WILLIAMS COUNTY, N.D. – Fort Union was established in 1828, an outpost in almost as remote a spot as could be found on the seemingly endless northern plains.
The fort was built on a high gravel bed flanking the north shore of the Missouri River, about a mile upstream from the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers and a spot Meriwether Lewis and William Clark noted when they passed this way in April 1805. Today, the result of nearly two centuries of geologic grinding has pushed the Missouri more than a half-mile from where it once flowed near the fort’s entrance. The path of the old river bed remains visible.
Fort Union operated for nearly 40 years, a hub of commerce and trade that generated a buzz of interconnected activity nearly unimaginable today. It closed in 1867, the result of changing market forces and the establishment of nearby Fort Buford. Today, a partial reproduction of Fort Union, complete with a gleaming white palisade anchored by two bastions – one of which includes six stones from the original structure – rises from the still remote, lonesome and windswept prairie.
The 444-acre property straddles the North Dakota-Montana border but the reconstructed fort is on the North Dakota side of the line.
Archaeological and excavation work began in the 1930s. The spot was declared a National Historic Site in 1966 and reconstruction began a few years later. Today the property is operated and managed by the National Park Service.
Visitors are often surprised to learn that Fort Union was not a military or government establishment, although at first glance it has the trappings of a 19th-century frontier military post.
It was actually a privately owned, commercially operated for-profit outfit founded by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and thrived largely on the trade and sale of beaver pelts. But beaver wasn’t the only commodity. Firearms and ammunition, beads, blankets, tools, buffalo robes, cooking tools, whiskey and a plethora of other goods exchanged hands. The great tribes of the Northern Plains – including the Assiniboine (who requested the establishment of the trading post), Blackfeet, Plains Cree, Plains Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – made Fort Union the most important and longest continually operated 19th-century trading post on the upper Missouri River.
“It was the Walmart of its day,” park ranger Lisa Sanden said. “The post traded for more than 25,000 buffalo robes and more than $100,000 in merchandise annually.”
The reconstructed fort is on the site of the original structure and includes a Bourgeois House, which was rebuilt on some of its foundation stones. The massive fireplace also includes several of its original stones. The two-story Bourgeois House was a spot of luxury and comfort not often found on the northern plains. It would have been home to the bourgeois, or post manager, and the site for entertaining the fort’s better-known visitors, which included artists and explorers such as John James Audubon, George Catlin, Prince Maximilian of Wied and Karl Bodmer.
“The upstairs part of the house, historically, would have probably been used for storage,” said Sanden. “And the basement would have been the wine cellar.”
Today the house holds a small museum, office space and a handful of period artifacts, including a beaver hat from the 1800s. The demand for beaver fur fueled much of the early trade activity.
The beaver hat was, for me, the most affecting artifact on display. Secured in a small, locked case, it had a surprisingly shiny black finish, very few blemishes and a narrow, slightly curved brim. The crown was about 10 inches high.
“Here at this fort people would have worn hats like this,” Sanden noted. “This could have been the bourgeois’ hat.”
Three or four beaver pelts were required to make one hat.
“When the fort opened in 1828, this was the reason,” she said. “They wanted beaver for making hats exactly like the one we have on display.”
Although Fort Union had no military association it did have a military connection. Fort Buford, a U.S. Army outpost, was established nearby in 1866. The two operated for about a year before the trading post was closed, dismantled and some of the wood and materials used to expand Fort Buford.
Today’s Fort Union National Historic Site does not include reproductions of every original building. The historic location of storage facilities, including the blacksmith shop, powder magazine and lodging for post workers and visitors, are marked with outline structures. It’s worth a visit.
If you go
The Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site is located about 25 miles southwest of Williston, North Dakota. The fort is open daily, weather permitting. Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Labor Day until Memorial Day. Admission is free.
For more information visit nps.gov/fous or call 701-572-9083.
Nearby Fort Buford operated from 1866 until its abandonment in 1895. It is now a state historic site. Details at history.nd.gov.
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