Over ten thousand years ago, the first human beings in North Dakota were indigenous peoples who crossed the ice bridge from Asia in search of food. Early hunters step off the glacier onto green grass and plentiful wildlife in the Stanton area. The first settlements of Indian hunting-and-gathering tribes were along the big waterways like the Missouri River that were fed by melting glaciers. (Yellowstone Indian Trail)

When flint was discovered near the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes settled at the Knife River Villages, where they gardened for vegetables and hunted bison on the prairies. The villages became the largest trading center in the central continent because of the demand for flint food and furs.

Each tribe had originally migrated to the Knife River from different directions and seven primary trading trails converged to the villages of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes - called the Three Affiliated Tribes as a federal term and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation by tribal government.

The first tribe, the Mandans, (Mandan Trail) migrated up the Missouri to eventually settle at the Knife River.The Hidatsa (Hidatsa Trail) moved westward from the wild rice region of Lake Michigan and later the Spirit Lake area to join the Mandans at the Knife River in separate but neighboring villages. Numbering about 4000, the Hidatsas were hunters, as well as gardeners, strong defenders and were friendly to trading tribes - even enemy tribes during a peaceful trading season. The Arikara (Arikara Trail) came North from Nebraska and through South Dakota, both inland and along the Missouri, often occupying abandoned villages of the Mandans. The Arikara were more mobile and later became famous as military scouts.   
The Indian trails for trading came from all four directions -- north for furs, south with horses and guns, east with iron tools and west with decorative shells for ceremonial dress. These original migration and trading trails were later followed by explorers and divided out into seven primary trails.

Relational Timeline

Euro American explorers, looking for a passage way to the Pacific, claiming sovereignty of the land and seeking trade, were early visitors to the Knife River Indian Villages. The clash of three European claims played out at Knife River villages - Spain (Southwest Indian Trail) from the southwest, British (Great Lakes Trail) from the east and French from the north. All wanted to control trade where trade converged.

Verendrye, a French explorer, first trekked down from the north from the Hudson Bay, (Canadian Indian Trail) along the Souris River, and over the "land bridge" to the Knife River Villages at the Missouri. He was the first white man in North Dakota in 1738. A tribal group went out to meet him and carried him with honor on their shoulders into the villages.

David Thompson, a British employee of the Hudson Bay Company, visited the Villages in 1797 to begin mapping the region. A huge marble globe marks his trail near where he spent Christmas Day that year in McHenry County.

The British challenged the French over occupying Canada and wars went on for years over claims of boundaries, including on-going claims from Spain from the days of De Soto on the Mississippi and other early Spanish explorers trading horses from the southwest.

The way sovereignty played out in the 1790s was that the British claimed all lands that drained into the Hudson Bay, via the Red River and east. The French claimed all lands that drained into the Missouri and north. The Spanish laid claim to all lands south of the Missouri and west of the Mississippi. The difficulty for Spain was they could not defend their vast claims and ceded the lands of "Louisiana" to the French in 1801 and colonial United States purchased the land in 1803.
When Lewis and Clark arrived at Knife River, the British flag flew at "Ft McKay" that guarded a seven-member trade group onsite. According to Robinson's "History of North Dakota," the North West Company from the Hudson Bay built "a small fort between the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, the first trading post on North Dakota soil." Rene Jusseaume, the principal trader at "Ft MacKay," later became the interpreter for Lewis and Clark at the fort they constructed, named Fort Mandan." The British continued a presence for trade at Knife River villages until 1812.
German interests arrived in 1833, when Prince Maximilian and Swiss artist Karl Bodmer wintered at Ft Clark, a few miles from the Indian villages. They had a different mission - to document the lifeways of Indians and the flora and fauna of the area. Their publications and exhibits of gifted artifacts later inspired immigration to ND during the homestead period.
Steam boats brought settlers up the Missouri on the route followed by the Mandans. Wagon trains of settlers generally followed the indigenous Great Lakes Trail into ND. As the railroad moved westward, immigration from Europe increased. The new capitol of North Dakota was named Bismarck to encourage German settlements.
Norwegians, Swedes and Finns tended to cluster at Wisconsin rail heads, where they formed wagon trains that more closely followed the original Hidatsa Trail more to the north. This route essentially followed today's land routes of Highway 200 from Mayville to Spirit Lake and then a trail that lead to the Wintering River and the Mouse River "Loop" near Minot. Norway Lutheran Church, a historic national treasure, still stands on a hill on a sparse countryside near where the Wintering River enters the Souris. Hundreds of years before, this site was within sight of the leveled town of Verendrye, the David Thompson monument nearby, and a large historic Hidatsa village, now obliterated.

The French and Spanish immigrations never materialized beyond the co-habitation of French with Chippewa (Metis) and the Spanish with southwest tribes.