The Hudson Bay and North West
Companies would soon exploit trade routes connecting Indian tribes
all over the continent. Throughout this century the Mandan
Villages were the principal trading center on the plains.
Their thriving villages sat at the nexus of trading
routes that had been used for more than 10,000 years, routes that
connected the tribes of eastern Canada and the Great Lakes region
with tribes of Northern Mexico, the southwest, Meso-America, and
the Pacific Northwest.
Mandans and Hidatsa were the most important inter-tribal trade
brokers on the Great Plains. The arrival of the Canadians,
French and British, followed shortly by the Americans and Spanish,
would herald enormous changes for these people. It was also
the place where the horse culture of the plains met the gun culture
of the wooded northeast. Decades before they saw their first
white man, the Mandans were trading for goods manufactured in
found themselves in the position of warehousing horses and guns for
distribution to all the tribes that arrived at their village, often
with a 100 percent markup. It was their prominence as
traders, like the Genoese in Europe, that made them so important as
potential allies and trading partners to all the outside commercial
ventures. By the end of this century and the beginning of the
next, two commercial trading systems would be vying for
dominance. The American system exploited the Missouri and
Arkansas River regions, and in time extended to the Rocky Mountain
front in the Colorado and Wyoming territories, hundreds of miles
south of their Canadian counterparts. The Canadian system
controlled the Great Lakes region, the northern plains and the
Pacific Northwest. Very cleverly, the Mandans and Hidatsa
played both systems off each other to their own advantage.
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At the beginning of the 18th
century, their villages at the Heart River comprised the largest
concentration of Indians on the northern plains. Many tribes
borrowed things from the Mandans, and it is likely that the
feathered headdress of the Plains Indian was a creation of Mandan
ceremonial art. By now, the Mandans had become accustomed to
semi-sedentary living and were flourishing as horticulturalists.
They had evolved into a complex social and political culture, and
each village enjoyed autonomy.