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  • Mikah Meyer

Fort Union: More Like "Walmart" Than a Military Fort

Unit #25 / 412 - Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

Feeling the sun of a North Dakota high-desert beat heavy on my neck, I looked up to view a panorama of dry, grassy bluffs and wondered how early pioneers fared here.

With dust blowing in my eyes and waves of wind flowing above the Missouri River to my right, I thought of my own family. How they'd immigrated from Germany to settle in this same vast prairie and endured everything I was experiencing, only without the luxury of 150+ years of technology.

Presumably, the way they overcame this was with strong communities working together to make sure everyone survived each season. That's what Harrison Ford taught us in the barn raising scene of the Amish-focused movie "Witness," right?

Maybe I sat through one too many "Little House on the Prairie" episodes as a child, but it was the only way I could imagine them toughing it through winters reaching as low as -40 F and summers touching 100.

That awe which I felt for my own ancestors provided a similar amazement for the people who created Unit #25 of my 400+ national parks journey: Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.

In existence from 1828 - 1867, its 39 years of peaceful operation make it the longest lasting fur trading post in United States history.

And yet, that's not what impressed me.

Having spent 19 winters in the neighboring states of South Dakota and Nebraska, I know how unbearable they can be, even with heated houses, indoor plumbing, and windshield defrosters.

But these people did it without any of that; with whatever drive made them seek the adventure of a trading post established only 23 years after Lewis & Clark first reported on the region. These pioneers helped North Dakota eventually become a state, one which my adventurous spirit could now claim as the 48th of 48 lower-continental United States I've been honored to meet.

Now, sappy North Dakota stories aside, I will admit this national park unit is not of similar grade to others when it comes to natural or scenic beauty. However, for those interested in history, it provides an interesting glimpse into early American life. Not only was this a place primarily known for its peaceful working relations among Euro-Americans and Natives, with no Euro-American women at Fort Union, it was also the catalyst for many marriages occurring between those native-to and new-to this land. Like Grand Portage National Monument, this Native history is not of the dire tragedies I learned in school, but of people coming together through both a shared economic purpose and a common humanity.

With all this love floating around, it is interesting to note that the demise of Fort Union had much to do with the 1866 establishment of Fort Buford only 2 miles away. As Fort Buford was the first military fort north of the Missouri River (privately owned Fort Union, despite its name, was only for trade), its presence turned nearby Fort Union into a site of fear. With Minnesota and South Dakota Native Americans being relocated into North Dakota, the diminishing natural resources exacerbated this military anxiety, causing the steadily thriving trading post to shut down.

In a less symbolic gesture, all of Fort Union was swiftly torn down so its materials could be used to build Fort Buford.

I will not pretend to know the intricacies of international diplomacy, but in modern times with the United States debating its use of military force vs. economic power, Fort Union provides an example of how we operated in the past.

With droves of new pioneers currently moving to western North Dakota to work in the booming oil industry, it also showcases a way to integrate an influx of people into what was once a sleepy prairie.

All of that history, with the restoration and rebuilding of Fort Union from 1985 - 1993, is now on display for visitors who choose to brave the North Dakota sun, and brave modern pioneers who seek the spirit of those who sought adventure here long ago.

5 Fort Union Highlights (You Can Do)!

1. Take the Short Trail to the Missouri River

These thin trees that look like tall grass provided the most sensory experience of my visit. Stepping on the small trunks of these trees made me feel like an early explorer, trudging my way to the nearest river.

2. Dress in the Fashions of the Fur Trade

Fort Union has wearable furs which visitors can try on. Here I showcase a wolf and a massive buffalo fur.

3. Walk Around the Rim of the Fort

Don't just explore the inside. Get into a tipi, stand behind a cannon pointed at the Missouri River, or just imagine arriving through Fort Union's doors with goods to trade.

4. Explore the Surrounding Scenery

"Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie," my sister's email signature reads.

Western North Dakota was a great example of this. Many "Ooo" and "Aah" moments were had simply driving from Minot to Fort Union. Take some time to pull over and soak in the views.

5. Stand in Two States at Once

I'm a nerd for stuff like this (just wait till I get to Four Corners).

The road to reach Fort Union crosses about 50 ft. into Montana before returning to North Dakota just past the overflow parking area.

It's cheesy, I know, but so fun.

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

North Dakota to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Illinois

-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

-Theodore Roosevelt National Park

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Pipestone National Monument

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

-Effigy Mounds National Monument

-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

-Pullman National Monument

Here's the journey thus far:

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