Frequently Asked Questions
There are many questions asked about the history of Fort Union, or even some questions that are very common for the region. These questions are the more common ones specifically on the fort.
1. Was this a military fort?
Fort Union Trading Post was a commercial trading post, established in 1828, for trade with Upper Missouri tribes especially the Assiniboine people. The only tie the fort had with the military was in 1864 and 1865, troops were garrisoned here to guard supplies, and after they began to engage the Lakota Sioux in plains warfare. The military did not control the fort during this time; the American Fur Company continued to do trading despite the military presence.
2. Where did the soldiers stay?
The living quarters at the fort were set up for the fort workers; they were not barracks for the military. When seeing the fort it is a common reaction to think the military was here. Learning the history of the Upper Missouri fur trade will begin to help the visitor see the history of the region and learn about fort.
3. How many people worked here?
The fort at its height had around 100 workers. The workers varied in jobs required by the fort, from unskilled to fort managers who could not only speak several American Indian as well as European languages but understood the American and European market and the efficient trade methods.
4. Were the Indian tribes hostile?
The American Indian tribes that came to Fort Union were usually peaceful, contrary to popular belief and stereotypes created by some of the early Hollywood films showing hostile attacks on forts by Indians. As for more specific facts regarding the Upper Missouri tribes relationship with the fort, the land that Fort Union was built was Assiniboine territory and the fort was built on their request. Fort Union created a lot long lasting relationships between tribes on the Upper Missouri and fur traders.
5. Who did they trade with?
The image one gets when coming to Fort Union is Euro-American trappers and traders coming into a vast frontier and working to get many of the furs that helped the fort maintain its business. Truth is, Fort Union traded with around 10 Upper Missouri plains tribes. The tribes were essential for the trading post to succeed. They were a very important customer and allowing them to trap their own land and exchange the furs they brought in for trade goods made this relationship successful. Trappers more times are identified with the mountain man and trapping in the Rocky Mountains. The traders at Fort Union relied on the tribes, not like the Rocky Mountain trade where mountain men did collect the furs and bring them back to St. Louis.
6. How badly did they cheat the Indians?
Trading with the tribes was essential and many of the tribes were very capable of out trading the traders at times, if you planned on cheating the Indians be prepared to lose their trade. It is a common belief that all the Indians got out of the trade was beads. Truthfully, many of the goods traded for here at Fort Union were more practical, pots, kettles, knifes, cups, forks, cloth.
7. Was Alcohol traded?
Alcohol did become part of the trade early on, but it didn’t become the main source of trade. In truth, it was illegal to trade alcohol to Indians, in 1832, alcohol was totally banned to be taken into Indian country. However the government had what they called the Trade and Intercourse act which allowed alcohol to be transported into Indian country and to be used by boatmen of the fur companies for private consumption. In the end, tribes had mixed responses to the use of alcohol in trade, some tribes felt the traders were not trustworthy when they used alcohol, where other tribes might participate in the trade for alcohol. One point to keep in mind, if alcohol was used by tribes during trade not all members used it. Remember they had women and children and elders who would not be part of this trade.
8. Why are there two forts so close together?
Fort Union was a commercial trading post which was established in 1828, whereas Fort Buford was a military post established in 1866. The two forts co-existed for about a year. Which after that, Fort Union was torn down and the wood used to expand Fort Buford.
9. Why was it torn down?
Historically, Fort Union was torn down in 1867 and used to expand Fort Buford. One of the reasons was that the trade was no longer profitable and with many businesses once they start to lose business they move on. There was also hostility from the Lakota Sioux which made trading at Fort Union dangerous to tribes who would come to trade. The final push for Fort Union was to move the remaining operations to Fort Benton where they continued actively with the Blackfeet trade. The fort today is reconstructed and built look as it did in 1851. It is also a partial reconstruction, with the intent to be only a partial reconstruction.
10. Was the fort really painted white?
Yes, the bourgeois (manager) felt that if the fort was white washed and built to impress, then they would be able to attract more business, especially from the tribes.
11. When are they going to finish building the entire fort?
The fort is built to what the original plan was; a partial reconstruction. There have been rumors of future plans to reconstruct more of the fort, like the storage range. Of course this does include further funding and study before such a task is to be undertaken. It doesn’t look to be anything coming in this direction anytime soon.
12. Are they still doing archaeology?
During the earlier phases before the reconstruction could begin, archaeology was done throughout the site and many people who have been here before the reconstruction remember this. The archaeological work that was done in order for the fort to be reconstructed is now complete. There is no further plans for archaeology to be done unless there is going to more reconstruction done or if the ground needs to be surveyed.
13. Where’s the confluence?
The confluence is a general term used to identify the joining of the two rivers here on the Upper Missouri, the Missouri and the Yellowstone. The approximate location from Fort Union is three miles as a crow flies going east following the Missouri.
Did You Know?
During George Catlin's trip up the Missouri River in 1832 he visited Fort Union Trading Post and the Knife River Indian Villages. On this trip he put to pen the idea which became the inspiration for the National Park System.