Fort Benton

I find the fur trade in the West quite interesting, and I have visited many historic sites of fur trading posts. One of my favorites is Fort Benton, both the fort and the town. I have visited Fort Benton several times over the last few decades. I am very fond of the fort and the city and their history.

The fort was established in 1846 in Blackfoot country on the Missouri River by the American Fur Company.  For a long time the fort was the only white settlement in Montana, and Fort Benton is often referred to as the birthplace of Montana (ignoring the Blackfoot unfortunately).

The trade was primarily in buffalo robes. The original structure was of log construction but that was gradually replaced with adobe. The adobe phase was completed by 1857. The fur trade in the area was over by 1868. The fort was used at various times as the Blackfoot Agency and a military post.

Eventually the fort was abandoned and fell into disrepair. By the early 1900s the only part still in existence was the northeast bastion, and efforts were made to preserve it. Much later a long-term reconstruction project was begun, and that project continues today. Much of the fort has now been reconstructed.

In this picture I took in August 2013 the historic bastion is the block-shaped (hence the name blockhouse) structure at the far end. The trees were not there in the 1840s.

 

This is an interior view of the reconstruction of Fort Benton. The building housed the quarters of the fort’s bourgeois; he was in charge of the fort. There were other offices and quarters for other people in the building. On the bottom floor of this reconstruction is the Starr Gallery of Western Art containing an impressive collection of art and sculpture.

Also reconstructed so far are the trade store and storehouse, the sally port gate, the blacksmith and carpenter shops, and log compound walls. It is all very well done. The trees in the picture were not in the original fort. The site of the fort became a city park for many decades. It would have been a shame to remove such beautiful cottonwoods.

At the 4:00 o’clock position under a canopy is a small section of the original adobe wall of the engagés’ quarters in the fort. The engagés were employees at the fort.

 

This is a view taken from the porch of the bourgeois quarters. The bastion is obscured by the carpenter and blacksmith shops. The sally port gate is between that building and the trade store/storehouse.

You also get a better view of that preserved section of adobe wall under the canopy.

 

A view out the sally port showing the Missouri River. Blacksmith and carpenter shops on the left, storehouse on the right.

 

In 1860 steamboats first reached Fort Benton. In 1862 gold was discovered in Montana. A town sprang up along the levee for over a mile upriver of the fort. These were the boom years for the town of Fort Benton. Fort Benton became the head of navigation on the Missouri River; steamboats were prevented from going farther upriver by waterfalls (where Great Falls was later established). Fort Benton became the innermost port and transportation center that supplied goods for hundreds of miles in all directions, including into Canada. It was probably the most important city in Montana at the time. It also became the toughest town in the West; there was little law on the upper river. Front Street along the levee became known as the Bloodiest Block in the West.

In 1883 the railroad reached Fort Benton and that pretty well killed the river trade. It lasted a few more years but quickly petered out.

The picture shows the levee at Fort Benton, looking downriver. The river flows northward at this point; the town is on the west side of the river. The trees were not there back in the 19th century. The trading post is at the far end of the trees. People in the town would first see steamboats as they rounded that barren hill in the background. I took the picture from the old railroad bridge.