Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana

In 1844, Fort McKenzie was abandoned by the American Fur Company and operations were moved downriver to the mouth of the Judith River, and Fort Chardon was established. In 1845, Fort Chardon was abandoned and Fort Lewis was established a few miles above the future site of Fort Benton. In 1846, Fort Lewis was abandoned and they moved a few miles downriver and established Fort Clay, which would be renamed Fort Benton in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a strong political supporter of the fur trade. In the same year that the post was established, Catholic missionaries Father Pierre-Jean de Smet and Father Nicholas Point celebrated Mass for the Flathead and Blackfoot tribes to pacify relations between these traditional enemies at the Judith and Missouri Rivers.

Old Fort Benton, Montana by John Ford Clymer, 1967.

Old Fort Benton, Montana by John Ford Clymer, 1967.

Called the birthplace of Montana, Fort Benton would thrive as a center of commerce. Here the Indians and white fur traders alike exchanged their pelts and hides for clothing, arms, liquor, and other items. The fur trade era stimulated the first extensive use of the Missouri River as an avenue of transportation. Keelboats, mackinaws, bull boats, and canoes plied the upper river bringing trade items and returning with a wealth of furs and buffalo robes. The vast amount of capital to be obtained encouraged steamboat captains to brave the treacherous Missouri River. Steamboat navigation on the Missouri River started in 1831 when the steamer Yellowstone reached Pierre, South Dakota. The next year it got to Fort Union, North Dakota on the present eastern boundary of Montana.

In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens conducted a treaty council with the Blackfoot, Flathead, Gros Ventre, and Nez Perce. This treaty established boundaries and provided for railroads, roads, telegraph lines and military post access across what is now northern Montana.

Several other upstream efforts were made and in 1859, Captain John LaBarge, accompanied by Charles Chouteau of the American Fur Company, attempted to reach Fort Benton. They fell only 12 1/2 miles short of their goal, unloading the Chippewa at the former site of Fort McKenzie. The following year they were successful. On July 2, 1860, the steamer Chippewa followed closely by the Key West, reached Fort Benton and proved that the channel of the Missouri River was navigable to that point. Navigability was established just in time to serve the gold camps which were about to open in southwestern Montana.

Grasshopper Creek, near Bannack, Montana

Grasshopper Creek, near Bannack, Montana

Discoveries of gold in 1862 at Grasshopper Creek, in 1863 at Alder Gulch, and in 1864 at Last Chance Gulch put an entirely new picture on the development of Montana. The era of the fur trade was passing. The era of mining was beginning. River traffic became heavy as steamboats brought men and supplies to the goldfields and returned downriver with products. In 1866, for example, Grant Marsh pointed the Luella downriver with a cargo of 2 1/2 tons of Confederate Gulch gold dust. Valued at $1,250,000, it was the richest cargo ever to go down the Missouri River.

Business in Fort Benton was booming. Almost as exciting as the river traffic which brought commodities into Fort Benton was the transportation industry which carried the merchandise out. Stage lines, bull trains, mule trains and similar methods of transportation were available for the commodities destined for points beyond Fort Benton. “All trails lead out of Fort Benton” was a familiar statement. The community was the anchor of the Mullan Road to Fort Walla Walla in present-day Washington. The Fisk Wagon Road to St. Paul, Minnesota through northern Montana and North Dakota was another. The road to Helena and other gold mining towns branched off from the Mullan Road. The Whoop-Up Trail led into Canada and was an important factor in keeping Fort Benton prosperous.

In the meantime, the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, which gave Americans title to 160 acres of the undeveloped land west of the Mississippi River. The law required homesteaders to file an application, improve the land, and file for a deed of title. Much of the prime land, especially near or along waterways, including the Missouri River became settled.

Nez Perce Tipis, Montana, 1871

Nez Perce Tipis, Montana, 1871.

In 1877, the non-treaty Nez Perce tribe fled their homelands from the U.S. Army in what is now Idaho across Montana toward Canada. They crossed the Upper Missouri River at Cow Island, approximately 126 river miles below Fort Benton. Here they attempted to trade for supplies, but the soldiers denied their requests, so the Indians spent extra time to forcibly take the supplies and to rest. This delay of 24 precious hours impacted the outcome for the non-treaty Nez Perce at the Bear Paw Battlefield. Forty miles short of the Canadian border and following a five-day battle and siege, the Nez Perce ceased fighting at Bear Paw on October 5th, 1877, in which Chief Joseph gave his immortal speech: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

During the 1880s, river traffic began to drop as the newly built railroads cut into the market. Driving the silver spike in Fort Benton in September 1877 signaled the end of the great steamboat era. The last commercial boat unloaded its cargo in 1890. By then the buffalo had disappeared from the plains to be replaced by livestock. Fort Benton changed from a raucous river port to an agricultural supply center.

In 1909 Congress enacted another homesteading law called the Enlarged Homestead Act. This law targeted land suitable for dryland farming and increased the number of acres to 320. In 1916, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act targeted settlers seeking 640 acres of public land for ranching purposes.

The 19th-century farmer on the Great Plains was an important part of the food production chain. To get their products to market, they depended on the efforts of many people. The farmer was, however, even more dependent on nature. The unpredictable weather of the Great Plains, and specifically of the Missouri River Breaks area, tested the resolve of many people trying to earn a living on the landscape. However, homesteaders began arriving in large numbers around 1910. Climate, lack of water, and poor soil plagued the homesteaders, and within a few years, the majority of landscape belonged to large ranchers who didn’t depend upon crops to make a living. Several historic structures still stand within the Missouri Breaks National Monument, testifying to the homesteading history of the region.

During the 20th century, the Missouri River basin was extensively developed for irrigation, flood control and the generation of hydroelectric power. Fifteen dams impound the main stem of the river, with hundreds more on tributaries. Meanders have been cut and the river channelized to improve navigation, reducing its length by almost 200 miles from pre-development times. Although the lower Missouri Valley is now a populous and highly productive agricultural and industrial region, heavy development has taken its toll on wildlife and fish populations as well as water quality.

In 1976, Congress designated a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River through north-central Montana as wild and scenic. In 2001, President Clinton established the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

In addition to its rich history and widely contrasting scenes, visitors can also float the river, fish, hike, hunt, and camp within the monument.

More Information:

Missouri River Montana

Missouri River in Montana

Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center
701 7th Street
Fort Benton, MT 59442

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

Corps of Discovery – The Lewis & Clark Expedition

Fort Benton – Birthplace of Montana

The Louisiana Purchase

The Mighty Missouri River

Montana Main Page


Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Wikipedia – Missouri River

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