Located on the upper Missouri River on the present-day Montana-North Dakota border, Fort Union was the nineteenth century’s most important and longest-surviving fur trading post. American Indians and people of many races created a system of community rule and law that sustained this frontier society.
In 1828, the post called Fort Union was constructed. The new post was built by a joint fur company called the Upper Missouri Outfit. Its builders hoped to take command of the fur trade from the Upper Missouri clear out to the Rockies. The new post would also make an exceptional staging area for launching trapping brigades into the Rocky Mountains.
Early in 1830, approximately 120 employees were hired to ascend the Missouri and finish the post. There are only four known stereographic photos in existence of Fort Union, one of which shows the bourgeois house in its final year of 1867. Sagging roof beam, deteriorating chimneys, missing window glass all suggest that the old house had seen better days.
Scientists, artists, researchers, and missionaries were frequent visitors. During George Catlin’s trip up the Missouri River in 1832 he visited Fort Union Trading Post and the Knife River Indian Villages. On this trip he put to pen the idea that became the inspiration for the National Park System. Pierre Jean De Smet, S.J., a diligent missionary, got along well with the fur traders and visited Fort Union several times between 1840 and 1864.
In the early 1860s, however, disruptions began to shatter the old world of fur traders on the Upper Missouri. The fur traders lost ground economically, politically, and institutionally, not only to entrepreneurial competitions, but to the national government as well. Fort Union, the Upper Missouri Outfit’s flagship post, played a commanding role in Upper Missouri affairs for almost four decades. No other trading post within the contiguous United States existed for so long.
In 1966, the U.S. Congress designated the site of the old post near Williston, North Dakota, a unit of the National Park Service to commemorate the importance of the western fur trade. By 1995, following years of archaeological excavation and archival research, the fort was almost fully reconstructed.
Museum curators lead guided walks of the fort’s historic grounds. Many events associated with the post’s history occurred outside the post’s palisade walls and walks showcase some of these little-known aspects of Fort Union’s history. Children and adults may also continue with a hike to Bodmer Overlook, where North Dakota’s purple-petaled pasqueflower bloom full in the spring. It was most likely from this vantage point that the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, in 1833, sketched what today is one of western North Dakota’s most famous images, “Fort Union on the Missouri.”
The site’s location offers birders the seasonal passage of an assortment of migratory and non-migratory birds, including Canada geese and white pelicans. In winter golden and bald eagles stop over and prey in the scattered open river waters. Smaller species include American Goldfinch, Lazuli Bunting, Black-Headed Grossbeak, and Pine Siskin.
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Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Central Time). These hours will be in effect until Memorial Weekend. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. CDT daily, except winter holidays.
Fort Union Trading Post is located 24 miles north of Sidney and 25 miles southwest of Williston, N.D., via Highway 1804. Visitors are encouraged to tour the reconstructed fort, trade room, and bourgeois house.
Fort Union is free of charge to visit. Stop in at the visitor center to get the latest updates, changes, and upcoming events, or visit the website at www.nps.gov/fous, or on Facebook.
For more information on Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, contact the park at (701)572-9083.