By Lotte Govaerts
It is exciting when your particular area of study is the subject of a Hollywood movie. Such an exciting time is at hand for us here at the Rogers Archaeology Lab.
If you’re interested in movies at all, you are probably aware of a recently released movie called The Revenant, which was nominated for 12 Academy Awards.1 The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy is based on the 2002 Michael Punke novel by the same name. It tells the story of a fur trapper mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow trappers during a hunting expedition deep in the wilderness, his difficult trek back to the fur trade outpost, and his desire for revenge.
If you are a regular reader of our blog, you might know that the early 19th century northwestern fur trade, the Native peoples of the Northern Plains, and interactions between fur traders, Native peoples, and the US government are some of our (many) research interests (see for example this post or this post).
So, in light of the film’s popularity, we wanted to explore the real places, events, and people behind the story of The Revenant. This blog post is the first in a short series on this topic. Our aim with these posts is not to “debunk” every detail in the movie that may be historically inaccurate or otherwise wrong. We recognize that creating a perfect historical movie is impossible. It would be neither cost effective nor practical for a filmmaker to precisely recreate every aspect of the scenery and material culture of a time and place in the past. Moreover, the regional environment that existed in the early 19th century no longer exists. Although research has uncovered a great deal of information about both the environment and the material culture of this time and place, that research is ongoing.
Clearly some effort went into making the scenery and material culture depicted in the movie resemble early 19th century reality, including the use of Sahnish2 and Pawnee advisers during the making of the movie (see Lee 2016). The film looks convincingly believable overall. However, as might be expected, the creators took some artistic license.
The story told in the movie is a fictionalized account of a period in the life of a man named Hugh Glass. Hugh Glass was a real person, and just like in the movie, he was part of “Ashley’s Hundred” fur trapping expedition (we’ll discuss that outfit in much more detail in a future installment of this blog series). The real Hugh Glass was indeed mauled by a bear in 1823, and he was left for dead by the other trappers. He really did make his way back to Fort Kiowa on his own, but his pursuit of revenge was less passionate than that of the fictional Hugh Glass in the movie (he also had fewer reasons to feel vengeful, but we won’t spoil the movie for you). Several other movie characters are also based on real people, and some actual historic events are depicted or referenced in the film.
There was a real armed conflict in 1823 between the Arikara (Sahnish) on one side and fur traders and the United States government/military on the other side. This conflict is usually called the Arikara War. Tension had been building between the two sides for almost two decades and the conflict had various causes (we’ll discuss those in more detail later, as well), although none of them involved a “chief’s daughter”, like in the movie3.
In this first post we discuss the burned Arikara (Sahnish) village that is briefly seen in the movie. The dialog goes something like:
- “Who did this?”
- “Could be Captain Leavenworth’s boys”.
There was a real Arikara (Sahnish) village, or rather a set of two villages, attacked in 1823 by Colonel Henry Leavenworth (he was a Lieutenant-Colonel at that point in time, not a Captain), and his “boys”, consisting of Leavenworth’s Sixth Regiment, along with a contingent of irregulars from the Missouri Fur Company, and some 750 Dakota Sioux. We know quite a bit about these two villages, both from written sources and archaeological investigations. Some of the same early 19th century Euro-American traders, explorers, or travelers we mentioned in other blog posts about the 19th century Northern Plains (this post, for example) visited these particular villages and discussed them in their writings.
The site of the two villages and their surrounding vicinity were studied by archaeologists throughout the 20th century. A nearby cemetery was investigated twice: Once by Matthew Stirling and William Over in 1924 (Wedel 1955), and again by a team from the University of Kansas under William Bass in the 1960s (Bass et al. 1971). The villages themselves were investigated by W. Duncan Strong in 1932 (Strong 1940); and then again by Preston Holder in the early 1960s (Krause 1972). In true US-centric fashion, the site became known as “the Leavenworth site” among early and mid- 20th century investigators. The name stuck and is still in use today, along with the site number, 39CO9 (39 for the state of South Dakota, CO for Corson County, and 9 for the ninth site recorded in that county).
We know from archaeological and historical evidence that the Arikara (Sahnish) and their ancestors moved up and down the Upper Missouri area in the years and centuries preceding the events depicted in The Revenant, and established many villages in that area. Population estimates put their total number at around 30,000 during the early contact period (early 18th century) (Holder 1970, p. 30). By the beginning of the 19th century, however, their population had been greatly reduced due to a combination of factors including disease and warfare, and their many villages along the Missouri had consolidated into ever fewer villages. By 1804, most of the Arikara villages in North and South Dakota had coalesced into three large fortified villages, located just a few miles north of the confluence of the Grand River (this area was flooded when Oahe Dam was constructed in the mid-20th century). Two of these three villages were located on the west bank of the Missouri (Rhtarahe and Waho-erha), the third on an island a little ways downstream from the other two (Sawa-haini). The total number of inhabitants of all three villages was no more than 2000. The villages must have been established shortly before 1804, as they first appear in the historical record in that year. The villages are mentioned in the writings of Tabeau4 (Abel 1939) and of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, who described their interactions with the people they met as they passed through the area on their famous voyage to the Pacific Northwest (Lewis et al. 2002, see journal entries for October 8 - 12, 1804).
When the Astorian5 expedition passed through the area in 1811, the island village had been abandoned (Bradbury 1817; Thwaites 1904; Krause 1972, p. 15). The two remaining villages were the site of the Arikara War events depicted briefly in the movie. The entirety of the Arikara War took place in the summer of 1823. An attempt by the Ashley expedition’s men to trade with the Arikara (Sahnish) in their villages ended in a battle in which 14 or 15 of his men were killed (a sixth of his total force)6. After this event, Ashley wrote to Colonel Henry Leavenworth, stationed at Fort Atkinson requesting military assistance. Leavenworth was sent on a punitive campaign to subdue the Arikara. He was joined in this effort by Joshua Pilcher, representing Indian Agent Benjamin O’Fallon, and a contingent of men from the Missouri Fur Company. Along the way to the Arikara villages some 750 mounted Dakota Sioux joined up, eager to fight the Arikara. These Dakota warriors, however, went ahead of the rest of the force, and had already left the battle before Leavenworth even arrived on the scene. Leavenworth and his troops besieged the fortified villages without much success. The artillery lobbed shells towards the village, but many of them appear to have passed overhead without doing much damage. Peace negotiations went on for a couple of days, but when they ended in failure, Leavenworth decided to resume attacking the villages the next morning. The inhabitants of the villages, however, evacuated during the night, allegedly leaving a single person, the elderly mother of Chief Grey Eyes. Someone in the company, likely some of the Missouri Fur Company men, set the villages on fire, against Leavenworth’s wishes. Thus ended the Leavenworth expedition, and the Arikara War (Meyer 1977, p. 53-54).
Aside from one smaller scale battle that took place in 1807, during which the Arikara (Sahnish) attacked a government envoy and fur traders, the so-called Arikara War was the only time in history that the Arikara fought the United States in open warfare.
The Arikara (Sahnish) went north into present-day North Dakota, and remained there during the following winter, before returning to the Grand River villages and rebuilding them. This is where they were living in 1825 when they signed a peace treaty with the Atkinson-O’Fallon expedition7 (Krause 1972, p. 15). The villages were still occupied in 1832 when George Catlin8 painted them (see fig. 5), but were apparently abandoned soon after: When Maximilian of Wied9 passed through in the spring of 1833, he found the villages deserted (Thwaites 1906, p. 336). By that point, the Arikara (Sahnish) had moved north to the area of the Mandan village near Fort Clark in present day North Dakota, before moving still farther upriver to Star Village in 1861 and Like-A-Fishhook Village in 1862. The Sahnish people still live with the Mandan and Hidatsa at Fort Berthold Reservation near Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota (Meyer 1977).
While the Grand River villages were occupied, ~1802-1832, the inhabitants lived in earth lodges. From historical descriptions (see Lewis et al. October 10, 1804) and archaeological evidence, we know that these earth lodges were circular, dome-shaped structures of various sizes, made of wood, grass, and dirt, with an entryway sticking out one side. Archaeological investigations of the two villages revealed 60 to 80 lodge depressions in each village, probably representing 60 to 70 contemporaneously occupied lodges (Krause 1972, p.23-24).
The Arikara (Sahnish) villagers cultivated corn, bean, squash, a type of melon, pumpkins, and tobacco in fields on islands, floodplains, and terraces. They kept horses, and hunted herd animals like buffalo and antelope that roamed nearby, as well as smaller game animals. They also fished and hunted waterfowl, and gathered wild fruits and vegetables (Krause 1972, p. 16-19).
The area was a meeting place for some of the more nomadic bison-hunting tribes, who traded with the Sahnish people. The villages were also conveniently located on the trade route of St. Louis-based Euro-Americans traveling upriver, thus the Sahnish people established themselves as intermediaries in the trade of goods between the various Native peoples of the northern Plains and United States interests.
The Grand River villages of Rhtarahe and Waho-erha, eventually abandoned when the population moved to the vicinity of Fort Clark, were the last of the Sahnish villages in present-day South Dakota.
Although it was only depicted briefly in the film, you can see that the Grand River villages have their own dramatic history. The above is but a brief summary of what is known about the site. For more information, check the bibliography below. Stay tuned for our next installment in which we will discuss Ashley’s Hundred and their fur trade practices.
1. The Revenant is nominated for a 2016 Academy Award in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tom Hardy), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling.↩
2.“Arikara” is the name generally used to refer to the people of this tribe in the literature. In 19th century accounts this name was often shortened to “ricarees” or “rees”, as we sometimes hear in the movie dialog as well. However, this is a name given to them by others. They call themselves Sahnish.↩
3.“Indian Princess” or “Chief’s Daughter” is a common trope in movies and TV. We see it used here in The Revenant, where the abduction of a Chief’s daughter turns out to be the cause of an armed conflict, although some characteristics of the “Indian Princess” better fit fictional Hugh Glass’ nameless wife in this movie. For discussion of the depiction of Native Americans – particularly Native women in cinema, see Bird 1999, Marubbio 2006, and Olson 2013.↩
4. Pierre-Antoine Tabeau (1782-1835) was a fur trader who lived among the Arikara (Sahnish) in the early 19th century (Abel 1939).↩
5. Wilson Price Hunt (1783-1842) was employed by John Jacob Astor as an agent for his new venture, the Pacific Fur Company in 1809. Hunt led an overland expedition to the Pacific Northwest to develop a fur trade post named Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. British naturalist John Bradbury (1768–1823) accompanied Hunt on this expedition. The Astoria expedition traveled up the Missouri together with a Missouri River fur trading party under Manuel Lisa (1772-1820). This other party was accompanied by Henry Marie Brackenridge (1786–1871), writer, lawyer, politician, and western tourist. Both Bradbury and Brackenridge published accounts of their travels (Bradbury 1817; Thwaites 1904)↩
6. This is probably the battle we see near the beginning of the movie, although it doesn’t appear to be taking place near the villages.↩
7. Brigadier General Henry Atkinson (1782-1842) and Indian Agent Benjamin O’Fallon (1793-1842) were sent on an expedition to negotiate peace treaties and trade deals with the Upper Missouri tribes in 1824. They returned in 1826. See Jensen and Hutchins 2001.↩
8. George Catlin (1796-1872) traveled extensively throughout North America in the 1830s, recording the appearance and customs of various Native peoples in his paintings. See Catlin 1973 and “George Catlin, the Complete Works” http://www.georgecatlin.org↩
9. Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied (1782-1867) was a German explorer and naturalist. He traveled to Brazil and the United States where he studied the flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples. He traveled up the Missouri in the 1830s and later published an account of his travels (Thwaites 1906)↩
Abel, Annie H, ed. Tabeau’s Narrative of Loisel’s Expedition to the Upper Missouri. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939.
Bass, William M, David R Evans, and Richard Jantz, The Leavenworth Site Cemetery: Archaeology and Physical Anthropology. Publications in Anthropology 2. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1971.
Bird, S. Elizabeth, “Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.” Journal of Communication 49, no. 3 (September 1, 1999): 61–83.
Bradbury, John, Travels in the Interior of America, in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811;: Including a Description of Upper Louisiana, Together with the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, with the Illinois and Western Territories, and Containing Remarks and Observations Useful to Persons Emigrating to Those Countries, 1817.
Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians: Written during Eight Years’ Travel (1832-1839) amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America, 1973.
“George Catlin, the Complete Works” http://www.georgecatlin.org, accessed February 25, 2016
Jensen, Richard E, and James S. Hutchins, eds. Wheel Boats on the Missouri: The Journals and Documents of the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition, 1824-26. Helena; Lincoln: Montana Historical Society Press ; Nebraska State Historical Society, 2001.
Krause, Richard A., The Leavenworth Site: Archaeology of an Historic Arikara Community. Publications in Anthropology 3. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1972.
LaMaster, Kenneth M. Fort Leavenworth. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
Lee, Stephen, “Arikara Man Was Adviser on DiCaprio’s ‘The Revenant.’” Capital Journal, Pierre, SD, January 11, 2016 http://www.capjournal.com/news/arikara-man-was-adviser-on-dicaprio-s-the-revenant/article_3c23e9c8-b8e9-11e5-978b-d720c8cbd8d9.html. Accessed February 25, 2016.
Lewis, M., Clark, W., and Members of the Corps of Discovery, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (G. Moulton, Ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from the University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition web site: http://lewisandclark journals.unl.edu
Marubbio, M. Elise, Killing the Indian Maiden - Images of Native American Women in Film. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Meyer, Roy W., The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.
Olson, Gerald Theodore, “The Evolution of an Image: An Analysis of Defining Depictions of Native Americans in Popular Cinema 1913-1917.” (Master’s thesis),San Jose State University, 2013. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7850.
Strong, William Duncan, “From History to Prehistory in the Northern Great Plains.” In Smithsonian Institution Miscellaneous Collections, 100:353–94. Washington, 1940.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846: Brackenridge’s Journal up the Missouri, 1811 ; Franchère’s Voyage to Northwest Coast, 1811-1814. Arthur H. Clark Company, 1904.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed., “Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834 by Alexander Philip Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied.” In Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Vol. 22, 23, 24. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906.
Wedel, Waldo R., Archaeological Materials From the Vicinity of Mobridge, South Dakota. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 157. Washington, D.C., 1955.