Man in in Straw Park Ranger Hat Standing with River Bottoms Behind Him


Five Minute Fur Trade for Fort Union Trading Post NHS

Fort Union Trading Post

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.


Episode 10 - Reconstructing History: Images, Journals, and Archeology


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.

Episode 9 - The Hidatsa: A Northern Plains Tribe


Oftentimes when we have visitors they will simply refer to Fort Union’s trading partners as “the tribes” or “the Indians.” But which tribe in particular are they referring to? 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 week’s dose of bite sized history, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.”

One of the things that made Fort Union the special place that it was, was the diverse meeting of cultures that took place. When it came to Fort Union’s trading partners of the Northern Plains tribes, the big players were the Assiniboine, Crow, Blackfeet, Plains Cree, Plains Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and three different bands of the Sioux, the Dakota, the Lakota, and the Nakota. While it’s true that they are all “Indian Tribes”, geographically speaking “Northern Plains Tribes” you’re actually looking at nine distinctive nations, and while there may be similaries, they each have their own unique culture. This week, the Northern Plains Tribe we’re looking at in particular, is the Hidatsa.

Now keep in mind, there’s a LOT of things that I cannot cover in a 5 minute or so podcast, so what I’m sharing with you today is a short series of highlights, rather than an exhaustive history.

The Hidatsa were an earth lodge dwelling people. In fact they had two different kinds: Larger summer lodges, and smaller winter ones. (It’s true that they used a type of tipi as well, but that was more for when the Hidatsa were out hunting buffalo.) The summer lodges were typically on the bluffs or terraces along the river, which had access to bottoms where their vegetable fields were, and the winter lodges were typically in the thick woods along the Missouri river bottoms. Oftentimes during the spring rise, the river would wash the winter lodges down stream.

Their construction was seen to primarily by the Hidatsa women. Using a combination of cottonwood logs and planks, dried grass, willows, and lots of dirt, the finished circular domed earthlodges would be between thirty and sixty feet in diameter, ten to fifteen feet high, and took approximately seven to ten days to complete from start to finish. They would have to be rebuilt about every ten years. They’d typically be able to house 10 – 20 people. Behind the buffalo skin door, to which was attached hollow buffalo hooves, which acted like a “door bell” so to speak, you’d find platform beds to sleep on with skin pillows stuffed with antelope fur, a corral for your best horses, a sweat lodge, a food prep platform, a storage cache in the floor, a shrine, an open, circular fireplace, and an “atuka” or couch.

The Hidatsa had massive gardens. They thought their fields sacred, and did not like to quarrel about them. A family’s right to a field once having been set up, no one thought of disputing it. If anyone tried to seize land belonging to another, they thought some evil would come upon them: such as a member of the offending party’s family would die or have some bad sickness.

Often the ground was prepared by digging sticks or even iron hoes that were acquired through trade. The closest trading post to what gets referred to today as the Knife River Indian Villages was Fort Clark.

Crops like corn, squash, beans were grown in these gardens, which would need to be protected. To do so, watcher stages were built. They were basically a platform build above the ground, to the height of what the corn would be, that would be sat upon by the women to keep an eye out for crows, ground squirrels, the horses, and even young boys, who would enter the garden to eat. According to Maxidiwiac, also called Waheenee or “Buffalo Bird Woman”: “We cared for our corn in those days as we would care for a child; for we Indian people loved our fields as mothers love their children. We thought that the corn plants had souls, as children have souls, and that the growing corn liked to hear us sing, as children like to hear their mothers sing to them.” These songs sung from the watcher’s stage were called meedaheeka, or gardener’s songs. Next to their fields, the Hidatsa would build shaded booths. They were many times made of young willows that were stuck into the ground in a circle, with their leafy tops bent over and tied to form a shady roof. Inside these booths they would prepare and cook their meals while they were tending to their gardens and singing from the watcher stages.

During the growing season, the Hidatsa would send a party out to the plains for their annual buffalo hunt. They would then return to their summer villages in time for the harvest.

When it was time to harvest the corn, families would prepare a feast at their fields. Oftentimes the women would wear their best dresses. People would come and help harvest that family’s field, would feast, and then move to the next family’s field and do the same thing.

Well, as I said, we only hit a few highlights about the Hidatsa. For a couple of good starting points to continue learning more them, I would strongly encourage you to check out the book “Waheenee” by Gilbert Wilson, which is a brief recounting of life through the eyes of Maxidiwiac, or “Buffalo Bird Woman”. For learning about their farming practices, check out “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden”, also by Gilbert Wilson. And if you’d like to see the farming, an earthlodge, visit the location of some of the previous Hidatsa villages, as well as speak to people who can do a much better job of explaining things than myself, please, plan yourself a visit to see our friends at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, outside of present day Stanton, North Dakota.

Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about the Hidatsa’s than you did before. Next week we’ll back for what is, to me at any rate, sadly, our final episode of the 2020 summer season. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

When we refer to the Northern Plains tribes that were trading partners at Fort Union, which specific tribes are we referring to? In this week’s episode we discuss the Hidatsa.

Episode 8 - Steamboats and Buffalo Horses


As you study fur trade history, you’ll undoubtedly find some interesting connections between things. Some are obvious, and some are not. 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 week’s dose of bite sized history, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.”

Sometimes we end up connecting people, for example, Rudolph Kurz and James Kipp, who both worked at Fort Berthold. Sometimes we connect people and places, like John James Audubon and Fort Union. Not only did he visit here, he also put Fort Union in the background of the image he made of the two, thirteen striped ground squirrels. And sometimes we end up connecting objects and animals, like where’re going to today when we connect Steamboats and Buffalo Horses.

As we’ve discussed before, Steamboats were an absolute game changer for the Upper Missouri Fur Trade. The steamboat “Yellowstone” was a big improvement, as far as transportation of good, furs, and employees went. Where the keelboats could only manage 20 to 40 tons of cargo and crew, the Yellowstone could do 75. Where keelboats were powered by the crew, the steamboats were powered by steam from burning wood.

Lots of wood. Steamboats averaged a consumption of 1 ¼ cords of wood an hour. If you’re wondering what a cord is, it’s 128 cubic feet of wood, a stack that measures four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. William E. Lass, in his book “Navigating the Missouri: Steamboating on Nature’s Highway, 1819-1935” describes the situation like this: “The timber supply was of great concern to steamboatmen, who usually needed to refuel at least once a day…Oftentimes, because of cargo and passenger needs, they had a limited amount of space for wood, and more weight increased the boat’s draft. A cord of cottonwood, for example, ranged from 2,160 pounds for very dry and 4,400 pounds for green cut during the growing season. So the common practice was to maintain a small reserve and replenish at short intervals.”

A lot of times the crew did this by collecting drift logs on sandbars or wood from the banks of the river. This obviously took a lot of time. Things got a bit better when trading posts, who owning companies had contracted the steamboats, would gather and stack wood specifically for the refueling of the steamboats.

As things are going into the 1860s, hostilities were rising with different tribes along the Missouri, particularly the Sioux. When steamboats would pull up to landing where stacks of wood had been left for them, crews would be attacked, and sometimes would find the stacks had been burned. So refueling was becoming an issue for safety reasons.

Captain Joseph LaBarge, who had been navigating the Upper Missouri since 1832, came up with a solution to help keep both crew and steamboat safe. He equipped one of his boats with a sawmill and a yoke of oxen. So what would happen is that when the steamboat approached a place with ready access to deadfall wood, everyone would make ready. A large stage would be swung out onto the bank after the boat had stopped. “WOODPILE” would be shouted out and the crew would race out, along with the yoke of oxen, to quickly grab as much wood as they could and return to the steamboat. As soon as the yoke of oxen were back onto the deck, the stage was lifted, swung back on board, and the captain would gun the engines to quickly get back out into the river. The wood was then processed on the sawmill that was on board.

But Leif, how does this connect steamboats with buffalo horses? Ok, so, buffalo horses were hunting horses. They were the fastest horses. The kind you’d need when hunting buffalo. In the winter time, the horses would feed on cottonwood bark. Sometimes the tribes would cut down trees for the horses to feed on. So, there’s the connection. The steamboats used cottonwood and the buffalo horses ate cottonwood bark. I know, you probably think that’s a lame connection. Don’t worry, I’ve got more.

On December 17th of 1833, Kenneth McKenzie, post manager of Fort Union, writes a letter to James Kipp, the post manager of Fort Clark. In it, he describes his 9 or 10 year old sorrel horse with a white face that was one of his best buffalo horses. And he called it “Steam Boat.” I know, you still want more.

Ok. Kenneth McKenzie, at Fort Union, fed his buffalo horses an exclusive diet of cottonwood bark. Trees would be cut down and cut into shorter logs between three or four feet long. In the winter time they’d have to thaw the bark before they could use it. So they’d stand the logs up around a fire, and rotate them periodically, to thaw them out. The bark was then peeled off with draw knives and cut into small pieces so that the horses could eat it. So what happened with the logs that the bark was removed from? Hiram Chittenden tells us in his book “History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River”, “After the logs had been stripped of their bark, they were split and piled on the river bank, forming an excellent fuel for the next season’s steamboat.”

Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about the link between Steamboats and Buffalo Horses than you did before. Next week as usual we’ll be back and learning about something completely different. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

Sometimes you’ll find interesting connections between things in the fur trade. In this week’s episode we discuss the connection between steamboats and buffalo horses.

Episode 7 - The Fur Trade: Two Systems


It’s a question that I hear all summer long when I’m the ranger stationed in our 1851 reconstructed trade house. “Didn’t the fur trade end in 1840?” So what’s actually going on here? 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 week’s dose of bite sized history, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.”

Yes, it is absolutely true that the year 1840 is a hallmark year within the western fur trade. However, it’s not the final year. I know, you might not be sure what to do with that, and that’s normal. For you see, when it comes to the Fur Trade, we actually had two primary systems at work. And while it’s not exactly as simplistic as this, I want us to think in terms of “trappers” and “trading posts.”

The trapping of beaver in North America has been taking place for quite some time. In what would become the United States, the process would essentially work like this. You’d get a job working for a fur company, who had gotten a license to trap, and probably meet up in St. Louis. While there, the trapping brigade that you were a part of, that was employed by that fur company, would outfit itself with all the traps and provisions that it would need. You’d then make your way upriver, westward, via river, overland, or combination thereof, to areas that you hoped to trap. Places like South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho to name a handful. The brigade you were a part of would often be broken down into small groups of men, sometimes referred to as a “mess.” Typically they consisted of 8 to 12 or so men, a combination of “greenhorns” or “pilgrims” who were brand spanking new to the western trapping brigades, and “hiveranos” or “hiverants” who were experienced men who had wintered out west. These messes of men would spread out and trap the various rivers and streams, eventually meeting back together with the brigade. When ample beaver had been trapped, your brigade would make its way back to St. Louis. This typically took place yearly or every other year. Your brigade would then refit itself, and head back west to do it all over again. If you were under the employ of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, one of William Ashley’s “one hundred enterprising young men,” you would have signed up for a one, two, or 3 year term.

In 1825 William Ashley would improve this western trapping method by starting the first ever rendezvous.

The way this improvement to the trapping system worked, was that a geographical location was decided upon, (for the first rendezvous in 1825 it was at Henry’s fork, west of the Green river, in present day Wyoming) where all the trappers would gather to meet supply wagons of goods. They would then trade their plews, or beaver skins, for supplies and trade goods to re-outfit themselves for the following year. The supply wagons would then make their way back to St. Louis with the furs. The rendezvous enabled men to stay out west and eliminated the need to bring all the trappers back. This proved quite beneficial. So, in this system of the fur trade, the trappers were the ones going out and getting all the furs to send back to St. Louis. The year 1840 was essentially the end of this trapping rendezvous system of collecting furs in the fur trade.

The second system we see is the use of trading posts, which worked like this. Again, your fur company would need a license to be able to engage in trade. You’d then need to find a suitable place, typically along a river, that keelboats, and later steamboats, would be able to have access to. This is how you are going to get your employees and trade goods to your trading post, and the valuable furs from there to St. Louis. (Also, it’s in your best interest that your trading post be built in an area where you are on friendly terms with the area tribes, or else your post is likely going to be short lived.) You’re going to want to have some carpenters, a blacksmith, some skilled hunters, some cooks, clerks and traders who are skilled in the art of diplomacy and negotiation, interpreters fluent in the language of the area tribes and hand talk, or sign language, general laborers, and a bourgeois or post manager. After you’ve got your post built, have your trade goods in stock, and all your employees in place, you can now trade with the area tribes, in which they bring furs to you in exchange for trade goods. But you’re still not done yet. You are going to need to understand the culture of the different tribes you’re trading with, treat them with respect, as well as continually adjust the trade good inventory that you have to meet their wants and needs. If you don’t do those things, again, your new post will likely be short lived. Fort Union, which was established in 1828 and closed in 1867, did all those things and more, and as a result, ended up being the longest lasting trading post in the U.S. at 39 years of operation.

So, no. “The fur trade did not end in 1840,” to quote my friend and fellow living historian, Bill Armstrong, Director of Fort Vasquez in Platteville, Colorado. However, the trapper rendezvous system largely did.

Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about the two primary systems of the fur trade, the trappers and trading posts. Next week as usual we’ll be back and learning about something completely different. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

Did the fur trade really end in 1840? Find out in this week’s episode.

Episode 6 - The Curse of Kurz


For some folks, it seems like bad luck follows them wherever they go. In fact there’s an expression that goes, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” And sometimes a person is left wondering if they might even be cursed. 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 week’s dose of bite sized history, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.” While a man named Rudolph Frederich Kurz really did experience more than just bad luck, it sure seemed to follow him wherever he went on the Upper Missouri. In fact, there was an issue that seemed he would never be free of, that I like to refer to as “The Curse of Kurz.” Kurz was a classically trained artist from Switzerland who would end up working as a clerk for the American Fur Company in 1851 and 1852. Now this was yet another time where there was a sickness plaguing the tribes. Hopping back a decade and half, in 1837 it was small pox, and off and on after that, seemingly every couple of years, it was cholera. Now while at Fort Clark, Kurz had been warned, be careful with the sketches and paintings that you do, because, the area tribes will link the images of the people that you sketch with the death of the people in their tribes due to the current cholera outbreak. Alright, so he ends up at Fort Berthold and James Kipp, the aging bourgeois, or post manager there, makes him a clerk. And things from the get go start awry. When the steamboats arrive at a post and cargo is being sorted out, there’s supposed to be a bill of laiding. In otherwords, this is the list of stuff that is supposed to go from the steamboat to the trading post, or vise versa. So where is it? Kurz is the guy who is supposed to have it, but doesn’t have it. And his response as to why he doesn’t have it was because he didn’t know he was supposed to, Mr. Kipp hasn’t actually explained to me how to do my job. Kurz literally has keys to all of the places within Fort Berthold, but to that point, doesn’t really know what all he’s supposed to be doing. According to him at any rate. So then the cholera starts to flair up in the vicinity of Fort Berthold and a number of Hidatsa are dying. Kurz had been making sketches, despite the warnings, by use of a small telescope. He would do these body form sketches of the people by viewing them from afar. But apparently he was leaving these sketches out and they were getting noticed. On August 18th of 1851, Kipp confines Kurz to his room and then later to the inside of the post itself and basically says, you’ve got to put your drawings away, and don’t let the tribes see them ever again. In the village they’re talking about your sketches and in their eyes, this current cholera outbreak is on you. It’s your fault. Safety dictates that you stay in your room. So Kurz complies, hides the sketches, and lays low. This is on August 18th. The very next day, on August 19th he records in his journal, “The sick people are better; those in good health and the convalescent are going away. In violation of orders and against my own conscience I had to yield, notwithstanding, to the desire to draw.” Needless to say, in a relatively short amount of time, animosity from the Hidatsa, brought on by Kurz’s sketches, as well as by the prodding of the competition fur traders in the area saying that it was all Kurz’s fault, Kipp whisps him away upstream and on September 5th he’s at Fort Union. And by the way, Hidatsa are trading there too, and they are not happy at all to find out that Kurz is now there as well. So he ends up being a clerk again, and some similar bad luck situations come. He finds himself in spots where the area tribes are demanding things of him, because he’s the guy they’re supposed to go to, but he’s got no idea at all what they are saying. The sneaky engages or common laborers buy up the rest of the sugar right underneath his nose so they now have to wait until the steamboat arrives next spring before they have any sugar. On a hunting expedition, which was pretty much a waste of time, La Pierre and his family keep on pilfering stuff from him and a fellow named Morgan and end up destroying their tent. And then, Edwin Dennig, the manager at Fort Union, has Kurz do a portrait of his dog Natoh, which goes up on display inside the clerks office. The leadership of the area tribes trading there, are being shown this portrait by Mr. Dennig. Now, remember what went down at Fort Berthold? On November 15th, 1851, Kurz notes in his journal how Natoh got into a fight with a few other dogs and got seriously hurt. Dennig basically tells Kurz “Well, it’s a good thing Natoh didn’t die, because if he did, the tribes would blame your painting as the cause of death.” And then on November 17th Natoh goes into the woods and dies, and they end up having to hide the painting. Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more what I call the “Curse of Kurz”. Next week as usual we’ll be back and learning about something completely different. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

Sometimes it seems like bad luck can follow you wherever you go. In this week’s episode we discuss what I refer to as “The Curse of Kurz.”

Episode 5 - Steamboats: The Upper Missouri game changer.


It’s finally here. While 1831 was the first attempt, we like 1832 because it changes things immensely at Fort Union. 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 the fifth and final of a five part series on watercraft of the Upper Missouri, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.” While it could have been 1831, inexperience and low water prevented the event from happening. However, June 16th, 1832, after taking off from St. Louis almost a month earlier than what was done previous year, marked the arrival of the “Yellow Stone” at Fort Union, which was, as you’ve probably guessed, a steamboat. Steamboats were an absolute game changer for the American Fur Company. Due largely to the prodding of Kenneth McKenzie, the bourgeois, or post manager of Fort Union at the time, steamboats became an integral part of the Upper Missouri Fur Trade. Keep in mind, prior to the advent of the use of the steamboat out west, the keelboat was responsible for the shipping of supplies, trade goods, baled furs, as well as the transportation of employees, between St. Louis and Fort Union. The use of keelboats wasn’t cheap, and was very labor intensive to operate. And while they were very useful, they were only able to transport a cargo of 20 to 40 tons. The steamboat, the “Yellow Stone,” however, could transport 75 tons, not mention 72 passengers and 22 crew members. Ordered by the American Fur Company on November 24th of 1830, the “Yellow Stone” was built in Louisville, KY, during the winter of 1830-1831. That spring, it would only make it as far as Fort Tecumseh, near present day Pierre, SD, on June 19th, 1831, which was still 600 miles further than any previous steamboat had gone. The following spring, it would depart St. Louis, on March 26th in 1832, it would break its previous record, making it the entire 1800 miles to Fort Union. Now, the “Yellow Stone” didn’t exactly look the way we might typically think about how a steamboat looks from later in the 1860s and 1870s. It was definitely one of the older style steamboats. As to size it was 130 feet long, 19 feet wide, with a 6 foot hold. It weighed in at 144 tons. It had two 18 foot paddle wheels, one on either side of the vessel, was powered by a single engine, and the front third or so of the boat, including the boiler deck, was completely open, with two smokestacks coming up front. Now steamboats also brought a variety of other people of note who visited the Upper Missouri trading posts. In 1832, the “Yellow Stone” brought the famous western artist. George Catlin. He would note the following on this historic trip to Fort Union: “One thousand miles or more of the upper river, was to my eye, like fairy-land; and during our transit through that part of our voyage, I was most of the time riveted to the deck of the boat, indulging my eyes in the boundless and tireless pleasure of roaming over the thousand hills, and bluffs, and dales, and ravines; where the astonished herds of buffalos, of elks, and antelopes, and sneaking wolves, and mountain goats, were to be seen bounding up and down and over the green fields; each one and each tribe, band, and gang, taking their own way, and using their own means to the greatest advantage possible, to leave the site and sound of the puffing of our boat, which was, for the first time, saluting the green and wild shores of the Missouri with the din of mighty steam.” Man. What a description of that first voyage via steam boat to Fort Union. But Catlin wouldn’t be the only that was brought to the Upper Missouri. Joseph LaBarge, destined to be one of the greatest riverboat captains, would start his career as a clerk about the “Yellow Stone.” In 1833 it would bring the arrival of Prince Maximillian, the artist Karl Bodmer, and for the first time Edwin Denig who would eventually become one of the post managers of Fort Union. Many other steamboats would visit during the remaining 35 years of Fort Union’s existence, bringing visitors like Father DeSmet, Duke Paul, John James Audubon and his party, and in 1851 Rudolph Kurz, who’s sketches helped make possible the reconstruction of Fort Union today. The steamboats would bring other things as well, unfortunately, like smallpox and cholera. In 1864 and 65 a second steamboat named “Yellow Stone” brought soldiers of Company I, of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry, and Company B of the 1st US Volunteers Infantry Regiment. And finally, on August 4th of 1867, the steamship “Miner” would arrive at the now abandoned Fort Union, and its crew would tear down Fort Union’s kitchen to be used as firewood. And as sad as that may be, thankfully, for us today, Fort Union would not fade away into existence. In fact, we still have a LOT of history to talk about. Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about steamboats than you did before. And don’t worry, next week as usual we’ll be back and learning about something completely different. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

In our final of a five part series on watercraft of the Upper Missouri we discuss steamboats.

Episode 4 - Keelboats: This isn’t your Lewis and Clark boat.


Getting men and supplies from St. Louis to Fort Union, was no walk in the park. Having a vessel that was large enough, shallow enough, and even maneuverable enough on the Missouri could be problematic. However, there was an option that would continue to be in use on the Upper Missouri even after steamboats had been operating in the area for quite some time. 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 the fourth of a five part series on watercraft of the Upper Missouri, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.” So we’re finally discussing a watercraft that wasn’t actually being manufactured on site out west, unlike the canoes, mackinaws and bullboats that we’ve discussed so far. This vessel was actually manufactured back east, and it was called a keelboat. Keelboats were often times being built in Pittsburg, which had a pretty active ship building industry. In fact the Pittsburg area alone had eight boatyards and was cranking out an estimated $40,000 worth of boats a year in 1802. The cost of a single keelboat could run between $2,000 to $3,000. Now you may be thinking, “I’m with you Leif! These are just like the keelboat that Lewis and Clark had that was built in Pittsburg as well, right?” Well…not exactly. While their vessel was built in Pittsburg, it was actually a barge. And if you want to know more about that, I’d highly recommend to you an article written by David Purdy, called “Lewis & Clark’s Boat: Barging” that was in the Winter 2009-2010 issue of Western Pennsylvania History. Several years back Mr. Purdy actually stopped at Fort Union and I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss keelboats with him for about an hour. So many of the keelboats that would see service on the Upper Missouri were between sixty to seventy feet in length, with a keel, hence the name keelboat, which was basically a wooden beam that protruded out the middle of the bottom of boat, running from bow to stern. The vessels were usually 15 to 18 feet wide, had a hold that was 3 to 4 feet deep, and a draft, meaning how much of the boat was actually in the water, of 20 to 30 inches. Since these boats were always carrying freight, 20 tons worth of trade goods, supplies, or stacks of baled fur, the middle section of the boat was fitted with a cabin of sorts called a cargo box. It would typically be as long as possible, leaving about 12 feet of boat at both the bow and stern, rose 4 to 5 feet above the deck with only fifteen inches or so of walkway on either side of it. Many were also fitted for a mast, in the center. When it came to propulsion up and down the river, you pretty much name it, and they’ve got it. Going upstream, the cordelle was probably, the main method. The gist of it was the boat was pulled upstream by 20 to 40 voyagers on shore by means of a rope roughly 1000 feet long. That’s over 3 football fields, folks. Now this rope was attached to the top of a 30 foot tall mast and was fed through a large ring attached at the bow by a shorter rope. This helped prevent the keelboat from swinging under the force of the wind, or even the current if it was faster than what the rudder could correct for. All that length helped to prevent pulling the boat into the shore and instead on a straighter path, and the way it was attached to the mast helped it to clear any brush that was along the bank. Now cordelling was not an easy task. You’ve got imagine what it was like for these guys, pulling this thousand foot rope on the bank, where there’s really no established path, and often times, they have to actually send men ahead to clear the way. If they couldn’t cordelle, they had do what they called “warping.” A group of guys would have to somehow drag the line around an obstacle, fasten it to something solid, and then while standing on the deck of the keelboat with the rope in their hands, pull the boat against the current upstream. Another method of propulsion was to use poles. These were usually a turned piece of ash wood that was being made in St. Louis. The men would get in a line on either side of the keelboat, put these poles down in to the water until they touched the bottom, and then walked the length of the boat, pushing it upstream. They would then do a quick about face, run to the front of the keelboat, and keep on doing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes 10 or 12 paddles were used in the bow of the keelboat. And lastly, if the conditions were right, they could let fly a 100 square foot sale. It took a keelboat crew six months to travel the 1800 miles from St. Louis to Fort Union, and an additional forty days to Fort McKenzie, which was 500 more miles upstream in what is now central Montana. Karl Bodmer, a German artist who was traveling with Prince Maximilian, left Fort Union on a keelboat named the “Flora” that was headed to Fort McKenzie. Bodmer leaves us a wonderful painting called “Camp of the Gros Ventres on the Prairies” that depicts the Flora on August 5th, 1833. Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about keelboats than you did before. Next week we’ll be learning about our 5th and final historic watercraft. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

This week we discuss the first big standard for navigating the Upper Missouri, the keelboat.

Episode 3 - It’s a bull! It’s a boat! It’s a bullboat!


Taking a good idea and retrofitting it to another great idea is a concept we see all throughout history. And when it comes to watercraft in the Western and Upper Missouri Fur Trades, this is nothing new. In fact, when the Hudson Bay Company came across the Mandan Indian Villages in 1790, they saw something that would follow the fur trade as it was, but also, as it would be modified. 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 the third of a five part series on watercraft of the Upper Missouri, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.” Great ideas are constantly borrowed and modified. And the great idea that the HBC boys came across was called a bullboat. The bullboats of the Mandan were basically large, bowl shaped, boats, made of bent willows that had a green, or “fresh off the animal”, bull buffalo hide stretched across it. Hence the name “bull” boat. They were relatively simplistic to construct, and the Mandans, as well as other tribes, had been doing so for quite some time. William Clark, of the Corps of Discovery, described construction of the Mandan style bull boats that Nathaniel Pryor built on the return trip home, like this: Two sticks of 1-1/4 inch diameter are tied together so as to form a round hoop of the size you wish the canoe to be, or as large as the skin will cover. Two of those hoops are made, one for the top or brim, and the other for the bottom. Then sticks of the same diameter are crossed at right angles and fastened with a thongs to each hoop, and also where each stick crosses the other. Then the skin, when green [fresh, that is, not tanned] is drawn tight over the frame and fastened with thongs to the brim, or outer hoop, so as to form a perfect basin. Pryor ended up building 2 bullboats, being about 7 feet 3 inches in diameter and 16 inches deep, with 15 ribs or cross sticks in each. Karl Bodmer, artist for Prince Maximillion while on his western adventures in America, leaves us a great image of these mandan bullboats in his 1843 painting “A Mandan Village”, which was another version of his original painting in the 1830s. In July of 1806, Alexander Henry (the Younger) leaves us this description as to how the bullboats were piloted: "In lieu of a paddle they use a pole about five feet long, split at one end, to admit a piece of board about two feet long and half a foot broad, which is lashed to the pole and forms a kind of cross; there is but one for each canoe. He who paddles makes directly for the opposite shore; every stroke he gives turns his dish almost entirely round; to recover his position and go on his intended route, he must give a stroke on the other hand, which brings him up again, and so on until he gets over, not without drifting down sometimes nearly a mile." But how was this great idea modified? Fur traders and trappers took the basic concept of the native style bull boats and elongated them. Hiram Chittenden describes their construction like this: The frame of the bullboat was constructed by laying stout willow poles, three or four inches in diameter, lengthwise of the boat, and across these similar poles, the two layers being firmly lashed together with rawhide. The side frames were made of willow twigs and an inch and a half in diameter at the large end and six to seven feet long. The smaller ends were lashed to the cross-poles, and about two feet of the larger ends were then bent up to a vertical position. Along the tops of the vertical portions and on the inside was lashed a stout pole like those forming the bottom of the framework. To this gunwale were lashed cross-poles, at intervals of four or five feet, to keep the sides from spreading. No nails or pins were used for fastenings, but rawhide lashings only. The frame so constructed was exceedingly strong, and its flexible quality, by which it withstood the continuous wrenching to which it was subjected, was an important element of strength.” So after the framework was completed, it was then covered with a series of bull buffalo hides, that had been stitched together with buffalo sinew. These hides could have the hair remaining on them or the hair removed. After the hides were attached to the boat frame it was allowed to dry and tighten. Treatment of the seams for waterproofing could be done by a mixture of buffalo tallow and ashes. These bullboats could get up to 30 feet long, 12 feet wide, and twenty inches deep. It was fairly common for an additional layer of loose poles to be added to the bottom of the boat, prior to loading, which would keep the cargo about 6 inches or so above the bottom of the boat. The packs of furs being transported in the boat were often times about thirty inches long, fifteen inches wide and eighteen inches deep. A single layer of bales would be placed in the middle portion of the bullboat with a crewmember in both the front and back of the boat, guiding and moving the boat by the use of poles. At the end of the day when the crew would camp for the night, the boat was tipped and inclined as a shelter for the evening, allowing it to dry. In the morning the seams would be repitched and any damage repaired. In 1825 General Ashely would load 125 packs of beaver into similar bullboats. A.J. Miller, an artist who was along on the 1837 rendezvous, leaves us an image called “bull boating” that shows this style of bullboat in use. As we talked about with the Mackinaws, typically the bullboats weren’t given names…however, there is record of a bullboat named “Antoine,” in which a free trapper named Johnson Gardner shipped his furs from the “Crossings of the Yellowstone” to Fort Union in 1832. Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about bull boats than you did before. Next week we’ll be learning about a forth historic watercraft. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

On this weeks episode we discuss the two types of bullboats in use

Episode 2 - Mackinaws: The Disposable Freighters of the Upper Missouri


The advent of the steamboat’s use in the Upper Missouri Fur trade was an absolute game changer. Increased tonnage and speed was a vast improvement, however, they didn’t come into use at Fort Union until 1832. So prior to the steamboats, what did they commonly use to send furs and employees to St. Louis from the Upper Missouri? 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 the second of a five part series on watercraft of the Upper Missouri, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.” As amazing as steamboats are they were only able to make one trip to the upper Missouri each year. And even in doing so, they weren’t able to bring back all the furs, hides, and skins that had been collected up here in my neck of the woods. So before that, and even after, for that matter, a special watercraft, a disposable freighter, if you will, was used to get peltry and people back to St. Louis. And it was called, a mackinaw. I know, flags are probably going up already. My Great Lakes Fur Trade friends are probably saying, “Leif, we’ve got those up here! And they’re not well suited for the Missouri river!” And they’re not exactly wrong. If we’re talking about the same boat, that is. You see, the one they might be referring to could be like a large fishing boat with a sail. The one I’m referring to is not. And just to show how blasted confusing all this can be, Owen S. Cecil, in his article for Wooden Boat magazine, called “The Mackinaw Boat: It’s a barge, bateau, birchbark canoe, fishing sailboat – and what else?” points out the fact that many different types of boats get referred to as Mackinaws. So what were the Upper Missouri Mackinaw boats like that ran the 1800 miles from Fort Union to St. Louis? Well, since they’re constructed on the Upper Missouri, they were made of, you guessed it…cottonwood. Mackinaws were made from planks of cottonwood trees processed at a larger post’s chantier or boatyard. Fort Pierre’s boatyard, which they called the navy yard, was fifteen or so miles above the post. Fort Union’s was located about twenty-five miles above the post, and Fort Benton’s was located three miles below the post at the mouth of what is now called Shonkin Creek. First logs had to be rolled onto a scaffold, or pit saw. After they were hewn square with axes, two men, one on top of the scaffolding and one below, would push and pull a saw between each other, making planks between 1 ½ a 2 inches in thickness. The outside shape the Upper Missouri Mackinaw can be described as “an acute ellipse,” although saying that it looked like two parenthesis squished together probably makes a lot more sense. The bottom was not rounded. It was flat. As to size, Mackinaws could be up to 50 feet in length, 9 – 12 feet wide, and gunwales, or sides being between 2 ½ to 3 feet high. The middle section of the boat was partitioned off from the bow and stern (or front and back) of the boat. This middle section is where all the cargo and bundled furs were put, being piled up to three or four feet above the top of the gunwales, and given a rounded form. The cargo was then covered with lodge skins, made of buffalo, which was fasted down to cleats on the gunwales to protect it from the water during transport. Rudolf Kurz, a classically trained artist from Switzerland who worked at Fort Union as a clerk, makes a sketch on August 29th, 1851, showing what this looked like. In the front section of the mackinaw is where four crewmen rowed the boat. In the back of the boat was kind of raised perch section where the steersman could see over the top the cargo to be able to read the river ahead. Since the Mackinaws were only used to go downriver, they weren’t too labor intensive to pilot. In fact, they were preferred over keelboats for this task. The crew could typically average 100 miles a day, loaded with their cargo of 15 tons, which equated to 300 packs of furs. They were the cheapest downstream transportation, costing the American Fur Company about two dollars a day to operate. Oftentimes Mackinaws traveled in a fleets of six to twelve boats for protection and assistance. Now the mackinaws were cheaply made and intended for only a single trip to St. Louis. So after the cargo was unloaded, they were sold for four or five dollars apiece, dismantled, and oftentimes used a firewood. Such was the fate of these disposable freighters…until the 1830s when steamboats came into play. At that time, on the annual run up river, mackinaws were frequently carried back on the steamboats due to their usefulness. Now unlike keelboats or steamboats, we don’t typically see where mackinaws are given names. An exception I’m aware of, however, comes from 1843, involving John James Audubon. That year he and his party had been at Fort Union collecting specimens. We find out that on his return trip to St. Louis, fourteen people, including the Audubon party, Alexander Culbertson, his wife Natawista and his son, left aboard a 40 foot mackinaw that was 8 feet wide, and was called “Union.” Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about mackinaw boats than you did before. Next week we’ll be learning about a third historic watercraft. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

In this weeks episode we'll be discussing Mackinaws, but which Mackinaws in particular?

Episode 1 - Canoes of the Upper Missouri


When we hear the word “canoe” in the context of the fur trade, it’s very easy for our minds to go to birch bark canoes. And while there were definitely quite a few used throughout the fur trade in North America, were they commonly used in the Upper Missouri fur trade? 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 the first of a five part series on watercraft of the Upper Missouri, right here, on “Five Minute Fur Trade.”

If you’ve ever visited a Great Lakes Fur Trade site, like our friends at Grand Portage National Monument during their annual rendezvous, you undoubtedly saw birch bark canoes. Right off the shore of Lake Superior, you typically find a voyager camp that use their birch bark canoes as part of their shelters. These canoes can range from smaller 10 foot canoes, to the 24 or so foot North Canoe that was about 4 feet wide, to as large as the Montreal canoes that were in the vicinity of 36 feet and 6 feet wide. On the Upper Missouri, however, the most common canoe you’re going to find is what we call the dugout canoe.

Typically dugouts were made from the logs of cottonwood trees due to their abundance along the river bottoms and the immense size they can get. In contrast to the birch bark canoes of the Great Lakes and Canadian Fur trade, the ordinary length we find of dugouts is a range of 15 to 20 feet in length. Occasionally we find some that are longer.

So what was the process in which the dugouts were made? First you’d find a suitable tree for your needs and after cutting it down you’d then cut the proper length that you needed from it. The next thing that you need to do is remove all the bark. Depending on the size and age of the cottonwood that you’re working with, it’s not uncommon to have bark that is 2 to 3 inches in thickness. A lot of times this work was being done with a broad axe. After that work has been accomplished and you essentially have a cleaned log that’s been shaped nicely and as free of as much irregularity as possible, the top third or so of the log needs to be removed. As to the bow and the stern, the front and back ends of your dugout, respectively, you’ve got some options. Are you in a hurry and need to get moving on the water now? Some quick shaping that is “canoe like” might be all that you spend time doing. However, if you’re located at a larger post on the Upper Missouri, like Fort Pierre, Fort Union, or Fort Benton, that had a chantier or boatyard, it’s quite possible more time would be spent in shaping them. Sometimes the bow and stern would be turned up with extra pieces to provide some ornamentation.

Now, from the flat surface that was left after removing the top third of the log, you would begin to hollow, or dig out, the body of the dugout canoe out. This is where we’re actually getting the name “dugout” from. A round adz, which kind of looks like a rounded metal scoop at the end of a long wooden handle, was used for the task. This would be done carefully so that the bottom was left about 2 inches thick and the top rim of the walls being about an inch. Depending on the size of the dugout, solid partitions would be left in place, from four to six feet apart, to provide strength. If you ever get the chance to visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls Montana, they have a fantastic reproduction dugout that is on display, showing these partitions.

How long did it take to make one? Four men could knock out a good sized dugout canoe like this, provided they were at a larger post’s boatyard, in about four days.

Commonly they were crewed by three men: two men paddling to provide forward motion and one to steer. Sometimes a square sail could be used on a mast that was centered in the dugout, however, the wind had to be just right or the risk was run of capsizing the vessel.

Now typically these dugout canoes were used to take care of the local business of the larger posts in the area, sending express messages, and occasionally being used to transport freight. Hiram Chittenden, in his mouthful of a titled book, “History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River, Life and Adventures of Joseph LaBarge, pioneer navigator and Indian trader for fifty years identified with the commerce of the Missouri Valley, try saying that five times fast, mentions the transportation of bear oil to St. Louis in a time when bears along the Missouri were plentiful and pigs for lard in St. Louis were not. He also mentions, history friends, PLEASE don’t hate me when I share this, quote, “In those days bee trees were exceedingly plentiful in the Missouri bottoms, and large quantities of honey were taken from them.” So the way it worked the bear oil and honey was that they were poured into the center compartment of the dugouts and then tightly covered with animal skins that were stretched and attached to the sides of the boat during transport to protect them.

Well, hopefully you now know a little bit more about dugout canoes than you did before. Next week we’ll be learning about a different historic watercraft. I’m Ranger Halvorson at Fort Union Trading Post where it’s always a great day on the Upper Missouri, and this ends your weekly dose, of Five Minute Fur Trade.

In this episode we discuss the most common canoe used in the Upper Missouri fur trade.

Five Minute Fur Trade Introduction


Were birchbark canoes the only type of canoe used between the larger trading posts on the upper Missouri? What happened to the mackinaw boats once they reached St. Louis with their cargo of furs? Did Lewis and Clark use an actual keelboat with the Corps of Discovery? What was the “curse of Rudolph Kurz? And what was up with the electro shock machine that post manager Kenneth McKenzie kept at Fort Union?

Hi, I’m Leif Halvorson, summer seasonal ranger at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Join me as we answer those questions and more in our new weekly, bite sized, history podcast, “Five Minute Fur Trade.”

A quick introduction to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site's new postcast series called Five Minute Fur Trade, where we'll explore different topics of the fur trade on the Upper Missouri.

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