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‘Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People’

by Elizabeth A. Fenn

Hill & Wang, 456pp., $35

If Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery hadn’t needed a place to stay during the winter of 1804, it’s possible history might have completely overlooked the Mandan tribe of Native Americans.

To the Mandans their villages were the “heart of the world.” They were generally peaceful folk, though quick to respond when provoked, and they had some bizarre rituals. They also were sharp traders and diligent farmers who raised a superabundance of corn. They stored enormous quantities in underground vaults so they always had plenty on hand to trade, at least until riverboats from St. Louis introduced rats to their villages in 1825.

The rats quickly ate their way through the Mandans’ corn supplies, then started in on the wooden underpinnings of their hogans. As if that weren’t trouble enough, aggressive bands of Sioux began preying on the Mandans, forcing them to stay close to their villages so they were unable to hunt buffalo, their other traditional source of nourishment.

Worse was to come. On June 19, 1837, the steamboat St. Peter arrived at the Mandan villages with smallpox aboard. The plague swept swiftly across the plains and the Mandans were among its earliest victims. From an original population estimated as high as 12,000, less than 300 remained. A few descendants still survive.

But that tells only the tragic end of the Mandans’ long story. Author Elizabeth Fenn, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, traces their origins all the way back to their ancestors’ appearance in the Dakotas more than a thousand years ago.

Relying on fragmentary documentary records, discoveries by archaeologists, imaginative detective work, evidence uncovered by anthropologists, geologists, climatologists and nutritional scientists, plus paintings and drawings by frontier artists George Catlin, Karl Bodmer and others, Fenn pieces together a rich and remarkably detailed history of this nearly forgotten tribe.

Fenn says she asked herself why the Mandans “appear in the broad history of North America only when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the winter with them in 1804-05. The accounts I read confirmed my suspicion that significant holes persisted in our knowledge of early America … The more I learned, the more I sensed that the Mandan story provided an alternative view of American life both before and after the arrival of Europeans.”

That conclusion and a trip to North Dakota in “a grime-covered red Pontiac” started her on a decadelong pursuit of the Mandan story. The product of her work is this wonderfully interesting book that should finally help the Mandans claim their rightful place in history.

Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond’s latest book is “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press).