NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

Soldier and Brave
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark FORT BENTON

Location: Chouteau County.

Growing up around a fur trading post on the Missouri River, the town of Fort Benton became the hub of traffic moving westward to the goldfields of Idaho and Montana. At the head of steamboat navigation on the Missouri, it was the eastern terminus of the Mullan Road. Between 1869 and 1881 it was also the site of a military post.

In 1847 Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Co. established the fur trading post that was first known as Fort Lewis but 3 years later was renamed Fort Benton. It soon became the foremost establishment in Montana, but the fur trade was rapidly declining. After the arrival in 1859 of the Chippewa, a stern-wheeler, the first steamboat to penetrate that far up the Missouri, the post became a trade-transportation center and a town grew up next to it.

Following the 1862 gold strike in Montana, Indian hostilities closed many overland routes, particularly the convenient Bozeman Trail. Prospectors sailed up the Missouri by steamboat to Fort Benton and then pushed overland to Bannack, Virginia City, Helena, and other mining camps. Sometimes as many as 30 to 40 steamboats were docked at the riverfront. Ox teams and mule pack trains carried food and other supplies, which St. Louis and Portland merchants keenly competed to furnish, to settlements in Idaho, Montana, and Canada. Much of this commerce, as well as emigrants en route to the Pacific Northwest, passed over the Mullan Road, a military road running westward from Fort Benton, Mont., to Fort Walla Walla, Wash. Constructed in 1859-62 under the supervision of Lt. John Mullan, it was the first wagon road over the northern Rockies. The town of Fort Benton remained a major transportation center until the arrival of the railroads in the region in the 1880's.

Fort Benton
Gustav Sohon's drawing of Fort Benton, probably sketched in the early 1860's. (National Archives)

In 1869 the U.S. Army had leased and occupied the trading post from the American Fur Co., but by 1874 most of the troops were living in town. The one-company post served mainly as a supply depot for Forts Shaw and Ellis, Mont., and in 1881 the garrison was transferred to Fort Shaw.

All that remains of the early fort are a blockhouse and a portion of the adobe walls, located in a city park overlooking the Missouri River on the eastern edge of the lousiness district. Nearby is the privately owned Fort Benton Museum, which contains historical exhibits. The riverfront. where steamboats once docked, is little changed. Several brick and stone commercial buildings of 19th-century vintage give a historic flavor to the town.

NHL Designation: 11/05/61

Previous Next
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005