Challenges And Conflict On The Cannonball
Confluence Of Indians & Traders, A Review
By Dakota Wind
Cannonball, ND – Is the Cannonball River so different today than it was two hundred years ago? Yes and no. The river still drains into the Missouri River as it has done for thousands of years, but the similarities depart from there. The Cannonball River drains into a stretch of the Missouri River that is more lake now than flowing stream.
600 years ago, the Mandan lived in two earthlodge villages, the Big River Villages, on the north and south banks at the Cannonball River and Missouri River confluence. The Cheyenne lived in an earthlodge village located at present-day Fort Yates, ND, and occupied the region including the Cannonball River from around 1700 to about the turn of 1800 before taking up the nomadic horse culture for themselves and moving west. The Arikara contested the Cheyenne occupation, and even came to live at the Big River Village on the north bank for a time.
Tracy Potter’s “Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat” offers a summary of the backstory which sets up the Mandan Indian protagonist Shehek Shote (“White Wolf;” aka Sheheke, or “White Coyote”) in the post-contact and early trade era on the Upper Missouri River. Potter references living oral tradition of the Mandan people, and archaeology of the ancient territory of the Mandan, as well as writings from the early fur traders including the Corps of Discovery to show the struggle and survival of the Mandan on the prairie steppe.
Potter’s teeters back and forth between a biographical epic of White Wolf who journeyed east to parlay with President Jefferson and his return, and a historical summary of the Mandan people. The tale concludes with a grand gesture of self-sacrifice and service to a country that has largely forgotten that White Wolf died protecting Americans on the frontier when the War of 1812 spread to the Missouri River.
Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat was released in 2003 as a companion book to all the Corps of Discovery excitement during the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial. Its a genuine original concept, with a focus on the story of a native man, a civil chief of a peaceful first nation, at a time when a dozen books a month were coming out about the Corps of Discovery. It’s 2016 and Potter’s book deserves a second closer look at its brief narrative involving the conflicts on the Cannonball River in light of the current energy interests there.
Inter-tribal conflict is a part of the collective history of the first nations. Different languages yield different world views and values, which may lead to conflict, but contests for control of natural resources is universal in the history of humanity anywhere in the world at any time.
During the Corps of Discovery’s mission, they selected various tribal leaders to journey downriver and east to meet with the great father of the new United States. In 1804, the corps selected Arketarnawhar Was-to-ne (“Is A Whippoorwill”) and a company of six others from the Osage, Missouri, and Pawnee nations, to entreat with President Jefferson. Is A Whippoorwill died in the spring of 1805; the other tribal representatives soon died as well. Jefferson wrote a missive telling the Arikara that their beloved leader had promised their friendship to the Americans before dying, and that he was buried in the east.
The Arikara received official word of their leader’s death in the summer of 1807. By then, the Arikara and Mandan were at war with one another. One of the conflicts between the two nations was at the Cannonball River, where the Mandan had fought the Arikara and killed two of their warriors. The Mandan wanted and supported trade with the Americans; the Arikara wanted the same too, but wanted their leader back more.
In the fall of 1812, war tension spread west. The Hidatsa supported the English in their trade. The Mandan supported trade with the American Fur Company. The Arikara indiscriminately harassed all white trappers and traders on the Upper Missouri. The Cheyenne were withdrawing from the Missouri River for the deep west, but lingering trade drew them back to the Missouri River. The American Fur Company had set up shop with Fort Manuel Lisa near present-day Kenel, SD near the ND-SD border.
The Arikara reported to a Fort Manuel trader that the Cheyenne had robbed and whipped a trader at the Cannonball. The trappers were so nervous when the sun went down, they shot a skulking dog thinking it was a Cheyenne. What’s not reported, is the Cheyenne were lied to and robbed in trade themselves. Their retaliation was just. They didn’t kill the trader, only suffered him to be humiliated for his corrupt dealings. Some of the Cheyenne were still on good terms with the traders at Fort Manuel Lisa and had planned on wintering there in 1812-1813.
Fort Manuel Lisa was attacked and burned in December 1812. Lisa and his men, even the Cheyenne were anticipating attack from the Arikara, but it was the Thítȟuŋwaŋ (“Teton”), persuaded by English trade agent Col. Robert Dickson who had married into the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (“Seven Council Fires;” Great Sioux Nation), who carried the fight to the trade fort.
Potter’s “Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat” is a wonderfully short historical book in clear light prose, but it’s deep and rich enough for serious study. His book is dedicated to the Mandan people and includes many Mandan and Hidatsa descendants in his acknowledgements. Get your copy from the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum store. The book isn’t listed on the website, but it’s available on the floor. Get your copy today!