By Hiram Martin Chittenden in 1902
To one who has never given the subject of fur trading posts special attention, a large number of establishments, dignified with the name of forts, posts, or houses, that existed in the heart of the wilderness long before the tide of western emigration had set in, would seem almost incredible. In 1843 there were in existence in the country west of St. Louis, Missouri no fewer 150 occupied or abandoned posts. The names of more than 100 have been recovered while the casual hints thrown out in the narratives and correspondence of the times make certain the existence of a much larger number. Some of these were really great establishments and lasted many years; others were very temporary affairs, being occupied only for a season or two. Abandoned sites were frequently reoccupied, often by different companies who christened them with new names.
By far the greater number of these posts lay along the Missouri River and most of their names have long been buried in oblivion. Many are permanently lost, while others can not be cleared of uncertainty as to their true location and ownership. Many of the names are perpetuated in towns and villages which have grown up on or near the old sites. Others, that should have survived on account of their great importance, can no longer be found today.
These establishments were generally designated as “Forts.” Their primary purpose was trade, but in a land of savage and treacherous inhabitants, they served the purpose of protection as well. Their construction was therefore adapted to both ends. The ground plan of the typical trading post was always a rectangle, sometimes square, but generally a little longer in one direction than the other. The sides varied in length from 100-400 feet depending upon the magnitude of the trade which the post must accommodate. In order to ensure the necessary protection, the fort was enclosed with strong walls of wood or adobe. There were a few posts built of adobe, but these were the exception. The typical fort was protected by wooden palisades or pickets varying from 12-18 feet high and from 4-8 inches thick. In some instances the pickets were squared and set in juxtaposition; in others, they were round pieces formed by sawing logs in halves. They were set from 2-3 feet in the ground and the earth was generally banked up to a small height against them. In some forts, there were musketry loopholes along the top of this embankment. For the purposes of guard duty and also for active defense, a plank walk was bracketed to the inside of the pickets about four feet below the top so that sentinels could walk there and observe the ground outside. In case of attack, the defenders could mount this walk and fire over the palisades or through the loopholes provided for the purpose.
The main reliance for defense consisted of two bastions, or blockhouses, as they were commonly called, placed at diagonally opposite corners of the fort. They were square in plan, 15-18 feet on a side, with two stories, and were generally covered with a roof. The lower floor was a few feet above the level of the ground and was loopholed for the small cannon which all the more important posts possessed. Above the artillery floor was another for the musketry defense with about three loopholes on each exposed face. The blockhouse stood entirely outside the main enclosure, its inner corner joining the corner of the fort so that it flanked two sides; that is, the defenders in each bastion could fire along the outer face of two sides of the fort and thus prevent any attempt to scale or demolish the walls.
A “fort” thus constructed was really very strong and was practically impregnable to an enemy without artillery. A host of Indians armed with bows and arrows or with the indifferent firearms of those days could make no impression upon it, and the garrison could look with indifference upon any attack, however formidable, so long as they used reasonable precaution and were supplied with provisions and ammunition. There is no record of a successful siege of a stockaded fort in the entire history of the fur trade west of the Mississippi River.
The necessary prerequisite of defense having been satisfied, the other arrangements of the fort related to the purposes of trade. The entrance was through a strong and heavy door provided with a wicket through which the doorkeeper could examine a person applying for admittance. In the more elaborate posts, there was a double door, with a room and a trading counter between them. The Indians were admitted only to this space for purposes of trade. In the single-door posts, trading was sometimes conducted through the wicket when there was suspicion of danger.
On the opposite side of the enclosure from the entrance stood the house of the bourgeois, usually the most pretentious building in the post. Nearby stood the office and the house of the clerks. Along one side of the quadrangle stood the barracks of the engages while across the square were the storehouses for the merchandise, provisions, furs, and peltries. There were also buildings for shops, of which the blacksmith shop was most important. A fur press was a necessary part of the establishment. The buildings usually stood with their back walls on the line of the enclosure and for the distance covered by them, they sometimes replaced the pickets. In the center of the enclosure was a large square or court in which ordinarily stood a piece of artillery trained upon the entrance, and a flag staff from which the ensign of the republic daily floated to the prairie breeze.
Close to the fort, and itself protected by a strong enclosure, with communication through the walls of the fort, there was often to be found a small field in which common vegetables were raised for the garrison. Then there was always some protection for the horses which were the great object of the Indian forays. Sometimes the corral was outside and close to the fort, but in many cases, the stock was brought within the walls. On the plains around the post, there was scarcely ever absent the characteristic tent of the Indian, and at certain seasons they were scattered by hundreds in every direction.
Near most of the larger river posts, there was some spot selected where timber was abundant at which the pickets and lumber for the posts were manufactured, the mackinaw boats and the canoes built, and such other work was done as the establishment required. These places were called “chantier,” French for shipyard, and the name has survived in one or two places, as at Chantier Creek in South Dakota and Shonkin Creek, which was first called Chantier Creek, a little below Fort Benton in Montana. The Fort Pierre chantier was commonly called the Navy Yard and was 20 miles or so above the post.
The description above given applies only to the larger posts. There were besides a great number of smaller posts, which were intended for temporary occupancy only and were accordingly of a much less pretentious character.