Fort Benton, the birthplace of Montana, was established by Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Company in 1846. At first it was called Fort Clay, but at a Christmas party in 1850 the name was changed to Fort Benton in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a strong political supporter of the fur trade. Fort Benton would thrive as a center of commerce. Here the Indians and white fur traders alike exchanged their pelts and hides for clothing, arms, liquor and other items.
The fur trade era stimulated the first extensive use of the Missouri River as an avenue of transportation. Keelboats, mackinaws, bullboats and canoes plied the upper river bringing trade items and returning with a wealth of furs and buffalo robes. The vast amount of capital to be obtained encouraged steamboat captains to brave the treacherous Missouri. Steamboat navigation on the Missouri started in 1831, when the steamer Yellowstone reached Pierre, South Dakota. The next year it got to Fort Union, on the present eastern boundary of Montana.
Several other upstream efforts were made and in 1859, Captain John LaBarge, accompanied by Charles Chouteau of the American Fur Company, attempted to reach Fort Benton. They fell only 12 1/2 miles short of their goal, unloading the Chippewa at the former site of Fort McKenzie.
The following year they were successful. On July 2, 1860, the steamer Chippewa followed closely by the Key West, reached Fort Benton and proved that the channel of the Missouri was navigable to that point. Navigability was established just in time to serve the gold camps which were about to open in southwestern Montana.
Discoveries of gold in the 1862 at Grasshopper Creek, in 1863 at Alder Gulch, and in 1864 at Last Chance Gulch put an entirely new picture on the development of Montana. The era of the fur trade was passing. The era of mining was beginning.
River traffic became heavy as stemboats brought men and supplies to the gold fields and returned downriver with products. In 1866, for example, Grant Marsh pointed the Luella downriver with a cargo of 2 1/2 tons of confederate Gulch gold dust. Valued at $1,250,000, it was the richest cargo ever to go down the Missouri.
Business in Fort Benton was booming. Almost as exciting as the river traffic which brought commodities into Fort Benton was the transportation industry which carried the merchandise out. Staglines, bull trains, mule trains and similar methods of transportation were available for the commodities destined for points beyond Fort Benton. "All trails lead out of Fort Benton" was a familiar statement. The community was the anchor of the Mullan Road to Fort Walla Walla in present Washington. The Fisk Wagon Road to St, Paul through northern Montana and North Dakota was another. The road to Helena and other gold mining towns branched off from the Mullan Road. The Whoop-Up Trail led into Canada and was an important factor in keeping Fort Benton prosperous.
During the 1880s, river traffic began to drop as the newly built railroads cut into the market. Driving the silver spike in Fort Benton in September of 1887 signaled the end of the great steamboat era. The last commercial boat unloaded its cargo in 1890. Fort Benton changed from a raucous river port into a supply center for settlers who were beginning to move into the region.