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Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site


Located in central North Dakota, where the Knife River joins the flow of the Missouri, are the remains of one of the oldest inhabited sites in North America. At least 11,000 years ago, nomadic hunters came to this area, attracted by the strong yet beautiful Knife River flint. The Hidatsa and Mandan people traded the flint for goods with other tribes and built a flourishing and stable community of villages. Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, established in 1974, includes three village sites, making it the best-preserved complex of Northern Plains culture.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
©USGS.gov
The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site was inhabited
11,000 years ago by nomadic hunters.

Exhibits at the visitor center and a full-scale earthlodge will further visitors' understanding of the lives of the first inhabitants of this place. The Knife River area was primarily the home of the Hidatsa. To the south were their Mandan neighbors, who lived similar lives of hunting, tending crops, and trading.

Women were responsible for most of the day-to-day work, including gathering wild plants, preparing food, making tools, tanning hides, and, until horses came to the plains, hauling supplies.

The men spent their time seeking spiritual knowledge, hunting buffalo and other big game, and making war. Their lives were not easy, but the Mandan and Hidatsa had time for games and storytelling. An open area in the center of each Mandan village was for dancing and rituals.

Women also built, maintained, and owned the earthlodges. These well-insulated homes were actually made of earth and wooden posts, and some of them were spacious enough to house as many as 30 people.

Big Hidatsa was the farthest north of the Knife River villages. It was established by the Hidatsa sometime around the year 1600 and inhabited until 1845. By far the largest of the villages, Big Hidatsa had 100 earthlodges housing more than 1,000 people.

Sakakawea was south of Big Hidatsa. A group of Hidatsa Indians established this village in the late-eighteenth century and lived there until 1834, when Sioux raiders burned the town. Sakakawea at one time probably had 47 lodges and a population of approximately 500 people.

Lower Hidatsa is one of the longest continually lived-in villages on the Upper Missouri. It was home to Hidatsa Indians from 1525 until about 1780-85, when the population was decimated by smallpox. The site has 51 house structures, indicating a population of 500.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site Information

Hours: 564 County Road 37
Stanton, ND 58571
Phone: 701/745-3300
Hours of Operation: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day
Admission: Free

Learn more about these other national historic sites:

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic SiteClara Barton National Historic Site
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Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.

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