cover image Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People

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

Elizabeth A. Fenn. Hill and Wang, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-8090-4239-5

On the northern plains, where the Heart River joins the Missouri, the Mandans made their home, flourishing due to their openness to others, their commercial canniness, and their agricultural skills. In this riveting chronicle, part history and part travelogue of trips to Mandan territory in 2002, historian Fenn (Pox Americana) traces the rise and fall of the Mandans as newcomers encroached on their domains. “Ancestral Mandans appeared in what is now South Dakota around 1000 CE,” occupying rich alluvial plains that enabled great agricultural diversity. By the middle of the 16th century, the Mandans had developed successful commercial trade among neighboring tribes, even though such interactions were often tense and hostile. By the 17th century, traders and explorers—from the French baron Lahontan and the Hudson Bay Company’s Henry Kelsey to Lewis and Clark—entered Mandan villages and territory, bringing not only commerce but also disease. Fenn illustrates how these “encounters”—including smallpox and whooping cough epidemics, and the infestation of Norway rats that destroyed their corn stores—reduced their populations to the low hundreds by the mid-19th century. Fenn brings to life and celebrates the customs and practices of the Mandans, while bemoaning the fate of this little-known North American tribe. (Mar.)