Hidden for 50 years

The official opening of the Four Bears Bridge brought excited people from all over the western part of North and South Dakota. The Four Bears Monument is on the hill above the crowd. It is now underwater.

I touched a rare piece of history a few years ago when I found the original Four Bears Monument. It hadn’t been seen for 50 years. In 2005 It appeared, and now that lake levels are so low, it is visible again, but you can’t walk out to it.

It was erected when the first Four Bears Bridge was dedicated at Elbowoods.

Here’s how it happened.

It was a miserably cold, grey March weekend. A fellow photographer visited me and was intrigued with the idea of finding the original, long submerged Four Bears Monument.  Rumor among my close friends on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation was that the lake level was so low, the monument had re-appeared. No one had seen it for 50 years, but now we intended to be among the first.

Ironically, we started out on Highway 8, the highway that lead through Elbowoods and across the Four Bears Bridge. If this were 1905, we would have driven 65 miles to the Missouri River at Elbowoods, crossed the bridge, and visited the monument.

But since it was 2005 and the government had flooded the valley, including Elbowoods, and the monument, we were in for a long drive. 

A Long Drive Around the Lake

We drove nearly 140 miles from the north edge of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation to the south edge. The long way around. There is no direct route. It’s no wonder the MHA Nation is frustrated with the way the government made it difficult to move about the reservation. Lake Sakakawea splits the Reservation.

The start of the trip was not very visually stimulating. We had no idea what we were going to find, but if this was any indication, we prepared ourselves to be disappointed. From Stanley to New Town, we drove past barren farm fields and featureless March landscape.

Once we turned west at New Town, things got a little more exciting. Then we drove through the Four Bears Bridge – two 10-foot driving lanes, no shoulders.

We crossed the Four Bears segment of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Then we passed the Four Bears Casino and the Four Bears peninsula.

But we were still a long way from the Four Bears Monument.

Highway 22, north of Killdeer is a scenic highway and visually stimulating.  At Killdeer, we turned east on highway 200 to Halliday, then north on Highway 8 – the southern section of the separated highway. If you want to see where the monument is below the water today, you’ll drive north of Halliday, past Twin Buttes to the blocked road. Then walk.

To the Shoreline

The road today is blocked, but in 2005, it was open to the shoreline. So, we drove as far as the first fence, parked our truck, bundled up, and walked along the shore.

It is a rocky shore, not some sandbar beach. 

The lighter sand washed away leaving scattered rocks and small boulders. Back before the valley was flooded, this was an unmistakable Badlands landscape.

I don’t trust lake ice, so as we headed out on the ice, I watched and listened to the ice under our feet, anticipating any weak spots. Earlier in the winter, four-wheelers had zipped around the monument where it poked out of the ice.  Now with warmer weather, we weren’t sure how the ice would react.

We walked around pressure cracks.

The top layer of crystal crunched under our feet.  I kept listening for a change in the sound of the cracking ice.


We walked easterly over what used to be Highway 8 along the hillside.

elbowoods four bears highway 8

As we walked on the ice, the remnants of this road, what became Highway 8, lay 10-15 feet below us.

 I felt spooked knowing I was walking on ice above where a little general store once stood, selling ice cream and treats to children who are now tribal elders.


Getting the Shot of the Four Bears Monument

Out a fair distance was something on the ice. Or as we found out, “in” the ice. The tip of the Four Bears Monument was exposed. The base was 10 feet or more below us. Hidden for 50 years, the monument was slightly tilted. However, it still marked the south (or east) end of the Four bears Bridge where it crossed the Missouri River to Elbowoods. It honored Chief Four Bears. [photo] [photo]

It’s tough to photograph a grey object on grey ice on a grey day under grey skies.  We tried several angles and came back with at least one we thought would work.

Two Four Bears

The adventure gave us an incentive to learn more about the real Four Bears, the namesake of so many things on the Reservation. Since, I’ve been reading about both of the Chief Four Bears, I am solidly impressed. The MHA Nation includes many details about Four Bears. Click here.

And since they were instrumental in the exploits of the Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery, you can learn more about them here.

Here’s what I learned:

There were two Four Bears, one Mandan and one Hidatsa. They lived about 40 years apart. Either one of them would have been a leader in any culture at any time. Both were remarkable men.

Mandan Four Bears

Mandan Chief Four Bears was a skilled warrior and brave leader of his people in battles against the Sioux and Assiniboine. The Assiniboine said he fought with the ferocity of four bears.  The name stuck.  His image was preserved by both Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. Catlin wrote of Mandan Chief Four Bears and detailed at least 12 heroic skirmishes in which the Chief showed bravery and cunning skill against his enemies. (But that’s another story we’re working on.)  

He was a friend of the white men who explored the region, until visitors brought small pox that killed him and wiped out his people. It was a true pandemic. In the course of a few months, thousands of Chief Four Bear’s people died painful deaths. The tribe was left with just a few members. A population larger than that of Killdeer, or Belfield ND was reduced to about 30 to 100 people. The chief witnessed families agonize and die from the disease brought by people he had considered friends.


Hidatsa Four Bears

The other Four Bears for whom the bridge was named was a Hidatsa chief.  He rose to power about 40 years after the Mandan Four Bears. He was a statesman, a peacemaker, and an agreeable, well-liked man of honor. According to newspaper accounts at the time, he succeeded a rather disagreeable fellow as chief. 

Washburn Leader, October 16, 1897

Hidatsa people reportedly celebrated the kindly leadership of Four Bears. Hidatsa Four Bears helped broker and then signed the treaty to create peace among his people and the Crow, Pawnees, Cheyenne, Mandan, and Sioux. Despite the signed treaty, Sioux kept pushing north. Their attacks on the more peaceable people such as the Hidatsa, forced three tribes, Mandans, Hidatsa, and Arikara to affiliate with each other for mutual protection.

In a cruel irony, in September 1862, a decade after they signed the peace agreement that Chief Four Bears had helped negotiate, a group of Sioux flagrantly violated the treaty. They ambushed Four Bears while he was bathing, shot him up with arrows, and left his scalped body in the brush along a creek flowing into the Missouri River.


A Fitting Memorial

So, when we touched the tip of the Four Bears Monument, we touched a memorial to two of the greatest men to live in the Beautiful Badlands of what is now North Dakota. It is understandable that today outside of New Town, there is a Four Bears Bridge (I was the Public Information Officer during Construction), Four Bears Casino, Four Bears Peninsula, Four Bears Coulee, and other enterprises named for these great men.

four bears bridge

The beautiful Four Bears Bridge west of New Town.

The new Four Bears Bridge at New Town is a welcoming attraction.  The western end includes a park and plaza with story boards and photos of the project (some are mine from my days at the DOT.)  The new bridge is one of many unique attractions within an hours drive of Watford City.

Personally, I find these historic photos and details to be mesmerizing.  Who do you know who would be intrigued by them, too? Share the story with them.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Four Bears?

There are at least two, one Mandan and one Hidatsa, who lived in the 1800s.  There were apparently other Four Bears who were chiefs of the Mandans, and the Sioux.

Where is the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is in northwestern North Dakota along the Missouri River at Lake Sakakawea. It is on both sides of the river and is part of  Mercer, Dunn, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward and McLean Counties.

What attractions are on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation?

The best attractions are in the summer, during powwow season when at least five powwows in different places on the Reservation welcome visitors.  The MHA Interpretive Center is a worthy well-done museum.  It is next to the Earth Lodge Villages.