On the beautiful banks of the Missouri River in northern Montana, recently restored Fort Benton marked the beginning of the west for trappers, immigrants and miners.
A dozen trading forts were built along the Upper Missouri, but Fort Benton was the one that survived and flourished. It was first established in 1846 as Fort Lewis and moved to the other side of the river in 1846 at the request of the local Blackfoot tribe. Piece by piece, the log buildings were dismantled and floated down the river on rafts. By the 1848 it was doing business as Fort Clay, later that year the walls were rebuilt using adobe bricks, and in 1850 it was renamed for Senator Thomas Hart Benton.
At first, Fort Benton bustled with fur traders. A large timbered gate admitted American Fur Company employees and traders. A smaller gate admitted Indians into a small enclosure which was part of the trade store. Here they could sell their pelts in return for goods. Too often ‘goods’ meant whiskey. One traveler wrote of Fort Benton as “Alcohol Springs” and another historian said that the sidewalks in town were “at times so thick with discarded playing cards that is was difficult to see the wood planking”.
By 1865, the fur and robe trade was dying out along with the buffalo, and the American Fur Company sold the fort to the military. But in 1862, gold was discovered in the state, so the built-in transportation network transitioned from one type of freight to another. In 1868, 39 steamboats unloaded 8000 tons of freight and 10,000 passengers at the dock next to the fort. Tickets could cost passengers their life savings, but many took the risk hoping for reward. It is said that one steamboat returned to St. Louis with over $1.5 million in gold.
The military occupied the fort starting in 1869, but their stay was short lived. Within five years, they abandoned the fort and private families began to occupy its buildings. If it weren’t for the Daughter’s of the American Revolution rescuing the remaining buildings in the early 1900s, one of the oldest buildings in Montana would have disappeared forever.
In recent years, reconstruction began in earnest and tours are now being offered to the public from the end of May to the end of September.
The original Fort was built in a quadrangle with two story blockhouses at each end. Portholes in the walls were large enough to accommodate both riflemen and cannons. Tours inside the compound include the trade store, warehouse, blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, kitchen and agents’ quarters. The northeast blockhouse is original, and remains of adobe walls can still be seen. Exhibits at the adjacent museum include Indian tools and clothing, frontier relics and cowboy gear, a saloon bar and steamboat displays.