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By Patrick Springer, Published January 08 2005

Bitterly cold weather, warm relations define Lewis and Clark's Fort Mandan winter

Lewis and Clark discovered plenty of formidable weather during their long winter sojourn at Fort Mandan.

The lowest temperature recorded was a spit-freezing 44 below zero - cold enough to cause a thermometer to burst that winter of 1804-05.

At times the explorers ran short of food and were forced to expand their menu to include the occasional wolf or porcupine.

Even though they gorged on 6,000 or more calories a day - modern athletes might consume 5,000 - Corps of Discovery members often felt hunger pangs because of their ravenous appetite for fuel to ward off the penetrating cold.

They endured frostbite and went on hunting forays without the benefit of long johns, snorkel parkas or insulated snow boots.

Lucky members had buffalo robes they'd obtained in trade with the friendly Mandan and Hidatsa, whose neighboring villages dotted an area along the Missouri River near present-day Washburn, N.D., site of a replica Fort Mandan.

But the standard Army-issue duds consisted mainly of a scratchy but reliable fabric - wool pants, wool knee socks, wool hats, wool mittens and wool blanket coats (hood optional) over a red flannel shirt that was actually made of wool.

Gary Anderson, an interpreter at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, has worn authentic period dress. He can attest that wool isn't for wimps on a blustery North Dakota winter day.

"I cheat sometimes and wear mukluks," he said, eschewing the more authentic leather boots on frigid days.

Later on the journey, after their uniforms wore out, Corps of Discovery members wore more buckskin. But while in North Dakota on the leg to the Pacific, expedition members used Army issue clothing, except for a few pair of replacement moccasins.

Tribes used to cold

Expedition members marveled at how the plains Indians had adapted to the frigid climate. The Mandan and Hidatsa ventured out for days with antelope-hide leggings and shirt, a buffalo robe and fur-lined moccasins, sometimes staying out overnight without a campfire.

Stoic minimalism had its dangers, though, as proven by a boy who came to the explorers for medical attention on Jan. 10, 1805, when the temperature at sunrise was 40 below. He had been on a hunting trip, hadn't returned and was feared dead.

Capt. Meriwether Lewis removed the boy's severely frostbitten toes on one foot, and several days later the captain "sawed off" the toes on the boy's other foot.

"Soon after the arrival of the Boy, a man Came in who had also Stayed out without fire, and verry thinly Clothed," Capt. William Clark wrote in his journal. "This man was not the least injured.

"Customs & the habits of those people has [inured] them to bare more Cold than I thought possible for a man to indure."

The five Mandan and Hidatsa villages, scattered within a 30-mile radius, had a combined population of 3,000 to 5,000 - larger than St. Louis at the time. But that population density meant hunters had to roam widely for game, sometimes suffering exposure as a result.

"January 14th … killed one buffaloe, a wolf and 2 porkapines, & I got my feet So froze that I could not walk to the fort," Joseph Whitehouse wrote in his journal.

Historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote "Undaunted Courage," an account of the Lewis and Clark adventure, calculated that the average temperature during the expedition's stay, which included 146 days and nights in the fort, was 4 degrees above zero.

Relatively warm

The bitter cold had its advantages. The river, frozen thick enough for buffalo herds to trample without breaking through, formed a convenient bridge for expedition members and neighboring tribes to walk back and forth across the wide Missouri for visits.

Throughout the winter, the captains worked to foster peaceful relations between the tribes, including talks aimed at reconciling the Arikara with the Mandan and Hidatsa, which lived close to each other but hadn't yet merged.

So it was more than a little ironic that the explorers evolved into a little-known role during their long interlude at Fort Mandan - arms merchants.

Their blacksmithing skills were much in demand by Mandan and Hidatsa hunters and warriors. The expedition blacksmiths became skilled at repairing hatchets and making war axes, as James Ronda noted in his book, "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians."

The reason for all the weapons forging? The expedition needed to trade the weapons for badly needed corn to supplement their diet, which relied heavily on game, including buffalo, elk, deer, antelope and rabbits.

Most of the explorers' time, though, was spent in the vicinity of Fort Mandan, tucked into the heavily wooded bottomlands, probably about a dozen miles upstream from the replica fort near Washburn.

The garrison, which included a wall of pickets, was made from cottonwoods - probably 800 or more fell to the ax, with more consumed to keep their cabin fires burning.

Sgt. John Ordway, the carpenter who supervised construction of the fort, described the huts as "warm and comfortable," an assessment Anderson more or less agrees with.

On several occasions, before the cabins were furnished and overnight stays prohibited, Anderson spent the night in a cabin. With a constant fire, and the body heat of two or three people, the temperature hovered at a bearable 50 degrees or so, he said.

"It was cool but you can survive it as long as you have a fire," he said. "They were fairly warm."

Relations lived on

Despite their struggles with a harsh environment, the cold weather wasn't what defined the experiences of the Lewis and Clark explorers, said David Borlaug, president of the Fort Mandan Foundation, which operates the interpretive center at the fort.

Years later, when Clark wrote about his time among the Mandan and Hidatsa, he recalled the warm relations with the tribes, who welcomed the men, helped feed them and gave them valuable information about the journey ahead.

Famously, Sheheke, or White Coyote, the chief of the closest Mandan village, had told the captains, "If we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve you must Starve also."

Also, it was at Fort Mandan that the explorers met Sakakawea, the wife of a French Canadian fur trader, who served as an interpreter for the expedition. Clark grew fond of the young mother and her son, who was born during the trek to the Pacific Coast.

"He talked about Sakakawea, he talked about the Mandan Indians," Borlaug said of Clark's written reminiscences. "That's what endured years later, not the cold."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522