Fall in North Dakota is often too brief, but the moment is bright and scenic. Highway 1804, which travels through the Missouri River’s eastern bluffs, is an especially beautiful place to take in autumn’s colors. On 1804 south of Washburn, there is a little known destination: the Painted Woods Wildlife Management Area. Amidst the fall colors on a November day, the Painted Woods may seem to get its name from the palette of bright leaves. However, the history of the Painted Woods is older and less obvious. It is a story of love, loss, and warfare.
It was the early 1700s, decades before Lewis and Clark would travel through the same area. Both the Mandan and their enemy, the Yanktonai Sioux, claimed this wooded area, and “to meet here was to fight here.” During the autumn harvest, the Mandan hosted a peace council with the Sioux, as both tribes had grown weary of the fighting one another. At the council, the daughter of the Mandan chief fell in love with a young Sioux warrior. Tragically, when the Mandan chief heard news of his daughter’s love, he ordered his soldiers to kill the young man. In retaliation, Sioux warriors killed the young Mandan woman. After this loss, the lovers’ bodies were placed together, wrapped in the hollow of a tree, according to the burial custom.
In an 1871 retelling of this history by an early Burleigh county resident, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Slaughter, the young Mandan woman was also said to be previously betrothed to a warrior of her own tribe, furthering the dishonor. In Slaughter’s retelling, it was the young Sioux warrior who killed the young woman’s betrothed, and subsequent vengeance from the Mandan warriors escalated the conflict, eventually leading to the young Mandan woman’s death.
Slaughter further describes the place of the two lovers’ burial, stating:
…thereafter it was a custom for warriors of both tribes in passing the tree with its ghastly burden, to wound themselves and with the blood mark symbols of vengeance upon the trunk of the tree, from which the bark had been removed.
These trees, painted by both the Mandan and the Sioux with signs of battle against one another, became the place now known as the Painted Woods.
Dakota Datebook by Maria Witham
“The Story of Painted Woods” sign. Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Sakakawea Chapter, Painted Woods Wildlife Management Area. Viewed 4 September 2020.
Slaughter, Linda W. “Fortress to Farm.” Bismarck Weekly Tribune. 10 Nov., 1893