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Manuscripts by Subject - Family / Local History - #11141

Title: Fort Union and Fort Pierre Letterbooks

Dates: 1830-1850

Collection Number: 11141

Quantity: .5 foot

Abstract: The Fort Union and Fort Pierre (Fort Tecumseh) letterbooks are copies from the Chouteau Family Papers, A0274, 1752-1946, at the Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis.

Provenance: The copies were donated to the State Historical Society of North Dakota by Mike Casler on January 16, 2013.

Property Rights: The original Fort Union and Fort Pierre Letter Books are in the Missouri History Museum Archives. These copies are for research purposes only.

Copyrights: Copyrights to this collection remain with the donor, publisher, author, or author's heirs.  Researchers should consult the 1976 Copyright Act, Public Law 94-553, Title 17, U.S. Code or an archivist at this repository if clarification of copyright requirements is needed.

Access: This collection is open under the rules and regulations of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.          

Citation: Researchers are requested to cite the collection title and the Missouri History Museum in all footnote and bibliographic references.

Related Collections:  
Chouteau Family Papers (1752-1946). Identifier: ARC:A0274. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, MO
11108 Mark Harvey Fort Buford Research Files

Durand Young, H&A North Dakota Edition

“Far up the Missouri, where North Dakota meets Montana, lies a shining example of a 19th century fur post, Fort Union. Over the past few years the palisaded trading post has been rebuilt to its early 1850s appearance, giving visitors an excellent opportunity to learn about life on the advancing frontier.

Despite its remote location, about 24 miles southwest of Williston, N.D., the National Historic Site hosts 30 to 40 thousand people annually. After extensive archeological investigation during the 1980s, several of the structures have been re-created by the National Park Service, giving the post a look remarkably like that seen by the traders, artists, Indians and explorers many years ago.

Under the direction of Kenneth McKenzie, Fort Union was begun in 1829.
“The noted post of Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone, the best built and the most commodiously equipped post west of the Mississippi, was McKenzie's creation,” wrote H. M. Chittenden in A History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West (1902).

McKenzie in 1828 took charge of the Upper Missouri Outfit of the St Louis based American Fur Company, with headquarters at Fort Tecumseh, soon to become Fort Pierre (SD). Chittenden called Fort Tecumseh the most important Columbian Fur Company post on the Missouri. The Columbia and American Fur Companies merged in 1827.

Approach Fort Union by car today and you'll see much the same picture as the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer did in 1833. Bodmer's view from the overlook to the north shows the high palisade of vertical logs, stone bastions at the northeast and southwest corners of the 220 by 240-foot enclosure, the majestic flagpole and the roof of the bourgeois house. Beyond the palisade lies the Missouri River, with bluffs rising on the far shore.

When the National Park Service acquired the property in 1966, the grass-covered site was bare of buildings. Mounds and ridges hinted at outlines of structures torn down, their materials reused in the construction of nearby Fort Buford by the U.S. Army in 1867. Subsequent archeological excavation of the stone foundations and other elements turned up some 35 million artifacts.

Information gained from the excavation, extant early drawings and paintings, and written descriptions provided details on which the reconstruction was based.

The first building rebuilt was the bourgeois house, or superintendent's quarters. In its heyday, a succession of bourgeois entertained European royalty, scientists, artists and adventurers, often in a grand style. The first steamboat to reach Fort Union, in 1832, brought the artist George Catlin and Pierre Chouteau, Jr., head of the fur company, some 2,000 miles from its St. Louis headquarters.

Catlin wrote that McKenzie "lives in good and comfortable style" and that his table "groans under the luxuries of the country." He noted that "a bottle of Madeira and one of excellent Port are set in a pail of ice every day, and exhausted at dinner."

It was McKenzie who had persuaded Chouteau that a shallow-draft steamboat could replace the much smaller keelboats, which were pulled against the current with great difficulty by men on shore hauling on a long line, or cordelle.

Shrewd and successful as he was, McKenzie stepped over the line in 1833 when he imported a still from St. Louis to make liquor for the Indian trade. “But liquor I must have or quit any pretension to trade in this part,” he wrote.

Congress tightened the laws concerning liquor in Indian country the year before, but the fur trade was often a cutthroat competitive business and McKenzie was following Chouteau's advice to “erase all opposition.”

Word of the whiskey-making soon spread and despite the sometimes conflicting excuses and misleading explanations offered by McKenzie and Chouteau, the Upper Missouri Outfit nearly lost its trading license. McKenzie's time at Fort Union ended soon after that incident. He visited Europe in 1834, returned to Fort Union briefly and then settled in St. Louis.

The new bourgeois house is today's visitor center at Fort Union as well as headquarters for the National Historic Site. New stone bastions and a 20-foot palisade surround that and the trading house, for the business of Fort Union and the many other frontier posts was acquiring furs in return for trade goods.

Demand for beaver, once the leading fur, declined, however, and buffalo hides rose in importance. The press room, where furs and peltries were stored while awaiting the next St. Louis-bound boat, could hold 2,800 to 3,000 packs of buffalo robes, 10 robes to a pack, according to Edwin Denig in 1843. Denig, then a clerk, was promoted to bourgeois in 1848.

Trading was carried on with the Assiniboines, the Crows, and the Blackfeet. Arriving in the territory in the 1850s were the aggressive Sioux. According to the diary of James Harkness, a visitor at the fort in 1862, personnel did not go outside the palisade unless fully armed.

During the Indian campaigns of the 1860s, Fort Union was occupied by U.S. Army troops. At that time the fur trade was in decline and the post was showing its age. Today's Fort Union is bright and new, ready to welcome visitors as its predecessor did for nearly 40 years.

Look out over the palisade and listen – very hard. Perhaps you'll hear the far-away whistle of a steamboat, maybe even see the ghost of the Yellowstone arriving from St. Louis with another load of distinguished visitors and trade goods for this citadel of the northern plains.

“Early Development of Pierre and Fort Pierre”

Located along the west bank of the Missouri River in central South Dakota, the Fort Pierre plain is the oldest continuous area of white settlement in the State. The plain’s level terrain provided easy access to the Missouri River and the rolling hills formed a natural border to the west, which made the plain an ideal site for settlement. Artist George Catlin, who visited Fort Pierre Chouteau in 1832, said of the plain, “No site could have been selected more pleasing or advantageous than this; the Fort is in the center of one of the Missouri’s most beautiful plains.”

American Indian tribes were the first to recognize the advantages of the Fort Pierre plain. The Arikara and bands of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota were among the tribes that settled, traded, or passed through the plain. European exploration into the area began with the Verendrye brothers in 1743. Lewis and Clark followed in 1804 and 1806, and trader Manuel Lisa visited the Fort Pierre plain in 1811, noting, “There is a handsome plain, with a row of trees along the margin of the river, and a handsome wood along the border of a little rivulet [Bad River] which flows across the plain.”

European explorers and fur traders realized the natural benefits the area had to offer and soon established fur trading forts across the plain. They built Fort La Framboise in 1817 near the mouth of the Bad River. The Columbia Fur Company constructed Fort Tecumseh in 1822 about one mile north of the mouth of the Bad River and Fort Teton in 1828 about one mile south of Fort Tecumseh, the earlier site of Fort La Framboise, and the two merged in 1830.  Built in 1832 by Pierre Chouteau, Jr., head of the Western Department of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, Fort Pierre Chouteau lies two miles north of Fort Tecumseh.  Located halfway between the headquarters at St. Louis and the northern-most posts in North Dakota and Montana, Fort Pierre Chouteau was the logical place for company officials to gather and discuss their business. The United States Army purchased Fort Pierre Chouteau in 1855, and it served as a military post until the army abandoned it in 1857…”
National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Online at  www.nps.gov


Box 1:
1 Fort Union letterbook, October 29, 1833-December 10, 1835
2 Journal of Fort Tecumseh, January 31, 1830-June 10, 1830
3 Journal of Fort Tecumseh, June 14, 1830-April 8, 1831
4 Journal of Fort Tecumseh, January27, 1832-June 1, 1833
5 Fort Tecumseh and Fort Pierre letterbook, November 1, 1830-December 14, 1832

Box 2:
1 Fort Pierre letterbook, 12/20/1832-8/25/1835          
2 Fort Pierre letterbook, 6/25/1845-6/16/1846
3 Fort Pierre letterbook, 12/1/1847-5/9/1848
4 Fort Pierre letterbook, 2/12/1849-12/4/1850

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