Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

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Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, which was established in 1974, preserves the historic and archaeological remnants of the Northern Plains Indians. This area was a major trading and agricultural area. There were three villages that occupied the Knife area. In general, these three villages are known as the Hidatsa villages. Broken down, the individual villages are Awatixa Xi’e (lower Hidatsa village), Awatixa and Big Hidatsa village. Awatixa Xi’e is believed to be the oldest village of the three. The Big Hidatsa village was established around 1600.


The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is located in central North Dakota, where the Knife River joins the Missouri River. The village is located ½ mile north of Stanton, North Dakota, 1 hour north west of Bismarck, ND, and 1 ½ hours south west of Minot, ND. The Knife River is a tributary to the Missouri River. Scenic sights such as broad plains, river bluffs and river bottom forests can all be seen along the two rivers. The national park borders both sides of the Knife River, which creates a forested peninsula along the length of the river.

The Missouri River is also known as the “Big Muddy” due to its high sedimentation loads. The Missouri River drains approximately one-sixth of the United States and encompasses 529,350 square miles (1,371,000 km2). During the pre-development period, the Missouri River represented one of North America’s most diverse ecosystems.

Village Life

At the Knife River Indian Villages National Historical Site, there are the visible remains of earth-lodge dwellings, cache pits and travois trails. The remains of the earth-lodge dwellings can be seen as large circular depressions in the ground. These dwellings were as large as 40 feet (12 m) in diameter. Many were once large enough to house up to 20 families, a few horses, and dogs. The dwellings were constructed at ground level. As the dwellings were abandoned the walls and roof collapsed and created the visible outer circular rim.

Sakakawea (Sacagawea) lived among one of the villages of the Knife River. The presence of Sakakawea and her son on the expedition was extremely crucial to the safety of Lewis and Clark and their party. Other tribes encountered during the expedition did not feel threatened by the party. This is due to the fact that war parties did not allow women and children to accompany them.

The Knife River Villages served as an important major central trading and agricultural area. The Native Americans served as middlemen in the trading business, stretching from Minnesota, to the Great Plains of the south to the Pacific west coast. Their trading business largely consisted of furs, guns, and metals such as copper.

Smallpox Epidemic

The Knife River villages thrived until 1837, when a series of smallpox outbreaks nearly wiped out the population. Any survivors of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara villages migrated north to the village of Like-a-Fish-Hook. The smallpox outbreaks from 1837-1840, had a 90% death rate among the infected. The two Mandan villages that had been in contact with Lewis and Clark experienced the horrific effects of the virus. The smallpox outbreak lasted from 1804-1805 and, out of 1,600 villagers, 31 survived. The smallpox epidemic was largely spread through the trading business. Despite warnings of outbreaks, Native Americans still visited trading posts and exposed themselves to the virus. Once the infected Mandan villages were empty, neighboring villages would raid the village and carry back the virus via blankets, horses and household tools.

Flora and fauna

When the Native Americans encompassed this area, there existed a very different landscape than what can be observed today. During the presence of the tribes, the upland areas were a mixed prairie region that contained a minimal number of trees. The river bottomlands floodplain forests were rich and fertile. This fertile area was utilized by the Native Americans in the production of crops such as corn, beans, squash and sunflowers. Trees such as green ash, cottonwood, American elm and box elder trees were common in the bottomlands. Other smaller trees and shrubs such as sandbar willow, red osier dogwood and buffalo berry were also common.

In 1974, as an effort to preserve the historic value and beauty as it once appeared, the area surrounding the park was transformed back to how it originally looked when the Native Americans occupied the area. The area now contains native short grass prairies, exotic grasslands, 450 acres (1.8 km2) of hardwood forest, cultural village sites, wetland areas and sandbars.

Within some areas of the park, the forest composition has changed very little. A few prairie areas contain wheatgrass, needlegrass, grama grass, big blue stem and many other forbs and flowers. Native wildlife feed on plants such as choke cherry, wild plums, buffalo berry and June berry.

The various vegetative communities within the park are home to many species of wildlife. The surrounding forests are home to white tailed deer, coyotes, beavers, skunks, prairie pocket gophers and thirteen-lined ground squirrels. The park is also home to a large variety of birds. Game birds found here include turkeys, pheasants, Canada geese and mourning doves. Raptors such as owls, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles and kestrels can be spotted. Other birds surrounding the rivers that can be viewed here are white pelicans, snow geese, and great blue herons. The Missouri and the Knife Rivers are home to twenty–six known species of aquatic mollusks within the park.

Within the park limits, insect species are being collected and analyzed. Over 200 different species of invertebrates have been identified. The most common order of insects found here include Coleoptera (beetles), Diptera (flies), Hemiptera (true bugs) Homoptera (leaf hoppers), and Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants). Many of these insects are crucial to the diet of park wildlife.

As with everywhere else, the park struggles with the management of exotic invasive species. Exotic plants first appeared when Native Americans and Euro-Americans cleared the forests. Many exotic plants are introduced accidentally but a few were planted deliberately. Exotic plant species include leafy spurge, Canada thistle and sweet clover. The park is currently conducting an inventory and monitoring program to gather information on the plant and animal species present within the park. From this information, the managers will be able to best decide how to manage and control the exotic invasive plants.


During the summer months, the temperature may reach the upper 80’s with relatively low humidity and variable winds. The annual average temperature is 40 °F (4 °C). The winter months may bring below-zero temperatures. This area receives approximately 16 inches (410 mm) of precipitation a year.