Encounters at the Heart of the World
A History of the Mandan People
Elizabeth A. Fenn
Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in History
Encounters at the Heart of the World concerns the Mandan Indians, iconic Plains people whose teeming, busy towns on the upper Missouri River were for centuries at the center of the North American universe. We know of them mostly because Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 with them, but why don’t we know more? Who were they really? In this extraordinary book, Elizabeth A. Fenn retrieves their history by piecing together important new discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, geology, climatology, epidemiology, and nutritional science. Her boldly original interpretation of these diverse research findings offers us a new perspective on early American history, a new interpretation of the American past.
By 1500, more than twelve thousand Mandans were established on the northern Plains, and their commercial prowess, agricultural skills, and reputation for hospitality became famous. Recent archaeological discoveries show how these Native American people thrived, and then how they collapsed. The damage wrought by imported diseases like smallpox and the havoc caused by the arrival of horses and steamboats were tragic for the Mandans, yet, as Fenn makes clear, their sense of themselves as a people with distinctive traditions endured.
A riveting account of Mandan history, landscapes, and people, Fenn’s narrative is enriched and enlivened not only by science and research but by her own encounters at the heart of the world.
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Praise for Encounters at the Heart of the World
Fenn’s mosaic brilliantly overcomes the shortcomings of her written and archaeological sources . . . Readers who follow her toward, but never quite into, the heart of the Mandans’ world will be richer for the journey. — Daniel K. Richter, The Wall Street Journal
The Mandan story is a reminder that even the most flourishing societies can be brought low, in virtually an instant, by the unpredictable workings of the natural world (to say nothing of human foes). But Fenn’s account tells us also that cultures can persist and even recover in the wake of such awful devastation. — Andrew Graybill, The Daily Beast
Fenn pieces together a rich and remarkably detailed history of this nearly forgotten tribe . . . The product of her work is this wonderfully interesting book that should finally help the Mandans claim their rightful place in history. ―Steve Raymond, The Seattle Times
Anyone who has seen the sensitive portraits of Mandan chiefs painted in the 1830s by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer will be captivated by Fenn’s exhaustively researched history of the tribe that once thrived on the upper Missouri River in present-day North Dakota–at one time the center of northern Plains commerce. … Fenn weaves the historical fabric of this proud people, enhanced by archaeological and climate studies tracing their migrations, food sources, and intertribal conflicts. Simultaneously scholarly and highly readable, Fenn’s contribution enriches our understanding of not just Mandan history, but the history and culture of the pre-reservation northern Plains as well. ― Booklist, Starred Review
In this innovative and illuminating book, Elizabeth Fenn reorients early American history toward the geographic center of the continent. There, long before the arrival of colonists on the Atlantic coast, the Mandan people built one of the most important and enduring trading centers in America. Using tools from archaeology, anthropology, and epidemiology, Fenn reconstructs their remarkable story and recounts it in absorbing and transparent prose. — Claudio Saunt, University of Georgia, author of West of the Revolution