I like to think that I am an eclectic reader, with interests in baseball (especially the Negro Leagues), World War II, biographies (of virtually anybody), Colonial America, British Royalty (and I’m not talking about Kate and William; I’m talking about the likes of Ethelred the Unready, and that callow fellow, John of Gaunt, who gave away the store by signing the Magna Carta. It was all downhill from there) – sprinkled with an occasional murder mystery for variety. But in truth I read nearly 100% non-fiction, and most of that relating to the development of the West. The other day the name of a familiar trading post came up in an article I was reading. Despite its prominence during the fur trade era, this post was mentioned only in passing, as a mere landmark in a biographical litany of wandering. I knew and respected the author, but suddenly I wondered if she had ever been there.
She was referring to Fort Union, a National Park Service site which today sits on the North Dakota/Montana border. This fort, which had an unusually long life span (1828 to 1867), was John Jacob Astor’s largest and most successful trading post on the Upper Missouri River. Most every trader and trapper (and more than a few artists) passed through during its forty years of frontier service. Throughout its life span, it averaged over 25,000 buffalo robes and $100,000 in merchandise per year!
All that is impressive. But to me Fort Union is a living, breathing place, with nineteenth century fur traders and engages actually walking around, busily preparing for the next steamboat-full of supplies to come puffing up the river. That same boat will bring news from the states (it’s been a whole year!) and probably clandestine liquor. After the introduction of new employees, the celebrating, and the swapping of stories, it will load up all the furs that the men have trapped, cured and packed over the past winter, plus all those they bought and bartered from the thousands of Plains Indians who depend on the fort for both luxuries and what have become necessities. It is truly a place where legends live.
Participants on my journeys often point out that every fort we come to is my “favorite”. OK, maybe I overdo it a little. To me all forts, and other historic restorations or reconstructions, have the ability to transport visitors to an earlier time, to feel at least a little bit of what went on there, who lived and worked and maybe died there. But this one, with it’s authentic whitewashed walls, massive gates, trade house and bourgeois house inhabited by living history reenactors (Native and white) lend a verisimilitude like no other. It doesn’t hurt that the surrounding plains are virtually unchanged, making it so very easy to believe you have stepped back in time.
Only the river has changed – a recurring theme on our Lewis & Clark journey. The Missouri River has a mind of its own, changing its course with nearly every spring. The journals of the Corps of Discovery are filled with descriptions of this rambling and capricious river, and include differences observed just in the span of time between the outgoing trek in 1804 and their return over two years later.
I fell in love with Fort Union the very first time I went there, proudly introduced by the representative of North Dakota Tourism, and I can’t wait to go back. But I do have one nagging question: I have never understood why the head of a trading post in Canada, dominated by French fur traders and trappers was called a Factor, while the counterpart in an American system was called the Bourgeois. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?