Having first heard of Fort Union from a ranger at Old Bent’s Fort in Colorado, we planned a visit. Fort Union is on the border of North Dakota and Montana and in fact is in two different time zones with the parking lot in Montana and the fort itself in North Dakota. The fort is a full-scale reconstruction built on the exact locations of the original. Buildings that have not yet been reconstructed are outlined with timbers. The fort now sits quite a distance from the Missouri River as the river has changed course over the intervening years. Originally keelboats and then steamboats could tie up right at Fort Union which was the northern terminus of navigation on the Missouri River linked to St. Louis, a distance of 1800 miles.
Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River from 1828 to 1867, longer than any other post on the frontier. Originally operated by the American Fur Company established by John Jacob Astor, the fort was a busy place employing over a hundred people in its heyday.
Cannon in Bastion Hide Press
The two bastions with portholes for cannons and small arms look intimidating but were rarely used for defense. In fact, the southwest bastion was used as an artist studio by George Catlin in 1832. During the fur-trading time period, there was a complementary relationship between fur traders and Indian tribes at the fort and a balance between the cultures.
The day we were there, there was only one ranger on duty – the “lone ranger” as he called himself and no other visitors. As a result, we got a private guided tour and had the chance to ask lots of questions. Our first impression of the fort was that it was certainly different than most forts we had visited with its high whitewashed walls and its luxurious Bourgeois House within.
The Bourgeois was the primary agent of the American Fur Company and that appointment was a powerful and prominent position. The first Bourgeois (1829-1836) was Kenneth McKenzie who at the pinnacle of his leadership exercised control over an enormous enterprise and territory.
Trade House Reception Room
The ranger explained that the walls were white so it could be seen from a great distance to bring in tribes to trade and the painting above the main gate was basically an advertisement and enticement to trade.
During the trade season, the fort would be surrounded by hundreds of tepees. Numerous tribes brought buffalo robes and furs to Fort Union, which were traded for guns, pots, beads, knives, blankets, cloth and other items from all corners of the globe. It’s amazing how international trade already was in the mid-1800’s.
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