Great American Road Trip: History lesson. Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota

Although we head to Montana every summer, each year holds something different. Even if we travel on the same highway, we’ll take in something new. This time, I found Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, North Dakota, a few miles from Bismarck.

This is a perfect place for brushing up on a history lesson and getting a sense of what life was like on the Great Plains back when the Mandan Indians and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer lived here.

The Mandans lived between the deep ravine and the Missouri River from 1575-1781 prior to Lewis and Clark’s arrival on the scene. Custer and his gang were later than that, but now, each part of history converges in the state run park.

Even though the fort was abandoned back in 1882, and the settlers took down many of the buildings for lumber, Custer’s house, army barracks, a granary and the stable have been either refurbished or reconstructed. There are stone markers that show where the missing buildings used to be.

We were lucky enough to roll into the parking lot ten minutes before the 1:00 p.m. interpretive tour. The tour, conducted by a dashing fellow in period army uniform, centered mostly on the house, but included what life was like for everyone from the soldiers to Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, Custer’s wife.

She was living here when he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn. In case you’re wondering, she moved back to Michigan where she was from and her family still lived. She never remarried, and died when she was 91.

In one of the reconstructed barracks, you can find out what they looked like way back when. The set up is exactly like it would have looked when it housed men who were from as far away as Ireland and Sweden.

One room includes footlocker style boxes similar to the ones actually used by members of the 7th Calvary. There is a sign on each one that states the name of the person, where he was from and where he died, if known. Several died with Custer. I saw one that died in the Battle of Wounded Knee. One guy was from Ulster County, New York which is where I lived from 8th grade through high school.

Along with the tour of the fort, admission includes a tour of On-A-Slant Indian village where the Mandans lived before most of them were wiped out by small pox. That’s what the guide told us. There are five reconstructed earth lodges, each set up to tell about a different aspect of Mandan life.

Before this tour, I didn’t know much about the Mandan Indians. The guide pointed out details about their farming practices, tools and beliefs. We didn’t have much time in the museum because of our need to get back on the highway for the Billings leg of this trip.

I could have easily spent more time, but felt satisfied because of the information gathered from the tours.

If you do head this way, there is a campground at the state park, a concession stand and a café. The book shop and gift shop are well done.

I highly recommend this stop if you’re traveling with kids. As I told my son, “When you read about this part of history in school, you’ll have actually been to these places where the history happened.” Not a bad idea for adults either.

For the four of us, admission and parking was $21. Our son was free because he is 6 years-old. Our daughter was the student rate, $4. My husband and I were $6 each and parking was $5. The $5 parking was actually the cost to get into the park. The tours cost extra. Spend the money.

You can’t get into the buildings or to the Mandan village without paying for the tour.