At the heart of the world

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Elizabeth Fenn enthralls UND-hosted conference with tales of Mandan people

Elizabeth Fenn

Elizabeth Fenn, who chaired the history department at the University of Colorado-Boulder and is on research leave from there, is a graduate of Duke and Yale Universities, and spent eight years working as an auto mechanic before returning to Yale to complete her doctorate. Photo by Jan Orvik.

The Mandan people were once at the heart of the world.

Traders, farmers and hunters, they had a sophisticated culture and location at the center of North America that allowed them to prosper and thrive for hundreds of years.

No one knew much about history of the tribe, which once had a population of about 120,000 and attracted other tribes and traders to the confluence of the Heart and Missouri Rivers near Mandan, N.D.

Elizabeth Fenn changed that.

The author of Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People gave the keynote talk Friday evening at the 52nd Annual Northern Great Plains History Conference, hosted by the UND history department and organized by Kim Porter, professor of history.

She spoke to a riveted audience.

“I love coming to North Dakota,” said Fenn. “North Dakota makes this story possible. It belongs to the people of North Dakota and to the Mandan people.”

Encounters at the Heart of the World covers the history of the Mandan people, beginning around 1000 CE and ending in 1837.

“For some reason, people always said their history could not be written,” Elizabeth Fenn said of the Mandan tribe in an interview with the South Dakota Humanities Council. “It seemed to me that it could.”

Her work won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

Elizabeth Fenn

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Fenn (left) riveted her audience recently at the 52nd Annual Northern Great Plains History Conference with tales of the Mandan people and their fascinating history in North Dakota. Photo by Jan Orivik.

Major population center

The book focuses on the history of the Mandan people, who lived in large earth lodges at Double Ditch Indian Village near Mandan and northward along the Missouri River, documenting their prosperity and gradual population collapse from 120,000 in the 1500s to about 300 tribal members in 1837.

“The Mandan people made their home at the heart of the world,” Fenn said. They were known for their hospitality and grew corn, gardened, hunted bison and traded. Underground caches of food allowed them to survive droughts and famines and to trade food for goods. Lewis and Clark spent their first winter in 1804-1805 among the Mandans.

The Double Ditch Village was a major population center, with about 120,000 residents in the mid-1500s. It once had five ditches for fortification and protection. Today, you can see the outlines of just two ditches.

“As focal points of commerce, the Mandan were also focal points of contagion,” Fenn said, noting that several epidemics of smallpox and other diseases, as well as outside forces such as drought, reduced their numbers. In 1781, a smallpox epidemic prompted the tribe to move 50 miles north to Knife River and the Missouri River confluences, and Double Ditch became a ghost town.

Smallpox is the reason Fenn became interested in the Mandans.

She wrote Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, published in 2001, which documents the smallpox epidemic that raged across North America during the American Revolution, killing at least 130,000 people. That same epidemic devastated the Mandan people, sparking her interest in their culture and resulting in the book.

Writing history

Fenn, who chaired the history department at the University of Colorado-Boulder and is on research leave from there, is a graduate of Duke and Yale Universities, and spent eight years working as an auto mechanic before returning to Yale to complete her doctorate.

“Working as a mechanic profoundly influenced the way I write history,” Fenn said. “I learned I could do things, solve problems and figure things out. It taught me to respect my readers. They don’t need a degree to understand history. It taught me not to use jargon.”

In response to a question about how to write about people of color, Fenn said “Listen. Just Listen. When we get anxious, we start talking. Just listen. Know you will screw it up. Do the best you can. Be humble. I learned a lot about humility. The older I get, the more humble I become. The world is a challenging place that has a lot to teach us.”