America's Best History Spotlight
On this page we're going to Spotlight the lesser known historic sites and attractions that dot the history landscape across the USA and are worth a visit if you're in their area. And while they may be lesser known, some are very unique, and will be that rare find. You'll be, at times, on the ground floor, or maybe even know something others don't. It'll be fun. Visit them.
Fort Benton, Montana
It's a unique blend of history when fur traders founded a post, Fort Benton, at the head of the Missouri River and constructed the largest inland port on the trail west. This was in 1846, with Pierre Chouteau, Jr., and employee Alexander Culbertson, all of the Chouteau Fur Company, being the founders. Of course, it's genesis included a palisade fort, eventual steamboat service to St. Louis in 1859, and continued use as one of the most important towns in the development of the American West, although sadly, its import has been lost to most. Today, there's a historic district to visit, with the fort and other historic buildings and museums, plus this area of Montana is amongst the most beautiful in the nation, so sightseeing here, even if you aren't that into history, is a treat. Photo above: Fort Benton drawing, date unkown, Sarany, Major, and Knapp. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Info, What's There Now, History Nearby
The Chouteau brothers firm had wanted a far post along the upper Missouri River to keep their fur trading monopoly with the Osage and other Indian tribes intact. Auguste had founded St. Louis with Pierre Laclede in 1764. Pierre with Bernard Pratt had bought the rights to the fur trading in theMissouri River area from Jacob Astor's American Fur Company in 1834. In 1846, the firm established Fort Benton, named for the Montana Senator Thomas Hart Benton, whom Pierre had contributed to. Yes, political influence along the Missouri River was established long ago. Establishment of Fort Benton was nearly twenty years prior to most town settlements in the far west. For those twenty years, the Chouteau used the fort as their headquarters for the beaver pelt trade, then buffalo hides, and also as part of his empire into mining, mills, and the railroad.
In 1865, Chouteau sold the fort to the U.S. Army, and throughout this period through 1890, Fort Benton would serve as perhaps the most important town in the upper west's settlement, both in the United States and Canada. It's influence waned once the railroad pushed its way west past Fort Benton in 1887. By 1890, the population had dipped to 624 people, nearly one thousand less than in the census of the decade before. Homesteading and agriculture began to replace the fur and buffalo trade.
Photo above: The harsh beauty of the Fort Benton area in today's Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, 2012. Courtesy Bureau of Land Management.
Where Is It
Fort Benton, Montana is 253 miles north of Yellowstone National Park and 184 miles southeast of Glacier National Park. For many, it's a nice place to visit on your travels between the two. From the northern entrance to Yellowstone, it's Route 89 North through Lewis and Clark National Forest, then MT-331 and Highway 228. Check your favorite GPS app or map program for the best route from other parts of Yellowstone or other points in Montana, etc.
What is There Now
Fort Benton Historic District runs from the riverfront, along Front Street, and includes the levee and Fort Benton Bridge. There are a variety of museums, the blockhouse of Fort Benton, the I.G. Baker House, Pacific Hotel, Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882, (you can still stay there), the Culbertson House, and many more historic buildings. East of downtown, land of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument runs for one hundred forty-nine miles.
When are the Sites Open and How Much to Visit
Various. Fort Benton is open from Memorial Day through September. An admission fee is charged. Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument has a $5 single day boat fee and various per day fees for individuals if boating more than one day. Day use is largely free there otherwise.
Fort Benton Museums
Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument
Visiting Fort Benton for many will be an interesting side trip to other places such as Glacier National Park or on their way to other sites such as Yellowstone or Little Bighorn Battlefield. Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument is integral, to us, as part of the Fort Benton experience. Of course, the many smaller sites along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail are not far afield, including the Lewis and Clark NHT Interpretive Center between Fort Benton and Helena, Montana.