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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Soldier and Brave
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

North Dakota-Montana
Fort Union Trading Post NHS

Location: Williams County, N. Dak., and Roosevelt County, Mont., on an unimproved road, about 1-1/2 miles west of Buford, N. Dak.; address: c/o Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, Medora, N. Dak. 58645.

The dominant historical values of Fort Union Trading Post, like Bent's Old Fort, Colo., derive from its significance in the fur trade, but both forts were also important centers of cultural transmission where the Indians received their first substantial view of the alien culture that was soon to overwhelm them. Fort Union played a leading role in the growth of the upper Missouri basin for four decades, from 1829 until 1867; was a social rendezvous 244 for explorers, fur traders, mountain men, surveyors, artists, naturalists, and other travelers; and in 1864-65 served as a temporary military post.

On the north bank of the Missouri River only a few miles from the mouth of the Yellowstone and commanding the main water route into the region of the interior fur trade, the post was a natural meetingplace for the routes of travel to and from all parts of the territory beyond. Founded by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Co. in 1829 and later taken over by other entrepreneurs, the post was the principal fur trading depot in the upper Missouri River region and monopolized the rich trade with the Plains and mountain tribes roaming the region now encompassing Montana, North Dakota, and part of Wyoming.

A formidable structure and the best built fur post on the Missouri, Fort Union was a conventional stockaded fort. It sometimes employed more than 100 people, many of foreign extraction and including artisans of all types. Many of them were married to Indian women. Self-sufficient, except for the annual receipt of basic supplies and trade goods by steamboat, the post maintained a garden and a herd of cattle and swine to supplement the meat its hunters procured.

The Indians bartered furs for the trade goods that so vitally influenced their material culture and upon which they became so dependent. At the same time, they received an introduction to alcohol and white men's diseases, which brought demoralization and debilitation. No matter how much some traders and companies lamented the use of alcohol as a trade item, it came to be an indispensable weapon of competition. But for many years the Government's attempts to enforce the prohibition laws were almost completely ineffective. A year or so after the passage of the stringent prohibition law of 1832, which forbade the shipment of liquor into Indian country but said nothing about its manufacture, Kenneth McKenzie, the American Fur Co. bourgeois at Fort Union, installed a distillery to produce corn whisky. This stirred a storm of denunciation from competitors, almost cost McKenzie his job, and nearly resulted in the company losing its license. Thereafter the traders resorted to the old smuggling methods.

Fort Union Trading Post
Karl Bodmer's lithograph of Fort Union Trading Post in 1833. (National Archives)

Diseases also took a terrible toll. The most destructive to reach the tribes through Fort Union was smallpox, which came up the river on the company's annual supply boat in 1837. The Indians could not be prevented from coming to the fort to trade, and the quick-spreading epidemic devastated the Blackfeet, Crows, Assiniboins, Mandans, Minitaris, and Arikaras. About 15,000 of them died.

The Government, early recognizing the importance of Fort Union as a focal point in dealing with the Indian tribes on the upper Missouri and the Yellowstone, from the 1830's through the 1860's used it as an annuity distribution point for some of the tribes in the region.

Changes in the fur market and the widespread unrest among the Indians on the upper Missouri resulting from the Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862 all adversely affected the fur trade at Fort Union. As time went on, its condition deteriorated. When Gen. Alfred Sully campaigned through western Dakota against the Sioux in 1864-65, he found it in a dilapidated condition. But he left a company of troops there to police the region over the winter of 1864-65, replaced the next summer by another company. In 1867, when Fort Buford, N. Dak., 3 miles eastward, was enlarged from a one-company to a five-company post, the Army purchased Fort Union and dismantled it for building materials.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site was authorized by Congress in 1966. In 1968 a comprehensive program of archeological excavation was initiated. At that time, the foundations of the southwestern bastion could be seen, but no surface remains of the stockades or buildings were visible. A flagpole, since fallen down, stood in the center of the site. Some ground depressions indicated the location of cellars. The integrity of the natural scene was marred only by evidences of gravel operations, the existence of cultivated fields on three sides, and a railroad line nearby. Archeologists subsequently uncovered the foundations of the north eastern bastion, the bourgeois' house, and the powder magazine. They also discovered differences in the sizes of several structures from those reported in historical sources. The National Park Service plans to continue the archeological program. Historical and archeological research will provide the basis for a reconstruction and development program.

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005