Weekly bite sized history podcast about and related to the history of Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site and the fur trade of the Upper Missouri.
Well, it’s the 2020 summer season finale for me here at Fort Union, so we’re going to tackle a question our rangers get ask a lot about. How did our 1851 reconstructed site come to be? And that’s a great question. How do we reconstruct history? Hey fur trade fans, I’m Leif Halvorson, summer seasonal ranger at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic site and thank you for joining us today for this season’s final weekly dose of bite sized history, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.”
Fort Union Trading Post operated from 1828-1867, and our reconstruction is centered on the year 1851, towards the middle of its life. That wasn’t a random decision. Here’s a quick bird’s eye view of how it works.
Let’s start with images. Images can give us great insight historically about people and places. There actually are quite a few historic images out there of Fort Union. The best set we have access to, however, is from 1851-52 from an artist we’ve brought up plenty already, Rudolph Kurz, who worked as a clerk at Fort Union.
The iconic bourgeois house, where the post manager lived, is an impressive building you’ll immediately see as you walk into the courtyard from the front gate by the Missouri river. To begin with it was a single story building. Later on a second story was built. How do we know what it looked like? Well, on February 4, of 1852, Kurz finishes a wonderful sketch of the interior of the courtyard of Fort Union. It was made from the vantage point of what was likely the palisade wall by the Southwest Bastion. We see very clearly the bourgeois house with its hitching post out front. We see the shape of its chimneys, the location of windows and doors, we see where the picture of Mr. Chouteau was painted on the front of the balcony. We’ve got lots of great details to show us what it looked like. So that’s why our 1851 reconstruction looks the way it does. But that image gives us more wonderful details than just that. We see the “ship mast” style flagpole with it’s picket fence, we see the top of the northwest bastion, we see the fence ran between the storage range and the bourgeois house, we see the plank walkway, the top of the dwelling range, and we see something we get lots of questions about. “Did the trading house and clerk’s office really have a sod roof?” Yes it did, and this particular image shows that. It also gives us a general idea of where the bell tower was located. However, there is one single image Kurz leaves us that shows exactly where the bell tower was located, which was a bit of a mystery initially.
When you enter the clerks office and look at the east side of the room where the fireplace is, you’ll notice the long flag with a golden eagle painted on it, a bench, several chairs, a deer mount on the wall above the hearth, a painting of Mr. Denig hanging on the wall, with a beaded bag on one side and trade medallions on the other. There’s a window on the south wall, and clerks desk not far away. Again, this wasn’t a random decision. All of this is shown in an image of the clerks office that Kurz makes in 1852.
Next, we can use journal entries, first hand accounts, to help us out in interpreting something that we don’t otherwise have visual evidence of. So let’s look to a couple things, starting with the most important building of Fort Union, the reception room of the trade house. We have no images of the inside of it. So what was inside? In September of 1851 Kurz describes things like this: “A number of Indian trinkets are displayed in the reception room and there are, besides, a stuffed Rocky Mountain sheep (female bighorn), black-tailed deer, a large white owl, prairie hens, and pheasants, all for which will afford me sufficient models for sketches and studies.” We find out that he ends up whitewashing the inside of the reception room, and he discusses the painting of the flag in the clerks office, the portrait of Mr. Dennig, and the painting of Dennig’s dog Natoh, that is on display in the clerk’s office. He also mentions how a “young grizzly bear and a war eagle, both alive, are confined behind the powder house.” Needless to say, those are not a part of our current reconstruction.
Lastly, we use archeology or surviving historic examples, to reconstruct things. Now, we knew the approximate size of the palisade walls, but where were they? Thanks to archeology, we were able to find the remaining stones of the Southwest bastion, foundational stones of the palisade walls themselves, and even the original stones that were in front of the hearth of the trade house. We find evidence of where all the buildings were located. That’s why Fort Union could be reconstructed on the original footprint. But archeology gives us even more than. It can be used to help reconstruct the inside of the trade house as well. Remember, the reception room of the trade house was where delegations from the various northern plains tribes would meet with a trader to negotiate the value of the furs, hides, and skins that their people brought. An exchange of gifts was a part of the “pomp and circumstance” so to speak of the negotiation. Things like knives, blankets, hanks of beads, and even chief’s coats, were given to members of the delegations as gifts. Now, when you see the floor boards in the reception room, they’re a certain width. They’re not that way simply because it was randomly what the local lumber store had in stock when it was reconstructed. When the excavation of the reception room took place, they found parallel rows of beads in the ground. It was a bit puzzling to begin with until you consider historically what was taking place in that room. Hanks of beads would have been a common gift during negotiations. Sometimes the thin strings holding them together would break and would go all over the floor. The rows of beads that were found got there from when they fell into the cracks between the floorboards. Thanks to archeology, those rows of beads were used to determine how wide the floor boards were.
Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about what it takes to reconstruct places like Fort Union than you did before. And folks, thank you for joining us today for what is sadly our 2020 summer season finale, but don’t worry, I’ll see you again next summer in 2021 for a brand new season of discussing fur trade history. I’m Ranger Halvorson signing off from Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and until next season, this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.
Visitors often ask us how the reconstructed 1851 Fort Union came to be. How do we reconstruct history? In today’s episode we’ll answer that question with: images, journals, and archeology.