European or American Indian? The Mandan Indians


Welcome to another day at Petticoats and Pistols blog.  Did you know that there were White Indians, living on the upper Missouri River?  Did you know that when George Catlin made his way to the Mandan village on the upper reaches of the Missouri (in 1834), he found what he called strange Indians…Indians who were white.images3[1]

Catlin found this particular Indian Tribe fascinating and devoted much of the first volume of his work to documenting these people.  To the left here is Sha-ko-ka, Mint.  This young girl was in her teens when Catlin painted her picture, yet if you look closely at the picture, you’ll see that she has white hair — I believe she also had hazel or blue eyes.

I’m going to quote Catlin here, because I think he describes this phenomenon quite well — and makes you feel as if you are there.thCAYR08K5  Forgive me, but I think you’ll enjoy these passages from his book, Letters and Notes on the Manners, customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians.  The painting to the left by the way is supposed to be about Mandan warrior and their women.    Here’s Catlin:

“A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion, and various colours of hair which he sees in a crowd about thim; and is at once almost disposed to exclaim that ‘these are not Indians.’

“There are a great many of these people whose complixions appear as light as half breeds; and amongst the women particularily, there are many whose skins are almost white, with the most pleasing symmetry and proportions of features; with hazel, with grey, and with blue eyes, — with mildness and sweetness of expression, and excessive modesty of demeanour, which render them exceedingly pleasing and beautiful.”

thCARW3WLOInterestingly, Catlin notes that there were Indians who had gray, almost completely white hair — and had had such color from infancy.  He notes that the only color of hair not seen by him was that of red or auburn.  He notes that the men who had the bright, silvery gray hair, often hid it and “dyed” it using means available to them at the time.  But the women were often proud of their hair and displayed it openly.  Catlin, of course, goes into their daily lives in great detail, even to their foods and how they take their meals.

Another aspect that is interesting is that Catlin noted that none of the people had any knowledge of how their heritage came to look so different from other American Indian[10]  The Mandans were traders and they were also an agricultural tribe of Indians — often trading the corn that they raised for buffalo meat or other items of exchange.  Off to the right here is a painting by Catlin of their village on the Missouri River.

Today, the Mandan tribe lives mostly in North Dakota.  They were almost wiped out by the diseases that were carried to them by the white man when he came in contact with them.  It’s a glorious history and somewhat of a mystery, since even in Catlin’s day, no one of the tribe could offer an explanation for their looks, that were so unusual for the Western Tribes.

Catlin ventured that a Celtic Prince, lost to his country, might have found these people — I now forget the name of that Prince.  It’s possible.  What about you?  Do you have any conjectures about these people?  How they might have come to be there — half-white?

If you’re more than a little curious, I would offer you to get this book, THE PRINCESS AND THE WOLF, where I go into more detail about the strange customs of this people. 

So tell me, what do you think?  Come on in and let’s talk a little about it.


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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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35 thoughts on “European or American Indian? The Mandan Indians”

  1. Interesting! I’d say maybe a small tribe had captured white women (from who knows where) or something like that and made them all their wives, thus getting multiple hair colors and eye color. All the children born into the tribe from them on had the mixed races. What fun to think about how that came about. I’d have taken a second glance too if I had seen a tribe looking like that and not what we are taught Native Americans look like.

  2. It could be the Vikings. Maybe some of them actually did get along with the locals and decided to stay or maybe they just got some women pregnant before they left.

  3. Interesting. Maybe they were Celts or maybe they were Vikings since we know they made it to America before Christopher Columbus.

  4. What an interesting post. It is always wonderful to learn something new. I was not familiar with the Mandan Indians but now intend to do more research. Thank you for what you do.

  5. Hi Susan P!

    That’s a really good reason why, I think. It would be interesting to wonder where they got the white women, since even white men — at this time — were in short supply.

    It does make one conjecture, doesn’t it?

  6. Hi Minna!

    That’s a good thought, also. They did seem to have Viking coloring — many of them — or Scottish. The Scottish are noted to have many people who have the white — silvery gray hair from infancy.

    Interesting, though, huh?

  7. Hi Lori!

    Yes, I think you have it right. Viking or Celtic — there is a true story of a Prince who was Scottish, who set sail for America and never returned. I think this is why Catlin originally thought that perhaps that was their heritage.

  8. How interesting, Kay! I had no idea about white, blue-eyed Indians. How about Minna’s idea the Vikings? You always present us with the most fascinating information about the native Americans….we just went to Canada where they are called “First Nations.” I just love that term. Great job today xoxo.

  9. An interesting post. I had heard a little about this somewhere before, but hadn’t realized just how widespread the variations were within the tribe. With the waterway connections to where the Mandan lived, it is possible a sailing culture could have gotten as far as this tribes area. Both the Celtic and Viking cultures were sailors and explorers. It would be interesting to do a DNA study of the tribe to see just what their genetic background is.

  10. So, so fascinating! I’m thinking those pillaging and plundering Vikings had a…hand in this little mystery. Those boys left their genes everywhere. Although, I would think red or auburn would have shown up in the hair somewhere. Hmmm…

  11. I wonder why this was never mentioned in our history books! I guess that would cause a problem with who we were always taught “discovered” America!

  12. Hi Patricia!

    Yes, that would be interesting to do a DNA sample — however, remember that they were almost wiped out to a man with the white man’s disease — only a few — and I mean a few — less than 10 or 20, I believe survived.

    So those today would be a real mix, I think. : )

  13. Hi Rene!

    Yes, I wondered about that, also. You would think that red or auburn would’ve shown up — but according to Catlin, it was absent. Thanks for the post.

  14. Hi Catslady!

    Oh, yeah. Don’t let me get started on that mass murderer, Columbus — he was a mass murderer — for real. So bad that our history books don’t tell the truth on this.

  15. Okay, Catlin was there in 1834, thirty years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition and they spent their first winter in the Mandan village. By the 1830’s the Hudson Bay Company and the American Fur Trading Company had trappers and trading settlements throughout the northern states and Canada including the Oregon Territory. The Spanish had been exploring the Mississippi since the 1500’s and the British and French were exploring the area around the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi and its tributaries since the early 1600’s. When you consider that, it’s surprising there weren’t more tribes with “white Indians”.

  16. Hi Hilltop Wife!

    So true! So true! However, none of the other tribes (and some of them lived on the Missouri, also) had anything like this tribe. None of them. Also, that would’ve been so recent that they would know about it — and none of them did — or could explain their unusual coloring.

    That’s what makes it a mystery, acually. I tend to think along the lines of the Celtic Prince who went a sailing and who never returned — mostly because of the white/gray hair.

    But we’ll probably never know for certain, because like I said, the Mandan were wiped out only to a man — very shortly after Catlin had been there — about 3-4 years later.

  17. WOW Kay. More new stuff to think about. Weird that they knew nothing about this, for the Indians passed down their History through story telling through out their lives. And, some drawing pictures on rocks, cave walls, etc. I love this blog because of things like this. But, oh how I wish all of these articles written by each of you authors could be in a book. I would want to be first in line to get it. Thanks, Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

  18. First, I love your stories Karen.

    I love this blog because it covers things I loved growing up – Cowboys and Indians! And I own my very own Cowboy husband who is Choctow and 2 of our kids are Cheyenne Arapahoe!

  19. I’m like the other writers when I say “what a great site this is”!! When you can learn something that maybe you’ve never even thought of & it stimulates you to go investigating on your own, that is “good” writing. How fascinating that we can read what an explorer observed so many years ago & the puzzle is still as fresh as it was then. the DNA thing is a marvel, too. My Scottish clan of Douglas had the DNA run & found we were not related to the Scottish lord we thought was our great(something) granddad! DNA marked us with a pirate Irish king who apparently had a lot of children, etc. So, if they could test the Mandan who are left, no matter how “mixed” & thinned the bloodline, there has to be a common DNA marker. It is a marvel & a mystery! Beyond me! 🙂 Thanks for the mental challenge & all the great books! Happy Thanksgiving!

  20. Hi Maxie!

    You know it’s because it wasn’t passed down, that I think the genes had come into play way before Catlin arrived — not a recent thing — give it 200 or more years and the story of how it all came about might be lost.

    My thoughts. Thanks for your post.

  21. Hi Jean M.!

    What a thing to discover, huh? I know that we have Choctaw in our heritage, but it would be great to really trace it down. DNA is a fine thing, huh? May those “scientists” who keep trying to change our DNA, find their very just rewards… : )

  22. Hi Karen, Yes, it was a real “stunner”..but as I said, we now have Nials of the Nine, an Irish pirate king who they’ve traced that DNA marker in over 3,000 people.Not everyone has that one.:) Now, on the other side of my family, a cousin was doing family research & found we also have Choctaw. It is fun to find out these surprises in “who we are”! 🙂 Hey..we might even be related! LOL 🙂

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