Every morning, when I got up early for breakfast during my Road Trip to Nowhere, I was surrounded by construction workers from out of town who were involved in some project or another. I seemed to be the lone traveler.
I was heading to Fort Union Trading Post today, and then onward to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. After spending the afternoon at the park, I would go south to Medora, North Dakota from where I could access the south unit of the park.
By 8:00, I had left Watford City and was on the road. I had a lot of territory to cover. I passed by oil drills and rigs, containers and silos. I crossed the Yellowstone River, and then the Missouri River. By 9:33, I was at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.
Fort Union Trading Post was the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River for 39 years (1828 – 1867). It was a center of peaceful economic and social exchange between Plains Indian and white cultures. In 1966, Congress designated Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site to commemorate its rich history and significant role in the development of the American West, according to the National Park Service brochure for the site.
The fort here now is a full-scale reconstruction built on the exact locations of the original structures.
I watched the film and walked through the Visitor Center in the Bourgeois House. The Bourgeois House was the home of the bourgeois (field agent) and chief clerk. By 1851, a smaller building was enlarged into this two-story house with a porch.
Upper Missouri tribes had a traditional trade system in place for centuries. Plains tribes traveled throughout the area of the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in search of buffalo, elk, and other animals that provided them with subsistence. The area was traditionally Assiniboine, but other tribes made contact in the area too. The Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow, Cree, Ojibway, Hidatsa, and Mandan traded buffalo robes, meat, corn, beans, squash, and other materials. As Euro-Americans came into their area, trade for European goods attracted their interest. Fort Union Trading Post was established to meet this growing demand.
The Assiniboine people, one of about nine plains tribes who traded at Fort Union, considered this area their homeland. The Assiniboine presence here was a reminder that Fort Union had been built on their land.
In trade exchanges, each culture felt it was superior to the other. Traders were comfortable in their superior technology, while Indians thought whites valued robes and furs too highly. They believed they got the best of the exchange. The fur trade was a snapshot in time when there was a balance between two cultures.
The American Fur Company (AFC) was an international business established by John Jacob Astor in 1808. Astor aggressively sought access to the western fur trade based in St. Louis. By 1827, he merged with his two rivals, Bernard Pratte and Company and the Columbia Fur Company, to dominate the fur trade on the upper Missouri.
“King of the Upper Missouri” McKenzie, a former Canadian North West Fur Company trader, joined John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company in 1827 to manage the newly established Upper Missouri Outfit. He directed construction of Fort Union in 1828.
Interactions between white men and tribes was very ceremonial: sharing gifts, smoking traditional pipes, speeches — all done according to tribal custom. Buffalo robes, beaver pelts, and other furs were traded in exchange for guns, pots, beads, knives, blankets, cloth and other items of value to the tribes.
Goods the tribes received allowed them to dominate their environment more effectively. Traders were able to sell the robes and furs to a growing population back East and to European fur markets.
Economic exchanges between the traders and tribes became social. Intermarriage, adoption, and participation in tribal ceremonies because an active part of the white traders’ lives. Traders married Indian women for companionship, to cement business transactions, and because no white women lived on the upper Missouri.
I walked outside the gates to see the Indian encampment.
The advance of pioneers starting in the 1860s marked the end of the Plains Indian buffalo hunting culture. White encroachment from Minnesota, coupled with the discovery of gold in Montana, brought Indian uprisings. The federal government sent army troops to subdue the Plains Indians. Finally, the expansion of transcontinental railroads brought more settlers to the upper Missouri country, eventually extinguishing the Plains Indian resistance.
I left the site and passed a WELCOME TO NORTH DAKOTA sign so I must have briefly been in Montana. I was in search of the Bodmer Overlook Trail and ended up at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, where the nice lady there set me straight. A wedding was being set up there.
On the way back to the trail, I accidentally ran over a pheasant. 😦
The Bodmer Overlook Trail was 0.9 miles each way. In 1833, Karl Bodmer sketched images of Fort Union, Assiniboine Indians, and the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The trail passed the site of the former town of Mondak (named because it straddled the Montana and North Dakota border).
At the Bodmer Overlook Trail, I walked through grassland, with grasshoppers hopping, crickets chirping and butterflies fluttering. The grasses shimmered in gold and green like an impressionist painting in progress.
I walked 1.73 miles in 41 minutes.
At the Bodmer Overlook, I was moved by the sight of the rivers and Fort Union down below, and the thought that Karl Bodmer was was at this spot almost two centuries ago painting the active trading scene he saw below.
I drove back out of the park, passing Welcome to North Dakota Legendary, then down the road to Fairview (Montana again), then back past Welcome to North Dakota Legendary. I drove 200 to 85S for 35 miles, while Guy Clark sang about stuff that works.
I passed the Tumbleweed Inn and Suites, Patriot Fuel and Patriot Lodging, while Big Thief sang about objects, and The XX sang “I dare you.”
As I drove from Fort Union to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I felt pricks on my skin, as if something was stinging me. With my hand, I felt something hard under my shirt, but it kept moving around, stinging me as it moved. I pulled off the road and whipped off my shirt. A grasshopper hopped out and after much hollering and shooing, I finally managed to show him out of the car. He hopped into the horizon as Kodaline sang “Follow Your Fire.”
Information about Fort Union Trading Post comes from a pamphlet distributed by the National Park Service.
Here is my cancellation stamp for Fort Union Trading Post.
*Saturday, September 14, 2019*