On the Trail
The Missouri River served as a conduit into the West for Indian tribes such as the Mandans, who had a permanent village where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the winter of 1804-05 on their own westbound expedition. One mission for the explorers was determination of the potential for Americans to enter the fur trade.
In 1828 members of an American Fur Company trading party took the keelboat, Otter, up the Missouri to a point opposite the mouth of the Yellowstone River ” where they built a small cabin initially and later a large post surrounded by a cottonwood stockade. The post by 1830 became Fort Union and boasted a large, two story bourgeois house complete with a “widow’s walk” atop the roof.
Although started during the era of the beaver trade, Fort Union survived that period and became an important post. It was frequented by buffalo robe traders until 1865 when it was sold to the Northwest Fur Company (not the North West Company that had operated out of Montreal in the early days of the beaver trade). It then became a military post, occupied by galvanized Yankees until it was purchased two years later by the army. In 1867 most of the structures at Fort Union were dismantled and the materials used for development of Fort Buford, located a couple of miles down the Missouri River and established as an army post in 1866.
Today Fort Union has been rebuilt and is operated as Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Some of the structures have original features, including hearth stones in the trade house. A rendezvous takes place in mid-June with an Indian arts showcase in early August and living history programs Labor Day Weekend.
Fort Buford also has been restored and this state historic site every July holds the Fort Buford Sixth Infantry Frontier Military Encampment. This post existed to provide a northern military presence after gold discoveries in Idaho and Montana territories. Many gold seekers followed the Missouri to Fort Benton in Montana, although others traveled overland. The influx of miners led to increased tension with American Indian tribes and the soldiers stationed at Fort Buford were positioned to respond to potential difficulties.
As the Indian wars on the Northern Plains finally wound down in the late 1870s, Fort Buford remained garrisoned. It was here in 1881 that Sitting Bull, the Oglala medicine man who had been with Crazy Horse at Little Bighorn where Custer and his troopers were killed, finally surrendered. He and his closest followers had traveled north in 1876 following the Little Bighorn fight and lived in the intervening period near Fort Walsh in Alberta, Canada.
Fort Union and Fort Buford are near Williston, North Dakota. Also nearby is the Missouri-Yellowstone River Confluence Interpretive Center, which in August will have Bicentennial programs related to Lewis and Clark’s return to the region after their winter at Fort Clatsop near the Pacific Ocean. The center also plans a program related to Christmas on the frontier in December. They have permanent and temporary displays related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the people who made this region their home, from the time of the first native inhabitants.
Lt. Col. George A. Custer was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln prior to his survey of the Black Hills in 1874. His wife Libbie watched him ride from the same post on his way to destiny in 1876. Today this fort near Mandan and Bismarck operates as Fort Lincoln State Historic Park and features historic buildings, hiking trails, and a visitor’s center with interpretive tours. Nearby is the On-a-Slant Indian Village, which I’ve earlier featured in this column, with its reconstructed Mandan earth lodges that are used to depict the lifestyle of the Mandan Indians, who lived here from about 1575 until 1781.
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