Friday, October 17, 2014

Fort Union Trading Post

Tour the US: North Dakota / Montana

Google Williston, ND, and you will find plenty of headlines about the oil field that has made the area into one big boomtown. Seemingly gone is the quiet life enjoyed on the (formerly) sparsely populated northern plains. However, go 30 miles south-west of Williston and you will find an outpost hanging on to the days of isolated frontier life.

Fort Union. NPS Photo

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site(not to be confused with the Fort Union military post in New Mexico) is perched on a grassy bank overlooking the Missouri River. As you approach on Highway 1804 (named after the year the Lewis and Clark expedition passed nearby), the white walls of the post shine brightly in the distance.

Despite the sturdy walls, the post served as a peaceful commercial trading point with local tribes such as the Assiniboine. Built in 1828 by the American Fur Company (founded by America's first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor), it represents the influence of the fur trade on the American west. Beaver, buffalo, and other pelts were traded for manufactured goods. The heated stones traditionally used to warm water, and which the name "Assiniboine" refers to, gave way to metal cooking pots.

George Catlin, Fort Union, Mouth of the Yellowstone River,
2000 Miles above St. Louis,

Fort Union also hosted American and European travellers, including artists and scientists such as John James Audubon, George Catlin, and Karl Bodmer.

Karl Bodmer, Magic pile erected by the Assiniboin Indians, 1830s; via NYPL.

While the original structure was disassembled and the materials used in the construction of nearby Fort Buford, built by the military in the mid-1860s, archaeological surveys and drawings left by artists (in particular Rudolph Friederich Kurz) have allowed the park to reconstruct part of Fort Union so visitors can experience a taste of the frontier fur trade.

A tipi encampment just outside the fort.



--Trade House

Entering through the large red gates that are the main entrance to the fort, the first building visitors encounter is the Trade House. Here you are greeted by a large fireplace, the smell of coffee brewing over the fire beckoning you in. Rangers dressed in period clothing demonstrate historic skills, such as finger-weaving, beading, or flint and steel fire starting. The Trade House, true to its name, features authentically reproduced merchandise that can still be traded for today (if you are short of buffalo pelts, they also take greenbacks). The Trade House is open seasonally.

Fingerwoven sash with glass beads.


The park holds an annual "Rendezvous" in the spirit of the yearly gathering of fur traders that was referred to by the same name. This is a great chance to see many historic skills demonstrated by the reenactors encamped around the fort. If you've ever wanted to watch a blacksmith work, try tanning a buffalo hide, and listen to fiddle music around the campfire, this is the event for you.

--Off Season

The impressive house at the far end of the courtyard is referred to as the Bourgeois House. It was the former site of the manager's residence. Today you will find a visitor center and small museum open all year round. Take a few minutes to enjoy the orientation film and warm up on those cold winter days.

Bourgeois House. NPS Photo by Emily Sunblade

--Limited Time or Mobility

Fort Union is a small site and can be seen in less than an hour if you're in a hurry. The parking lot is a ways away from the visitor center, but visitors who need assistance can request to be picked up and shuttled to the Bourgeois House. Some buildings require a step up to access.


 The Facts

Location: North Dakota / Montana border
Website: Fort Union Trading Post
Entrance Fee: Free!
Season: Park open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. Some buildings are closed during the winter.

Accommodations: The closest lodging is in Sidney, MT or Williston, ND. Due to a housing shortage, visitors may want to reserve their hotel room in advance. Primitive camping is available at Fort Buford State Historic Site several miles away.
Closest Airports: Williston, ND; Sidney, MT

Please note that the park is on the boundary between the Mountain and Central time zones, but operates in Central time.

Also, bring mosquito repellent.

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