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Rats at Fort Clark

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Life was not easy at the Fort Clark fur trading post back in the 1830s. The fort was located on the Missouri river near present-day Washburn and it was a major economic center. The post manager, Francis Chardon, kept a journal, describing the cold weather, the fur trade, tribal activities, and the devastating smallpox epidemic. He also kept a regular tally of how many rats he had killed!

Norway rats arrived in the New World in the 18th century and became terrible pests. They infested the fort and Native villages. Rats burrowed into and ate stores of Indian corn. They gnawed through the fort’s wooden floorboards and pickets. They also reproduced at a prolific rate. Artist George Catlin wrote that the Hidatsas were initially grateful for the rats because they preyed upon annoying deer mice. But the villagers were horrified when they saw the destruction the rats caused.

German Prince Maximilian of Wied wintered at the fort from 1833 to 1834 and wrote that the rats “were so troublesome and numerous that one could not keep any supplies safe from them.” He also observed that the fort’s “single tame cat” did nothing to “help to lessen the tremendous plague of rats.”

The hoard of rats could eat five bushels of corn in a day. Maximilian wrote that the rats “gnawed holes in the floorboards so we could enjoy their visits.” His party put their tame fox in the attic to keep down the rats.

One night, Maximilian heard two gunshots as men shot rats in their room. One trader erected a scaffold to keep corn away from the rats, and he built the scaffold with smooth pillars so the rats couldn’t climb up or down.

Post manager Chardon recorded that rat kills could number in the dozens for a single day. One day in 1835, Chardon wrote: “Last night the rats were very thick. We killed 18.” On one day in 1836, he killed 34!

On this date in 1837, Chardon wrote that he killed 268 rats in the month of November, bringing his total to more than 2,200. But that wasn’t the end. After five years, Chardon had recorded more than 3,700 dead rats. In one correspondence, he wrote: “You have no idea of the quantity of rats that are at this place.”

The rats infested the fort as late as 1858, and archaeologists found their remains aplenty during excavations in 2001.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:

Chardon’s Journal at Fork Clark, 1834-1839 F.A. Chardon. Edited with historical introduction and notes by Annie Heloise Abel. Introduction to the Bison Books edition by William R. Swagerty. (1997 ed.). University of Nebraska Press

Fenn, E.A. (2014). Encounters at the heart of the world: A history of the Mandan people. Hill and Wang: New York, NY

The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied: Volume III, September 1833-August 1834. Edited by Stephen S. White and Marsha V. Gallagher. Translated by Dieter Karch. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, in cooperation with the Durham Center for Western Studies, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE

Wood, R.W.; Hunt, W.; Williams, R.H. (2011). Fort Clark and its neighbors: A trading post on the upper Missouri. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman

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