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Double Ditch Mandan Village


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.

On October 22nd, 1804, Captain William Clark noted the village in his journal, writing “Passed 2 old villages at the mouth of a large Creek L. S. (Hunting Creek) and Small Island at the head of which is a bad place, and old village on the S. S. (Double Ditch) and the upper of the 6 villages the Mandans occupied about 25 years ago this village was entirely cut off by the Sioux & one of the others nearly, the Small Pox destroyed great numbers.”

Double Ditch overlooks the Missouri River and was made up of at least 150 earthlodges that used a sturdy architectural system unique to the Mandan, Hidatsas and Arikaras in the region. These lodges were dome-shaped houses 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 made up of a circular wooden framework, which was then covered with layers of willow branches, grass, and finally, earth. One earth lodge, alone, could use up to 150 trees that grew along 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 of the earthlodges are circular depressions in the ground. Surrounding the entire site one can also see two fortification ditches, as well as midden mounds or heaps of trash discarded by village residents.

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 located near the mouth of the Heart River. The tribe once numbered around 10,000, but a catastrophic smallpox epidemic decimated the tribes in the area, and the few Mandans who escaped death joined the Hidatsa and Arikara survivors to establish new villages further upriver. Therefore, the abandoned villages represent the last of the purely Mandan sites in existence.

The double ditches for which the village is name were formed when the village was once surrounded by a palisade – or fortification wall – similar to those surrounding early military posts. This past summer, the site was the scene of a 5-week archaeological study that revealed that Double Ditch might actually be a double Double Ditch. Magnetic analysis has revealed a second set of ditches further out from the first set, which indicates the village was at one time much bigger, and that the village downsized at some point between 1500 and 1700.

During the excavation, Ray Wood, an anthropologist from the University of Missouri, called the site 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 written by Merry Helm