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Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

During a period in the mid-1800s, Fort Union was established on the Upper Missouri River with the primary purpose of becoming a fur trading post. It was built by the owner of the American Fur Company and became a center for trading involving at least seven Native Indian Tribes, which turned out to be a huge contributing factor to the success of both the post and the fur trading company.

Fort Union went on to become an important hub for not only commerce but also cultural exchange and the development of the region, and even though at the time this was something of a remote outpost, its influence was significant enough to have affected circumstances on a national, if not global level.

The History of Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

fort union trading post NHS
Image: NPCA Photos

The American Fur Company owned by one John Jacob Astor built the trading post in 1828, close to the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. It wasn’t a fort exactly, despite the name, but a commercial building owned by the company.

One of the prime intentions of establishing the post was to do business with the Native Tribes of the Northern Plains, and it had actually stemmed in part from a request by the Assiniboine Nation to construct trading premises in the area.

The post proved highly successful up until 1867, trading with upwards of seven tribes including the Assiniboine Tribe along with the Blackfeet, Plains Cree, Mandan, Plains Chippewa, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribes.

The trading post served many purposes in its time, not least of which was as a place of productive and diverse cultural exchange, as well as giving a massive boost to the local economy and development of the region, and of course the global fur trade. Fort Union actually became the most successful and longest-lasting fur trading company there was.

The post served in some capacity for the storage and operation purposes of federal Indian agents, and as urban American and European consumers snapped up the furs the native peoples began to gather and incorporate new materials and items that were being exchanged for the furs such as textiles, foodstuffs, and various manufactured goods and firearms imported from countries around the world.

The strategic location of Fort Union allowed the trading post to flourish into a gathering place for more than traders. It actually embodied something of the spirit of a thriving international community where men from fairly diverse countries and cultures including France, England, Germany, Spain, Mexico, and China gathered and interacted both with each other and with the native peoples.

Who Was Involved

central courtyard of the fort union
Image: GPA Photo Archive

Aside from the initial set-up by John Jacob Astor and the fur trading company, literally, tens of thousands of people from incredibly diverse backgrounds, and with just as diverse reasons for visiting, passed through the post’s gates at some time.

During almost 40 years of operation, the trading post saw people coming for trade, employment, travel, or various other purposes, bringing with them a cacophony of different languages and cultures.

The employees included workers of many ranks, with the manager taking the main hand in running the proceedings, and there were many who filled this role in the four decades of operation. The manager was known as the Bourgeois and was assisted by clerks who inventoried the goods and did the accounting.

Various other workers came by way of laborers and interpreters as well as tradesmen such as blacksmiths, gunsmiths, and tailors, many of whom were employed to put together many of the goods that were being shipped out to the fort from various regions.

A number of tribes came to Fort Union to trade and engage in relations in the region, and although there were initially seven it could have been close to ten or more at various points. Fort Union was also a place likely to attract various types of explorers and travelers during its thirty-nine years in operation, and these characters often included famous artists and adventurers out to study the region, as well as various curious members of the bourgeois classes and higher.

In fact, Fort Union regularly played host to well-known visitors during the time of fur trading. Notably, some of these visitors included famous artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, Prince Maximilian of Wied, and John James Audubon – to name but a few of the hordes of artists and scientists who came to the Upper Missouri fort.

These visitors played a part in documenting not only the region’s native peoples and the surrounding terrain but also Fort Union. Their observations were recorded in sketches, paintings, and journals and held testament to the activities as well as supplying visual representations that later reached other regions overseas.

Resulting Cultural Changes and Occurrences in the Region

three tipis in a field
Image: GPA Photo Archive

Many exchanges transpired during the time of Fort Union that brought about changes, both directly and indirectly. The native peoples’ adoption of metal for their arrowheads is one instance, which was a switch from stone projectile points fashioned by the Assiniboine and other Northern Plains tribes.

With the appearance of Fort Union, and the post’s traders from various regions, the Upper Missouri River peoples became aware of new materials, new technologies, and various other useful supplies that they were able to assimilate into their practices.

As relationships sprung up around trading, cultural exchange was accelerated, and the native tribes bought and used easy-to-make iron, brass, and projectile points made from other materials that were new to them.

The introduction of the new materials and technologies soon began to transform the everyday lives of the Upper Missouri peoples, not least of all through the introduction of manufactured goods and other internationally-produced items.

The metal points, as well as the introduction of firearms, made hunting more efficient and easier. This in turn meant that tribes were able to hunt more game and supply traders with higher quantities of pelts and robes to suit the demand.

The local peoples also began to modify their own personal adornment due to the supply of various other items deemed suitable. The porcupine quills and shells traditionally used were supplemented or replaced more with beads and various trinkets like bells made from imported metal.

It’s also worth noting that there is often a downside to rapid change or new environmental factors, and one imported thing that most definitely did not improve the Upper Missouri peoples’ lives, was smallpox. In fact, this disease, along with a few others that cropped up, pretty much decimated large sections of the local populations.

A regional shift of power between the tribes was one result of this upheaval, allowing the rise to dominance of the Lakota people. Not surprisingly, illegal alcohol that was often traded had a not dissimilar effect in the region, as is often the case when it is introduced to native cultures unfamiliar with its influence and effects.

The Fate and Eventual Restoration of Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

fort union
Image: Lindsey G

By the latter part of the 1860s, the Upper Missouri area began experiencing shifting political and social change. Many of the original settlers started to move west from the States. The army became increasingly concerned about protecting one of the main transportation channels into the Northern Plains region, the Missouri River.

Euro-American settlements also began to expand in regions formerly controlled by the native tribes, so the U.S. Army decided to construct Fort Buford three miles east of the trading post in 1866. As their presence in the area began to cause things to fade trade-wise, the Army purchased Fort Union from the private owner in 1867.

The palisades and bastions were dismantled and transported along with salvaged timber and stone to the new Army post and used for building materials. Needless to say, within a short time, scant trace remained of Upper Missouri’s once gloriously successful hub of commerce.

By the 1920s, the Fort Union site was barely recognizable save for a few broken lumps and craters along the Missouri River’s north bank, just east of the recently established Montana–North Dakota state line. It wasn’t until a century had passed since the post’s dismantling that attempts to preserve Fort Union’s legacy were amassed. Both locals and historians had long since begun making efforts to see the historic site preserved and get the historic fort reconstructed.

Due in part to their pressure, in 1966 the National Park Service acquired the original site, and archaeological excavations started in earnest two years after that. The Fort Union of today is a reconstruction that used much of the archaeological evidence uncovered during the first excavations as well as later ones undertaken between 1986 and 1988.

The reconstruction properly began with just the flagpole in 1985 and over the next two years, Fort Union continued to rise. Archaeological excavations under the wing of the National Park Service had unearthed Manager’s Quarters, and it was reconstructed and opened in 1987, also doubling as a visitor center.

The bastions and palisade walls were also erected in the same place as the originals in 1993, with reconstruction being organized and overseen by historical architect Richard Cronenberger. Certainly, the archaeologists’ discoveries played a huge part in the reconstruction of Fort Union, and many findings provided crucial insights into locations, building methods, and sequences.

It’s worth noting that Cronenberger also consulted existing sketches and paintings by many of the artists who visited the fort, namely George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Rudolph Friedrich Kurz, and a few others for visuals and finer details of the architecture.

Final Thoughts

The legacy of Fort Union trading post today contains many aspects—some good and some not so good, with a few unforeseen. Nevertheless, it does in many ways stand as a testament to human development and adaptability, as well as a limitation and lack of foresight to a lesser extent.

Business sense, expansion, and entrepreneurship are all part of the historic legacy, not forgetting the often unexpected consequences of variability in supply and demand as well as the effect on the existing environment.

Fort Union succeeded in not only creating and supplying the demand for furs, out-competing pretty much everyone else but the post’s role in shaping the land and culture of the Upper Missouri region and the Northern Great Plains cannot be understated or overlooked.

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