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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Brooke Morgan's blog

A Century of Mapping at Huff Indian Village State Historic Site: How Archaeology Changes Over Time

Archaeologists have a solid understanding of Mandan lifeways at Huff Indian Village State Historic Site, primarily as a result of extensive excavations in 1960 as part of the Smithsonian Institution River Basin Surveys1 and additional geophysical and archaeological testing in 19992. But Huff Village was known to archaeologists prior to this time—in fact, it was first recorded as early as 1904 by Ernst R. Steinbrueck, who worked as a field officer for the State Historical Society. Under the direction of Orin G. Libby, Steinbrueck created a list of sites and produced location maps for villages along the Missouri River. One such map in the archaeology collections is dated December 22, 1906, and titled “Map showing approximate location of the ancient Indian village sites found since 1902” (Figure 1). Some familiar sites appear on this map. On the east side of the river, Double Ditch (No. 40) is visible. Fort Lincoln (No. 2) can be seen on the west side of the river. What we now call “Huff Village” was known by Steinbrueck and his contemporaries as “Arikara Fort,” and is No. 19 on this map.

Map of Missouri River villages - 1906

E.R. Steinbrueck’s 1906 map of Missouri River villages. (State Historical Society of North Dakota, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division flat files)

Archaeological knowledge changes over time, and in Steinbrueck’s era, archaeologists thought they had identified an Arikara village enclosed by a fortification wall—hence, Arikara Fort. We’ve known for some time that Huff is in fact a Mandan village, based on ceramics and other artifacts. But that isn’t the only thing that has changed: in 1908, Steinbrueck drew a map of “Arikara Fort” with 182 lodges inside the fortification ditch (Figure 2). Eleven of the houses are rectangular, and the rest are circular. Compare that map with one drawn by archaeologist W. Raymond Wood in 1960 (Figure 3). This map shows 102 houses, 101 of which are rectangular. On Wood’s map, there is only one square lodge with rounded corners, which could be interpreted as a circular lodge.

Map of Arikara Fort

E.R. Steinbrueck’s 1908 map of “Arikara Fort.” (State Historical Society of North Dakota, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division flat files)

Map of Huff Village

W. Raymond Wood’s 1960 map of Huff Village. (Wood 1967: Map 4)

Wood assembled published and unpublished maps of Huff Village to show the variations in village interpretation over time (Figure 4). We now know that among the Mandan, long-rectangular houses preceded round earthlodges. This is evident at Huff, which dates to about AD 1450: the single round lodge shows that people were experimenting with a new form of housing.

Comparative maps of Huff Village

W. Raymond Wood’s comparative maps of Huff Village, 1905-1960. (Wood 1967: Map 3)

So why did early maps of Huff Village show circular lodges? Wood (1967:28) offers the following explanation:

This resume of the history of Huff cartography is particularly interesting in revealing the extent to which preconceptions effect the perception of field data. The first long-rectangular house excavated in North Dakota was House 5 at Huff, dug by Thad. Hecker in 1938-39. Prior to that time there was no hint in the literature of villages composed solely of long-rectangular houses. The local historic earth lodges were circular and, despite the large number of sites available of long-rectangular houses, field workers persisted in “seeing” the circular houses they expected to find.

In other words, people were familiar with the round earthlodges used historically by Mandan Indians and anticipated finding evidence of similar lodges in the archaeological record. This is a form of confirmation bias, or finding results that uphold your existing beliefs. It’s something that archaeologists—and all scientists—must be aware of in their research. The variation in the number of recorded lodges suggests some of the earliest drawings were impressionistic and not created using survey equipment. Improvement in mapping technology has allowed for extensive geophysical survey (including magnetic and electrical resistance surveys) to be performed at Huff. This helps archaeologists “see” underground and pinpoint individual features for excavation (Figure 5).

Comparison of house plans

Comparison of (a) house plans drafted by Wood (1967) and (b) houses identified by magnetic survey. (Ahler and Kvamme 2000: Figure 18)

So what comes next in this second century of research at Huff? Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas Geospatial Analytics and Innovative Applications Research Lab are using drone technology to take aerial photographs that can be georeferenced down to a centimeter. This precise form of mapping will improve our perception of microtopography (or small landscape features), as well as provide state-of-the-art figures for publication and outreach. There’s still much to learn from this exceptionally-preserved site. Take some time to visit Huff this fall, and observe the lodges and fortification ditch yourself.


1 Wood, W. Raymond. 1967. An Interpretation of Mandan Culture History. River Basin Surveys Papers 39. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 198. Washington, D.C.
2 Ahler, Stanley A., and Kenneth L. Kvamme. 2000. New Geophysical Research and Archaeological Investigations at Huff Village State Historic Site (32MO11), Morton County, North Dakota. Research Contribution 26. PaleoCultural Research Group, Flagstaff, AZ. Submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.

Revisiting Old Collections: Native American Pottery from the Jennie Graner Site

The most interesting discoveries an archaeologist can make occasionally involve artifacts collected decades earlier. I happened upon such a discovery while preparing to carry out fieldwork on behalf of a federal agency. While conducting background research, I learned the State Historical Society houses a small ceramic assemblage originally collected in 1938. These 73 ceramic rims and body sherds represent the bulk of artifacts collected from site 32MO12, or the Jennie Graner site. My search for information about the pottery itself, as well as the history of previous research at the site, led me on a winding path through archival records and the handwritten notes of Thaddeus C. Hecker, a former archaeologist with the State Historical Society.

Hecker is probably most well-known to archaeologists who have read his and George Will’s inventory of Plains Village sites along the Missouri River in North Dakota1. Previous to this 1944 publication, Hecker and other archaeologists working for the state identified a Plains Village site on the west bank of the Missouri River near the town of Huff. At that time, the site was on the property of Jennie Graner and was named after her. Although Hecker collected pottery in 1938, there is no indication that he conducted excavations at the site:

The first time I visited this site I found a lodge floor in the cut-bank where an unusual amount of pottery of various designs in decoration had weathered out. The rim-sherds were rather thick and all decorations were punch incised; also a number of designs in decoration were different than I had seen before…The pottery of this site is undoubtedly of Mandan Culture.2

Thaddeus C. Hecker

Thaddeus C. Hecker, 1938. (State Historical Society of North Dakota C3717-00001)

Although Jennie Graner is considered an earthlodge village site, no remnants of earthlodges or middens are visible on the surface like they are at other Mandan sites such as Huff and Double Ditch villages. There is also no evidence of a palisade or ditch at Jennie Graner. Perhaps the Mandans who lived there did not need a protective wall around their village—or perhaps evidence of lodges and ditches have been obliterated by farming and construction activities. Even in 1944, Will and Hecker reported that the site was eroding into the river and was severely impacted by modern earthmoving activities.

Aerial view of Huff Indian Village State Historic Site

Aerial view of Huff Village State Historic Site, located south of the Jennie Graner site. Note earthlodge depressions and fortification ditch. (State Historical Society of North Dakota 00630-04)

The age of the Jennie Graner site is unknown, but Will and Hecker referred to it as “Archaic Mandan,” or what archaeologists now call the Extended Middle Missouri. The latest regional chronology of village sites gives the Extended Middle Missouri an age range of AD 1200-14003. Ceramic analysis suggests Jennie Graner would fall toward the end of this age range, possibly in the late 1300s or early 1400s. Pottery styles and designs changed through time, but these changes did not happen overnight. New styles were tested and incorporated slowly, resulting in many ceramic forms occurring contemporaneously. Four types of ceramic “ware” have been identified from this site. The earliest wares are Riggs ware and Fort Yates ware. These are followed chronologically by Stanton ware and Sanger ware, respectively4. Riggs and Stanton wares have straight rims, while Fort Yates and Sanger wares have S-rims. The presence of transitional forms between Riggs and Stanton, and between Fort Yates and Sanger, suggests potters at Jennie Graner may have been experimenting with vessel construction and decoration.

Ware rim

Left: (a) Riggs ware rim. Note the tall rim and location of tool impressions directly on the lip; (b) Transitional form between Riggs and Stanton wares. Rim height is shorter, and tool impressions appear lower on the rim; (c) Stanton ware rim. Addition of fillet with tool impressions well below the lip of the rim. (All specimens SHSND 7123)
Right: (a) Fort Yates ware rim. The juncture of the rim and neck is angular; (b) Transitional form between Fort Yates and Sanger wares. The juncture is less angular and becoming more curved; (c) Sanger ware rim. The juncture between the rim and neck is curved. (All specimens SHSND 7123)

Jennie Graner is on land managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Recent testing of the site by State Historical Society archaeologists will tell us more about the size, age, and occupation length of the village, as well as whether it qualifies to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. We also hope to learn its relationship to the nearby Huff Indian Village State Historic Site and other Missouri River Mandan villages.


1 Will, George F. and Thad C. Hecker. 1944. The Upper Missouri River Valley Aboriginal Culture in North Dakota. North Dakota Historical Quarterly, vol. 11 (1-2), pp. 5-126.
2 Hecker, Thad C. 1938. Morton County Archeology. Manuscript on file at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division.
3 Johnson, Craig M. 2007. A Chronology of Middle Missouri Plains Village Sites. Contributions to Anthropology 47. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.
4 Ahler, Stanley A. 2001. Analysis of Curated Plains Village Artifact Collections from the Heart, Knife, and Cannonball Regions, North Dakota. Research Contribution No. 42, PaleoCultural Research Group, Flagstaff, AZ. Submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.