Oct 25, 2023

Finding Fort Mandan and Lewis and Clark’s trail

One of the things I enjoy most about a loosely planned road trip is stopping at points of interest along the way which I either knew very little about or didn’t even know existed beforehand. It didn’t take me long on my drive on U.S. 83 (aka the Road To Nowhere) to make such a stop – just over an hours’ drive south from Minot, N.D., in fact.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center seemed to be a “can’t miss” site on the right side of the road. After all, which historical figures and famous trespassers are more important in North Dakota’s formative history? 
As it turned out, the museum felt very modern, clean and full of nicely displayed exhibits shown safely behind glass or podiums. It was well worth a visit by itself. But for all the excellent reproductions on display, it didn’t feel that “historical.” 

Fortunately, I dug a little deeper while there and learned more about Fort Mandan, the actual site of Lewis and Clark’s winter encampment of 1804-05. And as fate would have it, today’s touristy exploration of Lewis and Clark’s trail can continue from the Interpretive Center to the reconstructed fort down by the Missouri River, just a short drive away. 

The drive from the interpretive center is brief but quite scenic, as you maneuver first down the hillside, then across some marshland as you reach the east bank of the Missouri River. To me, this view alone was practically worth the drive. 

And it was near the river where I noticed my first exhibit of sorts – a tribute to Seaman, the dog Meriwether Lewis adopted to join him on the expedition. I can imagine at times Seaman was actually a better travel companion than William Clark. 

After reading about Seaman’s contributions to the expedition, I was left wondering why this dog isn’t talked about more in the history books. At least I was able to get a selfie with his likeness. 

On the opposite end of the parking area, and nestled nicely into the surrounding scenery, I found the Fort Mandan Visitor’s Center. There’s really not much here to differentiate it from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center on the highway, but the displays inside do an adequate job of preparing you for the main attraction when you walk out the back of the building … 

… along this gravel path to a faithful reconstruction of the Fort Mandan encampment. It’s not on the actual site – historians place that somewhere in the current path of the Missouri River – but it is supposed to be a full-sized replica of the original. And it may not look like much from the outside, but I would imagine those tall walls served well to protect the expedition from all sorts of hazards. 

From the center of the courtyard, you can begin to get a better feel for life inside the triangle-shaped fort. Yes, it’s cozy, to say the least.  And I’m not sure how threatening one lone swivel gun in the middle of the courtyard can actually be, but at least it’s something. 

Using a trusty pamphlet which I picked up at the visitor’s center as a guide, I worked my way clockwise around the fort, where the soldiers’ quarters took up the entire left side. Trust me, not much to see in there except some reconstructed wood and rope beds. 

Straight ahead and in the deepest part of the fort were the smokehouse and storeroom. 

Apparently, they lived off corn, squash and whatever was in the barrels – I’m guessing whiskey. The expedition supposedly shared generously with the indigenous people in the area, and that’s certainly what I would have wanted to share.  Lewis and Clark’s personal quarters were right next door to the supplies, to no surprise. 

What was mildly surprising to me was the recreated interpreter’s quarters next to the captains’ quarters. The display made it seem every bit as nice as the one for the officers. Then again, without happy guides you’re probably not going to get too far. 

Moving further along the right side of the encampment, the recreated Sergeant of the Guard’s quarters showed where dress uniforms and weapons necessary for guard duty were kept. 

And at the right end of the fort – and probably wisely placed next to the guards’ quarters – was where the blacksmith’s shop was kept. 

So, all things considered, maybe this stop along the Road to Nowhere wasn’t exactly life-altering. Some parts of the fort were admittedly not much to look at. Still, it was more interesting and informative than I initially expected. And, it was easy to explore at my own pace. Any aficionado of early American history and Lewis and Clark in particular would probably find Fort Mandan to be a worthwhile stop on their travels through North Dakota.

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