Four Bears, Mato-Tope′, is known to history as one of the most respected chiefs of the later Mandan Nation. Perhaps, by the time white contact with the Mandan-Hidatsa was essentially routine, even the most respected. I’ve recently finished a fine book “Encounters at the Heart of the World,” by Elizabeth Fenn, and read of a very moving, and very quiet, piece of history. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Mato-Tope′, a descendant of Good Boy, chief in the late 1700s, was not a chief in the way we so often, and so wrongly, think of chiefdom. We can thank decades of bad television and movies and a pervasive cultural misunderstanding for that nonsense. He didn’t inherit the job, he had no grand powers of command, couldn’t order anyone to do anything. He wasn’t voted into office or hired by the city council and anointed as Manager. What he had was influence born of respect, and the gift of persuasion by personal example. He was trustworthy, he put the needs of others before his own, he was consistent, and his opinions well-considered. And so when he led in a certain direction, and they followed, it was because the people believed in him. There was no need for him–and as a practical matter, given cultural sensibilities, no ability, for him to command those around him.
The Mandan, as a nation of people, were hit by numerous waves of smallpox and cholera, whooping cough, measles, and pivotally, epidemics of Norwegian rats that came in on riverboats. At first, the Mandan and Hidatsa, who had never seen a brown rat, were entranced and even happy to have the rats, because they ate the deer mice that had long plagued their earthen lodges.
Naturally, this changed quickly. The rats multiplied by the thousands. Francis Chardon, a fur-trader described by a fellow fur-trader as a “very singular kind of man,” which we are to understand as meaning an Indian-hating jackass, whose outpost, Fort Clark, was co-located near a Mandan village, estimated that the rats ate nearly 250 pounds of corn each day at the post. If this is accurate, the damage the rats must have done in the villages, where tons of corn were stored in cache pits, must have been completely catastrophic. Chardon recorded his battle with the rats–
- June 1836: Killed 82 Rats this month
- July 1836: Number of Rats Killed this month 201
- August 1836: Killed 168 Rats this month–total 451
- September 1836: Killed 226 Rats this Month=677
- October 1836: Killed 294 Rats this Month=971
- November 1836: Killed 168 Rats this Month–Total 1139
- December 1836: Killed this Month 134 Rats–total 1,237
- January 1837: Killed this Month 61 Rats–total 1334
- February 1837: Killed 89 Rats this Month–total 1423
- March 1837: Number of Rats Killed this Month 87–Total 1510
- April 1837: Killed 68 Rats this Month–total–1578
- May 1837: Killed 108 Rats this Month–total 1686
Fenn goes on to tell us that “Two years later, Chardon had his men replace the pickets surrounding Fort Clark because the old ones were eaten ‘off at the foundation by the Rats, and in a fair way to tumble down.’ Twenty first century archaeologists call ‘the dominance of the Norway rat’ the ‘most striking feature’ of the trading post’s animal remains.”
This isn’t meant to be a rat post. The important takeaway is that the tribe suffered a consequent famine, while still constantly at war with the Sioux, Assiniboine, and Arikara, and in early 1837 they were hit by another small-pox epidemic. Chardon, no friend to the natives, recorded that suicide became common among the Mandan as the death tolls mounted and there seemed no escape from the continual siege of apocalypse.
Through it all, and it is virtually impossible for us, in our comfortable lives, to imagine the kind of repeated carnage visited upon his people, Four Bears had remained a friend to the whites, encouraged continuing trade and contact, and did his very best to stand as a leader of his people, to keep them alive and together. But in July, 1837, at the village of Mih-tutta-hang-kusch he too succumbed to the disease. For Four Bears, contracting the disease also spelled the end of his friendship with whites. This epidemic, indeed, nearly spelled the end of the Mandan as a people altogether.
Fast forward then, to 1865. Four Bears has been dead since ’37, and in the intervening years the tribe has simply struggled to survive at all. Decimation, as a practice, would have been kinder to them. There are very few of them left at all, and those that remain have joined with the Hidatsa.
At Fort Stevenson, in ’65, an Army surgeon and ethnographer named Washington Matthews, a man who had been posted to several different frontier assignments, who married a Hidatsa woman, and who even wrote a Hidatsa ethnography, had among his possessions a book of paintings by George Catlin. According to Fenn, “When word spread among the villagers that Matthews ‘had a book containing the faces of their fathers,’ the Indians flocked to his Fort Stevenson quarters. ‘The women,’ he said, ‘rarely restrained their tears at the sight of these ancestral pictures.’
“Mathews at first thought the men had ‘less feeling and interest.’ But he learned otherwise when he showed Catlin’s portrait of Four Bears to his son, a Mandan chief named Bad Gun. As a boy, Bad Gun had gone with his father to visit with Bodmer and Maximilian. He may have spent time with Catlin too. Now the son of the great chief ‘showed no emotion’ but gazed ‘long and intently’ at the image until Matthews left the room. When the doctor returned, the Mandan was ‘weeping and addressing an eloquent monologue to the picture of his departed father.’”