Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism
" ...much pleased having arrived at this long wished for spot."
26 April 1805
On April 25, 1805, the Corps of Discovery camped by the riverside near the future site of Fort Union. Lewis and Clark hoped they were only weeks away from the Pacific via an all-water route, the mythical Northwest Passage. The group rested and celebrated their arrival at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.
Lewis wrote of their revels when reaching the intersection of the rivers:
joined the party at their encampment on the point of land formed by the junction of the two rivers; found them all in good health and much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot, and in order to add in some measure to the general pleasure which seemed to pervade our little community, we ordered a dram to be issued to each person; this soon produced the fiddle, and they spent the evening with much hilarity, singing and dancing, and seemed as perfectly to forget their past toils, as they appeared regardless of those to come.
The expedition journals noted the spot's potential as a trade location between two navigable rivers, the early highways of commerce.
Entering what would be Montana led the expedition into the land of the Blackfeet. Their first contact with this tribe had been less than promising. Trade talks at Fort Mandan had alerted that tribe to the new American presence. The Blackfeet had established strong ties with the British Canadians while trading furs for guns and other manufactured goods. British guns made the Blackfeet masters of the area, giving them the might to intimidate other tribes within the buffalo hunting grounds.
The Blackfeet threatened neighboring tribes with attacks if the U.S. government should tamper with the balance of power. In expedition journals, both captains expressed hope that their outnumbered force would never encounter the Blackfeet.
In 1806 Lewis and Clark split their then eastbound force to better explore the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. They rejoined near this site to continue their return journey. Shortly after setting out from this spot, Lewis was mistaken for an elk by one of his men and was wounded by a gun shot. The wound troubled him for the rest of the journey.
Two decades after the expedition, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Trading Company established Fort Union about 500 feet east of the modern Montana border. It served as a central trading post for the major tribes of the area.
The Assiniboine lived to the north, the Blackfeet to the west, and the Crow to the south. The Blackfeet, Crow and Assiniboine traveled hundreds of miles to exchange furs for goods.
Some of the most famous names in Western history passed through its gates, among them, missionary Father Pierre De Smet and naturalist John James Audubon.
Visitors from around the globe included famed artist Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian of Wied. The post became a cosmopolitan travel center for those wishing to view the vanishing frontier.
The post's main officer was called the "bourgeois." Aside from duties involving the annual arrival of steamboats and protection of the area, the bourgeois was occupied with the gathering of scientific specimens and information.
Fort Union remained a thriving trade center until smallpox swept through the local tribes. The epidemic went on to kill over 50 percent of Blackfoot Confederacy members. The first wave of the epidemic began in 1837 when the crew of the steamboat "St. Peter" brought the disease down river to Fort Union. Assiniboine and Blackfeet traders then took it back to their tribes and the lack of natural resistance caused it to spread rapidly. A second wave of the disease struck the Crow and Assiniboine in 1857.
Expansion from the east increased pressure on the tribes, leading to several outbreaks of hostility. Despite the construction of U.S. Army Fort Buford down river from Fort Union, maintaining safety in the area became impractical. The coming of the Civil War shifted attention from the West and Fort Union fell into disuse. It was abandoned finally and scrapped in 1867. Its lumber was used to complete Fort Buford.