A Nation's Parks
It's Not Where You Thought it Was: Fort Union, the Fur Trade, and the Birth of the National Park Idea
by Fred MacVaugh, Museum Technician
A National Park Service photograph by Emily Sunblade.
Today, America’s national parks are icons recognized the world over; they’re among the nation’s most esteemed institutions, acknowledged by an overwhelming majority of citizens as one of the country’s greatest resources. But it wasn’t always so. Yellowstone, the first national park, wasn’t established until 1872, the National Park Service itself not until 1916. Decades before, as unlikely as it seems, the idea for “a nation’s Park” started here in the northern plains, in big sky country with its wide-open, oceanic prairies and herds of bison as seemingly numerous as then in-flight flocks of earth-darkening passenger pigeons. This land where Fort Union stands near the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers’ confluence unsettled and challenged people’s preconceptions; a landscape alive with rushing waters and peoples and a plethora of plants and animals—the very things Euro-Americans’ arrival eventually threatened—became the place where artists and scientists, fearing loss of the nation’s native peoples and bison, first appealed for a nation’s parks, for conservation.
Photograph by the Google Art Project; image provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The original is in the collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It was the summer of 1832. A young artist sought to document the West and its Native American residents and their ways of life. It's true this Philadelphian's beliefs were steeped in the mythoi of his day and upbringing. He believed, for instance, in the romantic notion of the "Noble Savage," whom he sought to see and record in journals and paintings kept and made as he steamboated West up the Missouri River to Fort Union and canoed back to St. Louis. During his weeks at Fort Union and locations farther east along the Missouri River, George Catlin met, sketched, and painted portraits of the men, women, and children from the Upper Missouri Tribes—the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow, Cree, Mandan; he also observed and participated in buffalo hunts. His journey continued the witness and engagement that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark themselves had continued in 1804–1806, following as they had in the footsteps and wakes of the region's native residents and earlier Euro-American fur traders. Unlike Lewis and Clark, however, Catlin feared for the loss of the native peoples and their way of life, its innocence and purity: "Nature has no where [sic] presented more beautiful and lovely scenes, than those of the vast prairies of the West;" Catlin penned in his letters published in 1841, "and of man and beast, no nobler specimens than those who inhabit them—the Indian and the buffalo—joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man; they have fled to the great plains of the West, and there, under an equal doom, they have taken up their last abode." These people and the bison they relied on deserved "preservation and protection" "in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty." To ensure this, Catlin proposed creation of a "nation's Park" "by some great protecting policy of government."
Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
The Killing Fear
The transformation in people's expectations and attitudes toward place may not have been the fur trade or Fort Union's most significant contribution to later American history. The introduction of smallpox to the northern plains peoples in 1837 and 1838 would likely rank higher; this and other disease outbreaks killed thousands upon thousands, nearly wiping out entire tribes, and in the process shifted the balance and dynamic of power on the plains. It made possible the later dispossession of lands from the Upper Missouri Tribes. With fewer people, those who survived may have become more dependent for survival on the fur trade and places like Fort Union. But even before this, as Catlin so powerfully expressed, some began to fear for the land and peoples' future. That artists and scientists' created new ways to see and imagine the land, one effect of Fort Union and the fur trade, only exacerbated the pressures they felt with the pioneers' and miners' arrivals. What the artists and scientists witnessed and documented also kindled and, like a blacksmith's forge, fanned the flames of fear. But not only, ironically, fear of the people, of the native peoples; as Catlin had, they expressed a fear of the effects of civilization. They expressed a fear of the losses to come.
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Photograph by R&LHoneyman provided courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The Direct Connection
The effect on Fort Union's hunters of Audubon's concern for the bison, evidence of an emerging conservation ethic developed during a long career and extensive travels, was no doubt negligible and short-lived. Audubon and party departed Fort Union on August 16. But much like the waves produced when a raindrop hits a pond's surface, the sentiment no doubt spread, reaching far and wide and even into the future as he and his companions shared it once they returned to the East. In fact, although born before Fort Union's 1867 demise, a man who later became world famous as a conservationist only because he came to North Dakota never walked the post's palisade-enclosed grounds. Nor did he ever talk with Audubon, a childhood hero. That man, Theodore Roosevelt, nonetheless knew of Fort Union; he knew, too, of the work produced by the people who'd visited that Upper Missouri fur trade post. Most important of all, however, as a boy in New York he learned directly from the 31-year-old man who'd hunted and stuffed the bird and quadruped specimens that Audubon and Sprague had collected and sketched at Fort Union.
John G. Bell, Audubon's taxidermist, returned to New York, where on Broadway in New York City into the 1870s he operated a taxidermy shop. It was there in that shop in 1871 and 1872 that a future president and admirer of Audubon, a childhood aspirant to a career in natural history, learned from Bell. "He was tall, straight as an Indian, with white hair and smooth-shaven clear-cut face," Roosevelt would write in 1918; "a dignified figure, always in a black frock coat. He had no scientific knowledge of birds or mammals; his interest lay merely in collecting and preparing them." From the man Audubon credited with recognizing the Western Meadowlark as a new species, Roosevelt, then thirteen or fourteen, learned "as much as my limitations would allow of the art of preparing specimens for scientific use and of mounting them." At least one Roosevelt biographer has claimed that Bell's stories of his expedition with Audubon "fired the imagination of his young student. Bell's instruction, wrote Roosevelt, 'spurred and directed my interest in collecting specimens for mounting and preservation.'"
Photograph provided courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The truth of Bell's influence on a young and impressionable future president may never be known, just as what happened within Fort Union's white-washed palisade walls and bastions—the conversations, for instance, that occurred in its courtyard and clerk's office or on its hearth stones in the trade room—may never be known. But they can be imagined. Was it in part because of his childhood memories of Bell's stories that Roosevelt chose to travel to North Dakota in 1883? That he chose North Dakota as a sanctuary following his wife's and mother's deaths on the same day? What else may never be known is what more than a taxidermist's skills Roosevelt learned from Bell. The taxidermist died in 1889, while Roosevelt was still a young man, and the records he left appear to be few, the thus far known references to him by Roosevelt equally few. What we know for certain, of course, is that Roosevelt came to North Dakota and afterward, because of his experiences, co-founded the Boone and Crocket Club with another Audubon admirer, George Bird Grinnell. Under their leadership, that organization led the nation in advocating for conservation and the protection of Yellowstone National Park's few remaining bison, then one of only two surviving wild herds. Later still, as president, Roosevelt led the nation in adopting and enacting conservation legislation and in preserving places known today around the world as America's pride and joy, its national parks.
Photograph provided courtesy of the National Park Service's Historic Photograph Collection.