Knife River - The Setting

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John Evans's Map (1795)
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It was late September of 1796 when into the Knife River Indian Villages at "the very rim of European empire in the Americas,"1 stepped John Evans. Evans was a Welshman, and an assistant to Scotsman James Mackay. Both were from St. Louis, both were naturalized Spanish citizens, and both had been hired by the Spanish government to represent Spain's right to displace British trading companies and maintain control of commerce in Upper Louisiana.

The most important material outcome of their expedition was a remarkably precise and detailed map of the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Mandan villages, which quickly was recognized as the most accurate made up to that time. Mackay, who had turned back at Fort Charles, the trading post he built on the Missouri somewhere between the mouths of the Platte and Niobrara Rivers, drew the final version.

John Evans, who proceeded on upriver under Mackay's orders to explore all the way to the Pacific Ocean, got no farther than the Knife River villages. He subsequently provided Mackay with six detailed maps of the river from Fort Charles to the Mandans, and a seventh from the Knife River to the Rockies based on Indian information he had gathered. The segment shown above is Evans's No. 6. Thomas Jefferson acquired a copy of the complete map, which he sent to Lewis at Camp Dubois in January of 1804. Lewis and Clark added only a few details of their own to the Evans-Mackay map of the lower Missouri. It is certain the captains had Evans's seven maps also, since each contains one or more notes in Clark's handwriting--in this instance "Village Chisschect" and "Wah hoo toon-Wind."

Detail from Clark's Map, 1814
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LLewis and Clark routinely made notes of Indian place-names, a laborious process that required careful translations of questions to insure correctness. Lewis recorded that the local name for the Miry River, with the same meaning, was E-pe,-Âh-zhah. Clark wrote Ches-che-ta as Chiss-Cho-tarr for the Heart River, indicating that he heard slightly different pronunciations of it. They left no record of Indian names for the Mouse River, which was widely known by its French name, Souris, which may have referred to its color. Nor did they ever write down an Indian name for the Knife River, so-called for the abundance of easily accessible flint along its banks, which Indians used for cutting tools and weapons. Nevertheless, the captains surely heard the Mandans call it Wahi Pasa Sh; the Hidatsas would say Miecci Aashi Sh or Mitis Adu Ash Sh; the Dakotas called it Isan Wakpa; the Lakota, Mina Wakpa. The French-Canadian engagés would have known it as Riviere de Couteau.2 During the Corps' "Long Camp" on the Clearwater River in Idaho, the Nez Perce told the captains it wasWalch-Nim-mah. All meant the same thing: Knife River.

Aerial View, Winter 2000

Fort Mandan from the air

A late winter snow squall has dusted the leafless cottonwood trees and the dormant grainfields. The triangular structure at photo center is a replica of Fort Mandan built by local volunteers in 1972. It is two miles via good roads from the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Washburn, North Dakota. The original site of the fort, where no remains have ever been found, was about fifteen miles up the Missouri from here, closer to the mouth of the Knife River. Access to it is discouraged.

The two ranks of cottonwood trees, which take root a short distance from water, mark the shifting of the river's course over a period of many years. Annually, those snow-covered sand bars are submerged by the spring freshet. When the high water recedes, they will have been moved and reshaped by the river's current. The Corps of Discovery often used the ice-covered river as a travel route, but the Missouri has not frozen solid in this vicinity within the past fifty years, mostly because the dams upstream – chiefly Garrison Dam, 35 miles away, and Fort Peck Dam 382 miles above that – have changed the temperature and velocity of the river's current.


1. Gwyn A. Williams, The Search for Beulah Land: The Welsh and the Atlantic Revolution (London: Croom Helm, 1980), 118; quoted in W. Raymond Wood, Prologoue to Lewis and Clark: The Mackay and Evans Expedition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 129. Clarification of Evans's copyist's handwriting is also from Wood, pp. 146-49.

2. Marilyn Hudson, Administrator, Three Tribes Museum, New Town, North Dakota. Personal communication, September 9, 2006.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.