Fort Union: Updating a Venerable National Historic Landmark

Grey and red wooden fort building among rolling, grassy hills.
Fort Union National Historic Landmark.

National Park Service

Among the earliest properties to be officially recognized as a National Historic Landmark (NHL) is Fort Union, the site of the American Fur Company’s Upper Missouri Outfit headquarters. It was a fixed fur trading post that operated at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers - now a site that straddles the North Dakota and Montana state lines - from 1828 to 1867. Fort Union anchored the Upper Missouri fur trade and was one of at least 140 fixed trading posts constructed west of St. Louis between 1807 and 1843. It was described by visiting artist George Catlin in 1832 as “the largest and best built establishment of the kind on the river, being the great or principal head-quarters and depot of the Fur Company’s business in this region.”

In 1961 the National Park Service (NPS) recognized Fort Union as best representing the American Fur Company’s dominance of that trade area, and the most appropriate physical representation of the cultural and commercial changes attendant upon the Upper Missouri fur trade. It also represented cultural interaction and impacts of manifest destiny. Associated with the nationally significant themes of the fur trade and military and Indian affairs, at the time of designation few archeological investigations had taken place and only cellar pits had been confirmed to exist. It was distinguishable as a roughly rectangular raised berm at the edge of a terrace above the Missouri River. Previous landowners had quarried gravel from the terrace, and at one location had undermined the archeological remnants of the southwest bastion of the palisade that had enclosed the fort. The NHL site consisted of approximately eight acres, but the NHL did not define a boundary, nor did it establish a period of national significance. Over the subsequent 50+ years, significance increase in knowledge about the site, its resources, and physical development of the site prompted the need to amend the NHL nomination.

The impetus for the amendment followed the site’s establishment as a unit of the National Park System in 1966, and systematic research and archeological investigations that began in 1968. In particular, a period of intensive archeological investigations undertaken from 1986 to 1988 revealed the cultural chronology of the site and the fort’s structural history. The focus of most of the study was the Fort Union palisade, which historically had been the location of the most intensive activity, and within which were company residences, workshops and storage buildings. The series of three field seasons of excavations served as mitigation documentation, driven by a 1985 Congressional mandate to reconstruct portions of the fort on the site itself. The investigations informed the subsequent design and partial reconstruction of two buildings and seven structures to the 1851 era, by providing a profile of building techniques and materials employed in construction, and of the physical characteristics of Fort Union at the height of its development. These included the bourgeois (post manager) house, bell tower, palisade, bastion, flagstaff, and Indians’ and artisans’ house.

The 1980s investigations also yielded a great quantity of information about the American Indian Trading era. It greatly expanded our understanding of the life and characteristics of the American Indians, lower status employees and their families --those not often described in the written accounts of the literate employees (the clerks and bourgeois) and privileged visitors. The fieldwork ultimately resulted in the recovery of millions of specimens. Information collected related to the research domains of subsistence, personal protection, commerce, industry and economy, personal adornment, and entertainment. The size and diversity of the collection make it one of the foremost assemblages of the fur trade era information in the world.

The scientific record from seven field seasons of archeological work ultimately included ten Material Culture Reports and seven reports focusing on specific excavation blocks, as well as numerous theses, dissertations, journal articles, book chapters, and other publications on Fort Union archeology. Among other things, they address functional and formal data regarding nineteenth century fur trade artifacts, activities, and manufacturing technologies utilized during that era, as well as trade networks that existed at that time. Information on occupation and use of the greater terrace area has also emerged, in conjunction with archeological monitoring associated with land management projects undertaken by the NPS. More than half of the fur trade site remains intact, despite the reconstruction effort. The Midwest Archeological Center notes as well that hundreds of fort era features are located considerable distance beyond the palisade. Included within the National Historic Site and updated NHL boundary, these features are associated with three distinct periods of historic occupation between 1828 and the 1880s.

Approved in April 2015, the updated Fort Union NHL provides expanded information on the significance of the site, including the impact of white settlement and resource extraction upon native cultures, alliances, and economies, including changes in the relationships between established tribal groups. The fort represents American Indian response to non-Indian incursion; United States political hegemony secured first through commerce and ultimately through force; and the central role of geography and topography – of natural space – to historical process. Fort Union has also provided nationally significant information about a dynamic period of economic expansion in the early nineteenth century in the Trans-Mississippian West and Upper Missouri River. Data derived from the site will contribute significantly to a continuing theoretical debate concerning the frontier experience in North America. The updated document also provides a full description of all contributing resources, including the archeological features, landscape features, and historically accurate, partial reconstructions. The revised NHL boundary incorporates roughly 600 acres, including approximately 300 acres of Federally owned land within the National Historic Site. The period of significance spans from the year of the fort’s creation in 1828, to its closure and dismantlement in 1867.

As noted in the document, Fort Union occupied a strategic location on the Missouri River, near its confluence with the Yellowstone River. This area served as a gateway to several northern Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes. This “Seat of the Kingdom” location provided access to, and control of, the beaver pelt trade (and later the bison robe trade) throughout the northern Plains and the northern Rocky Mountains east of the Continental Divide, via the natural water routes. It was an important focal point for tribes, the Metis, and French Canadians who came to trade and enquire about Euro-American activities. The location facilitated communication with the local Assiniboine bands and took advantage of their familial connections with the northern bands and with their close allies the Cree. It was a strategic location for initiating contact with the Crow via the Yellowstone River valley and its tributaries, and with the Blackfeet via the Upper Missouri. The Missouri River also functioned as a transportation route downriver, and Fort Union’s location was selected with the possibility of future steamboat service in mind.

Fort Union operated during, and contributed to, a period of great change in American Indian culture. As with other fur trading posts of the time, Fort Union directly and indirectly affected changes to the economic, religious, social, and domestic structures of Plains bands. Fort Union also represents the change in Federal policy regarding its relationship with American Indian tribes. At the time of the fort’s establishment, U.S. government priorities emphasized trade relations and gaining a dominant trade position ahead of the British Hudson’s Bay Company. Following the conclusion of Federal treaties (a process begun in 1825) the U.S. government developed contracts with fur trading companies to deliver annuity goods to the tribes. Although the U.S. did not establish a military garrison at the confluence area until the 1860s, it was long recognized as an important site. Proposals to build a fort at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers were included in various reports to Congress in 1816-1819, but the fur trade post of Fort Union satisfied U.S. interests until federal policy changed after the Civil War. The opening of native lands to settlement and the advancement of the frontier meant a new policy of American Indian “control” through subjugation of Upper Missouri tribes. For Fort Union, the change in U.S. policy, along with the depletion of the bison herds, led to a slow decline in profits and operations ultimately leading to the sale of the fort to the Federal government, and its dismantlement.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 10, 2015, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.

Last updated: June 18, 2018