Audubon Brought Science to Fort Union, the Nation

by Fred MacVaugh

Scientific study and Fort Union fur trade — they’re two subjects not readily associated in people’s minds. But unbeknownst to most, Fort Union fur trade contributed to science decades before Theodore Roosevelt arrived in North Dakota.


The Culbertson Brothers

Williston author Doreen Chaky has explored one such impact: the foundational discoveries fur traders such as Fort Union’s Alexander Culbertson and his half-brother Thaddeus made in vertebrate paleontology. Traveling by river and land routes between distant posts, including Fort Union to Fort Pierre and Fort John (the forerunner of Fort Laramie in southeast Wyoming), Alexander passed through today’s South Dakota Badlands.

During one or more such journeys, he collected—or is credited with collecting—what became the region’s first scientifically described fossil specimen, a jawbone a St. Louis doctor, Hiram A. Prout, wrote about in The American Journal of Science and Arts in 1847. This discovery and publication sparked the rush to study vertebrate paleontology west of the Mississippi River.

What caused Culbertson’s curiosity? For Euro-Americans, the Enlightenment era inspired explorers to collect and catalog what many called curiosities, things they and their contemporaries didn’t know. Most famous among them was Charles Willson Peale. Remembered today as a painter, this Philadelphian established an era-defining museum that popularized collecting and scientific study.

Elk studied by scientists in the North Dakota Badlands

Elk at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Cervus canadensis) average of 7–8 feet in length and 510–710 pounds in weight. They primarily feed on native grasses, forbs, and trees, and their habitat consists of prairie grasslands for eating at dusk and dawn, then treed coulees to rest in during the day and at night. NPS Photo / Rolan Honeyman


Audubon Comes to Fort Union

Although Peale never came to the confluence area (he died the year before Fort Union’s 1828 founding), a contemporary did: the naturalist John James Audubon. In the summer of 1843, Audubon and a party of four—Edward Harris, Isaac Sprague, John Graham Bell, and Lewis Squires—steamed west up the Missouri River to Fort Union.

During their more than two months at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, Audubon, Sprague, Bell, and Harris pursued, collected, and documented the region’s four-footed mammals that gave live births, its viviparous quadrupeds.

Already famous for The Birds of America, his encyclopedic study of the nation’s avian inhabitants, Audubon desired to produce a companion work on the country’s mammals. When published between 1845 and 1848, Americans’ celebrated The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America as a national triumph. In addition to presenting species new to science, including the Yellow Bellied Marmot and the Black Footed Ferret, Audubon and his collaborator John Bachman’s three-volume Viviparous Quadrupeds featured 150 hand-colored lithographic prints.

These prints, works of both art and science, exposed most Americans to mammals they had never before seen. Among them were bison and the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus), the illustration of which featured Fort Union viewed at a distance between Audubon’s two posed specimens.

Scientific Drawings — Works of Art

All 150 recently conserved lithographic prints are now featured in Audubon’s Last Wilderness Journey: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. It was published last month by Auburn University’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and D Giles Limited, a London publisher.

Essays were written to accompany the prints explore the scientific and artistic contributions and present-day relevance of Audubon and Bachman’s Viviparous Quadrupeds.

bison fur trade scientist James Audubon

Audubon’s bison
“Plate LVI, American Bison or Buffalo,” the hand-colored lithograph published in Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. II (1851).
Image provided courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Emma Sheafer, 1974.


Unfortunately, neither the prints themselves nor the essays indicate one likely legacy of Audubon’s project: The probable influence a 58-year-old Audubon had in inspiring Alexander Culbertson and Fort Union fur traders to contribute study specimens such as furs and fossils to scientists and museums in the east.

Some of the Smithsonian Institution’s earliest natural history specimens—among them, animal skulls, furs, and fossils—are attributed to Culbertson and Edwin T. Denig, Fort Union’s post manager during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Even Denig’s successor as Fort Union’s bourgeois, the Philadelphian Frederick Riter, collected weather data for the U.S. Patent Office and Smithsonian Institution.

Richardson's ground squirrel at Fort Union

More than their distinctive fur pattern and coloring differentiates these lively ground-dwellers from the Richardson’s ground squirrel one often sees in North Dakota. These rodents, which can still be seen at Fort Union, are on average several inches shorter in length and half the weight. They are a solitary- rather than a colony-dwelling species, too.  NPS Photo / Fred MacVaugh

The Impact on the World

Today, that curiosity and spirit of discovery characteristic of some fur traders as well as the artists and scientists who visited Fort Union help to explain the site’s national significance.

The region and world we live in now could be vastly different if not for what occurred here between 1828 and 1867.

“How so?” you ask. I’ll leave that to your imagination. One thing is for certain, though: if not for Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds, our Enlightenment-inspired knowledge of natural history at the confluence during the time of the fur trade would be substantially less.

Click here to read more about Fort Union Trading Post

See more of Fort Union Trading Post by clicking here

Click here to read more of  Fred MacVaugh’s eloquent stories of Badlands nature

Fred MacVaugh is a historian, writer, and avid reader in northwest North Dakota. In addition to serving on the board of directors of Williston’s James Memorial Art Center, he works as the museum curator at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Once a month he conducts a writers group at the MonDak Heritage Center in Sidney, Montana. The views he expresses here are his own and do not reflect those of his employer, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.