Discover Montana's National Parks through the lens of Brian D’Ambrosio, guest writer
Located on the Upper Missouri River on the present-day Montana-North Dakota border, Fort Union was the nineteenth century’s most important and longest-surviving fur trading post. Here, American Indians and people of many races created a system of community rule and law that sustained this frontier society. Fort Union affected U.S. relations with Great Britain, whose powerful Hudson’s Bay Company competed for furs on the Upper Missouri, and with the Blackfeet, Crow, Cree, and other Indian tribes.
In 1828, the trading post called Fort Union was constructed. The new post was built by a joint fur company called the Upper Missouri Outfit. Its builders hoped to take command of the fur trade from the Upper Missouri clear out to the Rockies. The new post would also make an exceptional staging area to launch trapping brigades into the Rocky Mountains. Early in 1830, approximately 120 employees were hired to ascend the Missouri and finish the post.
Scientists, artists, researchers, and missionaries were frequent visitors to Fort Union. During George Catlin’s trip up the Missouri River in 1832, he visited the trading post and the Knife River Indian villages. On this trip he put to pen the idea that became the inspiration for the National Park System. Pierre Jean De Smet, S.J., a diligent missionary, got along well with the fur traders and visited Fort Union several times between 1840 and 1864.
Fort Union, the Upper Missouri Outfit’s flagship post, played a commanding role in Upper Missouri affairs for almost four decades. No other trading post within the contiguous United States existed for so long. In the early 1860s, however, disruptions began to shatter the old world of fur traders on the Upper Missouri. The fur traders lost ground economically, politically, and institutionally, not only to entrepreneurial competition, but to the federal government as well.
There are only four known stereographic photos in existence of Fort Union, one of which shows the bourgeois house in 1867, its final year. Sagging roof beams, deteriorating chimneys, missing window glass—all suggest that the old house had seen better days.
In 1966, the U.S. Congress designated the site of the old post near Williston, North Dakota, a unit of the National Park Service to commemorate the importance of the western fur trade. By 1995—following years of archaeological excavation and archival research—the fort was almost fully reconstructed.
Museum curators lead guided walks of the fort’s historic grounds. Many events associated with the post’s history occurred outside the post’s palisade walls, and walks showcase some of these little-known aspects of Fort Union’s history.
Children and adults may also hike to Bodmer Overlook, where North Dakota’s purple-petaled pasqueflower blooms in the spring. It was most likely from this vantage point that the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer in 1833 sketched what today is one of western North Dakota’s most famous images, Fort Union on the Missouri.
The site’s location offers birders the seasonal passage of an assortment of migratory and nonmigratory birds, including Canada geese and white pelicans. In the winter, golden and bald eagles stop over and prey in the scattered open waters of the river. Smaller species include American goldfinch, lazuli bunting, black-headed grosbeak, and pine siskin.
Fort Union Trading Post is located 24 miles north of Sidney and 25 miles southwest of Williston, North Dakota, via North Dakota Highway 1804. While here, visitors are encouraged to tour the reconstructed fort, trade room, and bourgeois house.
Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Central Time) daily, except winter holidays, until Memorial Day; summer hours are 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. CDT daily until Labor Day.
Fort Union is free of charge to visit. Stop in at the visitor center to learn about the latest updates, changes, and upcoming events, contact the park at (701) 572-9083, or visit the website at www.nps.gov/fous or on Facebook.