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Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade

Author(s):Barbour, Barton H.
Reviewer(s):Fender, Ann Harper

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

Barton H. Barbour, Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade. Norman,

OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. xvi + 304 pp. $34.95 (hardcover), ISBN:

0-8061-3295-7; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8061-3498-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ann Harper Fender, Department of Economics, Gettysburg


A visit to a reconstructed fur trade post usually takes today’s visitor off

frequently traveled major highways. Fort Union, reconstructed and opened in

1995, rises impressively above the upper Missouri River between Williston,

North Dakota and Culbertson, Montana, far from congested roads. Barton

Barbour’s engaging history reminds readers that such forts were sited along the

major transport routes of their time. The northwest to southeast flow of the

upper Missouri/Mississippi Rivers gave relatively cheap albeit seasonal access

from St. Louis to the upper plains region. Fort Union, near the confluence of

the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, dominated the fur trade of the upper

Missouri from 1830 until 1867.

Barbour begins with a history of the European-North American fur trade,

formally initiated by the1670 English charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Its

charter granted monopoly rights to trade in lands whose waters drained into

Hudson Bay. The Upper Missouri, draining southward to the Mississippi, is close

to the Red River that drains into Hudson Bay. The border between Canada and the

U.S. cuts across this drainage system leading to cross border excursions of

native trappers, European/American traders, and fur-bearing animals. By the end

of Fort Union’s life, Canadian traders increasingly used cart haulage routes

between modern Winnipeg and St.Paul, Minnesota in preference to Hudson Bay

routes. Inevitably, the fur trade became embroiled in international boundary

issues and its posts played military and diplomatic as well as commercial

roles. As Barbour makes clear, however, the fur trade was essentially a

business, with close attention paid to cutting costs, expanding sources of

supply, and maintaining market share. Barbour explains how John Jacob Astor’s

American Fur Company and the Columbia Fur Company, based in St. Louis,

Missouri, competed vigorously for the furs of the upper Missouri through the

1820s. Both companies realized that splitting the geographic market would yield

each higher profit, but agreement proved elusive. Merger solved the problem,

just as the 1821 merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company with the North West Company

solved similar competitive problems to the north. In 1827, the former Columbia

Fur Company became the St. Louis-based Upper Missouri Outfit within the

American Fur Company. Throughout Fort Union’s existence the UMO faced “petty”

competition and had to make strategic decisions about whether to buy out

competitors or to drive them from the field by vigorous trading.

Barbour includes a chapter on the business aspects of Fort Union trade, a story

resembling similar material on the Hudson’s Bay Company. After a quick but very

informative history of the North American fur trade, Barbour examines details

of Fort Union’s construction. He provides numerous sketches of the post, as

well as material from private diaries and from journals kept as part of

business records. Not often covered in such histories, this chapter attends to

both evidence and speculation about how, or if, the fort disposed of effluent

associated with housing and feeding approximately three hundred persons.

Larger fur trade posts welcomed a variety of noted visitors and Fort Union was

no exception with artists, scientists, explorers and missionaries making their

way up the Missouri. Using company records and the visitors’ diaries, Barbour

chronicles these visits. Barbour also uses these records to build a composite

picture of life within the fort. As the growing recent history of the fur trade

emphasizes, European/American traders and Native trappers were economically

interdependent. The typical post was rich in multiculturalism long before it

became academically chic. Survival in the demanding conditions of the upper

plains required adaptation. Marriages between traders and native women were

frequent and often long-term (and resembled marriages among the families of fur

trading firms). Barbour gives a particularly interesting description of how the

fort dealt with several smallpox outbreaks. The fort and the fur trade in

general had codes of conduct that could not be broken without consequences, as

Barbour’s account makes clear.

Despite depictions of the fur trade as a lawless venture or perhaps because of

this depiction, governmental agencies regulated the trade. American (and

English) sensitivity to monopoly led to frequent outcries against the large fur

trading firms. The use of alcohol in the trade generated calls for prohibition.

Fur trading firms were required to have licenses to do business in Indian

territory and political connections helped to determine who received the

licenses. Periodically the federal government set up its own “factories” to

conduct trade with the natives; invariably the Natives preferred to trade with

private firms. These governmental restrictions were not unique to the Upper

Missouri, but Barbour details their impact on Fort Union and how the Company’s

political relationships affected its prosperity. Barbour compares records of

alcohol use and abuse in the fur trade with its use and abuse by U.S. soldiers;

from this evidence, the fur traders and their customers do not look so bad.

Government-company relationships also included the UMO’s role in transporting

goods and soldiers for the U.S. government.

Even as the fur trade represents “pre-industrial” North America, industrial

technology was making inroads. Early in Fort Union’s history, steam power

overtook manpower as the preferred source of energy to move upstream on the

Missouri, evidenced by the large number of steamboat names that Barbour


The political changes wrought by the Civil War, the opening up of both wagon

and rail roads to the west, the discovery of gold in Montana, the incessant

resettlement of Indians, and the decline of the bison contributed to the

economic demise of Fort Union and its parent company. Because much of the

Indian trade involved buffalo robes, the diminishment of the large western

herds especially affected Fort Union. The fur trade interests of the Upper

Missouri Outfit were sold in 1865 and in 1867 Fort Union was demolished.

Barbour muses about the causes of the fort’s decline; he finds the American

drive for a uniform culture unable to tolerate the multicultural diversity of

the fur trade. This conclusion to a fine history strikes this reviewer as a

reach that weakens his story, a story that appropriately resurrects the fur

trade from villain to multicultural model. Attitudes might have hastened the

decline of the fur trade and amiable white/Indian relations, but the trade

disappeared because its economic usefulness had ended with new population

movements and new technology.

As an Assistant Professor of History at Boise State University, Barton Barbour

appropriately ends his fascinating story with a lengthy and helpful

bibliographic essay. The author provides more than enough detail for the

professional historian and writes a good story for the casual reader interested

in the American west.

Ann Harper Fender’s recent work has involved the economics of the Hudson’s Bay

Company and the Canadian fur trade.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century