Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
Fort Union Trading Post was a privately owned commercial establishment built along the Upper Missouri River by the American Fur Company in 1828. Originally known simply as Fort Union, it was constructed with the intent to establish and capitalize upon trade with the native tribes of the region...and capitalize it did. In just a few short years Fort Union had become the most profitable fur trading post on the Upper Missouri. At its peak, Fort Union boasted over $100,000 in sales annually (over $3,000,000 in today’s currency). This success translated into longevity for the post as well. When it was finally closed, in 1867, it had become the longest-lasting trading post ever in the American West. Built to impress, with stunning whitewashed walls and buildings topped by striking red trim and roofs, Fort Union sought to wow potential patrons much as fancy storefronts do today. Seven tribes comprised the majority of the trading business conducted at the post. They included the Assiniboine, Plains Cree, Blackfeet, Plains Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikiara…whose lands encompassed much of today’s Montana and the Dakota’s. The tribes, in the early years, brought in beaver pelts and then later more profitable buffalo pelts. In return the traders of the American Fur Company supplied goods and trinkets imported from across the world. This was a peaceful center of commerce as well. Despite certain defensive aspects of the post little, if any, significant violence was ever visited upon Fort Union. The post hosted a number of transient travelers as well…from pioneers to scientists to artists, all utilized Fort Union as a convenient place to stay for short periods. By the mid-1800’s the great American migration west had reached the Upper Missouri. The sovereignty of the United States over the region, which the existence of Fort Union had helped to solidify, became permanent with the opening of the west to settlement. Seeking to establish a military presence in the area Fort Buford was constructed nearby, in 1866, to control and protect the vital Missouri River. The following year the U.S. Army purchased Fort Union and promptly set about dismantling it. After nearly 40-years of business, Fort Union Trading Post was no more.
The plains quickly reclaimed the site of the old trading post…natural grasslands that were quickly transformed, in the years and decades that followed, into grazing and farmland. Despite the rush of settlers during the period of expansion, the western Dakota’s and eastern Montana remained a remote and relatively unpopulated region. Thankfully a few residents of the area never forgot the old post and, through their efforts, the National Park Service took possession of the historic property in 1966. Extensive archaeological studies followed the acquisition of the 400+ acre site. It wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that Fort Union once again began to rise from the plains. The reconstruction seen today has been built directly upon the original footprint of the old trading post. The 18-foot high whitewashed palisade wall with its red-roofed stone bastions, the towering flag pole and the magnificent Bourgeois House which confronts one upon stepping through the main gates…Fort Union Trading Post once again stands as a gleaming outpost upon the lonely plains. Through trade is no longer its purpose, the National Historic Site which now preserves the old post provides a fascinating glimpse at what life was like here at the height of the fur trade. The care and detail which has gone into recreating Fort Union as it was in 1851 makes the modern-day visitor feel as if the fur traders have just left yesterday, rather than 150-years ago. Remote as it still remains, relatively few people ever visit this fantastic historic site. That’s a shame, as Fort Union deserves more recognition than it receives. This is truly a hidden gem of our National Park System. So…should you find yourself crossing the plains of the Upper Missouri River, much as the trappers, tribes, and pioneers of years past also did, you should definitely make a point of stopping at Fort Union Trading Post.
What follows is a quick walking tour of Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site as it exists today. I've tried to include a bit of information, mostly gleaned from park literature, to describe the various highlights of the site as well. I hope you'll discover, as we did, what a unique and fascinating place this is...as always, I hope you ENJOY!!