Continuity and change in the organization of Mandan craft production, 1400-1750

Mark David Mitchell
Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder
December, 2011


This study uses high-resolution data on the organization of stone tool and pottery production to write a precolonial and early colonial history of the Mandan towns at the confluence of the Heart and Missouri rivers. The dissertation begins by making a case for the crucial role archaeological methods and archaeological data can play in writing seamless "trans-Columbian" histories of Native communities spanning the advent of Europeans in North America. It then traces patterns of economic change in the Heart River region, especially the changing economic connections among contemporaneous communities. These patterns are woven together with ethnographic and historical data, as well as a new assessment of subsistence and settlement change, to support the dissertation's central claim that sociohistorical processes that began in the Heart region in the 1400s played a crucial role in structuring the regional political economy European fur traders encountered in the 1700s and 1800s. Craft production data for the study derive from technological analyses of artifact assemblages from four Heart River communities the Mandans occupied between the late 1400s and the late 1700s. These data reveal the existence of both community- and household-level craft specialization, which in turn point to a web of economic connections among the Heart River towns. This evidence for specialized production is paralleled by evidence for subsistence intensification, an increase in local population density, an expansion of long-distance trade, and an increase in warfare. It was precisely under these conditions that Native groups in many parts of North America established inter-community political alliances known as confederacies. This study argues that the Mandans were no exception, and moreover that the Heart River confederacy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a keystone of the regional political economy. This study fosters a more balanced view of colonial interaction by showing how Native history helped set the conditions for colonial engagement. In illustrating the value of archaeological research for writing trans-Columbian histories, it also helps forge theoretical and disciplinary links between archaeology and history. This dissertation is also the first modern synthesis of Heart River archaeology and the first multi-craft study carried out in the Plains.