Fort Union Trading Post
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Outpost on the Missouri
John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company built Fort Union in 1829 near the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in what is now North Dakota. The post soon became headquarters for trading beaver furs and buffalo hides with the Assiniboine Indians to the north, the Crow Indians on the upper Yellowstone, and the Blackfeet who lived farther up the Missouri.
Much of the fort’s early success was due to Kenneth McKenzie. He not only supervised its construction but served as the first bourgeois, or superintendent, of the Astor-affiliated Upper Missouri Outfit, as the operation at the trading post was called. The Scottish-born McKenzie came to the United States by way of Canada, where he gained experience in the fur trade by working for that country’s North West Company. He was a proud, ruthless man and he set out to dominate the upper Missouri trade. Others would compete with him, but none succeeded for long.
Fort Union stood on a grassy plain that stretched away to the north for a mile, thus providing ample space for Indian camps at trading time. A stout palisade of vertical logs enclosed a quadrangle 220 by 240 feet. Employees occupied rooms in a long building on the west side of the interior. A similar building on the east side contained a retail store and storerooms for furs and various food items. At the north end stood the imposing bourgeois house and, behind it, a bell tower and kitchen. The main gate, used by freight wagons and the trading public opened on the south or riverside; another gate on the opposite side led to the prairie. Near the main gate were a reception room for Indians and shops for the blacksmith and the tinner. Other structures included an icehouse, a powder magazine, and enclosures for animals. Impressive two-story stone bastions at the northeast and southwest corners of the fort served as observation posts and defensive positions. A great flagstaff stood in the center of the court.
The American Fur Company’s policy of helping travelers to visit its posts on the Missouri brought many famed men—adventurers, scientists, artists, priests—to Fort Union. One of the first, artist George Catlin, arrived in 1832 on board the Yellowstone, the first upper Missouri steamboat to reach the fort. Prince Maximilian of Wied, Father Pierre De Smet, John James Audubon, Karl Bodmer, and Rudolph Frederich Kurz were among other early visitors who made paintings of the fort or wrote vivid accounts of life there. The company also encouraged its bourgeois and clerks to collect and prepare specimens for scientific study. Edwin Thompson Denig, for example, who started out as a clerk at Fort Union and retired 25 years later as bourgeois, spent considerable time during those years compiling information about the Indian tribes of the upper Missouri which proved of inestimable value to ethnologists. He also contributed many skins and skulls of upper Missouri mammals and birds to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
When McKenzie established Fort Union, beaver had been in great demand for nearly three decades. Starting in the early 1830s, however, silk hats began to replace beaver hats as status symbols and the demand for beaver skins declined. But the demand for tanned buffalo robes increased, and this, coupled with improved river transportation, caused Fort Union to thrive. Trade remained brisk until 1837 when smallpox wrought havoc among the Indian tribes. Despite the tragedy, the robe trade continued, slowly for a time but gradually increasing in volume again.
As Fort Union approached its quarter century, signs of coming change were apparent on the upper Missouri. Buffalo herds were still immense, but white civilization was beginning to encroach on the homelands of the Plains Indians. The Sioux became more and more hostile. In 1857 smallpox struck again, and many of the Plains tribes broke up into bands and scattered to escape the scourge. As a result, not many Indians traded at Fort Union that summer. By the time the Civil War began four years later, trade, in general, had declined and the post was in need of repair. In the summer of 1864, Gen. Alfred Sully, who had been sent west as part of the Army’s efforts to curb the ongoing Sioux depredations, described Fort Union as “an old dilapidated affair, almost falling to pieces.” An infantry company was stationed there during the winter to guard supplies until a regular Army post could be built.
In June 1866, a new infantry company arrived on the upper Missouri and commenced the construction of an Army post, Fort Buford, at the site of old Fort William, the earliest Fort Union competitor. By then Fort Union had been sold to the Northwest Fur Company, which tried to continue the trading activity but finally gave up and sold the post to the Army in 1867. Troops dismantled the fort and used the materials to complete Fort Buford. Only remnants of the foundations remained.
Bourgeois, Craftsmen, and Traders
“A craftsman or workman receives $250 a year; a workman’s assistant is never paid more than $120; a hunter receives $400, together with the hides and horns of the animals he kills; an interpreter without other employment, which is seldom, gets $500. Clerks and traders who have mastered [Indian languages] … may demand from $800 to $1,000 without interest. All employees are furnished board and lodging free of charge.”
-Rudolph F. Kurz, clerk at Fort Union 1851-52
In its heyday, Fort Union Trading Post was a busy place and employed up to 100 persons, many of whom were married to Indian women and had families. A visitor in the 1830s noted the cosmopolitan mix of the fort’s inhabitants, and it was not unusual to see Americans (including blacks), Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, Russians, Spaniards, Italians, Indians, wives, and children stream down to the landing to greet the arrival of the annual steamboats.
The man in charge of the post was called the bourgeois. Starting with Kenneth McKenzie, Fort Union witnessed a succession of outstanding bourgeois, including Alexander Culbertson and Edwin Denig. Other important members of the fort’s staff were the clerks, responsible for maintaining inventories of trade goods and furs and hides. They also kept track of the fort’s tools, equipment, animals, and a dozen other things. Interpreters, another key group, had to know several Indian languages as well as English and French.
Hunters, often men of mixed blood, supplied the tables with fresh meat, whether buffalo, elk, or deer. Craftsmen, such as carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths, were essential in constructing and maintaining the fort and its equipment and tools. The tinner had the task of preparing such trade goods as rings, bracelets, and kettles. Herders cared for the horses and cattle. Traders sent to Indian camps during the winter returned in the spring, hopefully with a load of furs and no leftover trade goods.
All in all, fort employees were rough and ready, often hard-drinking men and violence was a common event in the daily routine. Yet, with a strong bourgeois, the fort’s mission was met and the American Fur Company reaped the profits of its labor.
The Fort Today
Grass covered the entire site when the National Park Service acquired the property in 1966. Four low ridges forming a near square indicated the line of the palisades and two mounds at the northeast and southwest corners the location of the stone bastions. Two other mounds within the enclosure marked the powder magazine and the bourgeois house.
The National Park Service has excavated the stone foundations of the Palisades, the main house and its kitchen, the Indian reception building, and the main gate. It has uncovered artifacts relating to life at the fort, including eating utensils, beer bottles, buttons, metal parts of trapping gear and harnesses, china, pottery, and glass.
Between 1985 and 1991 the National Park Service reconstructed portions of Fort Union Trading Post, including the walls, stone bastions, Indian trade house, and Bourgeois House. The surrounding lands are also being controlled to provide an authentic mid-19th century setting for the post.
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site is 25 miles southwest of Williston, N.D., and 24 miles north of Sidney, Mont. The fort is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with extended hours in summer. The fort is closed on Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1. Groups must make arrangements in advance.
More information Write: Superintendent, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, 15550 HWY. 1804, Williston, ND 58801-8680. Call: 701-572-9083. www.nps.gov/fous.
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