Bordering Mercer County on the north and east are Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. The county contains over sixty miles of the Lewis and Clark Trail; including the location where the explorers met Sakakawea herself. It is easy to feel close to history when you are roaming through the prairies and rivers of Mercer County, especially if you visit an old trading post, military fort, or Mandan village.
Whites visited Mercer County as long ago as 1738. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes was a French fur trader looking to expand his business, but he was also an explorer looking for the “Great River of the West.” This “Great River” was a common goal at the time; everyone wanted a passage through North America to the Pacific Ocean, an alternative to sailing around South America. Gaultier de Varennes learned from Indians at his trading post that the Missouri River might be just what he was looking for; and he heard about the Mandan villages along it. Intrigued by reports that the Mandan lived in houses like “white men,” he set off, led by a band of Assiniboine, and in 1738 his party arrived in the area that would one day become Mercer County. If he was expecting the Mandan to treat him like a French gentleman, however, he was mistaken. To get rid of the Assiniboine, the Mandan lied and said there was an angry Sioux war party nearby. It worked; Varennes’ escorts fled, and he was left without interpreters, so he fled, too. Soon he would retire without discovering a “Great River” to the Pacific.
That was the region’s first encounter with Europeans, but fast forward one hundred and thirty-four years to 1872 and William Mercer – the first settler to plow a claim on the land that would one day bear He was a commissioner in Burleigh County before Mercer County was formed. He even owned a little town in Burleigh County, initially promised to be “one of the most prosperous and desirable on the Missouri.” He was disappointed, however, when the town never amounted to more than a store and a small post office. When it didn’t grow, he left it to live in the county named for him … a county officially organized on this date in 1884.
Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas