Knife River Indian Villages

Knife River Indian Villages


Location: Stanton, ND  Map

Area: 1,758 acres (7.11 km²)

Open: 8am- 6pm Memorial Day- Labor Day

8am- 4:30pm Winter time

Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas, 1 Jan

Entrance Fee: Free


Description of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is an open air ethnographic museum on a site of three former Native American villages situated half a mile North of a town of Stanton in North Dakota along County Road 37. Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site covers a total area of 1,758 acres (7.11 km²) along the Missouri River. Plains Indians that lived here had three major settlements that included Big Hidatsa, Awatixa Xi’e and Awatixa villages. The most famous resident of the villages was a Native woman Sacagawea who belonged to Lemhi Shoshone tribe. She joined Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804- 1806) that explored newly acquired lands as a result of a Louisiana Purchase of 1803 from French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Her expertise and knowledge of survival in the wilderness as well as her ability to interact with other natives helped American explorers to reach the Pacific Ocean.

Knife River Villages will dispel the myth that Plains Natives were entirely nomadic tribes and lived in teepees. Some of their houses were quiet complex and ingenious in their design. Native dwellings were circular in shape and some reached a diameter of 40 feet or 12 metres. Wooden dome would support soil that covered the house. It provided good isolation for its residents and kept the temperature cool in summers and warmer in cold winters. Several families could live under one roof along with their pets. Some of their houses have collapsed, but their general outline is still visible in the ground. Some of the houses are reconstructed to give an impression of what it was like to live here.

These villages were thriving due to trade with the Europeans. However smallpox outbreak of 1837- 1840 greatly unaffected local peoples. Death rate reached 90% among various tribes that had any contact with outsiders. Eventually villages were abandoned. Survivors left their settlements and moved to Like-a-Fish-Hook village.



The site is located in central North Dakota, one kilometer north of the town of Stanton, at the confluence of the Knife River and the Missouri. Landscapes of plain, steep banks or forest are present along these two rivers.



Life in the villages
Traces of ancient mud huts, caches and paths are visible on the site. The dwellings have left large circular depressions on the ground that can reach 12 meters in diameter. These dwellings were built at ground level and could house between 10 and 30 people. After their abandonment, the walls and the roof ended up collapsing leaving the circular traces on the ground. The village of Awatixa Xi'e was established around 1525 and that of Hidatsa around 1600.

Like the nomadic tribes, the Native Americans inhabiting the mud lodges hunted buffalo but they were primarily farmers living in villages on the edge of the Missouri and its tributaries.

Villages were placed so that they could be easily defended, often on a narrow dune with two sides protected by the river and a third by a palisade.

The villages of the Knife River were an important center of commerce and agriculture. Native Americans served as middlemen in the trade of furs, weapons and metals such as copper, from Minnesota to the Great Plains in the South and the Pacific in the West.

Smallpox outbreak
The villages flourished until 1837 when a smallpox epidemic decimated the population. The survivors migrated north to the village of Like-a-Fish-Hook around 1845. Epidemics killed 90% of those infected between 1837 and 1840. The two Mandan villages that were in contact with the Lewis and Clark expedition experienced the terrible effects of the virus. The epidemic broke out around 1804-1805 and out of 1,600 villagers, only 31 survived. The disease was transmitted through trade. Despite the warning signs, Native Americans continued to visit trading posts and expose themselves to the virus. Once the villages affected by the disease were empty, the neighboring villages plundered them and spread the virus through blankets, horses and tools.


Fauna and flora

When Native Americans lived in the area, the landscape was very different from today. The highlands were a grassland region containing few trees. The lowlands near the river beds were rich and fertile lands used by Native Americans to harvest corn, beans, squash and sunflower. There were also trees such as red ash, poplar, American elm and negundo maple as well as buffaloberries.

In 1974, the area surrounding the park was changed back to what it once was in order to preserve the beauty and historical value of the site. It now contains grasslands, forest, preserved sites, wetlands and sandbars. Wild animals feed on the various berries present.

The different vegetation zones are home to many species of animals. White-tailed deer, coyotes, beavers, skunks, gophers and squirrels populate the woods. Many birds are also present in the park. There is game: turkey, pheasant, Canada goose, mourning dove; birds of prey: owl, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, kestrel; as well as other birds: white pelican, snow goose and great blue heron. The Knife and Missouri rivers are home to 36 different species of mollusk inside the park.

Insects are taken from the grounds of the park and analyzed. Over 200 species of invertebrates have been identified. The most common orders are Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera and Hymenoptera. Many of these are important in the park's food chain.

Like everywhere else, the park fights against exotic invasive species. Exotic plants appeared when Native Americans and Europeans began deforestation. Most of these species are introduced accidentally, but some were introduced intentionally. In the park, we find leafy spurge, the cissa of the fields and the sweet clover. The park inventories and studies animal and plant species in order to decide on a management and control plan for invasive species.



During the summer months, the temperature can reach 30°C with low humidity and variable winds. The average annual temperature is 4°C. The winter months see temperatures below −15°C. Annual rainfall is approximately 40 centimeters.