Fort Benton is a city in and the county seat of Chouteau County, Montana that was established in 1846, making it the oldest settlement in the state. The city’s waterfront area along the Upper Missouri River was the most important aspect of its 19th-century growth.
In 1845, Alexander Culbertson, an agent for the American Fur Company, established Fort Lewis about 18 miles upstream from present-day Fort Benton to trade with the Blackfoot Indians. However, the tribe did not like the location, so a year later, Culbertson moved the post to a more accessible spot on the Missouri River. The log buildings were then dismantled and floated downstream to the new site, situated on a broad grassy river bottom on the north side of the Missouri River. The post was reassembled and kept the name Fort Lewis, which was named for Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In its early years, many traders were sent with whiskey into Canada to lure the Indians away from trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. As the Canadian Mounties worked to curtail the whiskey trade, they also developed more trading opportunities for Fort Benton as they brought back supplies for the Canadian posts. While this was profitable for Fort Lewis, the sale of liquor to the Indians almost lost the American Fur Company its company license. However, in stepped Missouri senator, Thomas Hart Benton, who saved them from losing the opportunity to trade.
In the meantime, Albert Culbertson visited Fort Laramie, Wyoming and was impressed with the adobe buildings there. Knowing that these types of buildings would provide more protection against the extreme weather as well as any attacks that might be forthcoming, he began construction of new buildings at Fort Lewis in the fall of 1848. During this time, as the many clay bricks were being made for the new structures, the post was often referred to as Fort Clay.
Culbertson’s two-story dwelling was the first building completed and more buildings followed, including a new trade store, trader’s quarters, a warehouse, a blacksmith and carpenters shop, and a barn. Two 20-foot blockhouses sat opposite corners, with its second story strong enough to support the movement of brass barreled cannons. One blockhouse doubled as a powder magazine and armory. Connecting the blockhouses and surrounding the post, was a 14-foot high adobe wall. When the new post was complete in 1850, it was renamed Fort Benton in honor of Senator Thomas H. Benton, who had earlier helped the company to retain its trading license.
For two decades the trading post would thrive as a center of commerce in the area, and as the American Fur Company’s base of operations. Serving Indians and white fur traders alike, the trading post flourished as pelts and hides were exchanged for clothing, arms, liquor and other supplies. The post also served as a center of peace talks between the local Indian tribes and the white settlers, which concluded with a successful peace treaty in 1855. The treaty allowed for the US Government to builds roads and to navigate the Missouri River in exchange for annual annuity payments to the Blackfoot tribe, as well as granting buffalo hunting rights to the Crow Indians.
The fur trade era stimulated the first extensive use of the Missouri River as an avenue of transportation. Keelboats, mackinaws, bull boats and canoes were first used to transport the traders, supplies, and furs. Soon, however, the vast profits to be made encouraged steamboat captains to brave the treacherous Missouri River. Though steamboat navigation on the Missouri River started in 1831 when the steamer Yellowstone reached Pierre, South Dakota, it would be several years, before steamboats were able to reach, as the waters upstream were far more treacherous.
In Montana, the Missouri River was filled with submerged trees, snags, sandbars, and its shifting currents made the river impossible to navigate. However, years later, a new broad-bottom steamboat would be designed that first appeared in the 1850s. In 1859, Captain John LaBarge, accompanied by Charles Chouteau of the American Fur Company, attempted to reach Fort Benton on the Chippewa. However, just 12 ½ miles short of their goal, they were forced to unload at the former site of Fort McKenzie. But, they would try again and the following year was successful in reaching. More steamships followed, and another called the Key West reached Fort Benton in July 1860, proving that the Missouri River was navigable to that point.
Albert Culbertson ran the upriver trade from Fort Benton until he retired in the late 1850s. At that time, a man named Andrew Dawson took his place and oversaw the operation until his retirement in 1864. Isaac G. Baker was then appointed to supervise the post until the following spring when the American Fur Company withdrew from the upriver trade. By that time, the northern fur trade had really fallen off. However, a flourishing settlement had built up around the trading post and Isaac Baker opened a mercantile store with his brother. The American Fur Company sold the post to the U.S. Army in 1865, who wanted it because Fort Benton sat at the eastern anchor of the Mullan Wagon Road, a road built from Washington Territory in 1859-1860. However, it would be several years before military troops actually occupied the site.
As the northwestern point of de-embarkment on the Missouri River and the eastern terminus of the Mullan Wagon Road, the town, which also took the name of the post, continued to thrive as steamboats carrying goods, merchants, and settlers arrived in great numbers, especially after gold was found in Idaho and Bannack and Virginia City, Montana in the early 1860s. Within no time, stage lines, bull trains, and mule trains were available to transport the incoming supplies destined for points beyond Fort Benton. “All trails lead out of Fort Benton” was a familiar statement. In addition to the Mullan Road to Washington, the town also sat along the Fisk Wagon Road to St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Whoop-Up Trail that went to Canada.
As the town grew in importance, numerous buildings were built on the levee for a mile upriver to the fort. Fort Benton became the world’s innermost port, as well as earning a reputation as being one of the toughest towns in the West. In 1865, Fort Benton became the county seat of the newly formed Chouteau County. At about the same time, the area was inundated by yet more people as the Civil War ended and thousands flooded to the west in search of their fortunes. During this time riverboat traffic was heavy as steamboats brought men and supplies to the goldfields and returned downriver with products. Most made the trip on steamboats from St. Louis, Missouri, as it was much faster and safer than the overland route.
The trip would usually take 60-65 days, with passengers paying an average of $150. As the steamboats made the return trip, heading downriver, one of their main cargoes were the rich gold finds of Montana. In 1866, one steamboat headed out of Fort Benton with a cargo of 2 ½ tons of gold dust which had come from Confederate Gulch. Valued at $1,250,000, it was the richest cargo ever to go down the Missouri River. During the busy year of 1867, about 1,500 people made the journey to Fort Benton by steamboat.