History with Phil: The origins of Fort Benton explored

History with Phil: The origins of Fort Benton explored

Fort Benton

Fort Benton

Fort Benton is a town in and the county seat of Chouteau County. The area was first explored by Lewis and Clark in 1805.

Starting in the 1830s, fur trappers began establishing settlements in this region. However, several of these were lost to flooding and hostilities between settlers and native tribes prevented the establishment of any kind of permanent settlement.

In 1845, Alexander Culbertson, an agent of the American Fur Company, established Fort Lewis about 18 miles upstream from present-day Fort Benton. However, the Blackfeet did not like this location, so in 1846 Culbertson disassembled the log buildings and floated the logs downstream to a site on the north side of the Missouri River.

There, Fort Lewis was reassembled (the fort was named for Meriwether Lewis).

In the early years, many traders were sent with whiskey into Canada to lure the Natives away from trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. While this aided commerce at Fort Benton, the American Fur Company came close to losing its license because of pressure from Canadian authorities to curtail this kind of trade.

In the meantime, Culbertson had visited Fort Laramie, Wyoming where he observed how the quality of adobe buildings not only provided more protection against extreme weather but also against any hostile attacks. In the fall of 1848, he began construction of new buildings at Fort Lewis.

During this time, because of the large number of clay bricks being used, the fort was often referred to as Fort Clay. In 1850, Fort Lewis was renamed Fort Benton in honor of Missouri Senator Thomas Benton who was a big supporter of western traders.

Five years later, a peace treaty between the local Native tribes and white settlers was successfully concluded. In exchange for annual payments to the Blackfeet Tribe, the federal government was permitted to build roads and to navigate on the Missouri River.

With the signing of this treaty, boats of all kinds could now safely make their way up and down the Missouri River, carrying furs, pelts and many other goods.

Because of the lure of greater profits, keelboats and canoes eventually gave way to steamboats navigating the Missouri River.

The arrival of steamboats to Fort Benton coincided nicely with the discovery of gold in Southwest Montana. Steamboat traffic exploded, transporting people and goods on the river. Businesses in Fort Benton benefited from selling materials and staples to prospective miners.

However, the "good times" for Fort Benton was short-lived. With the decline in mining, the number of people coming through the town diminished.

In the late 1880s, the Great Northern Railroad took over much of the freight traffic from the river. By the start of the next decade, the final freight-bearing steamboat had docked at Fort Benton.

However, the Homestead Act and the resulting boom in agriculture allowed Fort Benton to maintain its robust economy. This mini-boom continued right up to the Great Depression. After World War II, the consolidation of the agricultural industry further weakened the economy.

Because of its location, Fort Benton has become known for its recreational opportunities. The large expanse to the east of town is known as the Missouri Breaks. Because the Missouri River flows through this area wild and unchanged, it has become a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.

So, which site is the oldest permanent settlement in Montana – Stevensville (because of Ft. Owen) or Fort Benton?

Guess it depends on the definition. Fort Owen (aka the original St Mary's Mission) was established in 1841. But, this is not the site of the town of Stevensville. Fort Benton was built in 1846 and eventually grew into the town of Fort Benton.


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Related to this story

The history of Missoula begins 12,000 years ago with the end of the region's glacial lake period. The Salish Tribe was the first to inhabit the Missoula area. The tribe’s first encounter with whites came in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the valley.

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