This story was originally published in the Bismarck Tribune on June 29, 1981. By STAN STELTER, Bismarck Tribune
Mandan's founding generally is linked to the growth of the railroad westward in the late 1800's, but its roots are much deeper.
The area was once occupied by ancestors of the Mantani, or Mandan Indians, who reportedly occupied the land hundreds of years ago, apparently moving in from the southeastern United States.
The Indians had a sedentary type of culture and maintained a life of hunting, gardening and fishing along the Missouri River bottomlands.
As a result of attacks from a nomadic tribe, the Mantani — a Dakota word for riverbank dwellers — began drawing together near the confluence of the Heart and Missouri rivers about 1600.
One historian estimates the Mandan population at the mouth of the Heart in 1700 at 8,000. Historians say one of those settlements was made by Good Fur Robe. It was called "The Crying Hill" because a nearby hilltop — reportedly the hilltop in the eastern portion of present-day Mandan — was used as a mourning place.
The village also was known as "Two Faced Stone" for the outcropping of granite, serving as the source for a mystical experience by the medicine man. In 1738, in one of his visions, he foresaw visitors from the north, according to historical accounts.
That coincides with the earliest recorded visit to the area by a white man, Sieure de la Verendrye, and his son. While exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory, the Frenchman arrived in the area thought to be the present site of the Amoco Oil Co. refinery on Mandan's northeast edge.
More than a hundred years passed, however, before white settlement began.
The settlement was spurred by the establishment of Fort McKeen and Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1872-73 south of the city's eventual site. The forts attracted traders, settlers and others.
By 1873, Bismarck had become the western-most extension of the Northern Pacific railroad. Railroad survey crews began working west of the Missouri River, and people began looking in that direction to settle.
Robert Henry, a trapper and hunter who picked up work at Fort McKeen, is said to have been the first Mandan settler in 1872, although he actually lived north of the infantry fort along the Heart. Other accounts say the first dwelling in Mandan was built by a military man, Maj. William N. Mitchell.
However, it was Frederic F. Gerard, a trader and later a scout for George Custer, who is considered to be the city's founding father, staking a claim in the area of the village in 1872. When that turned out to be Northern Pacific property, he later purchased 40 acres in the settlement, and that ultimately became Gerard's Addition in south Mandan.
Homesteaders began arriving about 1877, some settling along the Missouri north of present Mandan, near what is known as the Rock Haven boat landing.
One early settler and subsequent Morton County commissioner, Elijah Boley, arrived from Iowa, saw much potential in the new settlement and suggested it could become the "Omaha of the Northwest."
There was speculation about where the railroad would cross the Missouri; Boley thought it would be about three miles north of the present city, and so he staked his claim at that point.
As it turned out, the Northern Pacific first laid tracks across the Missouri ice farther south in 1879, and a bridge spanning the river was finished three years later.
Mandan's naming is tied to the railroad. Credit is given to Gen. T.L. Rosser, a former Confederate officer and the Northern Pacific's engineer for this division, who reportedly made the decision on a station-naming trip in 1873.
John Rea, a federal land agent and newspaperman, accompanied Rosser and later claimed it was his repeated use of the name in news dispatches eastward that made the name stick.
But the use of that name wasn't accepted unanimously. In July 1878, the village took on the first of several names when the sod post office was dubbed Morton, corresponding to the county being named in honor of an Indiana governor during the Civil War.
Then, in October 1878, a group representing the Lincoln Townsite Co., which was developing a site about two miles south, proposed the name Lincon to the new county commission, and the name was accepted.
But the site didn't develop, despite offers of land and a log courthouse if the commissioners located the county seat there.
Finally, the county commission — including Gerard, Boley and Chris Nolen — voted to name the county seat Mandan on December 14, 1878. Several weeks later, commissioners set the county seat site about where the Amoco refinery is now.
One other name, Cushman, was interjected later that year by the post office for its facility at the railroad station, but the name was changed to Mandan by that fall.
As with other "railroad towns," the platting of the townsite was done by the Northern Pacific, being approved by the NP's board of directors in March 1879.
The town site, as described in February 1879 by The Tribune, "is beautifully situated at the base of a semi-circular range of hills which form a natural barrier against the wind and storms on the north and northeast sides while the heavy belt of trees on the Little Heart gives ample protection" to the south.
Mandan then had a population of 230.
By April, Mandan boasted of 123 frames and houses, with more under construction.
The little village was on its way.
In February 1881, the settlement filed for incorporation, and the amending act of the Dakota Territory Legislature incorporating the village became effective February 24.