About eight miles north of Bismarck is a bluff on which the Mandan Indians once had a thriving village called Double Ditch Village, which is designated as a significant historic site. Double Ditch overlooks the Missouri River. It was made up of at least 150 earthlodges that used a sturdy architectural system unique to the Mandan, Hidatsas and Arikaras. These lodges were dome-shaped, made of logs and earth that could house families of eight to twenty people. The size of an earthlodge was usually decided by the men, but the women were the primary builders. Several early explorers recorded their relief at being able to stay in a warm earthlodge during their winter travels.
The first stage in the construction was a circular wooden framework. It was then covered with layers of willow branches, grass, and finally, earth. One earth lodge, alone, could use up to 150 trees harvested from the banks of the Missouri. Within the villages, the lodges were placed close together and varied from 20 to 65 feet in diameter.
Double Ditch appears to have been used between the years 1500 and 1781, and now all that remains are circular depressions in the ground. Surrounding the entire site one can also see two fortification ditches, as well as ancient trash heaps called midden mounds.
The Mandans had a highly organized and productive culture based on farming and bison hunting. Their oral history indicates that Double Ditch was one of seven to nine inter-related villages near the mouth of the Heart River. The tribe once numbered around 10,000, but a smallpox epidemic decimated the tribes, and the few Mandans who escaped death joined the Hidatsa and Arikara survivors to establish new villages upriver. Therefore, the abandoned villages represent the last of the purely Mandan sites in existence.
The double ditches for which the village is named were formed when the village was surrounded by a palisade – or fortification wall – similar to those surrounding early military posts. Magnetic analysis has revealed a second set of ditches further out, which indicates the village was at one time much bigger.
Ray Wood, an anthropologist from the University of Missouri, called the Double Ditch one of the country’s most fascinating archaeological sites. “You can’t walk over this site without being inspired,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it along the Missouri River or any other river in the country. It tells us a lot about Mandan history and prehistory.”
Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm