The first non-Indians to report the existence of the Man-dan were a family of explorers—a father and three sons and a nephew—named La Verendrye. Exploring out of Quebec and establishing fur-trading posts along the way, they cut over to the Missouri River from the Assiniboine River and reached the Mandan villages in 1738.
The upper Missouri Indian villages had always been important trading centers for many Native peoples. Nomadic Plains tribes bartered products of the hunt for the crops of farming tribes. Then in the mid-1700s, the Plains tribes began exchanging horses for farm products. The Mandan in turn bartered some of the horses to other tribes. In the meantime, French traders wanted pelts from the Indians and offered guns and European tools for them. As a result, the Mandan became middlemen, dealing in all sorts of products with various tribes and with Europeans.
Lewis and Clark wintered among the Mandan in 1804—05 and wrote about them extensively. Other explorers followed, frontier painters among them. George Catlin, who traveled among different Native peoples from 1830 to 1836, painted portraits of tribal member and wrote about Mandan life. Another frontier painter, Karl Bodmer, a Swiss who traveled with the German prince Maximilian zu Wied, also painted portraits and scenes of the Mandan in 1833—34. And Prince Maximilian wrote about them in detailed journals.
Their friendly contacts with non-Indians proved deadly for the Mandan. In 1837, they suffered a devastating epidemic of smallpox. It is estimated that of about 1,600 Mandan, all but 125 died that terrible year. The words of Four Bears, a Mandan chief dying of smallpox, have become famous and symbolic of the great misery endured by Indians from diseases passed to them by whites: “Four Bears never saw a white man hungry, but when he gave him to eat. . . and how have they repaid it! . . . I do not fear death. . . but to die with my face rotten, that even the wolves will shrink... at seeing me, and say to themselves, that is Four Bears, the friend of the whites.”
In 1845, when the neighboring Hidatsa moved to Fort Berthold, the surviving Mandan went with them.
The Arikara followed in 1862. In 1870, the federal government established a permanent reservation at that location for the three tribes.