Fur Trade Symposium 2000
"Thanks to kind providence, here I am again at good old Fort Union." That was the sentiment of Charles Larpenteur in 1838 as he arrived back at the American Fur Company's fort built at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
I had wanted to visit the fort for many years, and the opportunity finally presented itself when the Fur Trade Symposium 2000 was convened in Williston, North Dakota on 21-23 September 2000. "Indians and Traders: Entrepreneurs of the Upper Missouri" was the theme of the symposium, and attendees were treated to three days of lectures and presentations by many of todays leading scholars in Western Fur Trade history.
My friend Rick Williams and I arrived on Thursday evening at the Williston International Airport Inn where the symposium was being held. We had been on the road for the better part of two days, with stops along the way at Fort Laramie NHS to visit with Rex Norman and at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. (Another pilgrimage I had not done before).
A miscalculation in time zones put us one hour late in arriving, and I was worried that we would miss all the socializing. However, when we walked into the conference room around 8:30 p.m., those fears vanished. The vendors were all still there and the room was busy with folks looking at books and maps, trade goods old and new and other presentations. Seated over to the side was a small group of AMM members and other friends. Among them was "Grandpa" Bob Schmidt, Chance Tiffe, Jerry Farthenhold, David Mullen and a few whose names have slipped me. Also milling among the crowd, I was pleased to spot "Burnt Spoon" and "Grey Flower."
It was good to shake a friendly hand and share a few laughs. The symposium kicked off the next morning with a welcome from the Mayor of Williston, then the first presentation "The Role of the Assiniboine People in the Fort Union Fur Trade" was made by David Miller from the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, University of Regina. He was followed by "The Sioux and Assiniboine Indians in the Fort Union Fur Trade" by Raymond J. DeMallie of Indiana University. The first session concluded with our own Clay S. Landry presenting "The Price of Beaver: A Study of the Goods Traded to the Rocky Mountain Trapper by the American Fur Company, 1828-1840."
After a break, during which the previous speakers were mobbed by attendees asking questions, Andrea Ladke a Doctrinal Candidate at the University of Nebraska presented "Reuben Lewis: Experiences on the Upper Missouri." Following Andrea, Barton H. Barbour of the National Park Service presented "Society and Law at Fort Union Trading Post." The last presentation of the morning was "Cultural Primitive? Dirty Scoundrel? Successful Entrepreneur? Rene Jessaume on the Upper Missouri" by Richard K. Stenberg.
During the first days luncheon we were all entertained and educated by James A. Hanson of the Museum of the Fur Trade who spoke on "Why I am Fascinated with the Fur Trade." I particularly enjoyed Hanson's manner of oration as much as his content.
After lunch we boarded vans, cars and trucks and caravanned out to the confluence area of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Here a brief history of incidents that happened at the joining of these two great rivers was related to us, from Lewis and Clarks arrival to the construction of Fort Henry to the eventual construction of Fort Union itself. With the shifting of the river channel and the amount of farming in the area, it took a little imagination to envision what the area looked like those many years ago, but the surrounding hills have remained virtually unchanged, and I could almost picture Catlin or Bodmer perched above the rivers sketching the inspiring scene.
We next stopped at the site of Fort William, Sublette and Cambell's short lived attempt to compete with the American Fur Company. There are no physical remains here but the Park Service representatives seemed fairly certain of where the Fort had stood before being dismantled and moved over closer to the Fort Union site.
The afternoon culminated with tours of Fort Buford and Fort Union. Fort Union was every bit as impressive as I had hoped, with its massive wooden palisades and two stone bastions.
I felt akin to a kid at Disneyland as I prowled around the Forts interior. They have done a very admirable job in the reconstruction and furnishing of the fort. The centerpiece is the beautiful house that Kenneth McKenzie and others had occupied as the American Fur Company's bourgeois at the fort. However I think my favorite place was up on the cat walk looking out toward the river. Catlin had made his residence in the bastion on this side and
I tried to remember all the other famous names that had walked the original walls here.
We headed back to town in no particular order and had dinner on our own, after which we were back at the meeting room for another couple presentations that evening. Amy Mossett from Fort Berthold Community College spoke on "Traditional Uses of Plants by the Mandan-Hidatsa," and Dave Walter of the Montana Historical Society presented "Sir St. George Gore: Slob Hunter."
I was standing in the back when my friend and former professor Fred Gowans stepped in, so I spent a few minutes talking with him. He had a fairly harrowing trip across Montana due to an early and unexpected snow storm. The same storm had dropped twelve inches on the Black Hills and closed I-80 across southern Wyoming.
Day two began with more presentations including: "The Leviathan Company of the North is Watching: Hudson Bay Company Observations and Understandings of American Activities on the Upper Missouri to 1831" by David Smyth of Parks Canada, "Uncle Sam's a Weak Old Fellow: Northern Plains Indian Response to Fur Traders Activities on the Upper Missouri, 1826-1854" by William Swagerty of the University of Idaho, and Annalies Corbin's "A New Whistle on the Wind: Steamboats on the Missouri River."
During the break I was able to spend a few minutes reacquainting myself with Jim Hardee, another AMM brother whom I had first met several years earlier at the Fur Trade Symposium held in Pinedale, Wyoming.
The sessions continued with "Drayage Included: Steamboat Operations of the American Fur Company at St. Louis" by Michael Casler an employee of the National Park Service at Fort Union, "Five Reasons Why Fort Union Was Reconstructed" by John Matzko of Bob Jones University, and "Design for Permanence: Historic Accuracy and Modern Construction" by Rick Cronenberger who was the NPS Architect in charge of the Fort Union reconstruction.
The luncheon today was highlighted by Dr. Fred Gowans presentation "The Warren A. Ferris Map: What might have Been." Dr. Gowans and others have recently had a limited edition of the Ferris map reproduced in a full size edition, and it looks very impressive. The original map along with the rest of the "Ferris-Lovejoy Collection" is held in the archives of Brigham Young University. The maps are available at Fort Union and I also saw some at the Fort Bridger museum on Labor Day.
That afternoon we all went back out to Fort Union for a living history presentation. Reenactors accurately portrayed a number of the forts original inhabitants. Burnt Spoon and Grey Flower did a splendid job portraying the camp of one of the fort's hunters.
Located outside the back gate was a small Indian camp complete with several buffalo hide teepees. One of the Indian reenactors cut a striking figure decked out in full warrior regalia and charging about on a beautiful paint gelding.
We enjoyed several more hours looking about the Fort, conjuring up ghosts of old, and conversing. Of particular enjoyment were some of Jim Hardee's stories and yarns, and Rex Normans jokes.
That evening at the Elks Club in town, the symposium was concluded. Before dinner Burnt Spoon serenaded us as he passed through the hall singing his collection of ballads and songs. The guest of honor this evening was Dayton Duncan who co-produced the PBS special on Lewis and Clark. He spoke on the Corps of Discovery's travels on the Missouri, their arrival at the confluence and the rest of their trip. He is an accomplished orator and evoked some haunting images in our minds and left me with an increased appreciation on the Corps accomplishments.
The symposium for me was a great success. It's great to gather with a group of folks who all share a common interest if not a fascination for the history of the fur trade, and I had finally visited Lewis and Clarks "...that long wished for spot." I can't wait for it to happen again!
If you missed out, the next symposium is scheduled for September 2003 at Fort Benton near Great Falls, Montana and in 2006 in Chadron, Nebraska.