19th Century Archeology at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

Location of Fort Union on a map
Location of Fort Union.
The fur trading post Fort Union was established in 1828 by the American Fur Company. Located at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in North Dakota, the trading post was used from 1823 to 1867. The post became a National Historic Site in 1966.

Fort Union was established by the Upper Missouri Outfit (U.M.O) of the American Fur Company in 1823. Fort Union was the headquarters for the U.M.O for almost 40 years. As the center of an immense American economic empire, Fort Union controlled the trade of furs and bison robes. This control covered Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
painting: bulls battling with men and horses
Buffalo chase; bulls battling with men and horses by George Catlin, 1832. (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art).

During its prime, Fort Union employed up to 200 people. These workers were mostly Métis (an American Indian group of French and Indian ancestry) and French Canadians. Many workers had American Indian wives and lived with their children near the fort. Fort Union was the primary trading post for the Assiniboine tribe.

Many workers’ families lived on the plains around the post. Families with the highest prestige were housed in Fort Union. The most common item traded at the Fort Union was bison robes despite the fort’s focus on beaver pelts. These bison robes were traded for cloth, guns, cooking pots, and other trade goods.
Culbertson family photo  (circa 1840s). Father, Mother , Son
Bourgeois (post manager) Alexander Culbertson, his Blackfoot wife Natawista Iksina (Medicine Snake Woman), and their son Joe (circa 1840s).
In 1867, Fort Union was abandoned and sold to the U.S. Army. In the same year, the U.S. Army razed Fort Union. The building material from the fort was used to build Army Fort Buford about two miles away from the site of Fort Union.

In December 1985, Congress passed a bill mandating the reconstruction of the trading post at Fort Union National Historic Site. Realizing that an important archeological site would be destroyed, the National Park Service told its Midwest Archeological Center (MWAC) to salvage the site. In 1986, MWAC started to excavate the site. MWAC archeologist Bill Hunt led several teams who excavated 4,400 square meters.
Northeast bastion foundation uncovered during excavations.
Northeast bastion foundation uncovered during excavations.
The project’s highest priority was to recover architectural information to aid in reconstruction planning. The fieldwork provided an opportunity to address additional research questions related to the site’s architecture and culture history.

Research Collection

The large volume of artifacts and records generated during fieldwork reflects the scale of the project. This information provides the historical archeologist with many data sets about the history and culture of the American bison robe trade. The archeological data reflect Fort Union’s role as a “company town” whose business occurred as a unique interaction between two cultures. The volume and diversity of artifacts makes it one of the foremost collections of fur trade objects in the world.

The reconstructed Fort
The reconstructed Fort Union trading post.
Data gathered from the excavations were used to partially reconstruct the post to its 1850-1851 appearance. The reconstructed features include the Bourgeois House, Main Gate, North Gate, stone bastions, and the last of three superimposed Indians’ and Artisans’ Houses. Other excavated structures include the dairy, elements of the 1828 palisade, and a host of secondary features (fences, walkways, a lumber mill, secondary stockade, minor storage buildings, privy pits, and a well).

Last updated: November 15, 2018