“Capt Clark thinks that the lower extremity of the low plane would be most eligible for this establishment; it is true that it is much nearer both rivers, and might answer very well, but I think it reather too low to venture a permanent establishment, particularly if built of brick or other durable materials, at any considerable expence; for so capricious, and versatile are these rivers, that it is difficult to say how long it will be, untill they direct the force of their currents against this narrow part of the low plain, which when they do, must shortly yeald to their influence; in such case a few years only would be necessary, for the annihilation of the plain, and with it the fortification.”
—Meriwether Lewis, April 27, 1805
Before there were railroads and highways there were rivers. Navigable rivers were thoroughfares of travel and commerce, so Lewis and Clark noted potential sites for forts and settlements along the Missouri. The junction of two major rivers was of particular interest to early American expansion, so both captains evaluated the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers with an eye for future “establishments.” In a rare rebuke of his co-captain, Lewis noted that Clark’s site suggestion was a lousy idea.
Twenty-three years later, the American Fur Company constructed its Fort Union Trading Post three miles up the Missouri on a high bluff with access to a deep port for boats by the front gate. The company imported wares from Europe, Asia, and the American colonies, including beads, cookware, guns, knives, blankets, cloth, and alcohol, which were traded for furs and buffalo robes from regional tribes. Fort Union exported $100,000 in furs and hides annually to world markets, staying in business from 1828 to 1867.
Fort Union was then sold to the U.S. Army and dismantled for materials to expand Fort Buford closer to the confluence. Fort Union as it exists today was rebuilt based on artist sketches and archaeological excavations of its foundations. The fancy “Bourgeios House” was completed before our 500-mile walk across Montana in 1988, while the palisade walls and bastions were reconstructed later.
In a confluence of past and present, paddling 700 miles to Fort Union brackets the major events of my life. The walk across Montana was undertaken before marriage and family, while the present journey by canoe comes post-divorce and after the kids have left the nest. Strangely, I’ve always traveled north-south, not east. Fort Union is on the Montana-North Dakota border. Everything beyond is the new frontier, fitting for this new era of my life.
Over time the Missouri River has shifted so far south that the fort is largely inaccessible by water, so we tied our canoes downstream and walked two miles back by road. We were heartily greeted by the staff and enjoyed a lazy afternoon learning about the fort while recharging cameras and phones. They graciously gave us a ride back to the canoes after closing. As we paddled away, Sawyer, the site historian and re-enactor, came running to the river bank with mail: a letter of introduction written in pen and ink for us to deliver to American Fur Company headquarters in St. Louis, “if they are still in business.”
“A letter of introduction for Mr. Pierre Chouteau. These fine men are most able-bodied canoers and tried and true men of the river. Each has stopped at Fort Union and made himself and his good character known. Where they came is some great distance, and has fully served as a test to their employability with the Company as promising rivermen at $345 per annum. Your unwavering servant, Sawyer R. F.”
We paddled downriver to the confluence and stayed at the campground and interpretive center. The water is deceptively placid, and paddling the Missouri often feels like paddling a long lake more than a big river, yet the current typically moves at 2 to 4 miles per hour, bringing submerged trees into the path faster than one might anticipate.
Another day of paddling brought us to Trenton Lake, formed from an old bend of the Missouri. Here we camped and joined a community pow wow hosted by the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. We were welcomed like family to the dinner and dances. John and I joined the potato dance where partners place a potato between their foreheads and dance until losing the potato. Dusty and I made it to third place. Anita and Brett Williamson sent us with a pouch of tobacco containing the community’s prayers to accompany our journey downriver.
We were joined by Charles Tatch, who drove up from Georgia to paddle with our expedition for a week. Thick willows and thicker mosquitoes limited campsite opportunities, so we paddled down to the fishing access at Lewis and Clark Bridge on Highway 85.
The quiet energy of the merged Yellowstone and Missouri rivers gave way to its confluence with commerce. Fracking pads sprouted up beside the river. Oil trains rumbled by, laying on the horn. Trucks and cars roared over the bridge. Helicopters buzzed by overhead. A storm rolled in at nightfall, as if attracted to all the energy, adding it’s lightning, thunder, wind, and rain to the commotion.
That was a lot of noise for a crew that has spent six weeks paddling through one of the most remote, least-populated sections of the lower forty-eight states. Yet it is all part of the experience for the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery on our continuing journey to explore the river from Three Forks, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri.
Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.