Two years after Lewis and
Clark completed their journey, John Jacob Astor, a sober German immigrant
who had already acquired a small fortune in the fur trade and in trade
with China, wrote New York State's most powerful politician, De Witt
Clinton, then mayor of New York City. From his personal knowledge of the
fur trade and from studying the operations of the British companies in
Canada, Astor had developed some ideas "for carring on the furr trade in
the united states in A manner even more extensive that it is Done by the
comaneys in canada." He admitted his plan would require four or five years
in order to get control of "the whole of the furr trade & to extend it to
the weastern ocean." His transportation routes would be from both New York
and New Orleans, "up the Missiccppie and to have a range of Posts or
trading houses on the rout made by Captn Lewis to the Sea."
Astor pursued his dream
and, in the spring of 1808, the American Fur Company came into existence.
The organizational growth of the company during the next 26 years would be
a major study in itself, yet it is necessary to note certain stages,
subsidiary companies, and personalities along the way. One such name is
that of Ramsay Crooks.
Born in Scotland, Crooks
had come to Canada while still a teen-ager. After working briefly for fur
traders based in Montreal, he appeared in St. Louis where he joined
Astor's Pacific Fur Company when this subsidiary was formed in 1811.
Crooks climbed rapidly and, by 1817, was a member of the exclusive top
management of the American Fur Company.
Although the Pacific Fur
Company lost out to British traders on the Pacific coast during the War of
1812, Astor solidified his position at the same time in the Great Lakes
area through another subsidiary, the South West Company (i.e., southwest
of Montreal). In the spring of 1821, Astor acknowledged Crooks'
contributions to this period of the firm's growth by increasing Ramsay's
share in the company to one-fifth of the whole. The two men now felt ready
to take on the opposition for control of the Missouri River and the Rocky
Later that year, Crooks
sent an agent to St. Louis to negotiate with fur companies based there. At
first, this agent met with stubborn resistance as the pride of St. Louis
turned a deaf ear to the upstarts from the East. But, by 1823, the
American Fur Company succeeded in establishing its presence in St. Louis
when Stone, Bostwick, and Company agreed to serve as its agent.
At this time the Company
underwent still another reorganization. The Great Lakes area was renamed
the Northern Department; while the hoped-for but as yet unrealized
developments out of St. Louis were named the Western Department. Ramsay
Crooks took over the management of both departments.
Astor, though spending an
increasing amount of time in Europe now, continued to fret about the
slowness of the Western Department's expansion, especially up the Missouri
River. Two opposition companies, Bernard Pratte and Company and the
Columbia Fur Company, were particularly successful in keeping Astor's men
restricted pretty much to the role of buyers at St. Louis.
At this time, four St.
Louis men of French descent composed the firm of Bernard Pratte and
Company: Pratte himself, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., John P. Cabanne, and B.
Berthold, all members of important families. Mrs. Pratte and Pierre
Chouteau, Jr., were first cousins. They were also the grandchildren of
Lacléde Liquest, the founder of St. Louis. These two cousins demonstrated
both the feudalistic organization of French society in St. Louis and the
problem that Astor faced in trying to break into this society. So spirited
was the competition offered by Pratte's company that, in 1827, Astor gave
up trying to break it and came to terms with it. A contract was arranged
finally by which Bernard Pratte and Company assumed control of the Western
Department. Further cementing the ties between the two companies was
Ramsay Crooks' marriage two years earlier to Bernard Pratte's daughter.
Crooks next turned his
attention to the Columbia Fur Company. This dynamic, cocky organization
was composed mostly of ex-employees of the North West Company who had
migrated to St. Louis after that company merged with the Hudson's Bay
Company in the early 1820's. To overcome the law restricting foreigners in
the fur trade, an American named Tilton became the head of the company.
But he was just a figurehead; the real leader was Kenneth McKenzie.
Like Crooks, McKenzie had
been born in Scotland. He migrated to Canada before he was twenty and
became a clerk in the North West Company. After he arrived in St. Louis in
1822, he applied for American citizenship, which he eventually acquired.
Beyond anyone's doubt he was the ablest member of the Columbia Fur
Company. A ruthless, proud man, his ambitions were matched by his
abilities to realize them.
Crooks began his courtship
of the Columbia Fur Company as early as the summer of 1826. McKenzie
reacted by setting up conditions that the American Fur Company could not
accept. Undiscouraged, Crooks wrote McKenzie, "I am still disposed to
arrange for the future provided you are inclined to be moderate in your
expectations." Crooks saw the futility of trying to reach agreement by
writing letters and proposed that the two Scotsmen meet at Fort Snelling
"next April or perhaps even earlier."
In May 1827, Crooks
reported to Astor, then in New York, that he had met with McKenzie twice
(though not at Fort Snelling) and "I must say he was as frank as a prudent
man ought to be." More over, "to secure even Mr. McKenzie would be very
desirable for he is certainly the soul of his concern." Astor learned in
this letter that McKenzie would not come over to the American Fur Company
unless some of his associates came with him. This demand was easily
accommodated, for McKenzie wished to include only the more competent of
Negotiations continued in
St. Louis throughout June. Crooks realized he was up against a hard
bargainer; however, on July 6, he informed Astor "that after an almost
endless negociation [sic] I have at last succeeded in agreeing on
preliminaries with the Columbia Fur Company to give up their trade
entirely and take a share with us in that of the Upper Missouri."
The structure of the
American Fur Company was now virtually complete; only the Rocky Mountain
trade still lay outside its grasp. Astor and Crooks oversaw the whole
operation, with Crooks actively concerned with the management of both the
Northern and Western Departments. The Northern Department held a near
monopoly in its area of operations, while the Western Department, now with
both Chouteau and McKenzie in its folds, was ready to take control of the
upper Missouri and to challenge any and all who dared to compete. McKenzie
was placed in charge of the upper river and his organization's name was
changed from Columbia Fur Company to Upper Missouri Outfit, abbreviated in
correspondence and seals to UMO. Never subservient--indeed as independent
as before--the Upper Missouri Outfit worked with Bernard Pratte and
Company and the American Fur Company in the manner of an associate rather
than as a subordinate. But as far as the general public and the opposition
traders were concerned, the whole organization was known as the American
The agreement was not the
end of Crooks' work in St. Louis that summer. Pierre Chouteau, Jr.'s
health was very poor for the moment and he was not up to supervising the
preparation of outfits for the upper Missouri. Besides that, Crooks
concluded, Pierre needed a little more training in the methods employed by
the American Fur Company. Thus Crooks remained in the humid city
overseeing the departure of the outfits for the newly-acquired empire.
Crooks was soon to learn
that he did not have to worry about Chouteau's stamina. Known in his
family as Cadet, Pierre was soon to prove himself as the most dynamic
leader in the St. Louis fur industry. Born in the city in 1789, he had
become a clerk for his father, Pierre, Sr., when 15 years old. He had
traveled up the Missouri as early as 1809 and, as the years passed, added
to his knowledge and experience of handling men and furs. In the next few
years, his increasing stature would show itself in the name-changes of his
company, first to Pratte, Chouteau & Company; then, with Pratte's
retirement in 1838, to Pierre Chouteau, Jr., & Company.
Chouteau, described by
DeVoto as a financier with an "empire-building mind, hard, brilliant,
daring, speculative, and ruthless," recovered his strength and assumed his
responsibilities. Soon he would be advising his associates, "erasez
toute opposition," and employing every stratagem necessary to that
The inventories of the
former posts of the Columbia Fur Company were completed by 1828. Crooks
wrote to Chouteau, "I am rejoiced to find our new ally Mr. McKenzie was so
reasonable in adjusting the matters connected with the Inventories." By
the fall of 1828, McKenzie was ready to build the citadel from which he
would rule the upper Missouri. He would be called King by both enemy and
friend; the seat of his kingdom would be called Fort Union.
Between the time Capt.
Meriwether Lewis had camped nearby in the spring of 1805 and the arrival
of Kenneth McKenzie in the area, the junction of the Missouri and the
Yellowstone had witnessed the fires of many whites. In the fall of 1822,
Andrew Henry and William H. Ashley, considered to be the innovators of the
annual rendezvous system in the Rockies, built a small post at the meeting
point of the two streams. However, Henry found this location to be farther
from the beaver country than he liked, and he soon moved his establishment
up the Yellowstone.
Three years later, 1825,
Gen. Henry Atkinson led a considerable number of troops to the junction,
which a diarist described as "the most beautiful spot we have seen on the
river." The soldiers found the ruins of Henry's fort, and somewhere near
it set up a temporary camp they called Barbour. A portion of the troops
remained here while the rest escorted the Indian agent, Benjamin O'Fallon,
up the Missouri to meet with the less than friendly Blackfeet. The entire
command soon descended the river again for the benefits of civilization.
About this same time, James
Kipp, an associate of Kenneth McKenzie in the Columbia Fur Company,
founded a post at the junction of the Missouri and White Earth rivers,
among the Assiniboins. While this post was some distance below the mouth
of the Yellowstone, it was closer than any other and provided Kipp,
McKenzie, and the others a location from which to become better acquainted
with the trade potential of the upper country.
McKenzie, now in charge of
the Upper Missouri Outfit, decided to build a post near the mouth of the
Yellowstone. Here he could trade with the Assiniboins, who wandered the
prairies toward the north; with the Crows, located up the Yellowstone; and
perhaps with the Blackfeet, farther up the Missouri. From here also
expeditions could be organized for the Rocky Mountains (he had wanted to
get involved more directly with the mountain trade but Pierre Chouteau, Jr.,
had persuaded him that the upper Missouri would be more profitable). If
the post was efficient enough, it could also attract the trade of the
free, or unassociated, trappers throughout the country.
Only one or two historians
have, over the years, offered documented evidence as to the date McKenzie
started his new fort. One such was Hiram Chittenden who quoted from a
letter, now lost, that McKenzie had established a fort near the mouth of
the Yellowstone at least as early as December 1828, and that this post was
called Fort Floyd.
Chittenden also quoted, in
French, from a letter written by Pierre Chouteau, Jr., to William Astor,
John Jacob's son. The present whereabouts of this letter, dated April 19,
1830, is also unknown. The translation reads:
On my arrival here (St.
Louis) on the 16th [April, 1830], I found a letter from Mr. McKenzie of
28 December, 1829, and ones dated 2 and 20 January , 200 miles
above the Yellow Stone. The mountain hunters were not as successful in
the fall hunt as he had hoped, but he hopes for more success in the
spring. It is his opinion that there will be many more robes this year
than is the usual case; that is to say in the three upper posts, at the
Mandans, at the mouth of the Yellow Stone, and Fort Union 200 miles
above, and he says that the upper country is very rich in beaver and
This is the earliest known
reference to a Fort Union, even though this Fort Union was or was to be
200 miles above the junction. The letter is not at all clear as to whether
this Fort Union was built or still in the planning stage. As far as it may
be otherwise determined, the Upper Missouri Outfit did not have any forts
that far up the river at that time. The letter does imply, of course, that
McKenzie was 200 miles up the Missouri beyond the junction for a good part
of January 1830.
Considering both sources,
one must assume there was a Fort Floyd. But it is not shown that this Fort
Floyd was at the same location as Fort Union is known to have been, nor is
it shown that the upriver Fort Union mentioned by Chouteau was ever built.
Two letters by William
Laidlaw, another ex-Columbia man, now at Fort Tecumseh, tell us that
McKenzie was on the upper Missouri in 1829. One of them, dated August 13,
said that "McKenzie left here about 25 days ago for the Upper Country he
was able to take with him a tolerable aportment of goods." Two months
later, on October 26, Laidlaw wrote, "The last news from Mr McKensie (sic)
he was at white earth river waiting for the summer boat, after her arrival
he was to proceed up to the mouth of Yellow Stone river and winter there."
Did McKenzie return to the
Fort Floyd he mentioned the previous December? If so, did this fort evolve
into Fort Union? The available evidence answers with a resounding silence.
Prince Maximilian, a visitor to Fort Union in 1833, learned that "the
erection of Fort Union was commenced in the autumn of 1829, by Mr.
McKenzie." Since the prince undoubtedly got this information
directly from his good friend, McKenzie, it should not be ignored. Edwin
T. Denig, who knew the fort well, made a similar statement in 1843, "The
fort itself was begun in the fall of 1829, under the superintendence of
Despite Chittenden's belief
that Fort Union grew out of Fort Floyd and thus its founding date was
1828, this report will assume that Fort Union was founded in the fall of
1829, when McKenzie went up to the junction of the two rivers from Fort
Tecumseh. And it will assume that Fort Union did not evolve out of Fort
Floyd, a post of some nature that is found in the documents by name but
The earliest mention of the
name Union, as applied to the known historic site, was in a letter that
Kenneth McKenzie sent to the "Gentleman in charge of Fort Tecumseh," which
he dated Fort Union, May 5, 1830, less than three weeks after Chouteau
applied the name to a site 200 miles upstream. 
In this letter, McKenzie asked that various supplies be sent up. From the
list, one may determine that both trade (beaver traps, shirts) and
construction (pitsaw files) were actively under way. He also wanted sent
up his "gray mare & her colt and John Dougherty's little mare." McKenzie
was planning to stay.
He had reason to believe
that the fort was well located. One would have looked up and down the
Missouri vainly for a better location in this general area. Rather than
locate the post right at the junction, where the land was level but low,
McKenzie picked a high spot on the north bank of the Missouri about five
miles by water above the junction. There was a considerable growth
of trees on points immediately above and below this site, trees which
would supply both building timbers and firewood. The site was at least 20
feet above the river, high enough to be safe from the annual floods. The
ground here was a level prairie that stretched away to the north for a
mile or so, thus providing ample space for the Indian camps at trading
time. Farther off to the northeast was a sizeable canyon that led down
from the high prairies beyond the skyline; this canyon would provide an
avenue of approach to the fort for the Assiniboins. And, perhaps most
important, the river ran close to this bank, thus allowing boats to tie up
near the fort and reducing the portage of cargo to but a few feet.
This was the country of the
big sky, the immense herds of buffalo, the high plains, and the Indians of
the tipi. But it was not entirely a paradise. Nearly always, strong winds
tore across the prairies, mosquitoes plagued man and beast in the spring,
and the winters were long and bitterly cold. One employee wrote that the
post was "exposed to every wind that blows from any point of the compass,
is said to be the coldest place of all the posts be longing to this
company--even as cold as those situated on Hudson Bay." The fort would
have to be firmly built.
The letter books of the
period do not describe the beginning of construction of Fort Union.
Chittenden, noting James Kipp's experience at fort building, has suggested
that most likely he was the supervisor of the work. Another writer has
stated that métis laborers did the actual work.
While there may have been
some métis employed at the fort, it is more probable that the skilled
workmen (carpenters, masons) came from St. Louis and that the large
majority of the laborers were French Canadian engagés, out from
Quebec. The American Fur Company regularly had a recruiter in Quebec, and
a new batch of 43 mangeurs du lard had arrived at Fort Tecumseh in
The first task involved the
cutting and hewing of suitable timber and hauling it to the site. A stout
palisade of vertical logs soon enclosed a quadrangle 220 by 240 feet. The
long axis of the fort ran almost due north and south; while the shorter
sides paralleled the river. The apartments of the employees occupied a
long building on the western side of the interior. A similar building
containing the storerooms and the retail store stood opposite, on the east
side. At the north end stood the bourgeois' house and, behind it, a
kitchen. In the western half of the north end was a large but simple gate
that led out on to the prairie. On the front, or southern end, were the
main gate, a reception room for Indians, and shops for various trades such
as the blacksmith and the tinner. Other, smaller structures stood here and
there around the perimeter. At the northeast and southwest corners stood
imposing, 2-story, stone bastions. In the center of the court a tall flag
staff reached for the sky.
Each and all of these
structures will be discussed individually and in detail in other sections
of this report. However, the above general description will provide a
stage for the incidents and events that were to befall the occupants for
the next 35 years.
The first international
visitor to Fort Union arrived in May 1830, when Prince Paul, or Duke Paul
Wilhelm of W¨rttemberg, a southern German state, arrived on his second
trip to the United States. Although a major general in the army of
Frederick II of Prussia, and related to most of the reigning monarchs of
Europe, Prince Paul was interested in neither the military nor court life.
Instead, he dedicated himself to exploring the far corners of the world;
at this time, Fort Union qualified as a far corner.
His biographer states that
Prince Paul was a "fine sketch artist." However, no results of his pen
have been found. There is an unsubstantiated, and hopefully erroneous,
rumor that his work was destroyed during the air raids of World War II.
While no written account by
Prince Paul seems to have survived, there is a record of his purchases at
Fort Union. They show him to have been rather an easy spender. Between May
17 and August 2, he ran up a bill of $714.75. This sum can be broken down
to show expenditures in buying trade goods, necessary supplies such as
powder and ball, specimens of Indian handicraft, liquor, and pay for
servants supplied by the company. Although he seems to have paid his bill
in full at Fort Union, Prince Paul returned to Germany owing money to
Pratte, Chouteau, and Co. Later, in 1833, John Jacob Astor wrote his son
from Europe that Prince Paul "has neither money nor credit, but he hopes
to get the amount of your [Chouteau's] claim in the course of a few
Another prince who visited
Fort Union in 1830 was Tchatka, an Assiniboin. For most of the time that
Fort Union was in existence, there was little danger of an attack by the
Assiniboins, or anyone else. However, in this year, Tchatka, or le Gaucher,
offered a very real threat. Having lost face among his followers when he
suffered a defeat at the hands of the Blackfeet, le Gaucher attempted to
regain his lost prestige by offering his 200 followers a scheme whereby to
capture the fort. Arriving at the post, he persuaded McKenzie to believe
that his men were on their way to attack Minnitarees and he asked for
Despite the stout
palisades, it was often the custom at Fort Union to allow trusted Indians
to sleep inside the fort; on this occasion, McKenzie gave such permission.
At bedtime, le Gaucher's men retired to the various rooms to which they
had been assigned. According to the plan, they were to await a signal from
le Gaucher, at which time they would attack their white roommates.
One of the white employees
had an Assiniboin wife whose brother, one of the attackers, warned her of
the plan. She, in turn, passed the warning on. McKenzie acted as if he
knew nothing. During the night, he summoned the 80-odd employees then at
the fort to come to the main house, a few at a time. He armed his men and
had them occupy the stone bastions and other strategic points. When his
men were ready, McKenzie had le Gaucher brought to his room. He informed
the chief of his awareness of the attack, and gave him the opportunity to
leave peacefully before the whites opened fire. The Assiniboins left.
McKenzie traveled down the
river in the summer of 1830. When he returned to Fort Union, he found
there a trapper by the name of Berger. This old-timer had learned the
Blackfoot language when working for the British. Until now, nearly every
effort by Americans to trade with the Blackfeet or to hunt in their
territory, which lay above Fort Union, had ended in an attack by the
Indians. McKenzie persuaded Berger to visit the upper tributaries and to
talk the Blackfeet into sending a delegation to Fort Union. Berger was
successful in this effort in 1831, and the Blackfeet agreed to let
McKenzie send James Kipp up to trade. This resulted in the eventual
establishment of Fort McKenzie near the mouth of Marias River. McKenzie's
success with the Blackfeet, where other American traders had failed,
increased his stature as king of the upper Missouri.
Later, he turned his
attention to the Crows on the Yellowstone and, in 1832, established Fort
Cass at the mouth of the Big Horn River. This made Fort Union the pivot
point for the upper reaches of both rivers; its storerooms supplied the
trade goods and stored the furs and robes.
A few months before the
establishment of Fort Cass, McKenzie almost lost Fort Union to fire. In
the middle of the night, February 3, 1832, shouts of "Fire!" woke him up.
He ran from his house to find blazing "the range of buildings forming the
west quadrangle of the fort (120 ft. by 24 ft.) and occupied by the
clerks, interpreters, mechanics, and engagees, with their families, of
squalling children not a few."
In describing the origins
and results of the fire, McKenzie made mention of some structural details.
The fire began in Francois Chardon's room, "originating beneath the floor,
and there being. . . a free communication under the whole range, and much
rubbish. . . it was almost simultaneous in every department." Among the
items destroyed were trunks of clothing, a year's collection of buffalo
tongues, rifles, pistols, and rare white beaver skins. McKenzie described
both a loft and a cellar. The loft contained nearly 1,000 planks, stored
there to season and which had taken two men six months to saw. The cellar
was full of small kegs. Today, there is a depression in the ground about
where the northwest room of this "range" should be.
The meat house was also
threatened by the fire, but it survived. Also of great worry to McKenzie
was a supply of gunpowder kept in the storeroom on the east side. By four
a. m., however, the fire was under control. Besides the line of quarters,
most of the west wall also burned. Quarters were found for the homeless
and repairs of the wall began immediately. The men cut 170 trees on the
next day and five days later had replaced all the burnt pickets. McKenzie
wrote that it would be "months before the buildings can be reinstated. In
our wooden houses I fear we are all too little cautious." By early summer,
most of the fire scars had disappeared and it was time for the boats from
Until 1832, the principal
craft on the upper Missouri for hauling supplies upstream was the
keelboat. A crew of 20 to 40 men pulled this craft against the current by
means of a line, or cordelle. Occasionally the wind would be strong enough
to use sails; from time to time conditions of the water or the banks would
force the crew to pole or to row. All the time, getting a cargo the 2,000
miles from St. Louis to Fort Union was desperately hard work.
McKenzie believed that the
transportation problem could be greatly reduced by employing a
properly-designed steamboat on the Missouri Snags, boiler explosions,
mechanical breakdowns would be dangers, but danger awaited all kinds of
craft when the river was in a rage. McKenzie finally persuaded Pierre
Chouteau, Jr., to invest in the building of a shallow-draft steamboat. In
1831, the Yellow Stone puffed as far as Fort Tecumseh, about
two-thirds of the way to Fort Union.
Writing from Paris in the
summer of 1832, John Jacob Astor asked, "How did the Yellow Stone behave,
and what said the Indians about her?" He soon got the answer. McKenzie's
idea was a success; the Yellow Stone reached Fort Union about the
middle of June.
Aboard was Pierre Chouteau,
Jr., himself, who had had a fine time coming up, including a stopover to
christen the rebuilt fort at Tecumseh as Fort Pierre. John F. Sanford,
sub-Indian agent and who married Pierre's daughter, Emilie, was also a
passenger. But the passenger destined to become more widely known than
they was George Catlin, America's first artist on the upper Missouri.
Scorned by artists who later visited Fort Union, Catlin has survived the
passing decades and his portraits of far-western Indians are today
recognized as a substantial contribution to art and to ethnology.
However, Catlin's two
sketches of Fort Union leave much to be desired by the historian. One of
these is a mere scribble, possibly done aboard the steamboat approaching
the post. The other is a finished painting that Catlin displayed in his
European exhibits. This is not a great drawing of the distant fort either,
although it does catch the appearance of the country. On the other hand,
the drawing is not as bad as its critics have maintained.
In the end, Catlin earned a
reputation of hastiness and awkwardness. John C. Ewers points out,
however, that during the 86 days Catlin spent on the Missouri, he produced
more than 135 pictures, a very large output for so short a time.
Of greater interest than
his painting are Catlin's comments on Fort Union. The post struck him as a
very substantial Fort. . . with bastions armed with ordnance, and our
approach to it under the continued roar of cannon for half an hour, and
the shrill yells of the half-affrighted savages who lined the shores,
presented a scene of the most thrilling appearance. Catlin noted that
Union was "the largest and best-built establishment of the kind on the
river, being the great or principal head-quarters and depot of the Fur
Company's business in this region."
During the next few days,
he learned other details of the post "which contains some eight or ten
log-houses and stores, and has generally forty or fifty men." Among the
buildings already in use was the all-important and "spacious" ice-house,
used for preserving meat and cooling drinks. He noted, too, that McKenzie
had a scow for crossing to the south bank, a boat large enough to ferry
one-horse carts. Catlin did not say where he slept, but he reported using
one of the bastions as a painting room, "My easel stands before me, and
the cool breech of a twelve-pounder makes me a comfortable seat, whilst
her muzzle is looking out at one of the port-holes."
Indians were allowed into
the fort to watch Catlin paint. He observed that when they entered they
had to place their weapons in the "arsenal." He was the only one to use
this term; it is difficult to determine what room was used for this
Catlin was as much
impressed with McKenzie as he was with the post. He described the king as
"a kind-hearted and high-minded Scotsman," who "lives in good and
comfortable style." McKenzie's table "groans under the luxuries of the
country; with buffalo meat and tongues, with beavers' tails and
marrow-fat; but," strangely enough, "sans coffee, sans bread
and butter. Good cheer and good living we get at it however, and good wine
also, for a bottle of Madeira and one of excellent Port are set in a pail
of ice every day, and exhausted at dinner."
The artist also met James
Archdale Hamilton, another of the unusual characters at Fort Union.
Hamilton was an Englishman of exceptionally good education. His associates
believed him to be a nobleman whose real name was Archibald Palmer.
Considered to be a good host, but an eccentric man, Hamilton hated
Indians, a rather odd attitude considering his environment. The French
Canadian employees were said to hold him in awe because he took a bath and
put on a clean shirt every day. Catlin described Hamilton as a gentleman
who was "a complete store-house of ancient and modern literature and art."
Besides the Assiniboins,
Catlin had the opportunity to study both Blackfeet and Crees, when a band
of each came in at the same time. To keep them from fighting, McKenzie had
them camp on opposite sides of the fort, out on the prairie, and he
disarmed them for the duration of their stay. That he could enforce such
acts was an acknowledgement of his great power. According to Catlin, there
was no trouble until the Crees broke camp. At the last minute, one of them
poked "the muzzle of his gun through between the piquets [sic] and fatally
wounded a Blackfoot inside the fort.
The Indians would call the
steamboats the "Fire Boats that walked on the waters;" and the successful
trip of the Yellow Stone introduced the beginning of a new period
of travel on the upper Missouri. Fort Union was already on its way to
being the most handsome of posts; now, with the ease of transportation,
McKenzie and his successors would turn it into an establishment almost
luxurious in nature. News of the boat's success was carried by newspapers
in both America and Europe. Astor wrote from France, "your voyage in the
yellow stone attracted much attention in Europe & has been notiesed in all
the Papers here." Crooks wrote Chouteau, "I congratulate you most
cordially on your perseverance and ultimate success in reaching the Yellow
Stone by steam, and the future Historian of Missouri will preserve for you
the honorable and enviable distinction of having accomplished an object of
For the moment, the
American Fur Company had complete control over the upper Missouri and its
tributaries. But it had not yet control over the Rocky Mountain trade;
now, from that region, came the threat of opposition. Robert Campbell had
left Northern Ireland in 1824 and had migrated to St. Louis because of
poor health. Before long, he entered the fur trade wherein he met up with
William Sublette, one of several brothers who collectively were known
throughout the length and breadth of the far west. At the end of 1832, the
two formed a partnership and planned to challenge the American Fur Company
by erecting a competing fort next to every company post along the
In the summer of 1833,
Campbell led a group of traders overland to the mouth of the Yellowstone
where he met Sublette, who had come up the Missouri by steamboat with
supplies and trade goods. Near the junction, on the same side of the river
as Fort Union, and about 2-1/2 miles below as the crow flew, the partners
began building the wooden establishment, Fort William, named for Sublette.
One of their employees,
Charles Larpenteur, described the fort as being 150 by 130 feet, located
200 yards from the Missouri, precisely where Fort Buford's sawmill would
stand in the 1870's. The 15-foot stockade was made of cottonwood, with an
additional three feet planted in the ground. The bourgeois' house was a
cabin of two rooms separated by a breezeway. In addition, there were two
rooms for men's quarters, a combination store and warehouse, ice and meat
houses, various shops, "and two splendid bastions." The entire complex was
finished by Christmas, an indication of its inferiority to Fort Union
which took over four years to complete.
Sublette, sick ever since
he arrived, went back to St. Louis after three weeks. His departure would
mean trouble for Kenneth McKenzie as will be later noted. Campbell,
supplied with a large quantity of illicit liquor set out to capture the
Indian trade from McKenzie. McKenzie, also well supplied with alcohol, was
determined to destroy Fort William economically. By the end of the year,
Campbell would learn just how ruthless McKenzie could be.
The irritations began in
the fall. When Campbell made an offer to sell out, McKenzie turned him
down. He would rather force Campbell out than buy him out. A few days
later, Campbell learned that two men had found a packet of beaver that he
had lost the past summer and had sold the beaver to McKenzie. Campbell
went up to Fort Union to argue that the furs were his, but without
success. Next, he discovered that Francois Dechamps, an employee, was
actually a spy for McKenzie. Worst of all, "McKenzie gives as much wisky
as the Indians can drink for nothing. Barrel after Barrel he sends all
around amongst the Indians and those will not trade otherwise."
On New Year's Eve, Campbell
was wholly discouraged, "I can safely say as unhappy a time as this I have
never before passed during my life. What is worst our prospects are not
good for McKenzie has hired our interpreters and bribed them whilst they
were here to betray us."
McKenzie was almost
enjoying his destruction of the opposition. In January 1834, he wrote,
"although on their first start here, they made a great show and promise to
the Indians and although among the men nothing was talked about but the
new company, they live now at the sign of 'The case is altered.' Their
interpreters have. . . left them and are now working hard for me." He
concluded, "the new company is in bad odor and must sink."
Then, in April 1834, just
when McKenzie was sure of driving out Sublette and Campbell, Chouteau
wrote him that he had bought out the opposition. McKenzie was
disappointed, and not at all convinced that it had been necessary to have
spent the money. His method would have been cheaper.
Before leaving Campbell and
his fort, a further look at his journal is necessary. Several times in
1833 he was a guest at Fort Union, and his diary entries add to our
information. In September he went up to visit Hamilton who had been ill.
Being the gentleman, Hamilton showed Campbell "the buildings even to the
Ice House and Stables and every convenience of the fort. The Ice House
serves for Lumber having a door in the floor and a descent by rope ladder
to the Ice." Assuming his description to be accurate, there should be
traces of the ice house cellar today.
On December 15, Campbell
made an entry in his journal of a disaster at Fort Union: "Last night two
sides of McKenzies new fort was leveled with the ground" because of a
strong wind. "He had built a stone and lime foundation and raised his
pickets thereon but it appears something more substantial is required in
this country to brave the winds." Fort Union's carpenters solved this
problem when they rebuilt the walls. Denig described the new construction:
"This space is enclosed by pickets. . . twenty feet high, made of hewn
cottonwood, and founded upon stone. The pickets are fitted into an open
framework in the inside, of sufficient strength to counterbalance their
weight, and sustained by braces in the form of an X, which reaches in the
inside from the pickets to the frame, so as to make the whole completely
solid and secure, from either storm or attack." These braces may be seen
in at least two of the sketches made of Fort Union's interior.
Campbell was also a visitor
to Fort Union on the occasion of a dinner for Prince Maximilian of Wied,
the second German prince to visit Fort Union. On October 2, Campbell
wrote, "I received a note from Mr. Hamilton inviting me to dine and to be
made acquaint[ed] with the Baron Bransburgh [Braunsberg, which Maximilian
liked to call himself] or Prince of Newyd [Neuwied]." Campbell went up
"and passed a pleasant evening in this society."
The prince had arrived at
Fort Union with McKenzie on June 24. Travelling with him was a Swiss
artist, Charles Bodmer, and a secretary, Mr. Drydopple. After a few weeks
at Union, the party traveled up to Fort McKenzie. When the prince returned
to Fort Union that fall, he learned that McKenzie was again temporarily
down the river. The prince remained for a few weeks as a guest of Hamilton
then went down to spend the winter at Fort Clark. Alexander Culbertson met
Maximilian and thought he looked like anything but a
prince--unostentatious, toothless, greasy trousers, and a worn black coat.
Maximilian had had considerable experience as a Prussian soldier, having
been made a prisoner-of-war at Jena, and, like Prince Paul, a major
general. In 1813 he had been in the allied army that had occupied Paris.
Now he was an explorer-scientist and committed to a simple manner of
Maximilian's journal gives
an intimate look at Fort Union, beginning with his first view of the post
late in the evening of June 24, 1833: "Fort Union, on a verdant plain,
with the handsome American flag, gilded by the last rays of evening,
floating in an azure sky, while a herd of horses grazing animated the
peaceful scene." As the steamer approached, the fort's cannon fired a
welcome salute. Hamilton came forth to greet the visitors, while the
employees, "Americans, Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, Russians,
Spaniards, and Italians, about 100 in number, with many Indians, and
half-breed women and children" welcomed the season's steamboat.
In describing the fort,
Maximilian said that the river was only 50 to 60 feet from the front of
the fort. To him the pickets seemed to be 15 or 16 feet high, "squared,
and placed close to each other, and surmounted by chevaux-de-frise," or a
barrier of spikes. He noted the large, folding gate at the front entrance,
on the river side. Facing the gate stood the bourgeois' house, "one story
high, and has four handsome glass windows on each side of the door. The
roof is spacious, and contains a large, light loft. This house is very
commodious, and, like all the buildings of the inner quadrangle,
constructed of poplar wood [cottonwood?], the staple wood for building in
this neighborhood." This is the earliest clear statement that in the
beginning the main house was only one story high, a height that Bodmer's
painting seems to confirm.
Maximilian also noted that
several half-breed hunters had erected their tipis around the flagpole and
that "a cannon was also placed here, with its mouth towards the principal
entrance." Besides its personnel, the fort contained "about fifty or sixty
horses, some mules, and an inconsiderable number of cattle, swine, goats,
fowls, and domestic animals." He saw that the horses were taken out on the
prairie during the day, under guard, but were brought back inside each
night. This was not too happy a situation, for it kept the yard very
dirty, especially when it was wet. McKenzie was concerned about this and
was planning a separate enclosure for the horses.
During the next few weeks,
Maximilian's busy pen made notes on the fort, Indians, and the fur trade.
In summing up the trade at Fort Union he observed that buffalo hides
(40,000-50,000) surpassed the number of beaver (25,000) skins. Other skins
collected included otter, weasel, marten, lynx, red fox, cross fox, silver
fox, mink, muskrat, and deer. The personnel of the fort, by themselves,
consumed from 600 to 800 buffalo annually. He mentioned that corn was
bought from neighboring tribes. He did not say that McKenzie used this
corn in his still, but that is another story.
He learned that vegetables
did not thrive, but that mosquitoes did. He listed the birds and animals
he saw, and attempted to give a census of the Assiniboins, deciding there
were 28,000, of whom 7,000 were warriors, and that they lived in 3,000
tipis. A few "wretchedly poor" Indians were at the fort when the prince
arrived. He wrote that "several apartments in the fort were assigned to
these visitors, where they cooked and slept."
As for himself and his
companions, they had "a comfortable lodging" in McKenzie's house, "and we
lived here very pleasantly, in a plain style, suitable to the resources of
so remote a place." The prince did better than Catlin in that he had
coffee as well as wine every day, along with buffalo flesh and bread.
Very shortly after
Maximilian arrived, a large number of Assiniboins came in, impressing the
Towards the northwest,
the whole prairie was covered with scattered Indians, whose numerous
dogs drew the sledges with the baggage; a close body of warriors, about
250 or 300 in number, had formed themselves in the center, in the manner
of two bodies of infantry, and advanced in quick time towards the fort.
The Indian warriors marched in close ranks, three or four men deep, not
keeping their file very regularly, yet in pretty good order, and formed
a considerable line. Before the center. . . three or four chiefs
advanced, arm in arm, and from the ranks. . . loud musket-shots were
heard. The whole troop of these warriors now commenced their original
song. . . many abrupt, broken tones. . . . The loaded dogs, guided by
women and children, surrounded the nucleus of warriors . . .
They advanced to within
about sixty paces, then halted at a fosse [a ditch, or small ravine]
running from the Missouri past the fort, and waited, the chief standing
in front, for our welcome.
Maximilian realized that he
was witnessing an event, a way of life, that would disappear from the
American scene as fast as man could destroy it. His vivid description
fixes permanently the image of that way of life.
Bodmer was the artist of
the expedition, but the prince himself drew a general plan of the fort on
which he labeled the various structures. Although this plan is known to
exist still, it is not at this time available for publication. While the
plan would illuminate this report, optimism suggests that it will be
available in time to be of value to any potential restoration.
When Maximilian left, July
6, for Fort McKenzie among the Blackfeet, McKenzie had a fireworks display
set off along the bank of the river, hoisted the American flag, and fired
several guns. No prince, German or otherwise, could ever complain about
When he returned in the
autumn, the prince found "the whole prairie . . . naked, dry, and
withered." Instead of hundreds of Assiniboins, there was but one tent,
inhabited by a half-Blackfoot. The Missouri itself was "shallow, narrow,
and full of sand banks." McKenzie had gone; there were only fifty persons
at the fort under the control of Mr. Hamilton.
During the absence of the
prince, several improvements had occurred at the fort. Referring to the
fire of 1832, he noted that "a handsome solid powder magazine, of hewn
stone, which was capable of containing 50,000 lbs. of powder, was
completed." He noted too that a rail fence, which had to be renovated, was
almost finished. Another fence, the one around McKenzie's house, "was
damaged by a horse chewing on it even though it had been painted reddish
Maximilian had gathered a
large number of specimens and souvenirs by this time and, to his great
pleasure, Hamilton gave him the "spacious loft" in the bourgeois' house
where he could take everything out of the boxes and barrels to dry and
air. Bodmer also was given "a good clear room" in which to paint. Out of
his efforts came a number of superb paintings which were later reproduced
and made famous. The most important to the purposes here was one of Fort
Union from the north. It was the first detailed illustration known to have
As their time for departure
neared, the visitors went on a buffalo hunt. Among the post employees to
accompany them was McKenzie's Negro slave. Maximilian noted other persons
he met at the fort, such as Robert Campbell, the bourgeois at Fort
William, who came up to Union for dinner with the prince. He recorded too
those cool fall evenings, when he visited Hamilton in his apartment and
sat by the fireplace enjoying good punch and good conversation.
When Maximilian decided to
spend the winter at Fort Clark, both McKenzie and Hamilton were
disappointed for they were losing a good companion who would have helped
wile away the long blizzards of winter. The party left Fort Union on
October 31. The boat stopped briefly at Fort William where Campbell gave
them a parting gift of cigars. The long summer sojourn would not be
Maximilian's last contact with the American Fur Company. The very next
year, he would entertain Kenneth McKenzie at his German estates.
McKenzie's sudden decision
to visit Europe seems to have been based partly on a scandal of his
making, a scandal that threatened the operations of the American Fur
Company. In the summer of 1832, the U. S. Government tightened the laws
that prohibited liquor in the Indian country. Long a staple of trade,
liquor had always found its way to the traders who felt it to be essential
in order to at tract the Indians away from competitors, including the
British who did not prohibit it. In the fall of 1832, Crooks wrote a
worried letter regretting "truly the blindness of the Government in
refusing liquor. . . in the vicinity of the Hudson's Bay Posts."
McKenzie was so alarmed by
the prohibition that he made a personal visit to Washington in January
1833. When that failed, he cast about for some other means--in addition to
the time-honored but risky smuggling that all traders had and would
continue to carry out. By spring, he had concluded that while the laws
prohibited the transportation of liquor they did not prohibit its
manufacture in the Indian country. On the same steamboat that carried
Prince Maximilian to Fort Union that summer rode McKenzie's brand new
distillery. Also on board was a supply of alcohol, but it was taken off
when the boat was searched on the way up the river.
McKenzie wrote Crooks in
December 1833 telling him that Campbell and Sublette had succeeded in
smuggling an abundance of alcohol. However, Crooks need not be alarmed,
"For this post I have established a manufactory of strong water, it
succeeds admirably. I have a good corn with a very respectable distillery
and can produce as fine liquor as need be drank: I believe no law of the
U. S. is hereby broken though perhaps one may be made to break up my
distillery but liquor I must have or quit."
Unknown to McKenzie, news
of his still had already reached a rather wide circle of government
officials and others. When McKenzie finally did learn that the secret was
out, he blamed Nathaniel Wyeth.
Back in August, Wyeth,
returning to the East overland after attempting to establish his own fur
empire in the Pacific Northwest, stopped at Fort Union for three days.
Wyeth was highly impressed with McKenzie, "all possible hospitality and
politeness," by Hamilton, "a man of superior education and an Englishman,"
and by Fort Union, "better furnished inside than any British fort I have
ever seen [including Fort Vancouver] at Table we have flour Bread Bacon
Cheese Butter. . . they live well."
Wyeth went on to say that
"Fort Union is pleasantly situated on the N. bank of the Missouri. . . . I
am told that there is not enough moisture here to raise vegetables
potatoes grass ect." As he inspected the post, he saw "a small sturgeon
but they are very rare. . . Cat fish are good and plenty. . . they have
cows and bulls milk etc. I saw lime burning also [char]coal." He also saw
the still, "here they are beginning to distil spirits from corn traded
from the Inds. below. This owing to some restrictions on the introduction
of the article into the country." Later, on November 11, back in
Cambridge, Mass., Wyeth wrote a letter to the editor of a paper naming the
many people who had treated him well on his expedition. Among the names
was Kenneth McKenzie's.
Nowhere in Wyeth's accounts
can one find even a hint of his being displeased about his treatment while
at Fort Union, or of his deliberately reporting McKenzie's still to the
authorities. Yet, McKenzie blamed him, "in return for my civilities &
furnishing him with a boat. . . on his arrival at Cant n. Leavenworth I
hear he made some tremendous strong affidavits about my new manufactory."
Charles Larpenteur, who was to work for McKenzie, also thought it was
Wyeth who told, as revenge for the exorbitant prices McKenzie charged him
However, Wyeth may have
been blamed for something he did not do, or did not do alone. Travelling
down the Missouri with him was none other than McKenzie's arch-rival,
William Sublette. The Indian Commissioner in Washington learned about the
distillery from Henry L. Ellsworth, agent at Fort Leavenworth. According
to Ellsworth, he learned about the still from "a mountain trapper on his
way down the Missouri." He went on, "Mr. Sublitz of St. Louis just from
there [Fort Union], says, he tasted the whiskey made there, and found it
an excellent quality."
Federal officials gave
serious thought to suspending the UMO's trading license. Pierre Chouteau,
Jr., argued that the distillery was intended only "to promote the course
of Botany." While the license was not suspended, Ramsay Crooks did not
think the excuse to be very funny, "prenez-y-garde--Don't presume
too much on your recent escape from an accusation, which might have been
attended with serious consequences."
Meanwhile, from the
isolation of Fort Union, McKenzie, unaware that he had been experimenting
in botany, came up with his own excuse, "An old acquaintance of mine in
Red River Mr. J. P. Bourke addressed me last spring. . . in consequence
whereof I purchased a still in St. Louis, & brought it hitherto & last
fall he apprised me of his intention to come or send for it in April
next." He again accused Wyeth of telling.
The incident finally blew
over. The friends of the American Fur Company, some of whom held high
office, such as Secretary of War Lewis Cass, came to its assistance both
in this and other incidents involving McKenzie and his associates.
The location of the still
in the fort cannot be established; however, Larpenteur mentioned the
existence of a distillery house. This, of course, was not the end of the
liquor trade; the company continued to smuggle alcohol in quantity.
Larpenteur, the tee-totalling bartender, recounted, "The liquor business,
which was always done at night, sometimes kept me up all night turning out
drunken Indians, often by dragging them out by arms and legs." As for
McKenzie, upset by the buying out of Campbell and Sublette and the
business of the still, 1834 seemed like a good time to leave the upper
Missouri for a time and to visit Europe.
A few miscellaneous entries
in the records of the early 1830's add some detail to our understanding of
the post. At the end of 1833, McKenzie noted that "the tin Smith arrived
here Nov. 29. he is a good workman. I shall find him a most useful
artisan." There undoubtedly was some work for the tinsmith to do with
regard to the fort itself; however, his most important job was making
trade items such as bracelets, rings, and pots.
After McKenzie left on his
vacation in 1834, Hamilton became the acting bourgeois. In September, he
advised McKenzie by letter that one bastion was roofed, shingled, and
pointed, and the other was built up as high as the pickets. This rather
obscure news implies that either the two stone bastions were being rebuilt
or Catlin and Bodmer had chosen to depict the fort as it would look,
rather than as it did when they made their sketches.
Hamilton continued his news
by saying that Luteman (the head carpenter) had "made his arrangements for
the kitchen," and had "erected and shingled five compartments, under the
intended gallery." These compartments should not be confused with the
range of apartments in which the clerks, interpreters, etc., lived; they
were additional rooms built against the pickets and under a gallery that
would eventually extend around the fort. He noted also the production of
charcoal, "Michel has got 300 barrels of coal housed & his last kiln is
now ready to draw.
Three weeks later, Hamilton
reported that (the stone mason?) "Miller has finished the bastions &
starts today for St. Louis." Hamilton tried to get Miller to stay, but the
latter asked for too much money and, besides, "his work is inferior in
finish to Pow[der] Mag[azine]."
After Pratte, Chouteau, and
Company bought out Campbell and Sublette, McKenzie and Hamilton had Fort
William on their hands. They moved all or part of the stockade from
William to Union to make the long-wanted corral for the horse herd.
Larpenteur referred to this by writing, "Fort William was to be rebuilt
within 150 yards of Union." The foreman for this project proved so
incompetent, according to Larpenteur, that "the pickets were set in
crooked, some too high, some too low." Larpenteur was then given the job
of superintendent and he had the men take everything down, straighten and
level the trench, and start again. He succeeded in building a respectable
compound; at least he thought so.
Although the pickets were
moved up to Fort Union, the buildings at Fort William remained where they
were. In October 1834, Larpenteur was selling drinks to a number of
half-breeds, when a violent argument broke out. During the fight, one of
the Deschamps killed another man. Larpenteur was able to quiet things only
by putting laudanum (opium) in their whiskey. When the drunks recovered,
they "went home to Fort William, where all those families were kept, as
were also some of the Company's men who had squaws, and the horse guard
with the horses."
As early as August 1832,
John Jacob Astor had written that he feared "Beaver will not sell well
very soon unless very fine, it. . . appears that they make hats of silk in
place of Beaver." This letter was Astor's admission that the heyday of the
beaver trade (and the fabled mountain man) was drawing to a close. Silk
was in fashion and, also, the beaver was fairly well trapped out. Beaver
would continue to be an acceptable fur, along with all the others, but as
far as Fort Union was concerned, the buffalo, already important, would
play an increasing role in the returns. McKenzie, in advice to one of his
subordinates in January 1834, recognized this moment in the fur trade, "I
am so burdened with Apichemons [?], pieces of lodge & mean wolf skins, I
must restrict you in the trade of those articles." Moreover, "dressed Cow
skins should be traded only on very low terms. I have some thousand by me.
Elk skins, Beaver skins & robes you cannot get too much of."
The increasing importance
of buffalo robes is pointed up by the references to them in the company
correspondence. For example, Kipp wrote McKenzie in September 1834,
without mentioning any other furs or skins, "Expect to get as many buffalo
robes as last year."
John Jacob Astor, no longer
a young man, felt no excitement in the change in emphasis from beaver to
buffalo. As early as 1828, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., learned that Astor was
contemplating selling his controlling interest in the American Fur
Company. The old man held out for six more years before retiring on June
1, 1834. Ramsay Crooks took over the Northern Department. Pratte,
Chouteau, and Company brought out the Western Department. As far as the
public was concerned, the term American Fur Company still applied to both.
Crooks and Chouteau remained close business friends, and the extensive
correspondence between them continued unabated. The UMO retained its
special relationship to the St. Louis company and, when he got back from
his European jaunt, McKenzie returned up the Missouri to take charge of
his empire. Nevertheless, the future would be different than the past.
Beaver was no longer king. Astor had grown old and had quit. There would
be an exciting future for Fort Union, but it would reflect the changes
taking place on the upper Missouri. As Tennyson would have it,
The old order changeth
Yielding place to new.
self-righteous sobriety undoubtedly brought him into conflict with his
fellow employees from time to time. Nevertheless, he is more valuable
historically than most of the other men at the fort, for he kept a diary
rather than get drunk. His detailed journal shows that while Fort Union
was six years old in 1835, it was by no means "finished."
Larpenteur held McKenzie in
considerable awe, which feeling was increased the first time he entered
the dining room. He discovered that clerks, who ate at the head table, had
to wear their coats to meals. Moreover, no one could eat until McKenzie
was seated; since McKenzie was a late riser this meant that breakfast was
not eaten until nine o'clock. Still, it was worth the wait:
On entering the eating
hall, I found a splendidly set table with a very white tablecloth, and
two waiters, one a negro. Mr. McKenzie was sitting at the head of the
table, extremely well dressed. The victuals consisted of fine fat
buffalo meat, with plenty of good fresh butter, cream, and milk. . . but
I saw that only two biscuits were allowed to each one, as these were
placed at each plate. I soon discovered, by the manner in which the
clerks took their seats, that mine would come very near the end of the
table, for it appeared to go by grade.
He did not say whether or
not Hamilton modified the dining ritual during McKenzie's absence in
Europe. By going abroad, McKenzie missed the very wet summer of 1835, "The
quantity of rain which has fallen here this season I should think is
almost without precedent." The woods became swamps, grass grew abundantly
every where, the interior of the fort became a lake, and the mosquitoes
came in clouds, making "the men cry out terribly and not without cause."
Back in September 1834,
McKenzie had noted that the bastions were well along toward completion.
Hamilton confirmed this in March 1835 by writing, "The Bastions are
completed with the exception of laying down the floors but the planks are
all tongue and grooved." Other construction activities at this time were
mentioned in the rather cryptic note, "Laucier was employed untill
Christmas in finishing the attics." Also, timber had been got out for new
storerooms, the existing ones being only temporary in nature.
Luteman started work on the
framing for the "stores and warehouses" on May 1. From time to time his
assistants were called away to other jobs but he worked steadily on this
job. On May 15 and 25, the drivers hauled rocks for the building's
foundation; other men were kept busy sawing timber. Work slowed down when
the rains came, such as the afternoon, "about three o'clock a heavy
thunder storm. . . the fort yard like a lake."
On May 28, Luteman reached
the point where he had to pull the old building down to make room for the
new. For the next three days the men moved the supplies from the old
structure. The goods in the storerooms were carried to the bastions, while
those in the retail store were moved to "the Northwest end room of Mr.
McKenzie's Dwelling house." In order to speed up the work, "the Drivers
made a Bridge across a ravine to enable them to make four loads of rocks
per day instead of three." This ravine may have been "Garden Coulee,"
one-half mile east of the fort.
By June 2, the carpenter
had finished the framing, which work had been done to one side. The next
day, nine workmen "commenced pulling down the [old] store & ware houses."
Meanwhile, a second carpenter began constructing the door and window
frames, and four men were "sawing planks for sheeting the new buildings."
Four days later the old buildings were out of the way, as was a "part of
the stables which was in the way of the new buildings." (From Denig's
description a few years later, these stables were probably located against
the palisade.) At this point, the old sills were hauled away and "Holmes
and Kieffer diging the foundations for the new building."
For the next few days a
variety of jobs were carried on: framing rafters, constructing the
foundations, hauling in lime and sand and hauling out earth, making
shingles, and hauling in the new sills. Finally, on June 19, all hands
"commenced raising the buildings."
In four days the framing
was complete. To celebrate, the men "tied a [posey?] on the top of one of
the rafters and fired [a] few guns towards it with the view of gitting [a
treat?] which is commonly done in such occasions and was administered to
them to their satisfaction." Luteman, "who is the boss carpenter received
a bottle. . . which induced him to get in a spree." He was still sick the
next day, and the work was temporarily reduced to two men straightening
the edges of shingles.
The next steps were to
sheet the roof and to put five men to work digging the cellar. At the same
time rock quarrying was renewed for lining the cellar walls. The earth
removed from the cellar was spread on the fort yard in an attempt to give
it a gradual slope toward the river so that it would drain. On July 1,
Luteman finished sheeting the building and commenced shingling the roof.
Hamilton wrote McKenzie that "the new stores are in part shingled and have
a very imposing appearance. We are short of 10 dy and 12 dy cut nails." A
week later, Holmes finished digging the cellar and began its stone wall,
while another man started putting in the window and door frames. Two men
worked at putting tongues and grooves in the floor boards. The only things
remaining to be done were weatherboarding the walls and planking the
In early September,
Larpenteur was able to record that the supplies in the bastions were being
put in the new warehouses and that the men were storing potatoes in the
new cellar. On September 24, two men were directed to paint the roof red;
however, they ran out of paint with only one-quarter of the roof covered.
To complement Larpenteur's
description of the construction of the building was Edwin Denig's
description of it that he prepared in 1843:
On the east side of the
fort, extending north and south, is a building, or range, all under one
roof, 127 ft. long by 25 ft. deep, and used for the following purposes.
A small room at the north end for stores and luggage; then the retail
store. . . where all white persons buy or sell. * * * * Adjoining this
is the wholesale warehouse, in which is kept the principal stock of
goods intended for the extensive trade; this room is 57 ft. in length.
Next is a small room for the storage of meat and other supplies. At the
end is the press room, where all robes, furs, and peltries are stored.
The dimensions [of this room] extend to the top of the roof inside,
which roof is perfectly waterproof. It will contain from 2800 to 3000
packs of Buffalo robes [10 robes to the pack]. All this range is very
strongly put together, weather-boarded outside, and lined with plank
within. It has also cellar and garet.
The cellar depression may
still be seen, but nothing else of this structure remains above ground.
Still, it would seem that Luteman deserved his bottle--and perhaps a
second--for a job well done.
A multitude of other
projects were completed that muddy summer. Larpenteur's journal for May
and June does not indicate clearly if the milk house underwent a
renovation or was brand new. At any rate, men worked on its underpinning,
"paved" its interior, shingled the roof, made a new window and a new door
frame and door, and plastered and whitened its interior walls. The
kitchen, located behind the bourgeois' house, also had its floor paved.
The Indian house, located west of the main (south) gate also underwent
repairs. Some iron that was stored in it was removed to the southwest
bastion, and the room was cleaned up so that the men could store packs of
robes in it. The roof of the Indian house was covered at this time with
lodge skins, which in turn were covered with earth. Larpenteur wrote that
the workmen "dried the lodges which covered the Indian house and recovered
it again to remain untill the Packs are taken out."
Minor jobs around the fort
included "sawing old logs about the Fort for fire wood;" "working at the
May Pole to hoist the Flag," which pole was not raised until May 3;
"hauling rails and shingle wood from the other Fort [William] for Baptiste
Marcham to make shingles of;" repairing the chimneys over at Fort William,
where some of the fort families were living; "hauling lime and sand to
plaster the Clerks room;" "hauling sawlogs to the saw pit;" constructing a
calf pen with the puncheons removed from the old warehouse; making a calf
shed; repairing the earthen roof of the ice house; rendering tallow; "haulling
earth to fille up the yard before the ice house;" removing all the robe
packs out of "the room next to the Clerks in order to have it clear for
the free [not under contract] trappers;" manufacturing a wheel barrow and
an axel tree; bailing the water out of the just-completed milk house; and
hauling gravel into the fort's yard.
Still other jobs included
hauling wood to the charcoal pit; "pointing the under pining of the sills
around the outside of the Fort;" planting four cedar posts on the river
bank for tying the boats to; "John Prill raking the [buffalo?] chips off
the bank on front of the Fort into the river, then graduating the river
bank and making steps leading down to the water;" mowing and hauling hay;
"splighting the fire wood smaller and piling it between the kitchen and
the Dwelling house;" making an inclosure for a stockyard with timbers from
the old warehouse; underpinning the gallery sills; repairing the chimneys;
making and bundling up shingles for future use; making oars; cutting
timber suitable for making ax handles; making a new saw pit on the south
side of the river; building a canoe (hollowing out a log?); building new
stables under the galleries; and putting in an upper floor in the men's
apartments. Another undertaking of interest involved the inside of the
office, where a workman put rocks "next to the weather boarding between
the studing in order to be plaistered over."
In contrast to earlier
attempts, a garden thrived in the rains of 1835. The first seeds planted,
on May 11, included potatoes, corn, peas, red onions, radishes, lettuce,
parsnips, carrots, yellow French radishes, celery, curled parsley, oyster
plant, "and a mixture of seeds supposed to be turnip seed." Larpenteur,
who apparently had some responsibility for the garden, mentioned two
growing areas: a vegetable garden in or near to Garden Coulee and a field
of sorts across the river. He was quite specific about the planting of
corn, squash, pumpkin, watermelon, and beets on the south bank. Also
planted in one or the other of the sites were onions, cabbages, cucumbers,
dwarf beans and pole beans.
A fence was erected around
the garden and a "walk" laid. By June 5, the first radishes were "fit to
eat;" a few days later John Prill began "cutting pea sticks." A small,
third area was planted on June 12 when Larpenteur "sewed radishes and
Tongue grass in the Distilling house yard." A particularly bad rain on
June 19 washed away eight "panels" of the garden fence and it took two men
a day to repair it. Another emergency occurred on August 26 when a number
of Indians arrived: "Imployed all hands in diging the Potatoes. . . and
was obliged. . . to pull the corn green. . . for at the rate the indians
were gathering it they would not have left one ear by morning."
gardening was a success. Hamilton, in a burst of optimism, sent a
substantial order for seeds to St. Louis for the following year. That
fall, after the last vegetable had been gathered, the Indians began
burning the fence rails. Larpenteur was forced to have two carters haul
all the fencing to the protection of the fort.
He did not write much about
the domestic animals at Fort Union, except for the hogs. Several
adventures happened to the pigs, such as the terse entry, "Killed seven
dogs for having torn the hogs to pieces." The herd was reinforced later
when "John Prill brought in a sow from the woods with five young pigs."
This increase was diminished when "one of the old sows choked her self
with a piece of meat."
McKenzie was not at Fort
Union during the summer when the deeds of the Deschamps family finally
caught up with the father and sons. Exiles from the Red River Settlement,
they had drifted toward the upper Missouri where Campbell had hired them
at Fort William. When Campbell discovered that Francois Deschamps, Jr.,
was secretly a spy for McKenzie, Francois deserted to Fort Union where he
was employed as an interpreter. Both he and his father, Francois, Sr.,
tried the temper of their fellow employees many times. A particularly
strong feud developed between them and Baptiste Gardepied, whose life they
repeatedly threatened. Baptiste finally demanded a show down. The result
took place in Larpenteur's room when Baptiste wounded Francois, Jr., and
killed the old man. For a while there after the surviving Deschamps caused
very little trouble for anyone.
Another moment of
excitement that Larpenteur said happened involved the arrival of a number
of Indians who were allowed to stay in the fort. Possibly because of
liquor, the Indians became so unruly that Hamilton became concerned. He
directed Larpenteur to carry muskets from a bastion to the dining room and
to put a small cannon in the hallway of the bourgeois' house. Then, "the
window blinds of the dining room were opened, and there could be seen by
the three candles the bright muskets, plenty of cartridges. . . and four
men ready for action. The piece of artillery was rolled back and forward
in the passage, making a tremendous noise, and two men mounted guard with
muskets and fixed bayonets." This display of power quieted the visitors;
and a very pleased Hamilton sent Larpenteur to the cellar to draw a bottle
of Madeira for a celebration.
Another Indian whose name
entered the history of Fort Union in 1835 was La Main, an Assiniboin who
had had several disputes with his own people and who was thought of as an
outlaw. In the early 1830's, he had killed his half-brother, Broken Cloud,
at the fort, and, now, another half-brother got revenge by shooting La
Main and leaving his body to tumble into the fort when the gates were
opened the next morning.
All in all, 1835 was a
busy, exciting year, so busy that on July 4, Larpenteur wrote, "hollow day
but had very little time to enjoy it." Yet there were times when the men
relaxed a little. In the cool of the evenings, especially, there was time
to promenade on the gallery that ran around the fort. From here one could
see the prairie, the river, and the fiery sunsets, and dream a little
about home or the mountains.
Back in May, Hamilton had
hoisted the flag and fired the guns to honor the departure of McKenzie.
That fall, word arrived that McKenzie was planning to remain in St.Louis.
It was a premature rumor. He returned in late fall to renew his control
over the fur trade of the upper Missouri. From Fort Union he wrote Prince
Maximilian thanking him for the hospitality on the Rhine. He also
mentioned the bad news that the steamboat that had carried the prince's
collection of mammal and bird specimens had sunk with the loss of all the
cargo. As for McKenzie's own trip, it had been a good one, with a side
visit to Niagara Falls on the way home. The river was already frozen; but
McKenzie looked forward to the winter. There was still Hamilton for
company. Still, he asked, would the prince kindly think of Fort Union from
time to time.
The year 1836 was, perhaps,
the quietest year Fort Union had yet experienced. The trade in robes was
steady. Liquor was smuggled in. The Indians came and went. The next year
started out just as quietly. Edwin Denig wrote in March 1837 to Fort
Pierre, sending his thanks for the letters and papers that had just
arrived, "we were beginning to get mere drones for the want of news." He
said that nearly everyone at the fort had been sick with something like
influenza, from which one child had died. On the other hand, trade had
been superior, "We now have 900 packs in the warehouse and at least 250
more to be traded, and all of the very best kind of robes." He exulted,
"if we make 2500 Packs Hurray for Upper Missouri Outfit against the
Despite the influenza,
morale was high, "We are all in good humor. . . every man attends his
business well and Mr. McKenzie is kind and obliging to all." As for
himself, Denig said he "would rather be ostler here than bookkeeper
general at F[ort] P[ierre] and though to oblige and obey Mr. McKenzie I
would go any place, yet should I leave here it would be with great
However, McKenzie left Fort
Union in 1837 to take up residency in St. Louis. Three months after Denig
wrote his letter, Fort Union's high spirits were replaced by the darkest
gloom. The steamer St. Peters brought the smallpox with it. The
first person to take ill was the acting bourgeois, Jacob Halsey. Within a
few days, 27 people lay sick within the fort, of whom four died.
Larpenteur described the desperation felt, "Doctor Thomas Medical Book was
brought down from the Library and the treatment of small Pox vaccination
noculation was read over and over." The Assiniboins kept coming in to
trade even though efforts were made to stop them. Like a wild fire, the
pox spread through the tribe, and most of the other tribes of the upper
Missouri. The Indians had no resistance to the disease. Halsey estimated
that about 10 out of 12 Indians who caught the disease would die.
The loss was terrible. The
Mandan Indians were almost completely killed off. D. D. Mitchell, at Fort
Union, estimated that four-fifths of the Assiniboins and the Blackfeet had
died. Buffalo were plentiful that year, but there were few Indians to hunt
them. The American Fur Company worried that the Indians would blame the
company for the disaster and attack the forts. Indeed, one Assiniboin
leader, Le Vieux Gauche, vowed his vengeance on Union. Halsey took the
threat seriously and had a double gate put in at the main entrance. The
outside gates could then be opened, the Indians could come through them,
and enter the Indian house; providing the inner gates were closed, the
Indians could not come into the main part of the fort. As a further
precaution, a wicket was added to the wall. Larpenteur used it when
selling liquor to visiting Indians. He said a few shots were fired through
it from time to time, but these were caused by the liquor, not by a desire
Hamilton, who had gone down
to St. Louis with McKenzie, compiled the "melancholy details" from the
upper forts and passed the dire news on to Pierre Chouteau, Jr., then in
Washington. He confirmed most of Halsey's reports; he also noted that
Halsey had done a poor job at Fort Union that summer. The new acting
bourgeois, D. D. Mitchell, had written asking that Chouteau himself come
up to settle a number of unnamed problems; he also gave "a woeful picture
of poor Halsey's conduct during the summer."
Despite the tragedy, the
robe trade continued, slowly for a time but gradually increasing in volume
again. Fort Union continued to witness small excitements among its
inhabitants. In 1840, one George Sumpter robbed the retail store and got
away, only to be found working at Fort Pierre two years later. He was
promptly "set adrift." The Deschamps were replaced in character by
Alexander Harvey, a capable person possessed by a violent temper. He was
fired in 1839, then rehired a year later. He returned to Fort Union where
he had a showdown with an old enemy, Isadore Sandoval, in the same store
that Sumpter robbed. In the manner of the upper Missouri, Harvey shot and
killed Sandoval and dared anyone to do anything about it.
In counterpoise to this
violence, Peter De Smet, the Jesuit missionary, made this year the first
of many visits to Fort Union. Like other travelers, he was impressed with
"the vastest and finest of the forts that the Fur Company has upon the
Missouri." True to company policy, James Kipp, the new bourgeois, and his
employees "overwhelmed us with civilities. . . supplied all our wants. . .
I shall be most thankful to them all my life." He performed no marriages,
but "regenerated sundry half-breed children in the holy waters of baptism"
before pushing on down the Missouri.
When De Smet made his next
visit, in 1842, Fort Union had neighbors again. A new competitor, called
both the Union Fur Company and Fox, Livingston and Company, established a
post at or near the site of old Fort William. Although officially called
Fort Mortimer by its owners, the old name "William" remained popular. The
new post was first built of wood, including its walls. Later, either under
Fox, Livingston and Company or under still another competitor it was
rebuilt with adobe, the first time such material was used that far up the
The new fort got off to a
poor start. In 1843, a sudden and very high rise in the Yellowstone river
cut into the north bank of the junction. Even as the occupants watched,
the bank collapsed right up to the fort's walls. Working desperately, they
succeeded in moving the front wall and the buildings nearest the water
bank so that "the back buildings of the Fort as it was before the rise now
are the Front ones."
Like Campbell and Sublette,
the Union Fur Company found it impossible to compete profitably with Fort
Union. While Kenneth McKenzie was not on the river, his successor as chief
agent, Alexander Culbertson, was a most worthy heir. Fort Mortimer held
out against him for three years but, in 1845, the Union Fur Company gave
up and sold its few holdings to Pierre Chouteau, Jr., and Company.
Master Captain Joseph A.
Sire could not bring his steamboat, the Omega, quite up to the
landing at Fort Union in 1843. A sandbar lay in the way. He could take
satisfaction however that he had made the fastest trip yet--St. Louis to
Fort Union in 48 days and 7 hours. His passengers were quite impressed. On
board was a party of five men led by John James Audubon, then about sixty
years old. With him was his long-time friend and amateur ornithologist,
wealthy Edward Harris, John G. Bell, Lewis M. Squires, and Isaac Sprague,
a 32-year-old artist whose job it was to draw plants and backgrounds for
Audubon's fauna. From this group came a number of letters, at least three
diaries, and two paintings of Fort Union. From this wealth of material
came a detailed picture of life at the 14-year-old fort that summer.
Fort and steamboat
exchanged salutes, firing six guns for the occasion. To welcome the
visitors, "the gentlemen of the fort came down on horseback, and appeared
quite a cavalcade." The guests met Culbertson, then walked to the fort
where they "drank some first-rate port wine." They returned to the
steamboat for the night, and not until the next day was their luggage
"taken to the landing of the fort in a large keel boat"
Audubon was quite
disappointed at the small, dark, dirty room, about 12 by 14 feet, with
only one window, on the west side, that was given to the party, now
increased to six. When he learned that this was the room that Maximilian
had used, he could hardly believe it. However, he was but a guest and
decided not to complain. The six men turned in early that first night,
hoping to get a good rest. No sooner had they gone to bed, when a drunk in
the room above them began cursing loudly. All lay awake, hoping the drunk
would fall asleep, but now "clarionets, fiddles, and a drum were heard in
the dining room," next door to their room. This new noise caused the drunk
to renew his wearing "as if quite fresh."
When an invitation to join
the party arrived, Squire. jumped out of bed, investigated, and returned
with the information that a ball was in progress. The rest got up to
attend the dance:
Several squaws, attired
in their best, were present, with all their guests, engages, clerks,
etc. Mr. Culbertson played the fiddle very fairly; Mr. Guepe the
clarionet, and Mr. Chouteau [probably Pierre Chouteau, Jr.'s half-breed
nephew] the drum. . . . Cotillions and reels were danced. . . and the
company dispersed about one o'clock. We retired for the second time, and
now occurred a dispute between the drunkard and another man; but. . . I
was so wearied that I fell asleep.
Audubon still did not
complain about the quarters. However, the strain must have showed on his
face. The next day Culbertson offered them a larger and quieter room
upstairs in the bourgeois' house.
As they became acquainted
with the fort and its surroundings, Audubon and his friends made a number
of references to various structures and landmarks. No attempt is made to
weave these into a chronological narrative. Audubon was favorably
impressed with the dining room fare, "We have bread only twice a day,
morning and evening, but we have very excellent Milk, and Butter, and
probably the best Catfish found in the World." He noticed the "pig's
trough, which is immediately under the side of the fort," but made it no
clearer whether the pigs were housed inside or outside the palisades. He
made reference to a bell ringing at sunrise; it was the signal to open the
gate. However, Sprague's sketches do not show the bell tower that appears
in paintings done several years later.
One day, 14 braves arrived,
their faces painted black to show that they were a war party. They were
allowed to stay in the Indian house just inside the front gate. However,
Culbertson took their drum away because of the noise. Later, another group
of Assiniboins were allowed to spend the night in the space between the
outer and inner gates. During the night they built a large fire in that
small apace; Audubon thought it "a wonder that the whole establishment was
not destroyed by fire."
Sprague's drawings indicate
that the bourgeois' house was still only one and one-half stories high.
However, Denig's description of that year stated there was a porch.
Audubon confirmed this by saying, "It was so hot I am going to sleep on
the gallery again." Also, Denig made reference to Audubon and Squires
sleeping on the porch.
When Larpenteur described
the building of the new storerooms in 1835, he made many references to the
carters hauling rock. Audubon mentioned planning to go to the quarry "from
which the stones for the powder magazine were brought." This quarry
probably was the one for which a bridge was built back in the 1830's to
allow the carters to speed their operations.
Audubon also confirmed that
the fort still operated a "ferry flat" large enough to carry a cart across
the river. On one occasion, he went across with a cart and drove on "an
old abandoned road, filled with fallen timber and bushes" on the south
side. The reference to fallen timber supports Catlin's painting which
shows a great deal of timber on the south shore, an area that is open,
cultivated land today.
Both Audubon and Sprague
referred to six-pounders at the fort firing salutes to departing mackinaws
and keel boats. Denig at this time mentioned only three-pounders. Audubon
further complicated this matter when he described the departure of Chardon
for the Black foot country, "The flag of Fort Union was hoisted, the four
pounder run out of the front gate. . . . The keel boat had a brass swivel
on her bows, and fired first, then off went the larger gun."
Also contradictory were
Audubon's references to the garden. As it had been in the lush summer of
1835, the garden was located in the coulee one-half mile east of the fort.
In this year, the gardeners had much trouble from stealing by the
employees of Fort Mortimer. Audubon said this stealing became so bad the
garden was abandoned. But, later, he told of Crees pulling up squash vines
and turnips and tearing down the pickets around the garden. Apparently
there were some vegetables left, for "we all turned to, and picked a
quantity of peas, which with a fine roast pig, made us a capital dinner."
One day, Audubon and some
companions went for a walk in the hills just north of the fort: "From the
top of the hills we saw a grand panorama of a most extensive wilderness,
with Fort Union beneath us and far away, as well as the Yellowstone River,
and the lake across the river. The hills across the Missouri appeared
quite low, and we could see the high prairie beyond, forming the
background." The view is very much the same today.
One adventure of Audubon's
at Fort Union badly misfired. He was desirous of acquiring an Indian's
skull and persuaded Edwin Denig to help him remove one from an Indian
scaffold burial. The two of them set off on the morning of July 2 "with a
bag and instruments, to take off the head of a three-years-dead Indian
chief." They succeeded in removing the head, but they could not get the
coffin back up in the tree. Somewhat shaken, they buried everything.
Turning to Harris' journal
we find still more descriptive material. When he first saw the fort, he
wrote that it was "constructed on a plan similar to the others, excepting
that the logs which, in others, are planted in the ground are here framed,
on a stone foundation, as to form a gallery from which a besieged party
may fire over the ramparts at the enemy. The building and appointments
throughout are," he thought, "of a description superior to any Fort we
have seen on the river."
Nearly all the forts along
the Missouri had a chantier, or boatyard, usually located in a
suitable growth of timber. Here the workmen built mackinaws, skiffs, and
canoes for river transportation. The chantier at Fort Union seems to have
changed from time to time as suitable timber was exhausted at any one
point. In 1843, it appears that the boats (a mackinaw and a skiff were
under construction) were built right at Fort Union. The timber came from
the woods across the river. This arrangement came to light when Harris
described the mysterious disappearance of the scow used for crossing the
river. "This is a serious loss," he wrote, "particularly at this time as
they are very busy in building and fitting out the Mackinaw boat for Mr.
Kipp to ascend the Yellowstone to the Crow establishment. . . they also
have a skiff building for our use, and the men have to cross the river two
or three times a day to work out the timber in the woods." Also crossing
the river daily were men who were burning charcoal on the south side for
Harris took a great
interest in the condition of the competitor, Fort Mortimer. When a Mr.
Collins there became ill, Harris visited him regularly acting the role of
"doctor." On one occasion he took Audubon with him, the two of them riding
down in Fort Union's carryall. Conditions at Mortimer were miserable after
the flooding of the Yellowstone. The rain beat into the shanty where
Collins was trying to recover, and the fort had virtually run out of food.
He also spent much of his
time exploring the countryside. Once, when riding in the vicinity of
"Garden river," he spotted a wolf. He also visited "Wormwood Prairie,"
1-1/2 miles above the fort to the west, where in good years (such as
1843), the men mowed hay, "It is a beautiful bottom prarie [sic] covered
with a sort of blue-stemmed grass said to be of the best quality." Harris
and Bell spent July 4 deer hunting in a ravine leading off from this
prairie to the north. On another occasion, Larpenteur took Harris and
Audubon on a wagon trip to some sandstone hills about two miles north of
the fort. They spent some time looking for fossils, but without success.
Of the three diariests,
Isaac Sprague was easily the most enthusiastic about the strange and
wonderful way of life of the fur traders, although, worried about his
health, he held back from full participation in it. He had barely arrived
when Culbertson performed a dramatic pursuit. When someone spotted a wolf
running across the prairie, Culbertson "immediately mounted his horse and
proceeded in pursuit of him. In a very short time he came up with him and
shot him while running at full speed, and in less than 20 minutes the wolf
was brought into the fort."
Another feat that impressed
Sprague was a demonstration by the batter riders and shots of the fort:
"Several of them rode out about 3/4 of a mile from the fort starting from
thence with unloaded guns, and while running that short distance at full
speed they managed to lend fire from 9 to 11 times." With admiration, he
wrote, "The horses are guided by inclining the body to either side, the
reins being thrown loose upon the neck, leaving both hands free to use the
His respect for Culbertson
no doubt increased when the bourgeois presented the painter with "a
beautiful Indian dress consisting of a Shirt Leggins and Mantle all of
which are made of skins of various animals and highly ornamented with
porcupine quills pieces of shells etc." He noted that July 4 passed
without a celebration, a situation that appears to have occurred more
often than not at Fort Union. A few days later, he visited the place about
one mile from the fort where the Assiniboins placed their dead on
scaffolds. After that, he crossed the river to sketch his views of Fort
Union from the south side.
At least once more during
the summer, Culbertson showed off for his visitors' pleasure. One
afternoon, he, Owen McKenzie (the half-breed son of Kenneth McKenzie), and
none other than Squires, "arranged in Indian Costume, accompanied by two
Blackfeet squaw, in native dress made a grand display on horseback. They
performed a number of evolutions on the prairie, and rode to the hills
where they espied a wolf to which they gave chase and shot--and after
returned to the fort at full speed." What a time to live! What a place to
Sprague was fascinated by
the sight of Indians eating buffalo; they "eat the brain, the inner coat
of the nostrils, etc. raw!" They also ate raw the liver and the stomach
lining, or tripe. Sprague tried the latter, "but did not relish it much.
Though I could eat it about as well as any tripe."
As his days at Fort Union
grew short in number, Sprague became philosophical. Concerning the fort's
employees, "Here far from civilization, the traders pass the best of their
days--some from a Love of adventure some for gain--and others for crime
are driven from civilized society." He doubted if he would ever meet any
of them again.
Before he left Fort Union,
Audubon persuaded the post's bookkeeper, Edwin Thompson Denig, to write a
description of the establishment. Denig put down in 2,000 words the most
complete description of the post known to exist. Although several
important changes occurred in the fort's appearance after 1843, Denig's
description remains a basic document. Several quotations from this
description have already appeared in this report. The entire article is
included as an appendix; elsewhere its contents appear in the separate
structural descriptions. Audubon possibly agreed with Denig's thought that
the fur traders did indeed "enjoy at least the semblance of living like
their more quiet, though not more useful brothers in the United States."
Kenneth McKenzie returned
to Fort Union in the autumn of 1844. It was not a pleasure trip nor a
journey of reminiscences. Persuaded by Pierre Chouteau, Jr., that affairs
on the upper Missouri were so bad, because of mismanagement (particularly
because of Francis Chardon's firing a cannon at a group of Indians who had
come in to Fort McKenzie to trade), as to need his attention, McKenzie had
reluctantly agreed to leave his wife and business to spend the winter of
1844-45 on the upper Missouri. Unfortunately, no record of his stop at
Fort Union has been uncovered. He wrote his wife from Fort Pierre, October
27, that "in a few days. . . we will start again for Fort Union at the
mouth of the Yellow Stone River." Later, in an effort to settle his
accounts with the company, he stated that "at great inconvenience, & loss
to his private affairs, [he] . . . visited the trading posts. . . for the
purpose of examining into the Company's affairs there, and of pacifying
the Indians." He had no doubts about the success of his trip, "after
spending some seven months there so occupied, he left the country in a
peaceable state, and the trade revived & prosperous." For this task,
McKenzie asked reimbursement to the tune of ten thousand dollars. He was
no longer the king of the upper Missouri, but there was still a good deal
about him that was princely in nature.
The late 1840's saw an
increase in the number of visitors at Fort Union. Mountain man, priest,
scientist, and artist found their way to its hospitable table. None other
than Jim Bridger, the tallest tale-teller in the West, arrived with a
group of trappers to spend the winter of 1844-45. Beaver trapping was down
to a trickle now; Bridger had already opened his own trading post on the
Oregon Trail. But he and his friends would spend this winter in the
company of real fur men. William Laidlaw, in charge of the fort that
winter, offered Bridger every assistance. However, Laidlaw did not think
that Bridger was "a man calculated to manage men, and in my opinion will
never succeed in making profitable returns." Indian in habit and deed,
these trappers pitched their tipis on the prairie about one-half mile from
the fort. There would be plenty of visiting back and forth.
Among the employees at Fort
Union at this time was a young Scotsman, Alexander Hunter Murray, who had
joined the American Fur Company almost as soon as he came to America. He
would work on the upper Missouri from 1844 to 1846 then move to Canada to
work for the Hudson's Bay Company. In later years, he was the builder of
Fort Yukon in Russia's Alaska and the factor at Lower Fort Garry in
Murray probably would have
escaped notice at Fort Union had he not been a talented artist. He
sketched the fort as well as several others on the Missouri, including
nearby Fort Mortimer. His original sketches have not been found and, since
Murray was so painstaking with detail, history is much the poorer.
Second-rate copies of his sketches have been preserved; these, with their
limitations, provide still another source of information about the fort.
This account comes from the
web site Fort Union
Trading Post where you can read lots more about the fur trade and the
trading post. The above section gives an insight into the
significant Scots that played their part in building the fur trade as well
as giving some account of the life in the area.
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