Fort Union

Another fur trading post I like is Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. This reconstructed fort is about 25 miles southwest of Williston, ND. It is literally on the North Dakota/Montana border – the fort is in North Dakota and the parking lot is in Montana.  My photo shows the front of the fort.

The trading post was established in 1828 by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company on the Missouri River near where the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers meet.  The post traded buffalo hides, beaver pelts, and other furs for food, cloth and clothing, guns and ammunition, tools, cooking ware, and a host of other manufactured goods. Seven Indian tribes traded at the fort: Assiniboine, Plains Cree, Blackfeet, Plains Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikiara.

Over the years the trading post was visited by many well-known people, artists, and scientists like George Catlin, Prince Maximilian of Wied, Karl Bodmer, and John James Audubon. They recorded their observations in sketches, paintings, and journals, so the appearance of the fort was well documented.

In 1866 the military built Fort Buford* three miles to the east, and in 1867 Fort Union was purchased by the military. Fort Union was dismantled, and lumber and stone was salvaged and moved to Fort Buford. Passing steamboats, always hungry for wood for their fireboxes on their way to Fort Benton at the head of navigation on the Missouri, scavenged what wood was left behind. In a few short years Fort Union more or less vanished.

In 1966 the National Park Service acquired the site and began archeological exploration of the site. The fort was reconstructed in 1986-88 and shows what it looked like in 1851, at the peak of its fur trade with the Indians.

In some ways the story is sad; the tribes acquired the goods and supplies they coveted from the trading post, but the buffalo herds were decimated and the Indians’ way of life forever altered.

*Fort Buford was the site of Sitting Bull’s surrender to the military in 1881.


This is my photo of the Bourgeois House. Although this seems incongruous in the setting of an early 19th century trading post, this structure closely matches the sketches and paintings made by visitors at the time. The manager of the post lived well, and the house must have mightily impressed the Indian tribes. Unfortunately no visitor ever described what the interior of the building was like, so the reconstructors had to make educated guesses.

Today the building serves as the visitor center of the historic site. It contains a museum and a very good bookstore/giftshop.


This is a view of the fort from the rear.