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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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!

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.

Never Stop Learning

When I completed my bachelor’s degree many decades ago, I thought that I was done with school, finished with learning. Whether that was the result of book fatigue or just the glossy idiocy of youth, I am not sure. However, I eventually returned to school and was pretty darn close to 50 when I finally received my Ph.D. in American History. This time, I did not even pause in the learning process but kept on thinking, reading, and writing history – a student with no homework.

I became very comfortable in the study of history and never suspected that I would someday hop back onto that steep learning curve to write a book in an entirely different field of study. Archaeology. I think I took one archaeology course in college (it was required), but I don’t remember much about it.

Now I am writing a book (available next fall) about the people who lived in North Dakota in ancient times. I mean really ancient times. The first people (that we know of) came here around 13,000 years ago. My training as a historian little prepared me to write about people who did not document their lives and beliefs on paper. Throughout this process, I have ranted about archaeologists’ fuzzy dates, my frustration with the limits of archaeological research (they have to go find stuff buried underground!), and their scholarly disagreements. Nevertheless, through study I have actually come to know quite a bit about North Dakota’s earliest peoples.

I find them likable, these people who braved North Dakota before Lake Agassiz had become the Red River, and who probably met some pretty unfriendly animals when they first looked around the northern Great Plains. The first arrivals needed to find resources quickly. They needed food – meat and berries or wild greens – and potable water. They required materials to construct shelter. They had to locate good quality stone to make into projectile points, knives, hide scrapers, and other useful items for their tool kits. These resourceful, hardworking people (like so many who followed them), found all of these things in abundance and returned again and again when they needed what North Dakota had to offer.

Naze Village Illustration

Around 500 BC, hardworking people organized villages near the resources they needed to raise their families in North Dakota. (Andrew Knutson, artist)

I have learned a lot from them. No, I can’t knap stone into a useful tool or to turn a bison hide into clothing, though there are people who enjoy doing that sort of thing. My lessons are quieter, more internal, like: Be curious. Eat new foods. Learn new skills. Adapt to the environment. Meet new people and try out new ideas. Don’t settle for what is right in front of you; something better is just over the horizon. Listen to the younger generation; they may have the right answer to the problems you face. And don’t stand still; a short-faced bear may find you delicious!