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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.’ ”
Chrissy Snyder says
What an interesting story. The photos initially caught my eye however, after reading, it planted a seed and now I’m wondering about the lifestyle — the sickness, the day to day rat attacks, and other humans. Nice, thought-provoking story; thank you, Craig.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks Chrissy, glad to have you around our campfire 🙂
Zachary Benton says
Hello I seen your story and liked it a lot. Only thing my grandfather BadGun was grandson to Four Bears. Charging Eagle was his father. And my mom’s family still have the Matthew’s name that BadGun gave to his son’s. Sam and Henry Badgun became Matthews. BadGun thought very highly of Dr. Matthews.
Craig Rullman says
Thank you Zachary, I appreciate hearing from you very much, and also the clarification. Are you in the Ft. Berthold area by any chance?
Zachary Benton says
Yes sir I live in NewTown and can PM my family tree
So Four Bears did not have the power to compel his people into anything, but was able to lead out of the respect they gave him. Sort of the opposite of our leaders now.
Craig Rullman says
It seems so. It’s an argument for local leadership because I don’t think the ethos scales well–we mostly don’t know anything at all about people running for high office. We have media information that is generally canted this way or that, but we don’t know them as people, and never will know them. We can’t walk into the White House and get an audience with Lincoln anymore. It’s hard enough to do that even at the county level. So we have a way of picking people for office, representatives, by way of a funhouse mirror exercise, and that sort of foolishness leads to the institutional dysfunction, inertia, and immaturity we see now in abundance.
Brian H. says
The tribe vs the nation-state. Few tribes withstand the onslaught from the other. Yet some of the greatest weakness’s of a nation state is the loss of values that exist in the tribe; fairness, balance and openly earned respect that create order.…good post!
You can’t walk into the office of the President and get an audience with Lincoln because Lincoln was shot. The cost of security for the President has been disconnect with the public. Which as you say is an argument for local government. (Which means I probably should pay more attention to local politics than I do.)
Immaturity abounds with Trump and Comey having a twitter war like a bunch of junior high kids. Let me say, I believe BOTH are acting that way.
Keith West says
“a funhouse mirror exercise”
That’s an excellent way of putting it.
Lane Batot says
One of the most wonderful, and yet depressing books I’ve ever read about the Plains Indians was Catlin’s account, as he experienced the tribes traveling about and painting them–he witnessed the height of the cultures just before the invasion and the fall, and it is heartbreaking to realize all that was lost–probably the freest societies that ever lived on the planet–both socially and physically(helped enormously physically by the reintroduction of the horse)–the way mankind was MEANT to live! Leaders had to EARN their places, and really had to be wise, generous, honorable, brave, and compassionate, not just pretend to be. In the old archaic tribal laws, a LIE was punishable by DEATH, as it was considered the most outrageous and disruptive of things a person could do to another, and is one reason the Native Americans were so shocked and disillusioned(and easily duped, alas) by the European invaders, who lied about anything and everything as a matter of course. Would that we had such values in our modern American society–our present population of politicians would soon be extinct!
Lane Batot says
.….and(sigh), I LOVE the Bodmer painting of the earth lodge interior. Inspired by this very painting, I built my own miniature version of an earth lodge many years ago. It was perhaps just about fifteen feet in circumference in the interior, but basically the same construction plan. It was incredibly warm in the coldest weather with the smallest of fires going inside, although I did add a modern metal pipe running from the outside to my fire-pit, to make the fire and smoke draw better! I have some old photos somewhere of my mini-Mandan earth lodge. Alas, land “development” crews eventually found and caused it’s destruction.……
John Cornelius says
Not off-topic, but certainly on the periphery, I read an interesting piece of historical fiction named The Children of First Man, by Jame Alexander Thom. It expanded (greatly) on the theory/legend that a Welsh prince, Madoc, made it to Mobile, Alabama with his small fleet in 1170, worked gradually north, and eventually assimilated into the Mandan tribes. It had enough credence, or at least legs, that the Lewis & Clark Expedition had instructions to seek out the “Welsh speaking Indians” up the Missouri.
It was a fun read, well written, and thoroughly researched.
Jim Cornelius says
Them wrote some good ’uns.
john roberts says
There is an unforgettable description of the destruction of the Mandan in A.B Guthrie’s “The Big Sky.” The Mountain Man protagonists can’t believe that this powerful nation, that they had visited just the year before, was just gone.
Furthermore, the smallpox wasn’t inevitable. The HBC trading posts were provided with smallpox vaccine and ordered to administer it to their Indian/Metis suppliers as a condition of trade. It was supplied to the American trading posts as well, but they just didn’t bother. There was no reason for the Mandan to die off, at least from smallpox.
Jim Cornelius says
Abrades the soul…