Remembering A River: The Cannonball River In History By Dakota WindTweet
Cannonball, ND – The Lakȟóta people keep their collective memory alive in pictographic records called winter counts. One such winter count, the Brown Hat Winter Count, reaches back to what ethnologists and historians might call “myth-history,” to circa 901. This history reaches back hundreds of years and recalls the arrival of the horse in 1692, the first horse stealing raid in 1706, inter-tribal conflict, contact with traders, smallpox, starfalls, eclipses, comets, sun dances, white bison hunts, conflicts with soldiers, treaties, the arrival of settlers, the boarding school and reservation era, and survival.
If the Cannonball River were excluded from primary resources like journals, maps, and winter counts, our North Dakota history would be poorer for it. There is a continuous cultural occupation of this Missouri River tributary reaching back to circa 1300 through the tribal histories of the Mandan, Arikara, Cheyenne, Yanktonai Dakota, and Hunkpapa Lakota.
I scheduled a viewing of the Dakota Access Pipeline Class III survey report with Mr. Paul Picha at the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office at 4:00 PM on March 1, 2016. The report is in three thick volumes, and there was no possible way that I could view the entire thing in one sitting, however, I narrowed my search to the Cannonball River and Beaver Creek. According to the authors of this report, they admitted to no tribal consultation. They don’t have to, because the pipeline does not physically cross the reservation border. The report doesn’t mention much in the way of history and culture. What is mentioned, can’t be shared, because it may lead to the destruction of the resource.
What it doesn’t say needs to be shared. The report does not mention the flood of 1825 opposite of the mouth of the Cannonball River – thirty lodges, or about 150-180 people drowned. There was no mention of The Charger’s last camp on Beaver Creek either. The Charger was a major historic figure in the War of 1812, he fought in three conflicts in Ohio, met President Van Buren, met King George III, led as many as 700 Dakȟóta-Lakȟóta under Col. Leavenworth’s command of the Missouri Legion in 1823 in the first ever US military campaign on Plains Indians against the Arikara. A major historic figure? A former US president and an English king certainly thought so.
These few things were brought to Mr. Picha’s attention on March 1, 2016, long with where he could find this information. The following day, Picha responded that this info is also be found in the British Museum Winter Count, in London, England.
The north and south banks of the Cannonball River are rife with physical evidence of historic cultural occupations of people who are still here. This physical evidence of village remains and midden mounds are complemented by surviving oral tradition; there are various mentions in historic journals from English resources (i.e. John Evans) to American resources (i.e. Manuel Lisa, Corps of Discovery, etc.). As to whether or not the historic occupations of the Arikara, Cheyenne, and Mandan Indians ever interred their deceased in the vicinity of the Cannonball River mouth, it is absolutely preposterous to say that there are no burial grounds nearby – to say so would be to suggest that no one ever died in any of the cultural occupations. Alfred Bowers’ Mandan informants told him that their ancestors buried their deceased “in earlier times.”
The Sitting Rabbit map of the Missouri River, from the North Dakota-South Dakota border to the North Dakota-Montana border, was commissioned by Orin Libby in 1906. At the time, Libby was the Secretary of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND). Libby sought out Sitting Rabbit, a Mandan Indian man, to capture the geography of the Missouri River as they knew it. Sitting Rabbit didn’t disappoint in his efforts. In fact, the Mandan Indian villages at the mouth of the Cannonball River, both the north and south bank villages, are called the Big River Villages. The Mandan Indian name of the Cannonball River is the Big River. This precious map is still in the collections of the SHSND. The SHSND has graciously uploaded this map for public viewing on their ND Studies website.
The Brown Hat Winter Count (aka Baptiste Good Winter Count; Sičáŋǧu, “Brulé”) in the winter count collections at the National Museum of The American Indian in Washington DC, has been made available in its entirety online. This winter count recalls 1762-1763 as the “people were burnt winter.” The entry details a great prairie fire that caught up to their village. Many people and horses were killed in this fire. Survivors themselves were burnt about their legs and made it through this trial by jumping into Long Lake. This band of Lakȟóta had fought the Cheyenne in the Cannonball area. The Cheyenne had retaliated by crossing the Missouri River at the mouth of the Cannonball River and tracking the Lakȟóta along Long Lake Creek, where they set fire to the plains. The late Albert White Hat Sr. (Rosebud; Sičáŋǧu), himself recalled the oral tradition of the Sičáŋǧu as taking place in the Bismarck region. The conflict which resulted in the formation of the Sičáŋǧu began at the mouth of the Cannonball River. The identity of one of the tribes of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (The Seven Council Fires; “The Great Sioux Nation”) tied to this location is significant.
The Beinecke Library Map, at Yale, CT, the only evidence of John Evans travels (his journals may have been destroyed or lost) provides the only testimony of his journey on the Upper Missouri River. This map was referenced and annotated by the Corps of Discovery. Evans recorded on his map a series of streams, many unknown to him by name, but one of the outstanding streams he recorded was the “Bomb River,” or the Cannonball River.
The Corps of Discovery mention the Cannonball River as La Bullet on October 18, 1804. Referencing Evans’ map, Captain William Clark walked that evening in search of the remarkable places mentioned by Evans, but couldn’t find them, though by then, the Corps’ campsite was north of the mouth of the Cannonball River. Co-Captain Meriwether Lewis noted on this same date that the cannonball concretions were “of excellent grit for Grindstones,” and had his men select one to “answer for an anker.”
The Pictographic Bison Robe, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, MA, details the intertribal conflicts amongst the Arikara, Mandan, Hidstsa, Hunkpapa Lakota, and Yanktonai Dakota in the Heart River and Cannonball River area along the Missouri River during the 1790s. This same robe details one of many conflicts between the tribes of the Upper Missouri River which concluded in the 1803 Battle of Heart River, which saw the expansion of the Huŋkphapȟa territory. This conflict is remembered in the Drifting Goose Winter Count (aka John K. Bear Winter Count) as Tȟa Čháŋte Wakpá ed okíčhize, or “There was a battle at Heart River.” The expansion of Huŋkphápȟa territory is significant. This territorial boundary is recognized in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
Ensign Nathaniel Pryor, a sergeant of the Corps of Discovery during the expedition, recorded on September 9, 1807, that the Arikara and Mandan were at war. The Mandan had killed two Arikara at the mouth of the Cannonball River. Testimony of the conflict at Cannonball River was delivered to Pryor at the Grand River by the Lakȟóta. Pryor’s previous experience with the Arikara and Lakȟóta made him aware that the best policy was to place every confidence in their word, they had no reason to lie.
Manuel Lisa, a fur trader of the American Fur Company, recorded that tensions were high on the Northern Plains among tribes who were pro-English trade, those who were pro-American trade, and American Fur Company trappers in the fall of 1812. The Crow and Lakȟóta had killed American trappers, the Hidatsa had stolen American Fur Company horses, the Arikara had indiscriminately killed trappers be they English or American, and the Cheyenne had robbed and whipped American Fur Company trappers on the Cannonball River.
Botanist John Bradbury made a journey to the Cannonball River in 1811. Bradbury noted late in the day on June 20, the “valley of Cannon-ball River, bounded on each side by a range of small hills, visible as far as the eye can reach; and as they appear to diminish regularly, in the proportion of their distance, they produce a singular and pleasing effect. The Cannon-ball River was muddy at this time; but whether it is constantly so or not, I could not learn. It is here about one hundred and sixty yards wide, but so shallow that we crossed it without swimming. We camped on a very fine prairie, near the river, affording grass in abundance, nearly a yard high. The alluvion of the river is about a mile in breadth from bluff to bluff, and is very beautiful, being prairie, interspersed with groves of trees, and ornamented with beautiful plants, now in flower.” Among Bradbury’s findings was a species of flax he identified as linum perenne. The Lakȟóta know the native blue flax as Čhaŋȟlóğaŋ Nabláǧa (“Hollow-Stem Blossom”) and employ the seed in their food stock.
Bradbury returned again to the Cannonball River on July 7, 1819, for the express purpose of procuring additional botany specimens.
The Blue Thunder Winter Count, the No Two Horns Winter Count, and the High Dog Winter Count, all of which are in the collections at the State Historical Society of North Dakota – the High Dog Winter Count is on display in the Early Peoples Gallery – all recall a devastating flood in the spring of 1825. The High Dog Winter Count remembers the flood as Mní wičhát’tÁ, or “Many died by drowning.” The Blue Thunder Winter Count remembers the flood as Mní wičhát’tÉ, or “Many died by drowning.” According to the High Dog Winter Count, this fatal winter camp was opposite of the mouth of the Cannonball River, and the site is remembered as Étu Pȟá Šuŋg t’Á, or “Dead Horse Head Point.” The Steamboat/Thin Elk Winter Count, in the collections of the Buechel Museum at the St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, records that it was thirty lodges of Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna Dakȟóta who drowned in the Horsehead Bottom flood.
Prince Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied travelled into the interior of North America during the summer of 1833. Wied-Neuwied has written probably the most about the Cannonball River than any previous or post visitors. An excerpt is shared here: “On the north side of the mouth, there was a steep, yellow clay wall; and on the southern, a flat, covered with poplars and willows. This river has its name from the singular regular sand-stone balls which are found in its banks, and in those of the Missouri in its vicinity. They are of various sizes, from that of a musket ball to that of a large bomb, and lie irregularly on the bank, or in the strata, from which they often project to half their thickness when the river has washed away the earth; they fall down, and are found in great numbers on the bank. Many of them are rather elliptical, others are more flattened, and others flat on one side, and rather convex on the other. Of the perfectly spherical balls, I observed some two feet in diameter.”
On July 29, 1864, after spending two weeks hastily constructing Fort Rice, General Sully took his command of 2200 soldiers, which included a detachment of Winnebago Indian scouts, and ascended the Cannonball River on the south bank, his punitive campaign on the Isáŋyathi Dakȟóta anew. Known or unknown, Sully also marched against the Thítȟuŋwaŋ Lakȟóta (Húŋkpapȟa, Itázipčho, Sihásapa, and Mnikȟóžu), and Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna Dakȟóta, two Siouan groups who had nothing to do with the 1862 Minnesota Dakota Conflict. Sully received a dispatch from Fort Rice at midnight on July 22, that the Dakȟóta were on the Knife River. The next day Sully’s command crossed the Cannonball River near present-day communities of Porcupine and Shields, ND.
In 1878, the Huŋkphápȟa chief, Ištá SápA (“Black Eye/s”), met with William Wade, a cattle rancher on the Cannonball River, and shared this about the terrible 1825 flood: “…we camped on this bottom land just below here…it was the Wolf Month [February] and it had been warm for a long time. One night the water started coming in over the ground from the river and before we could get to higher ground we were surrounded by water and ice chunks. Our only chance was to get to high ground before we would all be covered up with water. We tried to carry our tepees and supplies but finally had to leave them and many of the women were drowned trying to save their children. Most all our old people drowned and many others. Most all our horses went under and you can still see their heads (skulls) laying [sic] along at the foot of the hills after so many, many years. Two Bears (Mato Nopa) a Yankton chief [sic] , saved the lives of several women and children by carrying them from camp to the higher ground.”
William Wade’s daughter, Mamie, met her share of pre-reservation Dakȟóta and Lakȟóta people. Among them was Annie Skye. Skye relayed to the younger Wade when smallpox struck the Lakȟóta in 1837. They were camped at the mouth of the Cannonball River when “out of a clear blue sky smallpox hit them. After the death of several of their number, who were put to rest up on platforms suspended in trees, they decided to move away from this infested locality.”
Dr. Harriett Skye, Annie Skye’s granddaughter, offers a contemporary perspective on current events near the Cannonball River: “I believe that as long as they remain peaceful and unarmed, and each day they are there, is a win. This kind of action confuses those who would come in with their guns and armor because their intent is to kill. They arrested people who were praying, but the powers that be know that the world is watching, but more importantly, know that our Ancestors are watching because they fought and died so we could be here. This struggle is everyone’s struggle to maintain our clean water. Water is life.” Dr. Skye was inducted into the North Dakota Heritage Center’s Native American Hall of Honor in September, 2016.
Dr. Elizabeth Fenn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Encounters at The Heart of The World: A History of The Mandan People,” writes that the Huff phase – located between the Cannonball River and Heart River in a time frame from about circa 1300 to about 1450 – was when and where the Mandan became the Mandan. They developed the Okipa ceremony in this location during this time. The South Cannonball site was unprotected, that is, there were no palisade walls, nor defensive moats surrounding their village there. The fortifications at the North Cannonball site may well represent a key transformation in plains village life, as drought caused strife in the Missouri River valley. This may have been cause for the Mandan to move closer together – and build fortifications – for safety. But we need archaeological study to sort these things out.
By the time Mandans moved north from the Cannonball area to Huff and the Heart River, they had embraced the key trait that made them Mandan: the Okipa ceremony, with its multi-day reenactment of their own rich history. The Cannonball area, according to Fenn, represents “the oldest Mandan cultural horizon.”
The late Vine Deloria Jr. essayed that for many Americans, “the first and most familiar kind of sacred lands are places to which we attribute sanctity because the location is a site where, within our own history, something of great importance has taken place. Unfortunately, many of these places are related to instances of human violence. Every society needs these kinds of sacred places because they help to instill a sense of social cohesion in the people and remind them of the passage of generations that have brought them to the present. A society that cannot remember and honor its past is in peril of losing its soul. Indians, because of our considerably longer tenure on this continent, have many more sacred places than do non-Indians.”
“A second category of sacred lands has a deeper, more profound sense of the sacred. It can be illustrated in…[when] Joshua led the Hebrews across the River Jordan into the Holy Land. After crossing, Joshua selected one man from each of the Twelve tribes and told him to find a large stone. The twelve stones were then placed together in a monument to mark the spot where the people had camped after having crossed the river successfully. In the crossing of the River Jordan, the sacred or higher powers have appeared in the lives of human beings…the essence of the event is that the sacred has become a part of our existence.”
“It is not likely that non-Indians have had many of these kinds of religious experiences, particularly because most churches and synagogues have special rituals that are designed to cleanse the buildings so that their services can be held there untainted by the natural world. Non-Indians simply have not been on this continent very long; their families have rarely settled in one place for any period of time so that no profound relationship with the environment has been possible.”
Deloria concluded: “The third kind of sacred lands are places of overwhelming holiness where the Higher Powers, on their own initiative, have revealed Themselves to human beings. We can illustrate this point in the Old Testament narrative. Moses spent time herding sheep on Mount Horeb. One day to his amazement [he] saw a bush burning with fire but not being consumed by it. Approaching this spot, Moses was startled when the Lord spoke to him. “Put off thy shoes, for the place where thou standest is holy ground. This tradition tells us that there are places of unquestionable, inherent sacredness on this earth, sites that are holy in and of themselves. These holy places are locations where people have always gone to communicate and commune with higher powers.”
Dr. Ray Wood, renowned expert in Plains Indian cultural and archaeological sites on the Upper Missouri River and whose first-hand field experience goes back before the dams of the 1950s, interprets the data from John Evans 1796 map in regard to the Cannonball River locality that what Evans recorded as “Jupiter’s Fort” is without a doubt a prehistoric Mandan village. According to Wood’s findings regarding the North Cannonball site, “Not only was it a defensive setting, but the village was also fortified by a curving ditch that isolated a level upland spur from the adjoining upland. The village today is badly disturbed by plowing, but from the air one can clearly see the fortification ditch and the numerous bastions protruding from it. Little wonder that Evans referred to it as a fort…” In his “Prologue To Lewis & Clark: The Mackay And Evans Expeditions,” Dr. Wood essays the number of remarkable Indian village sites north of the Cannonball River. Remarkable. Extraordinary. Outstanding. Significant.
According to North Dakota SHPO Chief Archaeologist Mr. Paul Picha, he and others conducted a follow-up survey west of HWY 1806 and found that no significant sites were destroyed. The physical evidence, or lack thereof, cannot be disputed. According to Mr. Picha’s published note, he and his associates were looking west of HWY 1806, perhaps because Mr. Tim Mentz conducted his own survey and called attention there. The North Cannonball site, and the mouth of the Cannonball River, the confluence of history and culture is east of HWY 1806.
In 1999, the Cannonball Ranch was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. It’s one of the oldest ranches in North Dakota. According the ND Cowboy of Fame, the ranch served as a gathering point as early as 1865. The ranch included a hotel, a general store, a ferry crossing, a steamboat landing and fueling station, a military telegraph station for Fort Rice, and a stage line to the Black Hills in the 1870’s and 1880s. The ranch also included two houses, a barn, a blacksmith shop, a bunk-house, an ice house, a laundry, and tennis court.
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame’s strict criteria for eligibility to be recognized is that a ranch has been “instrumental in creating or developing the ranching business, traditions, and lifestyles of North Dakota’s western heritage and livestock industry.”
In 2010, Walmart planned to construct a supercenter near Wilderness Battlefield (a Civil War battle ground) and people invested in the history of that site grew concerned. Eventually, enough people held that ground as sacred and historical that plans for the supercenter were dropped in January 2011. Coincidentally, Walmart and state officials had argued that no significant battles occurred on that site.
The sum of cultural historical site on the north bank of the Cannonball River with a million years of geological history, 700 years of continual occupation, inter-tribal conflict, smallpox, botany, trade, steamboat traffic, US military history, and early ranching have made that location significant.
Spiritual pilgrimages were conducted on the plateaus of the “Hummit.” There would be little to no traces of these vision quests, and there shouldn’t be. People went to pray, not leave evidence. In September of 2016, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Rt. Rev. Curry, made a pilgrimage of his own to the Cannonball. He listened and prayed with the community there. Curry’s visit calls to mind Psalm 99:9, “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; for the Lord our God is Holy.” The mystery of creation can be seen there today as the early peoples beheld it.
The Cannonball River, and specifically the North Cannonball site, and its importance to the first nations, to North Dakota, must take into account its religious or spiritual significance, its role in inter-tribal conflicts, its role in the 1837 smallpox epidemic which struck the Húŋkpapȟa, its role as the starting point in Gen. Sully’s 1864 punitive campaign, and the historic Cannonball Ranch.
The Cannonball River, and all its attributes is important to all North Dakota citizens, to new citizens, and most importantly of all, the future. Let us put our minds together, to educate ourselves and one another about the things we hold dear, to resolve to respect our story, our histories, and our sites of significance.
Keúŋkeyapi. That’s what they said.
Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, working on a graduate degree in history. Dakota has written for various journals and magazines, and a recent paper of his appears in Karl Skarstein’s “The War With The Sioux,” 2015, for a free e-copy visit The Digital Press. He occasionally maintains the history blog The First Scout.