About Mandan Indian Houses
The Mandans and Minnetarees of the Upper Missouri constructed a timber-framed house, superior in design and in mechanical execution to those of the Indians north of New Mexico. In 1862 I saw the remains of the old Mandan village shortly after its abandonment by the Arickarees, its last occupants. The houses, nearly all of which were of the same model, were falling into decay—for the village was then deserted of inhabitants, but some of them were still perfect, and the plan of their structure easily made out. The above ground-plan of the village was taken from the work of Prince Maximilian, and the remaining illustrations are from sketches and measurements of the author. It was situated upon a bluff on the west side of the Missouri, and at a bend in the river which formed an obtuse angle, and covered about six acres of land. The village was surrounded with a stockade made of timbers set vertically in the ground, and about ten feet high, but then in a dilapidated state.
[Illustration: Fig. 16.—Mandan Village Plot.]
The houses were circular in external form, the walls being about five feet high, and sloping inward and upward from the ground, upon which rested an inclined roof, both the exterior wall and the roof being plastered over with earth a foot and a half thick. For this reason they have usually been called "dirt lodges."
These houses are about forty feet in diameter, with the floor sunk a foot or more below the surface of the ground, six feet high on the inside at the line of the wall and from twelve to fifteen feet high at the center. Twelve posts, six or eight inches in diameter, are set in the ground, at equal distances, in the circumference of a circle, and rising about six feet above the level of the floor. String-pieces resting in forks cut in the ends of these posts, form a polygon at the base and also upon the ground floor. Against these an equal number of braces are sunk in the ground about four feet distant, which slanting upward, are adjusted by means of depressions cut in the ends, so as to hold both the posts and the stringers firmly in their places. Slabs of wood are then set in the spaces between the braces at the same inclination, and resting against the stringers, which when completed surrounded the lodge with a wooden wall. Four round posts, each six or eight inches in diameter, are set in the ground near the center of the floor, in the angles of a square, ten feet apart, and rising from ten to fifteen feet above the ground floor. These again are connected by stringers resting in forks at their tops, upon which and the external wall the rafters rest.
The engraving exhibits a cross-section, as described. Poles three or four inches in diameter are placed as rafters from the external wall to the string-pieces above the central parts, and near enough together to give the requisite strength to support thee earth covering placed upon the roof. These poles were first covered over with willow matting, upon which prairie grass was overspread, and over all a deep covering of earth. An opening was left in the center, about four feet in diameter, for the exit of the smoke and for the admission of light. The interior was spacious and tolerably well lighted, although the opening in the roof and a single doorway were the only apertures through which light could penetrate. There was but one entrance, protected by what has been called the Eskimo doorway; that is, by a passage some five feet wide, ten or twelve feet long, and about six feet high, constructed with split timbers, roofed with poles, and covered with earth. Buffalo-robes suspended at the outer and inner entrances supplied the place of doors. Each house was comparted by screens of willow matting or unhaired skins suspended from the rafters, with spaces between for storage. These slightly-constructed apartments opened towards the central fire like stalls, thus defining an open central area around the fire-pit, which was the gathering place of the inmates of the lodge. This fire-pit was about five feet in diameter, a foot deep, and encircled with flat stones set up edgewise. A hard, smooth, earthen floor completed the interior. Such a lodge would accommodate five or six families, embracing thirty or forty persons. It was a communal house, in accordance with the usages and institutions of the American aborigines, and growing naturally out of their mode of life. I counted forty-eight houses, winch would average forty feet in diameter, all constructed upon this plan besides several rectangular log houses of later erection and of the American type.
[Illustration: Fig. 19.—Mandan house.]
These houses, of which a representation is given in Fig. 19, were thickly studded together to economize the space within the stockade, so that in walking through the village you passed along some circular foot-paths. There was no street, and it was impossible to see in any direction except for short distances. In the center there was an open space, where their religious rites and festivals were observed. [Footnote: The war post, which stood in the center, and a number of stone and bone implements I brought away with me, as mementoes of the place. They are now in my collection.]
Not the least interesting fact connected with these creditable structures was the quantity of materials required for their erection and the amount of labor required for their transportation for long distances down the river, and to fashion them, with the aid of fire and stone implements, into such comfortable dwellings. The trees are here confined to the bottom lands between the banks of the river, the river being bordered for miles by open prairies, and the trees growing in patches at long distances apart. To cut the timber without metallic implements, and to transport it without animal power, indicate a degree of persevering industry highly creditable to a people who, at this stage of progress, are averse to labor on the part of the males. Habitual male industry makes its first appearance in the next or the Middle Status of barbarism. The men here did the heavy work.
In the spaces between the lodges were their drying-scaffolds (Fig. 20), one for each lodge, which were nearly as conspicuous in the distance as the houses themselves. They were about twenty feet long, twelve feet wide, and seven feet high to the flooring, made of posts set upright, with cross-pieces resting in forks. Other poles were then placed longitudinally, upon which was a flooring of willow mats. These scaffolds, mounted with ladders (Fig. 21), were used for drying their skins, and also their maize, meat, and vegetables.
[Illustration: Fig. 20.—Drying scaffold.]
[Illustration: Fig. 21.—Mandan ladder.]
The Indians knew the use of the ladder, and some of them made an excellent article before the discovery of America. When Coronado visited and captured the seven so-called cities of Cibola in 1540-1542, he found the people living in seven or eight large joint-tenement houses, each capable of holding about a thousand persons. These houses were without entrances from the ground, but they mounted to the first terrace by means of ladders, and so to each successive story above. "The ladders which they have for their houses," Coronado says in his relation, "are all in a manner movable and portable as ours be." [Footnote: Hakluyt, Coll. of Voyages, London ed., 1812, vol. 5, p. 498.]
The ladders at the Mandan village were made of two limbs growing nearly parallel and severed below the junction, as shown in the figure, and set with the forked end upon the ground, and the ends against the scaffold. Depressions were sunk in the rails to receive the rounds, which were secured by rawhide strings. They were usually from ten to twelve feet long, and one or two at each scaffold.
Situated thus picturesquely on a bluff, at an angle of the river, with houses of this peculiar model and with such an array of scaffolds rising up among them, the village was strikingly conspicuous for some distance both above and below on the river, and presented a remarkable appearance.
Afterwards, at the present Minnetaree and Mandan village about sixty-five miles above on the east side of the Missouri, and also at the new Arickaree village on the west side, and quite near it, I had an opportunity to see houses precisely similar to those described in actual occupation by the Indians, with their interior arrangements and their mode of life.