Conflict at the Confluence

Catlin's Eyewitness Account

by Fred MacVaugh, Museum Curator

“Was Fort Union ever attacked?” This is one of the most frequent questions park visitors ask. And with the popularity of The Revenant, the Hollywood blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the mountain man Hugh Glass, who worked at Fort Union trading post, more are visiting and asking. “Yes” is the answer we tell them.

More common than conflicts between Fort Union’s Euro-American traders and their American Indian trading partners, however, were battles among the different tribes that did business at the post between 1828 and 1867. The peaceful negotiation and exchange of beaver pelts, bison robes, and foodstuffs for manufactured metal goods and textiles is only one aspect of Fort Union’s history. Disagreements between people like the Blackfeet and Cree, two of the many Upper Missouri River tribes that traded here, had little, if anything, to do with the fur trade. Their conflicts’ precipitating animosities and their consequences—these, too, give Fort Union’s past present-day relevance.
At Fort Union, a Blackfoot medicine man attempts to heal a gun-shot leader
George Catlin's portrait of the Blackfoot medicine man who attempted to heal his people's leader shot by the Cree at Fort Union in the summer of 1832. Catlin's portrait is titled, "Medicine Man, Performing His Mysteries over a Dying Man."

Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. 1985.66.161.

“Not many weeks since,” the painter George Catlin wrote about his 1832 visit to Fort Union trading post, “a party of Knisteneaux [Cree] came here from the north, for the purpose of making their summer’s trade with the [American] Fur Company; and, whilst here, a party of Blackfeet, their natural enemies . . . , came from the west, also to trade. These two belligerent tribes encamped on different sides of the Fort, and had spent some weeks here in the Fort and about it, in apparently good feeling and fellowship; unable in fact to act otherwise, for, according to a regulation of the Fort, their arms and weapons were all locked up by [post manager Kenneth] M’Kenzie in his ‘arsenal,’ for the purpose of preserving the peace amongst these” traditional enemies.

In a subsequent incident Catlin witnessed—it’s one that could be imagined occurring in places around the country and world today—the Cree, their trading completed, received their weapons and bid “everybody, both friends and foes, a hearty farewell. They went out of the Fort,” Catlin recounted, “and though the party gradually moved off, one of them undiscovered, loitered about the Fort, until he got an opportunity to poke the muzzle of his gun through between the [fort’s] piquets; when he fired it [he fired] at one of the chiefs of the Blackfeet, who stood within a few paces, talking with Mr. M’Kenzie, and shot him with two musket bullets through the centre of his body! The Blackfoot fell, and rolled about upon the ground in the agonies of death.”

The chief died from his wounds, as did at least one Cree in the half-hour-long skirmish between the tribes that spread across the prairie west of the fort’s walls. What led to the shooting and skirmish? How frequently did such events occur? Because the Upper Missouri tribes didn’t keep detailed written records, the answers to these and related questions can remain speculative. As outsiders and intermediaries, could the fur traders or Catlin have ever understood the origins and persistence of hostilities between the Cree and Blackfeet? Or between the Blackfeet and Assiniboine, another tribe that traded here? Could their Euro-American perspectives and interpretations have ever proved sufficient to influence behaviors and prevent the chief’s murder?

The past can’t be altered, of course. Nevertheless, are there insights we today can discover from this and similar Fort Union incidents? For decades, this Confluence-area trading post occupied a middle ground and borderland where civilizations collided. Could the fort’s history and legacy, its stories, influence our present-day behavior? One of the wonders of our nation’s parks—an idea Catlin first proposed after visiting Fort Union—is the possibilities they afford to experience and learn from the past as we move steadily and inexorably into the future. When you visit, what will you discover?

Last updated: April 19, 2017

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