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Lewis and Clark in Winter

The weather was fine as the men of the Corps of Discovery worked on their pirogue boats for several days at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River during their winter with the Mandans and Hidatsas. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their men would begin the next leg of the trip with the coming of spring, and were busy with preparations.

Their winter in what is now North Dakota was their longest stay along their trail. It was a brutal winter. Many men and villagers experienced frostbite. A teenage boy sustained frostbite so bad that the men of the expedition had to amputate his toes. He went home about a month later in a sleigh.

Winter at Fort Mandan did have its positive moments. The men celebrated the New Year with music and dancing with their neighbors, and the firing of two cannon shots. They also watched a total lunar eclipse in early January.

The men planned to send their expedition’s keelboat home to Missouri in the spring, switching to the smaller canoe-like pirogues they were busily building. Members of the party also labored at making charcoal and battles axes that they could trade for corn. The axes proved popular. When Lewis and Clark were returning east, they witnessed the axes being used as gambling stakes by the Nez Perce in the region we now know as northern Idaho.

The men eventually left their winter camp on April 7th. It would be another sixteen months before they returned, on their way back to Saint Louis.

In some ways, their winter at Fort Mandan was a highlight of the expedition. It was when Pomp was born to Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau, and it was arguably more enjoyable than their boring winter in 1806 at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, where they only had elk meat and water, and dealt with endless rainy weather. But is that worse than forty-five below?

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

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