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Fort Union National Historic Site


Fort Union was established near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in 1828 by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. It would become the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri for the next half century. It was frequently visited by the Assiniboine, Crow, Cree, Ojibway, Blackfeet, Hidatsa, and Sioux looking to trade beaver and later buffalo hides in exchange for trade goods. Other visitors of the fort included George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Prince Maximillian, Father Pierre DeSmet, Jim Bridger, and General Sully. The fort witnessed the smallpox epidemic of 1837 as well as the height of the buffalo trade, shipping 150,000 buffalo robes each year. With such a record, its inclusion in the National Park System seems clearly obvious. But that was not always the case.

The fort was designated Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on this day, June 20 1966; almost a century after the fort closed its doors for the last time. By the 1860’s the fur trade was in decline. The American Fur Company pulled out by 1866 and a year later the fort was dismantled for scrap lumber in the construction of nearby Fort Buford.

Over the next 50 years, the only visitors were curious soldiers of Fort Buford, local Native Americans and residents of the short-lived town of Mondak. That would change in 1925 when Ralph Budd, president of Great Northern Railroad, brought attention to the site with his Upper Missouri Historical Expedition. After erecting a flagpole near the original site, Budd dreamed of one day reconstructing the palisades and bastions.

At the prompting of Ralph Budd and local citizens, combined with a report prepared by historian Edward A. Hummel at the request of the National Park Service, the State Historical Society of North Dakota purchased the land in 1941. The state, however, lacked adequate funds to improve the site.

In 1961, a report by the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings deemed Fort Union of “exceptional value” in terms of fur trade, Indian and military history. A follow-up study by the National Park Service would also declare Fort Union a site of “national significance”. Armed with these reports, North Dakota’s Senator Quentin Burdick successfully pushed through Congress a bill to admit Fort Union to the National Park System in 1966. However it required the work of another ND representative, Congressman Mark Andrews, for authorization of re-construction of the fort in 1978.

After several years of lobbying efforts by area supporters, the reconstruction plans were finally set into motion. In 1986 one of the largest archaeological digs was carried out by the National Park Service at Fort Union. The Bourgeois House, palisades and bastions were reconstructed and dedicated in 1989. The Indian Trade House was added a few years later.

According to the NPS, “the reconstructed fort represents a unique era in American history, a brief period when two different civilizations found common ground and mutual benefit through commercial exchange and cultural acceptance.”

Written by Christina Campbell