"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Friday, October 12, 2012

An Early History of Stanton

Image location

Welcome to Stanton - Population 350 (give or take a few dozen) - The county seat of Mercer County, North Dakota.

I arrived in this humble town in the spring of 2009 to begin a seasonal position as a park ranger at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.  Created by an act of Congress in 1974, the park preserves a series of Hidatsa Indian earthlodge village sites immediately north of town.

Over the course of three seasons, I learned much about the history of this place: the arrival of paleo-Indians, the development of agriculture, the lifestyle and culture of the Hidatsa people, the arrival of white traders and explorers, the trauma of smallpox, the abandonment of the villages.

But I never learned much about the history after the abandonment of the last traditional earthlodge village in 1862 until this past summer.  Hearing anecdotal stories of local residents digging for artifacts in the Indian Villages and uncovering human remains while simultaneously staging pageants that celebrated the local indigenous history, I was inspired to dig deep into the more recent history of this place.  The history of Stanton, North Dakota.

(For a more thorough background of the indigenous history of Stanton, check out the Knife River Indian Villages website- http://www.nps.gov/knri/historyculture/index.htm)


Once Abandoned, Never Forgotten

The rich bottomlands at the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers supported a unique semi-sedentary agricultural lifestyle for hundreds of years.  The Hidatsa Indians flourished in the region building permanent earthlodge villages with populations in the thousands.  They traded over vast distances and amassed power, wealth, and influence over a wide swath of what is today the state of North Dakota.

After a century of contact with white traders, explorers, and artists, the last group of Hidatsa left their aboriginal homeland in 1845.  The dual impacts of disease and warfare had decimated their numbers and forced this move forty miles upriver.  There they founded Like-a-Fishhook village, their last traditional earthlodge village.  Two other sedentary tribes, the Mandan and Arikara, left the Knife River area as late as 1862 to join the Hidatsa at Like-a-Fishhook.

Only twenty years later on December 4, 1882, Thomas and James McGrath settled near the Knife River and opened a post office that they promptly named after their mother.  With this simple action, the town of Stanton was born.

But the former residents of this area were not truly gone.  Their centuries long existence on the land left deep marks in the local geography.

(c) National Park Service
Many a settler found an odd piece of land on their property that might appear strange to modern eyes but they knew exactly what it was.  It was an Indian Village or more often the "Indian mounds" as they referred to them.  Fully aware that they were settling on recently emptied land and not empty land, these first settlers nonetheless moved forward and scraped a hard living out of the land.

And the history of this place was also born out of the everyday encounter between settler and Indian.  The Hidatsa had only ever moved forty miles up the river onto land that eventually was designated the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

But a reservation boundary is a poor barrier for a people accustomed to traveling to hunt, trade, and socialize.  As early settler David Juzeler remembered in a 1930s interview:

"The native inhabitants, the Indians, of course, were here.  They stayed away from the settlers.  However, they did go to Hebron and enroute camped on Spring Creek near Juzelers and near Walkers on the Knife River."

Another early settler, Henry Hovdet hints at the tense relationship between the communities:

"Indians on the Fort Berthold Reservation were very friendly towards the white men and would do nothing to harm them if they were treated right.  And all the white men gave in to the Indians in order that they might get along without trouble."

Gottlieb Heihn gives us an example of this process at work:

"in november 1898 a wagon load of indians were caught in a snow storm coming from Hebron, one of their horses played out and died one half mile west of the homestead, and the indians came to the Heihn place for shelter, they stayed in the barn with the horses and cattle for two days and nights, till the blizzard let up so that they could travel, Mr. Heihn gave them one of his horses so they could get home which was still about fifteen miles north to the reservation, they returned the horse the following week, and to show their appreciation the Heihn's were presented with a big piece of frozen deer meat, and an indian made a shawl for Mrs. Heihn and they thanked the Heihn's many times for the use of the horses."

But encounters were not always rosy.  Take the case of August Borner:

"one day Mr. Borner left his file at one end of the field while making around and a couple of Indians riding by on horseback thought this file might be useful to them, so they picked it up and took it with them.  As was customary with pioneers in those days Mr. Borner carried a gun with him... Mr. Borner thought the only way to get his file back was at the point of a gun.  So after them he went, but as he reached the top of the hill and looked over he saw there were more than just two Indians.  There were about twelve or fifteen tepees, so Mr. Borner thought it better to lose a little file than to maybe lose his scalp."

In essence, these two communities, one indigenous and one recently arrived, were fully aware of the other.  Whether you lived on the reservation boundary, amid the remains of a village site, or tucked away in some remote homestead, the indigenous history of this area was still very much an indigenous reality.


The Turn toward History

But something began to change in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The indigenous history of Stanton was put to use.  Not to commemorate or educate but simply to boost.

At the North Dakota State Industrial Exposition in 1911, Mercer County declared itself "Majestic Mercer."  Stanton Commerical Club secretary C. F. Schweigert set up a booth full of vegetables and grains he had personally driven 70 miles overland from Stanton to Bismarck, the state capital.

The showpiece of the booth was the corn.  As The Bismarck Tribune wrote: "Majestic Mercer's long suit seems to be corn and judging from the entries made, some of the big corn prizes will go west of the Big Muddy to the banks of the Knife."



Left-Click on the image and then Right-Click to select View Image to read the whole article excerpted below

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, The Bismarck Tribune, and The Fargo Forum all reported on the Majestic Mercer booth and what they report is practically an identical history of corn in Mercer County.

St. Paul Pioneer Press:

"In this country corn was raised in 1805.  That is 106 years ago there was corn growing on land which is now part of Mercer County.  Lewis and Clarke (sic) in their expedition to the Pacific coast record that they bought corn of Indians... Later visitors to the Mandan Indians in that vicinity report corn, and it has been developed during the 26 years white men have been there, until it is a well known variety.  This year fully 1,500 acres of corn has been raised there, running 25 to 50 bushels to the acre."

The Bismarck Tribune:

"It is not generally known that corn was raised successfully in the Missouri valley long before the white man came to Dakota.  The explorers Lewis and Clark found a goodly supply of corn as the Ree and Mandan villages at Stnaton as early as 1805.  For many years thereafter these villages supplied the trappers and traders with corn.  One of our present varieties known as "Mercer" is the improved Ree or Squaw corn."

The Fargo Forum:

 "No one knows when corn was first raised in Mercer county, but history records the fact that the Mandan Indians cultivated it years before the famous explorers, Lewis and Clark, visited their villages which were located near Stanton... Again we hear of corn raising in Mercer county through Catlin who visited the Indian villages near Stanton in 1832... It was not until 1880 that the first white families came to Mercer County; whom was Edward Heinemeyer... [He] made a special effort to raise corn the first year, but did not succeed until he had secured seed from the Mandan Indians... That crop was the foundation crop of the variety known as "Mercer Flint."  Today, after twenty-seven years of experimenting and improving this variety, Mr. Heinemeyer has a corn that can compete with any corn grown in this state as to size and quality."

What does this all mean?  Considering all these articles give a near identical take on the history of corn in Mercer County and the reporters are unlikely to have such a thorough and intimate knowledge of this history, I am confident all this information came form the Majestic Mercer booth itself.

This means residents of Mercer County were not only aware of the long history of interaction between natives and non-natives but saw themselves as directly connected to that history in 1911. 

After all, famed explorers Lewis and Clark found corn growing at the villages in 1805 and Edward Heinemeyer who pioneered the modern variety of "Mercer Flint" was still living in Stanton in 1911.

But here is the funny thing.  Most of the settlers of Mercer County were not only newcomers to the county, they were newcomers to the continent!

Edward Heinemeyer was born in Buckeberg, Germany.  Another early pioneer of Mercer County, August Borner, was born in Berlin, Germany.  Even C. F. Schweigert who set up the Majestic Mercer booth had only arrived in the United States in 1900 from Germany.

How much did a German immigrant in the 1880s or 1890s really have in common with earlier arrivals in the Knife River area like Lewis and Clark or George Catlin?  And why then was there a concerted effort to talk up the unique history of this area, especially Lewis and Clark?

This is just the first of several prominent examples of both the settler population and the Three Affiliated Tribes specifically drawing upon the earlier history of this area.  They did it for different reasons at different times but one thing is for sure.  History matters, but the power to write, revise, and make true a history is what truly matters.



Note: The pioneer quotes are from The Pioneer Biography Files (Series 30529) courtesy the State Historical Society of North Dakota
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