So, I wasn’t happy with my previous Ft Union entry so I have revised it. I don’t think the pictures carried it quite as well as I had hoped. It really was an interesting place and deserved a better post.
As you are floating down the river, you will see a red, white, and blue pennant that almost looks like an American flag from a distance. That is the flag of The American Fur Company. The fort was not even set up by the US government. It was a trading post set at the confluences of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. A private venture if you will… but kind of impersonating the US government. They even struck Peace “Ornaments” that are almost exactly the same as the Peace medals given out by Lewis and Clark… hand shake symbol and all but stamped with “American Fur Company” instead of “United States of America.” Slightly shady but ultimately probably good for everyone involved except for the animals that ended up as hides.
View from the river when you can finally see Ft Union... if you see this, you have gone to far!!! You must now face the trials of the fire swamp!
Like I said, the fort was really just a trading post. In the springtime, a steam boat would venture up the Missouri River to Ft Union bringing all sorts of “trade goods.” I had always been under the impression that the steam boats were going up and down all the time as they desired, but that is not correct. Each steam boat would get about one run in a year maybe two if they were very fast about it. The river would rise in the spring thaw and that was their chance! So the spring thaw would happen and a river boat would race up the flooded river bringing the kind of things that a bunch of people living in tents out on the great plains would need. Blankets, tools, beads, replacement parts for coleman stoves… etc Officially no whiskey, but also whiskey too.
The guys running the traders would set up shop there in the fort, then the chief of negotiator for a clan would come in and negotiate the prices for everything. As it was described, this would be a lot of discussing the weather, the family, smoking… before getting around to actual business of price setting. It reminded me exactly of making he flight schedule with the Afghans. Lots of tea, smoking, and discussions about family before anyone even brought up flying. Then once it was being discussed… a lot of “Well, these hides are not as good as last year, so the price is going to be less than last year.” and “Thursday is a very busy day, I don’t think we can fly Thursday… maybe in the morning only.” kinds of discussions.
At the end of it, the prices for that year were set. Then that bunch would be able to show up and know exactly what they would get for each type of hide that they brought in. This included everything from buffalo hides to mouse hides. (The mouse hides were used to make glove linings.)
Until almost the very end, there were no white women ever brought out to Fort Union. The traders would usually marry into the tribes they traded with sort of making the whole operation a family business.
Also I thought notable, most of the hides for trade were actually brought in by women and girls. The men might hunt the animals… but for the most part the tanning was done by the women. So they would be the ones that would bring the hides and take home the trade good. To include little girls bringing in mouse hides.
Though run by the NPS, there are folks dressed up in period cloths to explain things and tell stories of the fort and area. Not in a weird uncomfortable way like you accidentally wandered into a renaissance fair, more in a reasonable good history teacher on Wednesday before thanksgiving kind of way.
Also… stop at the pennant. That is the only trail through the 300 yards of swamp, willows, and needle grass… and literally clouds of vicious mosquitos. If you stomp at the pennant you only have to boogy yourself through the clouds of blood thirsty mosquitos. If you do like i did, and wait for a nicer place to beach, you will have the trials of the fire swamp to deal with on your way up to the fort. Either way… worth it.