Fort Union, a break from Wilderness survival

This isn’t the 21st Century — it’s life in the early 19th Century. Hundreds of men and women left their isolation and separation to endure and survive inhuman conditions.. They trudged and floated to a landmark of just a little civilization: the Fort Union rendezvous.  Here, they reconnected with others like themselves, make a few deals, maybe pocket a little money and gather up supplies for the next months of wilderness survival.

Fort Union rendezvous exterior

Trappers and traders set up camp outside the stockade of Fort Union Trading Post

A Gathering Point

The “safe harbor” that drew together the mixed group and became an intersection of several nations and two major thoroughfares.  The nations included Canadians, French, British, English, German, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Crow, Cree, and Blackfeet. The Yellowstone River and the Missouri River bought mountain men downstream from the Rockies.

1838 map of lower missouri lower yellowstone rivers

A portion of Prince Maximilian’s map showing the region around Fort Union in December 1838. Fort Union is near the top center at the junction of the rivers and boundaries.

It was a private establishment set up by a wealthy businessman. John Jacob Astor expanded his holdings by dealing with a culture of people who did not fit into modern life such as those at Saint Louis.  Many of them had come up through that gateway city on the river that divided the American continent into west and east.  dog trappers traders Fort Union rendezvous By foot, by mule, by horse, by canoe people escaped the lawlessness of “the west” and descended on the commercial enterprise called Fort Union Trading Post.  Here, they swapped goods and stories. It was also the time to stock up on essentials and head back home to their teepees, dugouts, earth lodges, and cabins.

Their remarkable endurance, stamina, and self-reliance of 1830 are marked once a year at Fort Union Trading Post on the Missouri River. Rebuilt and reborn, the John Astor shopping center for mountain men is just a few miles from where the Yellowstone joins the long water highway across America.Fort Union rendezvous three people, iron skillet and tent

Rendezvous Reunion

The annual Fort Union Rendezvous in early June brings reenactors from the northwest and upper Midwest of America and southern Canada.  Driving by the National Park Service site, it would be impossible to not notice the tent city where woodworkers, potters, fur traders and leather workers. They gathered to demonstrate, educate and pontificate on the life of voyageurs, traders, and trappers who set up their tents here 200 years ago.fort union hat blanket


Every year, when possible, we make a point of stepping into this modern version of 1800 America. Stories are swapped and tales are told. It’s a family event; children’s laughter and vigorous play easily fit in the day. More studious visitors learn how to go home and tan their next buffalo hide. Others learn how to make their own mugs and cups on a pottery wheel.fort union pottery

In our visits during these gatherings, we watched friends gather and swap stories just like it was 1830. They travel from many states to be here, just as the original participants did to rendezvous here. They traveled from what is now Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota and North Dakota.Fort Union merchant

The Fort Union Trading Post is open AND FREE through the year; it’s the annual June Rendezvous when the energy is peak.  We recommend the August and September events also.  In August, it’s the Indian Arts Showcase, and in September, another reenactment weekend, the Living History and the Last Bell Tour.  You can find more on the Fort Union website.


When you visit Fort Union, be sure to see modern transportation history. A lift bridge doesn’t lift any more, but it’s an amazing landmark. Down the road, a military fort guarded the region after Fort Union Trading Post was closed. The story of Fort Buford is fascinating. 

Here’s another glimpse of what happens when you enter the Fort Union time machine and science lab.

Road Trip the Region

Fort Union, Fort Buford, the Confluence Center are three stops of a great road trip. Road trips are a favorite thing for us to do.  If you road trip to Fort Buford region, make sure to stop at the Fairview Lift Bridge and the Cartwright Tunnel, also.

Road Trips are “The Thing” this year. One of the best is Highway 22 from Dickinson to New Town.

Learn more

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