By the time you get to Bismarck on 94, most of the trees have dropped away and the land becomes much hillier and, this year especially, brown–or golden if the light is right. I head south of Mandan, where John Steinbeck says the west begins, to a state park on the Missouri River, Abraham Lincoln State Park. It was the home base of General George Custer and the starting place for his ill-fated excursion in search of native Americans to kill. It’s a very nice park, staffed, as I have come to expect, by remarkably kind and talkative people. The only problem is that I find neither of my camp stoves will work, there are no fires permitted (drought conditions) and it’s 24 degrees when I wake in the morning. I guess the idea of coming through North Dakota in October should have raised more awareness of the need for winter camping gear than it did. Oh well, if you’re going to be dumb, you gotta be tough, as a friend is fond of reminding me (why does he always say it to me?). I survive.
The area actually has quite a history of fatal interactions between the white man and his darker-skinned fellow citizen, most notably perhaps the outbreak of smallpox brought north from St.Louis by travelers on a fur company boat in 1837. The statistics are staggering in terms of the effect on local tribes, but still, inoculating the natives, possible at the time, was considered bad form for various reasons and Washington did little to stop the epidemic.
I am in search of a postcard requested by my friend with a picture of the Mandan chief, Four Bears or Mato-Tope, as he is also known. Alas, as he died in the smallpox epidemic in 1837, his image is not locally famous since the focus of most of the tourism here is the 1860’s and later.
I am sent to the state Heritage Center in Bismarck, where a set of notecards with Karl Bodmer’s 1833 painting of him is available.
He does, however, figure prominently in the history of the state, and in the history of native/ white relations since he acted as peacemaker and interpreter on many occasions. I don’t make it north to the site of his death but instead move on. After a short sidetrack to the Painted Canyon badlands of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, More time here would have been good. I get the feeling that you have to really slow down to appreciate this part of the world, and I didn’t leave any where near enough room in my schedule. Live and learn. The canyons are stark and, while not exactly beautiful in a conventional way from the highway on this late afternoon in September, at least promising of a great and subtle beauty if explored.