October 20 – Hunt for Slant Village

 On this day in 1804, Captain William Clark and the Corps of Discovery set out early in the morning along the Missouri River in search of On-the-Slant Village using a map (left) handed down by Welsh poet John Thomas Evans.

“After breakfast I walked out . . . to see those remarkable places pointed out by Evins,” wrote Clark.  I saw the remains of a village (NB covering 6 or 8 acres) on the side of a hill . . .”

The map maker Evans,  known in Wales as Iolo Morganwg, (below, sketch courtesy of National Library of Wales) had spent the winter of 1796 and 1797 in present-day North Dakota.  His trip was financed by the Spanish king interested in finding a route to the Pacific.   Evans had a more parochial interest.  He was in search of a fabled tribe of “Welsh Indians” believed to be founded by twelfth century Welsh prince, Madoc. The prince had allegedly sailed to America in 1170, three centuries before Columbus.  Finding no Welsh Indians, however, Evans returned to Wales and went about creating massive forgeries of the country’s historical documents, some not discovered until the 21st century. 

Arikara chief Toone (or Whippoorwill) had accompanied the Corps up the Missouri and was apparently a more reliable historian.  He related that the village had been abandoned decades earlier by the Mandan, pushed further North by the “Troubleson Seauex.” noted Clark.  In fact, the tribe had been decimated by small pox in 1781 in addition to the  increased pressure from the Sioux.

Clark called the surrounding country “fine” and the expedition camped on a bluff above the old village about five miles south of present-day Mandan, North Dakota.

While the country may have been fine, the weather was not.  According to the journal entries for the next day, the camp had passed a cold night with freezing rain and sleet, waking up to snow in the morning.  

The party was a stone’s throw from the Mandan village where they would remain until the first week in April 1805. They were welcomed by Chief Shahaka, (Big White or White Coyote) (right).  The chief was one of the Mandans that accompanied Lewis and Clark back to Washington D.C. on their return trip in 1806.

 Lewis and Clark were not the first, just the most recent Europeans to visit Slant Village.  In 1738, French explorer, Pierre Gaultier de Varenesse and his two sons began a three-year odyssey through North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, recording several encounters with the Mandan there.  

Over the next 130 years On-the-Slant Village disappeared, only rediscovered by archeologists in 1937. And so it was that in 1872, the U.S. Army established Fort McKean on the same site, one of the Western outposts of the Indian Wars.  Renamed Fort Abraham Lincoln the next year, it was famous mostly for its first commander, George Armstrong Custer. (Above, Custer residence at the fort)

 Custer’s three-year tenure ended abruptly in 1976 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where his entire company perished with him.  The single survivor to return to the fort was the bay horse named Comanche, brought there to recover for his injuries.

 Fort Abraham Lincoln was decommissioned in 1891 and local residents carried off most of the buildings for the lumber and nails.  A second  facility, Fort Lincoln, not to be confused with the original, was built just across the river near Bismarck.  It was used to detain captured Germans and Italians at the outbreak of WWII.  

In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt deeded Fort Abraham Lincoln to the state of North Dakota for a state park and 30 years later Clark’s On-The-Slant Village finally found a permanent place in history.  A number of lodges and  seven of the fort’s buildings including Custer’s house have been reconstructed. 

 Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, at 4480 Ft. Lincoln Road, Mandan, N.D. was Custer’s last post. His house and a number of other buildings have been authentically reconstructed along with  number of Mandan earth lodges. Interpretive tours introductions to Mandan culture are offered at the village.  A museum is devoted to the history of On the Slant, Fort Abraham Lincoln and nearby Fort Lincoln.  A gift shop and coffee shop are on the grounds and during summer months there are performances of some of the fort’s 1870s melodramas.

The park has 95 campsites, two sleeping cabins, picnic areas, playgrounds and four primitive campsites with corrals.   Handicap accessible and pet friendly, it’s open year round.  The visitor center and tours are available from May through mid-September.  Admission is $5 per vehicle state park fee; $6 for adults, $4 for student interpretive fee.  For more information go to ndtourism.com, call (701) 667-6340, e-mail falsp@nd.gov or write 4480 Fort Lincoln Road, Mandan, ND 58554

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