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Alexander Henry and the Mandans

Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery weren’t the only outsiders to mingle with the Mandans on the upper Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. Even before the Corps returned downriver in the summer of 1806, another expedition paid the Mandans a visit.

Alexander Henry was employed by the North West Company, and he sought out the Mandans to acquire horses. He and two men left a trading post on the Red River at Pembina and traveled by horseback on muddy trails in the region of the Assiniboine and Mouse rivers. They stopped at a North West Company trading post near the Mouse River, then headed south.

In the party was Hugh McCracken, a free trader that Lewis and Clark met among the Mandans in 1804.
Around four o’clock in the afternoon on this date in 1806, Henry’s party arrived at the Missouri riverbank across from the mouth of the Knife River, near the Mandan villages. The expedition rode five miles downriver to a village where they came upon several Mandan women hoeing corn. There was also one well-armed man watching for Sioux. He shook hands with the members of the expedition, and invited them into the village.

Henry met Chief Black Cat, who had also met Lewis and Clark. The Mandans accommodated Henry’s men, and tended their horses. They were served boiled corn and beans, and also boiled dried meat, which few of the men could stomach. Black Cat showed them a flag that Lewis and Clark had given him, and he flew it over Henry’s hut during the expedition’s stay.

Like Lewis and Clark, Henry kept a journal and described the Mandans’ way of life and his interactions with them, including their gardens, their bull boats, and a corn mill given to them by Lewis and Clark—though the Mandans used it as a source of iron to barb their arrows.

Henry also met another character of the Corps of Discovery: René Jussaume. He had helped translate the Mandan language for the Corps. Jussaume was also the person who recommended that Sacagawea ingest a crushed rattlesnake’s rattle to hasten childbirth.

Henry’s party left after nine days, missing Lewis and Clark on their return trip by two and a half weeks. Henry’s expedition returned north with the sought-after horses, though some ended up lost or stolen. After that, the North West Company withdrew from Mandan trading.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Fenn, E.A. (2014). Encounters at the heart of the world: A history of the Mandan people. Hill and Wang: New York, NY
Lounsberry, C.A. (1919). Early history of North Dakota. Liberty Press: Washington, DC
Peet, S.D. (ed.) (1884). The American and oriental journal, Vol. 6. F.H. Reveell: Chicago, IL
Saindon, R.A. (2003). Explorations into the world of Lewis and Clark, Vol. 2. Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation: Great Falls, MT

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