The Missouri River and surrounding landscape have shaped human history in this region for centuries. Native Americans, explorers, traders, and settlers all left their imprint--impressions we can still see today.
For thousands of years the Upper Missouri River area provided a home for many Native American tribes such as Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, and Crow. Other tribes traveled through and used the area, including Shoshone, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Nez Perce. The Missouri River landscape, though sparse in appearance, provided many resources the tribes needed for daily living, including many types of plant and animal life. These tribes lived by following the tremendous herds of bison as the animals roamed the prairie. Other game species, such as elk and deer, also provided sustenance. Plants along the Missouri, such as willow and snowberry, provided for and supplemented their nutritional and medicinal needs. Native Americans traded with one another for resources that were not readily available, such as obsidian (black volcanic glass). For hundreds of years, Native Americans were the only people living in the area.
Nez Perce tipi
Type of steamboat
on the Missouri
Bodmer painting of buffalo along the Missouri River
In 1877, the non-treaty Nez Perce fled from the U.S. Army from their homelands in what is now Idaho across Montana toward Canada. They crossed the Upper Missouri River at Cow Island, approximately 126 river miles below Fort Benton. Here they attempted to trade for supplies, but the soldiers denied their requests, so the Indians spent extra time to forcibly take the supplies and to rest. This delay of 24 precious hours impacted the outcome for the non-treaty Nez Perce at the Bear Paw Battlefield. Click here
for information on this important piece of American history.
The legendary explorers Lewis and Clark made their historic journey to the Pacific and back from 1803 to 1806. The captains and their Corps of Discovery traversed the Upper Missouri River area in 1805. On May 31, 1805, the Corps camped at Stonewall Creek (present-day Eagle Creek) where Lewis remarked in his journal about the sandstone white cliffs along the river.
The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water…The water in the course of time in decending from those hills and plains on either side of the river has trickled down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures . . . .
On June 2, 1805, the Corps reached the confluence of the Missouri with another river which they named Maria’s River in honor of Lewis’s cousin (today the river is called Marias, pronounced as Mah-rye-us). At this point, they had to decide which river was the true Missouri. Therefore, the site, near Loma, Montana, is known as Decision Point. On June 3, Lewis wrote in his journal:
This morning early we passed over and formed a camp on the point formed by the junction of the two large rivers… An interesting question was now to be determined; which of these rivers was the Missouri . . . Capt. C & myself stroled out to the top of the hights in the fork of these rivers from whence we had an extensive and most inchanting view; the country in every derection around us was one vast plain in which innumerable herds of Buffalow were seen attended by their shepperds the wolves; the solitary antelope which now had their young were distributed over it’s face; some herds of Elk were also seen; the verdure perfectly cloathed the ground, the weather was pleasant and fair. . . .
Through exploration, river observations, and the captains’ educational background, Lewis and Clark determined in slightly more than a week which river was the correct one, and therefore, which route to take. They took the southern route. This decision took the explorers in the right direction as they continued on to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis and Clark’s journey opened many regions of the West to further exploration, and later, to settlement. Fur trading began in earnest in the 1830s. About a dozen trading forts were established along the Upper Missouri during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1845, Major Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur trade company established Fort Lewis about three miles upriver from present-day Fort Benton on the south side of the Missouri River. Ice jams from Montana’s harsh winters made it difficult to reach the fort during the winter months. In 1846, the fort was relocated downriver for better accessibility. The fort became Fort Benton, renamed in 1850 by Culbertson. He named the site in honor of Thomas Hart Benton, a senator from Missouri who was a good friend of the fur company and the major. Culbertson decided to reconstruct the fort from log structures to adobe to better withstand the harsh winter weather. Reconstruction was completed in 1860 with the trade store being the last building completed. The new location was closer to the Teton River and made trade with the Blackfeet Indians more convenient. As trade increasingly progressed in the Missouri River region, companies moved fur posts farther up the Missouri River and closer to Fort Benton.
The first steamboat to navigate the Upper Missouri River was the Yellow Stone, reaching Fort Clark near the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1832. Beginning in 1860, steamboat transportation on the Upper Missouri River reached Fort Benton, bringing in a new era of transportation for goods and materials. Steamboats had the capacity to transport heavy loads of cargo as well as passengers up and down the river. They also provided fur posts with a reliable and steady means of trading goods. Furs and buffalo hides were in high demand. The first steamships to arrive in Fort Benton were the Chippewa and the Key West on July 2, 1860. Brave captains piloted their steamboats through unpredictable river conditions and made monumental journeys up the Missouri River. The river was not navigable beyond Fort Benton’s shores, establishing the community as the world’s innermost port. Despite the treacherous nature of this business, steamboats were still the safest and quickest transportation route into the area.
Coinciding with the arrival of steamboats to Fort Benton was the discovery of gold in Montana. This discovery brought gold miners, prospectors, and others through and into Fort Benton. Merchants and other businesses flourished in the community. People and goods followed wagon roads to the gold fields of Bannock and to other places such as Fort Walla Walla in what is now Washington state. Builders constructed many substantial structures along the levee. In 1864 the community officially became a town through incorporation, prompting the slogan “the birthplace of Montana.” Fort Benton eventually became a high-society city. Elegant brick buildings along the river still exist today. The most spectacular, the Grand Union Hotel, was built in 1882; it was once the noblest hotel in the Pacific Northwest. It’s been recently renovated to its former glory and remains a viable business today. One of its historic dining room place-setting is on display at the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center. In 1887, the Great Northern Railroad established track in Montana, and the last steamboat with goods docked at Fort Benton in 1890, bringing to an end the prosperous steamboat era. To learn more about the history and settlement of Fort Benton, click here.
Another notable piece of Upper Missouri River history took place in the early 1830s.
A Swiss painter named Karl Bodmer was asked to journey across the American West in 1832 with German Prince Maximilian of Weid. They reached St. Louis in March 1833 and traveled into the American frontier on the steamboat Yellow Stone, owned by the American Fur Company. In seven weeks they had traveled nearly 1,500 miles and stopped at Fort Pierre in what is now South Dakota. They traveled another 500 miles on the steamboat Assiniboine to Fort Union, then on keelboat to Fort McKenzie, a site about seven miles downstream from present-day Fort Benton. Prince Maximilian was fascinated by Native American culture, and he, Bodmer, and their entourage spent more than a month in the area. After a large force of Assiniboine and Cree attacked the fort, Maximilian and his group decided to return east, wintering at Fort Clark, North Dakota. In May 1834, the party arrived in St. Louis, and then traveled on to New York City and finally back to Europe. Bodmer created 81 paintings to illustrate the journey in the American West. His work captures images of many native peoples, including their apparel, cultural ceremonies, and material possessions. Bodmer’s other significant paintings included breath-taking landscapes, such as the sculpted rock formations of the White Cliffs and Citadel Rock that sit along the Missouri River. Much of the landscape he captured still looks the same today as when he and Prince Maximilian traveled through.