2001            A publication of The Bismarck Tribune

Grass-covered flint pits hide untold stories
For Mandan, Hidatsa tribes, flint was the cornerstone of a vast, thriving trade network
 
By LAUREN DONOVAN
 
Allen Lynch's pasture near Dunn Center looks like the cratered surface of the moon, grown over with prairie grass.

Ancient quarrymen dug there for thousands of years, excavating Knife River flint.

No one has any use for the lustrous brown rock anymore, except the occasional historian or researcher.

The pasture is quiet, self-contained.

Yet, for most of 12,000 years -- ending less than 200 years ago -- the flint mined there was indispensable.

Early Paleo-Indians used it to make weapons and tools.

The Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, who eventually settled the upper Missouri River and its tributaries, the Knife and the Heart rivers, became masters at flint work.

Eventually, the humble stone became the cornerstone of a vast trade network through and across the Great Plains.

Flint, quarried by the ton at a time when excavation tools were primitive, was as valuable then as the American dollar, backed by the gold standard, is today.

Knife River flint has been found as far away as Maine and Florida, in Canada and Wyoming. It was traded for decorative shells from the Gulf of Mexico, for feathers from Maine, for food in lean times, for anything one tribal culture could share and trade with another.

The Mandan and Hidatsa lived settled lives in snug earthlodges. They gardened. Their needs were met within the range of their villages and their stability over time contributed to their trade status. They served as middlemen, trading with regional tribes, who would then go home and trade with others.

Flint -- sometimes in shiny blocks, sometimes in reduced blanks, sometimes in fully crafted arrow or tool heads -- was the stock of their trade. So was the corn, beans and squash they grew in their rich gardens by the river.

They could garden at their villages. To get to the flint was an undertaking.

The quarries are roughly 60 miles west of the Missouri River as the chattering crow flies.

Men packed what they needed and went there, something like a modern-day business trip.

They traveled by foot and packed dog-pulled travois.

Some may have paddled part way, either up the Knife River to the south, or the Little Missouri to the north. Around 1700, they had access to horses.

At what is now the Lynch ranch, they set up camp in the flat by Spring Creek, just below the quarry grounds. The flat was lush and soft with deep grass. The water ran clear from a spring and still does.

And then, they went to work in the quarries. They moved dirt, searching for good-sized flint cobbles, which were removed to a work area to be refined.

They vacated a pit and started another when one pit was mined out, or so deep that carrying dirt up the slope was no longer practical.

The quarry in Lynch's pasture represents the heart of the Knife River flint deposit.

It was left there in gravel hilltops after glacial disturbance. Flint is decayed peat material, compressed for eons.

It is not a bedrock material, so essentially it is scattered throughout the area.

There are hundreds of quarry pits in the Lynch pasture. Some are 6 feet deep and 25 feet across.

What amazes Lynch, who has lived around the quarry pits most of his life, is the vast amount of soil the quarrymen moved using digging sticks, shovels made from the shoulder blades of a bison and their hands.

The quarry area at his place stretches about two miles east to west, about a half-mile across.

The quarries have been studied and surveyed by archaeologists, with most of the primary work done in the 1970s.

Paul Picha, chief archaeologist with the State Historical Society, said some of the work attempts to estimate the amount of Knife River flint taken from the quarries.

One study of a quarry complex _ near Lynch's though far smaller _ suggests the amount was a staggering 67 tons of flint, enough to make 160 million tools, Picha said.

The amount removed from the Lynch quarry site could be multiplied by that many times, Picha said.

What's also staggering is to visualize the men mining all that rock by hand, removing the top soil and digging to find the large flint cobbles that were broken down into smaller, transportable chunks.

There's flint all over the Lynch pasture.

Lynch said the quarry isn't protected as a historic site and he encourages visitors to pick up the flint, feel the heft of it in their hands and put a sample in their pocket.

Picha said the Mandan and Hidatsa preferred flint that had not been exposed to the surface. Buried flint retained moisture and was more brittle.

When tapped, such flint has a ring to it, much like the ding from quality glass.

The result was a spear tip with an edge so sharp it could pierce the tough hide of a bison, or an arrow head that could kill a grouse on the wing, a rabbit on the run.

Besides its properties of holding an edge when flaked down, the flint was a comely rock.

It was valued for its beauty, too.

Flint was so heavily used by the Mandan and Hidatsa and by nearby tribes that in some cases, it represents 95 percent of material recovered in archaeological excavations, Picha said.

The Lynch quarry is one of several quarry sites scattered through Dunn County and into western Mercer County.

There are two good places in Dunn County to find out more about Knife River flint. One is the Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge office just west of Dunn Center. The other is the Dunn County Museum in Dunn Center.

Lynch figures about 50 people stop out at his place every year, asking permission to walk through the quarries.

"I don't deny anybody," he said.

He expects interest to pick up over the next several years, as visitors roam through the upper Missouri River country during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The explorers lived among the Mandan and Hidatsa in 1804-05, the first winter of their journey to the Pacific Ocean. They were searching in vain for a waterway linking the breadth of the continent.

Lewis and Clark encountered the Mandan and Hidatsa at a time when the tribes already had had some Euro-American contact through French trappers and traders working the Hudson Bay drainage system north of the Missouri River.

Their total reliance on Knife River flint already was in transition to metal weapons and tools. The Indians very much prized the metal pieces forged by the blacksmith that accompanied the explorers.

Lewis and Clark opened a gateway to the West and eventual settlement. It wasn't long before a series of white trade forts, supplied by steamboat, were set up along the river.

Within no more than three decades, certainly by 1850, flint was put aside. A material formed eons ago and used for thousands of years no longer was needed.

All that remains are the grass-covered pits that mutely tell a story of back-breaking labor, ingenuity and resilience.

 


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