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Tragedy at Fort Clark


In 1822, the Mandan established a new earth lodge village on the bluffs overlooking the confluence of Chardon and Clark's Creeks, fifteen miles from present-day Washburn. Named Mitu'tahokto's (me-toot-a-hank-tosh) meaning ‘first' or ‘east' village, it served as the Mandan's summer home: prime real estate for growing corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers and tobacco. Besides being an important agricultural center, the village, boasting a population in the thousands, it was also a prime center of trade; sitting near a historic crossroads where numerous tribes came to do business.

In the late 1820s, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company recognized the trading potential of Mitu'tahokto's. So to better facilitate business, keep competitors at bay and monopolize the region's fur trade, the American Fur Company built Fort Clark. Named after the intrepid explorer William Clark, Fort Clark was constructed in 1830 on a bluff overlooking the west bank of the Missouri, just across the river from Lewis and Clarks' winter headquarters at Fort Mandan. The fort proved a quick success as the company's clerk, James Kipp, along with Toussaint Charbonneau, successfully facilitated trade with the Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Assiniboine and Crow.

During the fort's first seven years, the American Fur Company did brisk business; exchanging English woolen goods, knives, kettles, guns, powder and lead, for beaver pelts and bison robes. Trade at the fort continued to thrive until tragedy struck on this date in 1837. On June 19, the American Fur Company steamship, St. Peter's, docked at Fort Clark, bringing with its collection of trade goods the feared smallpox virus. The Mandan people, having little immunity to the dreaded disease, perished by the thousands. Mitu'tahokto's, previously home to 1,800 people, was reduced to 125 by early August. Survivors abandoned the village, joining a group of Hidatsa living farther north.

While the Mandan were decimated by the smallpox epidemic of 1837, the Arikara fared much better. Moving into the abandoned Mitu'tahokto's, they resumed trade with Fort Clark. Yet the Arikara too would be devastated by disease; first a cholera epidemic in 1851 and then a smallpox outbreak in 1856.

The weakened Arikara continued to use Mitu'tahokto's as their summer home, but weakened by disease, they were unable to fend off warriors from Two Bear's band of Lakota. Repeated raids forced the Arikara to flee. The raids took their toll on Fort Clark as well. In 1861 the American Fur Company abandoned their post along the Missouri. Left empty, the fort's buildings quickly fell victim to steamboat crews, who scavenged the post's wood for fuel; thus closing a tragic chapter of North Dakota history.

Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


Brudvig, Jon L. "Fort Clark." In The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia, ed. Junius P. Rodriguez: ABC-CLIO, 2002.

Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2002.