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Experience The American West

You might consider the entire state of North Dakota off the beaten path, but in the history of the American West, it was a vital path for both Native Americans and settlers. National Correspondent Hattie Kauffman reports for The Early Show's Best of America series.

At Fort Lincoln, outside Bismark, N.D., history comes alive. In the 1870s, Fort Lincoln was the headquarters of the 7th cavalry led by General George Armstrong Custer.

Even though the current fort is a reproduction, Custer actually lived at the site before he marched off to that fateful battle, Little Big Horn.

That's also where you will find the largest parlor in any commanding-officers quarters anywhere.

The tour guide pointed at a table, explaining it was set just as it would be in 1875 with the napkin turned upside down on an upside down plate to keep the flies off.

"I want you to take notice of this field desk. This is the original field desk of the general's," said Mark Kenneweg, interpretive director of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

And from there, tourists are encouraged to go back in time and imagine Custer looking out.

"We try to bring the American West to the public...putting aside all the trappings of Hollywood and showing that they were actually living out here, as the men were at that time," said Kenneweg.

Part of the barracks are dedicated to Company I, which lost a lot of men at the battle of Little Big Horn. It was from there that Private Marion Horn wrote a letter to his sister, describing a large expedition that was leaving in less than a month to go after old Sitting Bull and his tribe.

Private Horn, General Custer and most of the 7th cavalry died fighting Sitting Bull in the battle of Little Big Horn.

The great Sioux chief was later killed and buried at Fort Yates, N.D., the next stop on the tour. His burial site along the road is barely noticeable.

If you head north along the Missouri River, you'll be following the route of Lewis and Clark. Today, tourists travel by riverboat. Back then, Lewis and Clark used dugout canoes, even in winte.

In Mandan, N.D., you can visit a replica of the fort that Lewis and Clark built in 1804.

"We are one of the longest places that Lewis and Clark stayed," said Kristie Frieze, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. "They spent 146 nights right here in this one place." While they were camped there, they met Sacagawea, the Native American woman who would become their guide.

"Sacagawea was living here along the banks of the Knife River when Lewis and Clark came along. Their meeting would change American history," Frieze explained. "She had her baby here. They took her the rest of the journey. She was critical to their success and if they hadn't been here, then none of those things would have happened."

Sacagawea had been living in a gigantic Indian village nearby. Today, it takes a careful eye to spot the site.

The rolling ground is all that's left of the Indian Earth Lodges, but nearby, you can enter the past in a recreated lodge of the Mandan tribe.

They lived almost underground. "In earth lodges, and the women built these lodges. And they would get it done in about 10, maybe 13, days or so," explained Terry O'Halloran, park ranger of Knife River Indian Villages.

The Mandan were peaceful farmers, wiped out by smallpox contracted from white fur traders.

"It came up the river in waves, and when the Mandans got it, they were really a social and familial people, and when one person got it, all your relatives go and visit, and so the disease just quickly spread from there," the guide explained.

The place is still very beautiful. "A person could just close their eyes and get so involved in this history that it seems like there's people here...Well, in spirit, they're still here," said the guide.

Native Americans used buffalo for everything from food to housing and warmth. At one time, hundreds of thousands of buffalo roamed what is now North Dakota. You can still see a remnant of that history at the Big Sky Buffalo Ranch.

"There's something very intriguing about bison. It's kind of an addiction, I guess, for me anyway and I love to be around them," said Doug Woodall of Big Sky Buffalo Ranch.

In North Dakota, you can let your imagination run wild with American history. And you can have all that history practically to yourself. North Dakota is uncrowded.

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