A Nationally Important Story

The Northern Plains National Heritage Area emerged from the last ice age as the ancestral lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, expert traders, and pioneering farmers. It became the battleground of the Dakota Indian Wars of the mid-19th century and the railroad ushered in a new era of European-American immigration in the 1870s.

Today, the Northern Plains embodies both a 21st-century plains agricultural society steeped in tradition and a vital Native American heritage and culture.

Landscape & Nature

The Northern Plains National Heritage Area sits astride an 80-mile length of free-flowing Missouri River between Lake Sakakawea in the north and Lake Oahe to the south. It is the setting for a fascinating and poignant story of our country’s expansion across the continent. It is a uniquely spacious, quiet, and scenic landscape of river and farmland and prairie and sky. The rich history of the Northern Plains is apparent in the numerous historic and cultural properties that dot the landscape of the Missouri River.

Indigenous Peoples

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, descended from prehistoric hunter-gatherer peoples, and later began to “garden” cultivate? the fertile Missouri bottomlands. Their agricultural and trading expertise allowed their civilization to grow and prosper for centuries.

Traders & Artists

The Missouri River and Northern Plains drew explorers, traders, and artists from across North America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries opening the way for the settlers who would follow on the Upper Missouri. Read more about the first tourists of the Northern Plains.

Lewis & Clark

In the late fall of 1803, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery ascended the Missouri seeking trade with the Mandan for the coming winter. The Mandan helped them survive their five-month stay, a quarter of the duration of their expedition. It was here they met Sakakawea (also known as Sacagawea), the legendary young Indian guide who with her infant led the crew on the next leg of their journey. Read more about the Corps of Discovery’s time in the Northern Plains here.


The arrival of the horse, the steamboat, and the railroad to the Upper Missouri changed the social, political, and economic dynamics on the Northern Plains for both the people who were there and those who would come later.

Commerce & Conflict

A period of relatively peaceful commerce prevailed in the region for almost six decades from 1804 to 1862. This came to an end when military forts were established to further the U.S government’s punitive campaign against the Sioux. Learn more about what led to the U.S. Dakota Wars and the aftermath here.

Community Traditions

The panic of 1873 slowed immigration to the Dakota Territory but did not stem the tide. In the last two decades of the 19th century the region swelled with immigrants, drawn by hopes of a new life and enabled by the railroad. Residents of the Northern Plains today enjoy many of the traditions taken from the region’s Native people and inherited from their European and American forebears.