minatarree Village" - George Catlin
Plate 43 - "Minatarree Village" - George Catlin

“The scenery along the banks of this little river, from village to village, is quite peculiar and curious; rendered extremely so by the continual wild and garrulous groups of men, women, and children, who are wending their way along its winding shores, or dashing and plunging through its blue waves, enjoying the luxury of swimming, of which both sexes seem to be passionately fond. Others are paddling about in their tub-like canoes, made of the skins of buffaloes.” 1 Among the great collection of Catlin’s paintings belonging to the United States National Museum, in Washington, is one of the large village. The original painting is reproduced in plate 43. A drawing of the same was shown a plate 70 in Catlin’s work cited above. The work is crude but interesting historically, and conveys some idea of the appearance of the town, although in this, as in other paintings by the same artist, the earth lodges are very poorly drawn, failing to show the projection which served as the entrance and having the roofs too rounded and dome shaped. Bodmer’s sketches are far superior.

On June 19, 1833, Maximilian, aboard the steamboat Assiniboin, left Fort Clark bound for Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone. Soon after passing the Mandan village of Ruhptare, so Maximilian wrote: ” We saw before us the fine broad mirror of the river, and, at a distance on the southern bank, the red mass of the clay huts of the lower village of the Manitarie, which we reached in half an hour. The Missouri is joined by the Knife River, on which the three villages of the Manitarie are built. The largest, which is the furthest from the Missouri, is called Elah-Sa (the village of the great willows); the middle one, Awatichay (the little village), where Charbonneau, the interpreter, lives; and the third, Awachawi (le village des souliers), which is the smallest, consisting of only eighteen huts, situated at the mouth of Knife River. The south bank of the river was now animated by a crowd of Indians, both on foot and on horseback; they were the Manitarie, who had flocked from their villages to see the steamer and to welcome us. The appearance of this vessel of the Company, which comes up, once in two years, to the Yellow Stone River, is an event of the greatest importance to the Indians. The sight of the red brown crowd collected on the river side, for even their buffalo skins were mostly of this color, was, in the highest degree, striking. We already saw above a hundred of them, with many dogs, some of which drew sledges, and others, wooden boards fastened to their backs, and the ends trailing on the ground, to which the baggage was attached with leather straps.” 2

Original pencil sketch, "Winter Village of the Minatarres" - Karl Bodmer, 1833
Plate 44a - Original pencil sketch, "Winter Village of the Minatarres" - Karl Bodmer, 1833

As told in the preceding section, Maximilian returned from Fort Union to Fort Clark, where, with the artist Bodmer, he spent the long winter. While near the Mandan towns he made several visits to the Hidatsa villages a few miles above, and learned much of the manners and ways of life of the people. He again spoke of the three villages on the banks of Knife River, “two on the left bank, and the third, which is much the largest, on the right bank.” He continued: “At present the Manitarie live constantly in their villages, and do not roam about as they formerly did, when, like the Pawnees and other nations, they went in pursuit of the herds of buffaloes as soon as their fields were sown, returned in the autumn for the harvest, after which they again went into the prairie. In these wanderings they made use of leather tents, some of which are still standing by the side of their permanent dwellings”. He then described the dress and general appearance of the people and continued: “The Manitari villages are similarly arranged as those of the Mandans except that they have no ark placed in the central space, and the figure of Ochkih-Hadda is not there. In the principal village, however, is the figure of a woman placed on a long pole, doubtless representing the grandmother, who presented them with the pots, of which I shall speak more hereafter. A bundle of brushwood is hung on this pole, to which are attached the leathern dress and leggins of a woman. The head is made of wormwood, and has a cap with feathers. The interior of their huts is arranged as among the Mandans: like them the Manitarie go, in winter, into the forests on both banks of the Missouri, where they find fuel, and, at the same time, protection against the inclement weather. Their winter villages are in the thickest of the forest. and the huts are built near to each other, promiscuously, and without any attempt at order or regularity. They have about 250 or 300 horses in their three villages, and a considerable number of dogs”. Bodmer’s picture of the “Winter Village of the Minatarre,” made during the winter of 1833, is probably the most accurate drawing of an earth-lodge village in existence. It was given as plate xxvi by Maximilian, which is here reproduced as plate 44b. A pencil sketch which may be considered as the original sketch made by Bodmer; and from which the finished picture was made, is now in the E. E. Ayer collection preserved in the Newberry Library. Unfortunately the drawing is unfinished but is very interesting historically. It is shown in plate 44a.

Finished picture of the same, "Winter Village of the Minatarres" - Karl Bodmer, 1833
Plate 44b - Finished picture of the same, "Winter Village of the Minatarres" - Karl Bodmer, 1833

Maximilian then referred briefly to the creation myth of the people with whom he was then resting. The entire surface was once covered with water. There were two beings: one a man who lived in the far Rocky Mountains who made all; the other was the old woman called grandmother by the members of the tribe.” She gave the Manitarie a couple of pots, which they still preserve as a sacred treasure,” and “When their fields are threatened with a great drought they are to celebrate a medicine feast with the old grandmother’s pots, in order to beg for rain: this is, properly, the destination of the pots. The medicine men are still paid, on such occasions, to sing for four days together in the huts, while the pots remain filled with water.” Such were the superstitious beliefs of these strange people.
November 26, 1833, Maximilian, Bodmer, and several others went from Fort Clark to the winter village to attend “a great medicine feast among the Manitarie.” They passed the two Mandan towns and during the journey saw a large stone, “undoubtedly one of those isolated blocks of granite which are scattered over the whole prairie, and which the Indians, from some superstitious notion, paint with vermilion, and surround with little sticks, or rods, to which were attached some feathers.” The little party had seen much of interest on the way, and it was late in the day when they arrived at the village, “the large huts of which were built so close to each other that it was sometimes difficult to pass between them.” Herds of buffalo having been reported in the vicinity of the village, a party of Indians had decided to start after them the following day, and planned “to implore the blessings of heaven upon their undertaking by a great medicine feast.” This appears to have been a ceremony arranged by the women of the village. The structure in which the dance took place was not one of the earth-covered lodges of the town, but a rather temporary shelter of unusual shape. As described by Maximilian “Between the huts, in the centre of the village, an elliptical space, forty paces or more in length, was enclosed in a fence, ten or twelve feet high, consisting of reeds and willow twigs inclining inwards. (See the woodcut.) [Figure 11.]

Plan of a ceremonial lodge
Figure 11 - Plan of a ceremonial lodge

An entrance was left at a; b represents the fence; d are the four fires, burning in the medicine lodge, which were kept up the whole time. At e the elder and principal men had taken their seats; to the right sat the old chief, LachpitziSihrisch (the yellow bear); some parts of his face were painted red, and a bandage of yellow skin encircled his head. Places were assigned to us on the right hand of the yellow bear. At f, close to the fence, the spectators, especially the women, were seated: the men walked about, some of them handsomely dressed, others quite simply children were seated round the fires, which they kept alive by throwing twigs of willow trees into them. “Here follows a description of the ceremony, and it is related how six elderly men who had been chosen by the younger ones to represent buffalo bulls, entered the enclosure. They came from the hut opposite and when they were within, and after certain formalities, were seated at c. The ceremony was attended by smoking, the pipes were “brought first to the old men and the visitors; they presented the mouth-piece of the pipe to us in succession, going from right to left: we each took a few whiffs, uttered, as before, a wish or prayer, and passed the pipe to our next neighbors. The six buffalo bulls, meantime, sitting behind the fire, sang, and rattled the medicine sticks, while one of them constantly beat the badger skin. After a while they all stood up, bent forward, and danced; that is, they leaped as high as they could with both their feet together, continuing to sing and rattle their sticks, one of them beating time on the badger. Their song was invariably the same, consisting of loud, broken notes and exclamations. When they had danced for some time, they resumed their seats.

Plan of the large Hidatsa village
Figure 12 - Plan of the large Hidatsa village

“The whole was extremely interesting. The great number of red men, in a variety of costumes, the singing, dancing, beating the drum, &c., while the lofty trees of the forest, illumed by the fires, spread their branches against the dark sky, formed a tout ensemble so striking and original, that I regretted the impracticability of taking a sketch of it on the spot.”

Two days after the dance, on November 28, 1833, Maximilian visited the chief Yellow Bear in his lodge. The interior presents an interesting appearance: “The beds, consisting of square leathern cases, were placed along the sides of the spacious hut, and the inmates sat round the fire variously occupied. The Yellow Bear, wearing only his breech-cloth, sat upon a bench made of willow boughs, covered with skins, and was painting a new buffalo robe with figures in vermillion and black, having his colors standing by him, ready mixed, in old potsherds. In lieu of a pencil he was using the more inartificial substitute of a sharp-pointed piece of wood. The robe was ornamented with the symbols of valuable presents which he had made, and which had gained the Yellow Bear much reputation, and made him a man of distinction.” 3

"Mih-tutta-hang-kusch," A Mandan Village - Karl Bodmer, 1833
Plate 39 - "Mih-tutta-hang-kusch," A Mandan Village - Karl Bodmer, 1833

Among the historic village sites which have been studied and surveyed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, as mentioned in the preceding sketch of the Mandan, was that “of the largest Hidatsa village on Knife river.” The map made for the society is here reproduced in figure 12. This, to quote Libby, “shows the present appearance of the, largest Hidatsa village site, located just north of the month of Knife river. From the position and direction of the doorways, it is seen that these villages show no such large grouping as is characteristic of the Mandan village. It was observed that the circles marking the positions of the earth lodges were much deeper in the Hidatsa villages than in the two Mandan sites. In the former the extreme depth below the “highest part of the rim was often three feet and very commonly over two feet,” but on the Mandan sites the depressions were quite shallow. And “in many cases it was observed that in and near the Hidatsa villages were mounds of debris of varying heights, while nothing of the kind was seen on or near Mandan sites.” 4 Noting these characteristic features of the two groups of villages, or rather of the villages of the two tribes, should reduce the difficulty of identifying other ancient sites in the upper Missouri Valley.

Bull-boat and paddle, obtained from the Hidatsa. Marked "Fort Buford, Dak. Ter. Grosventres Tribe. Drs. Gray and Matthews." (U.S.N.M. 9785)
Plate 35b - Bull-boat and paddle, obtained from the Hidatsa. Marked "Fort Buford, Dak. Ter. Grosventres Tribe. Drs. Gray and Matthews." (U.S.N.M. 9785)

The several quotations already made refer to the earth-covered lodges of the Hidatsa, but the same people also made use of the typical skin tipi, although less often mentioned by the early writers. They probably resembled the structures used by the Crow. On November 8, 1833, when Maximilian was returning to Fort Clark from the mouth of the Yellowstone, he wrote: “At twelve o’clock we were opposite the first Manitari summer village, and saw, on the other side, many Indians. The invitations to land became more vociferous and numerous.” Going ashore “we were immediately conducted, by a distinguished  man, Ita-Widahki-Hisha (the red shield), to his tent, which stood apart on the prairie, on the summit of the bank. The white leather tent was new, spacious, and handsomely ornamented with tufts of hair of various colors, and at each side of the entrance, finished with a stripe and rosettes of dyed porcupine quills, very neatly executed. It had been well warmed by a good fire, a most refreshing sight to us. We took our seats around it, with the numerous family, the brother and uncle of the chief, young men, women, and children. The chief had rather a long beard, like the Punca chief, Shudegacheh, and his right breast was tattooed with black stripes. A large dish of boiled maize and beans was immediately set before us; it was very tender and well dressed, and three of us eat out of the dish with spoons made of the horn of buffalo, or bighorn; after which the red Dacota pipe went round.” 5 This must have been a beautiful example of the buffalo skin tipi, new and white, decorated with quillwork and tufts of hair.

Continuing down the Missouri to Fort Clark they passed women in their “round leather boats,” and saw others, “proceeding towards the river, with their boats hanging on their heads and down their backs.”

Hidatsa group with bull-boats. At Fort Berthold, July 13, 1851 - From Kurz's Sketchbook
Plate 45c - Hidatsa group with bull-boats. At Fort Berthold, July 13, 1851 - From Kurz's Sketchbook

An example of a “bull-boat ” and paddle is shown in plate 35b. It was collected among the Hidatsa and is now preserved in the collection of the National Museum. It is a specimen of great interest and rarity, though once so extensively used by the tribes of the Missouri Valley. Several boats of this sort are shown by Bodmer in his picture of the Mandan village pl. 39, and Kurz likewise left many drawings of these peculiar craft plate 45c.

In addition to the several forms of structures already mentioned, the Hidatsa evidently erected a very secure temporary lodge when away from their villages on hunting trips. On November 7, 1833, when descending the Missouri, and just before arriving at Fort Clark, Maximilian wrote: “Our breakfast was prepared at nine o’clock, when we lay to on the north bank, in a narrow strip of forest, where we found some old Indian hunting lodges, built, in a conical form, of dry timber. They had, doubtless, been left by the Manitarie, who had come thus far on their hunting excursions. The lower part of the huts, or lodges, was covered with the bark of trees; the entrance was square, and bones were scattered in all directions. We proceeded with a bleak, high wind, saw the singular clay tops of the hills, and, in the forest, the stages made of poles, where the Indian hunters dry the flesh of the animals they have taken in the chase. About twelve o’clock we came to the spot where some stakes indicated the former site of a Mandan village. We are now in the centre of the territory of the Manitarie.” 6 Probably the danger of attack by their enemies made necessary the erection of these comparatively secure shelters.

The Hidatsa at Fort Berthold

About the year 1845 many Hidatsa removed from the vicinity of Knife River and reared a new village not far from Fort Berthold, some 60 miles up the Missouri from old Fort Clark. They were joined from time to time by other members of their tribe, and also by many of the remaining Mandan. In 1862 the Arikara became the third tribe to settle near Fort Berthold: But in 1850 the Arikara continued to occupy the old Mandan town just below Fort Clark, the large village of earth lodges so often visited and mentioned by the explorers and traders during the early years of the last century. It is quite evident the new settlement of the Hidatsa did not differ in appearance from the old Mandan town, the later home of the Arikara, and on June 13, 1850, Culbertson wrote from Fort Berthold “The village, with its mud lodges, differs nothing in looks from the Ree village described yesterday, except in one particular, that is, the inhabitants are now engaged in surrounding it with pickets. The logs are well prepared and are all up except on the west side; a bastion with loop holes is placed in the middle of each side. This picket is of course to protect the inmates against enemies by whom they are frequently attacked.” 7 This is a most interesting reference. Could this palisade have been the one to which Matthews alluded as having stood until 1865? The manner of constructing the palisade, with “a bastion  in the middle-of each side,” will tend to recall the similar arrangement as indicated on the drawing of the ancient Mahican village about two centuries before. 8

In the autumn of 1853, just 20 years after Maximilian was among the Hidatsa, an officer passed down the Missouri from Fort Benton to St. Louis, thence to continue to Washington, where he arrived November 21. In his journal are several brief references to the Hidatsa, or, as he designated the tribe, the Gros Ventres. To quote from the journal: “October 8 a fine region. full of game, and occasionally speaking a hunting party of Gros Ventres out after buffalo.” The next day the small party arrived at Fort Berthold, late in the afternoon. Then, so the journal continues: “We received many visits from the Gros Ventres, and gave them a few presents. The Gros Ventres have a large village of mud houses very unsightly outside, but within warm and comfortable.” The following morning. October 10, 1853, “I visited some of the lodges of the Gros Ventres, and found them exceedingly comfortable and capable of accommodating comfortably a hundred persons. One part of the lodge is appropriated to the horses, dogs, cattle, and chickens, and another to their own sleeping apartments. They all seemed to live sociably and comfortable together during the long cold winters of this cold latitude. We left Fort Berthold early; but, before we had advanced far, were driven ashore by a strong wind, which continued throughout the day. The smoke from the burning prairies is so dense as to almost hide the sun. The fires, burning in every direction, present at night a beautiful and magnificent, though terrible appearance.” 9 What a vivid, though brief, description of conditions in the Upper Missouri Valley when all was in a primitive state.

During the years following the visits of Catlin and Maximilian many changes took place in the native villages standing on the banks of the upper Missouri and its tributaries. Writing of a period about 40 years after Maximilian’s stay among the Mandan and Hidatsa, the winter of 1833-34, Dr. Matthews said: ” The Hidatsa, Minnetaree, or Grosventre Indians, are one of the three tribes which at present inhabit the permanent village at Fort Berthold, Dakota Territory, and hunt on the waters of the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, in Northwestern Dakota and Eastern Montana.” Describing the village, he continued: “The village consists of a number of houses built very closely together, without any attempt at regularity of position. The doors face in every possible direction; and there is great uniformity in the appearance of the lodges; so it is a very difficult matter to find one’s way among them.” In a footnote to this paragraph is given the number of structures standing there in the year 1872. The note reads: “In the fall of 187 , Dr. C. E, McChesney, then physician at the Berthold agency, counted, with great care, the buildings in the village and, in a letter, gave me the following results:

Old-style (round) lodges of Rees 43
Log-cabins of Rees 28
Total number of houses of Rees 71
Old-style lodges of Grosventres and Mandans 35
Log-cabins of Grosventres and Mandaus 69
Total number of houses of Grosventres and Mandans104
Total of houses in village175


The note states that “owing to the stupidity of the interpreter” it was not possible to separate the Grosventres from the Mandans, which was to be regretted.

The “old-style lodges” were the earth-covered lodges, and Matthews follows with an excellent description of how they were constructed. He tells of the building of the frame, “covered with willows, hay, and earth,” and over the opening in the center of the top “of many of the lodges are placed frames of wicker-work, on which skins are spread to the windward in stormy weather to keep the lodges from getting smoky. Sometimes bull-boats are used for this purpose.” 10 A comment on the work of the early artists is worthy of being mentioned at this time: ” Prince Maximilian’s artist, Karl Bodmer usually sketches the lodge very correctly; but Mr. Catlin invariably gives ‘an incorrect representation of its exterior. Whenever he depicts a Mandan, Arickaree, or Minnetaree lodge, he makes it appear as an almost exact hemisphere, and always omits the entry.”

Game, especially the buffalo, was becoming less plentiful in the vicinity of the villages, and Matthews told how, “Every winter, until 1866, the Indians left their permanent village, and, moving some distance up the Missouri Valley, built temporary quarters, usually in the center of heavy forests and in the neighborhood of buffalo. The houses of the winter-villages resembled much the log-cabins of our own western pioneers. They were neatly built, very warm, had regular fire-places and chimneys built of sticks and mud, and square holes in the roofs for the admission of light.” About that time some cabins of this sort were erected “in the permanent village at Fort Berthold; every year since, they are becoming gradually more numerous and threaten to eventually supplant the original earth-covered lodges.” And in 1877 “game has recently become very scarce in their country, they are obliged to travel immense distances, and almost constantly, when they go out on their winter-hunts. Requiring, therefore, movable habitations, they take with them, on their journeys, the ordinary skin-lodges, or ‘tepees,’ such as are used by the Dakota, Assiniboine, and other nomadic tribes of the region.”

Matthews’s description of the caches prepared by the tribes with whom he was so closely associated is most interesting, and it tends to explain the origin and use of the numerous pits often discovered in the vicinity of ancient village sites east of the Mississippi. He wrote “The numerous caches, or pits, for storing grain, are noteworthy objects in the village. In summer, when they are not in use, they are often left open, or are carelessly covered, and may entrap the unwary stroller. When these Indians have harvested their crops, and before they start on their winter-hunt, they dig their caches, or clear out those dug in previous years. A cache is a cellar, usually round, with a small opening above, barely large enough to allow a person to descend; when finished, it looks much like an ordinary round cistern. Reserving a small portion of corn, dried squash, etc., for winter use, they deposit the remainder in these subterranean store-houses, along with household-utensils, and other articles of value which they wish to leave behind. They then fill up the orifices with earth, which they trample down and rake over; thus obliterating every trace of the excavation. Some caches are made under the floors of the houses, others outside, in various parts of the village-grounds; in each case, the distance and direction from some door, post, bedstead, fire-place, or other object is noted, so that the stores may be found on the return of the owners in the spring. Should an enemy enter the village while it is temporarily deserted, the goods are safe from fire and theft. This method of secreting property has been in use among many tribes, has been adopted by whites living on the plains, and is referred to in the works of many travelers.”

Such were the characteristic features of the Hidatsa villages.Citations:

  1. Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. London, 1844. 2 vols., I, p. 186.[]
  2. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 178-179.[]
  3. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 419-423.[]
  4. Libby, O. G., Typical Villages of the Mandans, Arikara, and Hidatsa in the Missouri Valley, North Dakota. In Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Vol. II. Bismarck, 1908, p. 500.[]
  5. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, p. 316.[]
  6. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 314-315.[]
  7. Culbertson, Thaddeus A., Journal of an Expedition to the Mauvaises Terres and the Upper Missouri in 1850. In Fifth Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, 1851, pp. 118-119.[]
  8. Bushnell, D. I. Jr., Native Villages and Village Sites East of the Mississippi. 69, Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, 1919, p. 26.[]
  9. Saxton, Rufus, Journal. In Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascert in the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean . . . 1853-1854 Vol. I. Washington, 1855, pp. 264-265. []
  10. Matthews, Washington, Ethnography and Philology of the Hidatsa Indians. In Miscellaneous Publications, No. 7, United States Geological and Geographical Survey. Washington, 1877, pp. 3-6.[]


Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922.

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