Welcome back to another episode of Traveling with Tom. This week I take you back to my home state of North Dakota and a visit to the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site near the oil boom town of Williston. This Fort overlooks the Missouri River, the main “highway” for merchants to bring in goods and ship out furs they took in on trade. Even though I grew up about 100 miles downstream on the Missouri River, I’d never had the opportunity to visit this historic site. About time, don’t you think!
The day of our visit, it was sunny and warm with some of those puffy clouds to help make the photos even better. After parking and beginning our walk up to the partially reconstructed Fort, we noticed the abundance of mosquitoes! There was a lot of rain in the area and the late snow melt in the Rockies was still sending a lot of water down the River, hence plenty of breeding spots for those pesky critters. Here’s the view of the Missouri River from the Fort.
During our visit we learned that several painters spent time at Fort Union with George Catlin being the first in 1832. He is famous for his paintings of Native Americans and Indian village life not only around Fort Union but in other locations across the Midwest and West. His work is exhibited in the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, DC. Catlin was also an author of definitive books on Native Americans. It’s interesting to note that he is said to have written a serious book entitled Shut Your Mouth that suggested that all manner of ills arise in people that routinely don’t keep their mouths shut! To paraphrase one of his statements people will ‘find improvement in their health and enjoyment by keeping their mouth shut.’ Good advice for our current times, me thinks!
Other famous people that spent time at Fort Union were Prince Maximillian, a German explorer and naturalist; Karl Bodmer, a painter of Indian life; John James Audubon, artist and authority on birds and wildlife; and John Mix Stanley, writer, painter, and the first to take landscape and portrait photos with a daguerrotype camera. So I think I was in good company during my visit although I use much more modern equipment!
Fort Union was one of several trading posts in the Upper Missouri Outfit, a part of the American Fur Company owned by John Jacob Astor. It was also one of the longest running (1828 to 1867) trading posts and one of the most profitable. This post traded with the Northern Plains Indian tribes primarily with the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow, Cree, Ojibway, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. The Native Americans brought buffalo, beaver and other furs, meat, corn, beans, squash and other produce to trade for guns, pots, beads, knives, blankets, cloth and other items. Not only was the trading post of economic importance to both parties but soon became a social center where tribes met and negotiated treaties and held ceremonies. Since the fur merchants were mainly men (predominantly white of European descent) and there were few white women in this part of the Upper Missouri, there were lots of mixed marriages resulting in generations of mixed blood peoples, known as Métis.
Upon entering the Fort, one can’t help but notice the large house that dominates the Fort. This is known as the Bourgeois House. The Bourgeois was the primary agent of the American Fur Company and the onsite manager of the trading post. This was a powerful, high profile position that was also financially rewarding. On the other hand, they had a lot of responsibility as they had to promote and maintain friendly relationships with the Native American tribes. Over it’s time of existence, Fort Union had a number of Bourgeois, all of great skill and competence. But by the 1850’s the fur trade was in decline due to the decrease in the bison and beaver populations, the increasing migration of settlers to the west, and the beginning of a push to displace and/or relocate the fur trading tribes. In 1867, Fort Union was sold to the US Army to use it’s building materials to construct the nearby Fort Buford. A hundred years later, at the urging of local citizens and historians, the National Park Service acquired the site and over the next several years reconstructed Fort Union based on archeological excavations, historical records, drawings and paintings. It was built as it would have appeared in the 1850’s as a representation of the importance fur trading to the area and illustrate it’s role in the development of the Northern Great Plains.
The interpretive center housed in the Bourgeois House has a number of short videos on aspects of life at the Fort. We also attended a very interesting presentation by one of the employees that took place in the main trading building. She shared that the Bourgeois and management staff would meet the tribal chief and his entourage in this room to first smoke the peace pipe and then negotiate the price of goods to be traded. Once a deal was struck then the rest of the tribe would enter and trading would begin. Each side thought they were superior to the other, that they got the best of the deal. Maybe they both got a good deal!
The following are photos from around the Fort.
Just outside the Fort were four tepees that were used during a recent rendezvous and as an educational station for school visitors.
While Fort Union is well off the beaten path, it’s very near the state line between North Dakota and Montana, it’s worth a couple hour visit to learn more about the importance of fur trading to the development of this part of the country.
Up the road a few miles from Fort Union, the North Dakota State Historical Society has a nicely done interpretive center at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. They also acknowledged the importance of Fort Union not only as a place of commerce but important in advancing biological and cultural knowledge.
Here’s the confluence in late June. There was localized flooding in some areas with crops and damage to homes close to the Rivers.
After our visit, we went across the border into Montana (no passport necessary!) for some lunch at the only restaurant we could find in Fairview, Montana. It’s only a quarter mile or so but hey it was another state on this trip!
But soon we were back in North Dakota where we didn’t have to listen to Montanans tell jokes about North Dakotans! Well everybody needs someone to pick on so Montanans pick on North Dakotans. For example, the Montanan says “Did you hear about the North Dakotan who accidentally locked his wife and kids in the car? He had to break the window to get them out!” Now to be fair North Dakotans have their group to pick on, the Norwegians. It’s said, they (the Norwegians) were so angry about being the butt of jokes that they decided to march to Washington to protest. The last we heard from them, they were more than half way to Seattle! And this is from someone with a little Norwegian in his DNA!
That’s enough for this week, next week it’s anybody’s guess what I’ll write about so stay tuned!
Until then, travel safe.