Ft. Union Rendezvous
Thursday, June 17, 2004
Today is the beginning of a four-day Ft. Union historical rendezvous, an annual event celebrating the history of the fur trade, early exploration, and the peaceful relations that existed between Ft. Union traders and the tribes of the Upper Missouri region in the early to mid-1800s. The event will end Sunday, on the anniversary of the fort being designated a National Historic Site in 1966.
John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company built Ft. Union Trading Post in 1828 near the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers southwest of present-day Williston. It was an ideal spot for doing business with Native Americans, and as many as 100 people were employed there.
The post was built specifically for trading with the Assiniboines, whose territory was north of the Missouri, but other tribes that regularly traded there included the Crow, Arikira, Mandan, Hidatsa, Plains Cree, Plains Chippewa, Blackfoot, Sioux, and Red River Valley Metis’.
Among notable travelers who visited were artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, some of whose works can now be seen on permanent display at the Fargo Public Library.
Prince Maximillian and his cousin, Duke Paul of Wuerttemberg also visited. Wildlife specialist John James Audubon spent many days at the post, as did Father Pierre DeSmet.
Mountain men Jim Bridger, Jim Beckwourth, and Hugh Glass each traveled to the fort as well.
At first, beaver skins were the primary furs brought in by the tribes for trade. Within a few years, buffalo robes replaced beavers as the primary exchange goods and remained so until the fort closed in 1867. At its zenith, Fort Union shipped out about 150,000 buffalo robes a year.
An outbreak of smallpox in 1837 devastated the post and the Native Americans who traded there. Tribes were warned to stay away, but some feared they were being tricked and came to the fort anyway. Inoculations were tried, but they didn’t work, and many tribes were almost completely wiped out, including 90% of the Mandans and Hidatsas.
Toward the end of the Civil War, Union troops arrived at the fort as part of General Alfred Sully’s vendetta against the Sioux. When Sully arrived, he immediately discounted Ft. Union as a military base, because it was too small and was becoming dilapidated. In 1866, he instead had his troops begin constructing Fort Buford, three miles east of Fort Union
The fur trade was declining by that time, because the buffalo’s migration patterns were shifting, as were tribal territories. Ft. Union was sold to the Army in 1867, and materials from the post were salvaged for use in expanding Ft. Buford.
Although Ft. Union was gone, it wasn’t forgotten. An Upper Missouri Historical Expedition solidified the memory of the trading post during a stopover at the site in May 1925.
A Great Northern Railway crew erected a flagpole, and a group of Mandan Indians constructed an earth lodge just south of what had been the fort’s south palisade wall. Crowds gathered for these events, and then gathered again the following year when the Columbia River Historical Expedition came through.
The National Park Service considered the site during the 1930s, and the State Historical Society took it over in 1941. During the ensuing years, the site was elevated to National status, the post was rebuilt, and now thousands of people visit Ft. Union every summer.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm