#12. Fort Union - The Journey Continues
August 2 - 9, 1853
Isaac Stevens’ journal describes the plateau between the Missouri and Mouse rivers as an area that could not be called simply a rolling prairie. While it had a similarity in its “outlines, an absence of wood and rocks in place, boulders plentiful, ponds and marshes, if possible, more frequent; but the elevations are so much greater as to the approach to Fort Union, where they end abruptly on the level intervale[i] of the Missouri.” Stevens wrote of the numerous smaller water-courses, which dry during the summer, “showing the same character of sandy and clayey soil in the bottoms, which is also seen in the rain-worn sections of the most elevated points.” Vegetation apparently was scanty on that plateau and in the bottoms, the grass thin and rank so unsuitable for grazing. “The prickly pear begins to appear, and a kind of wild turnip could be found in comparative abundance; being the only useful production yet known, and the food of the wandering Indians, by whom it is regularly gathered.”
Stevens arrived at Fort Union with the main train before several of the other teams. When Mr. Culbertson arrived, he “despatched an express to Fort Benton with presents and tobacco to the chiefs of the Blackfeet nation” along with a message from Stevens that read “I desire to meet you on the way and to assure you of the fatherly care and beneficence of the government. I wish to meet the Blackfeet in general council at Fort Benton. Do not make war upon your neighbors. Remain at peace, and the Great Father will see that you do not lose by it.”
Culbertson informed Stevens earlier in St. Louis that for one year he was able to restrain the Blackfeet from making war against their neighbors and believed it would have lasted longer “had they [Blackfeet] shared in the liberality of the government. However, his efforts to keep the peace appeared to have been futile as the response sent to him by the Blackfeet stated “Why should we cease to make war? It is the only chance we have of receiving a portion of the goods and presents distributed among the Indians.” (Stevens 1853)
Fort Union, situated on the eastern bank of the Missouri River, not too far from the mouth of the Yellowstone, was built by the American Fur Company in 1830 and was serving as the principal supply store/depot of that company. “It is framed of pickets of hewn timber, about 16 feet high, and has two bastions, one at the northwest and one at the southeast corner.” (Stevens 1853) Some of this is visible in the Stanley lithographic print.
Lithographic Print by Stanley Del.
The fort encloses various two-story wood structures that include residences and shops for the blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, shoemaker, tailor and superintendent of the store. The other structures within its pickets are made of adobe and wood. Those working in the shops were primarily “French half-breeds, and have half-breed or Indian wives, and many children. There is a grassy plain around and near the fort, extending to the base o the rising ground.” (Stevens 1853) Stevens wrote that the “Assiniboines, the Gros Ventres, the Crows, and other migratory bands of Indians trade at this fort, exchanging their skins of the buffalo, deer, and other animals for such commodities as they require.”
Stevens shares that Culbertson, who had been serving as the chief agent for the company (American Fur Company) for over 20 years, was “a man of great energy, intelligence, and fidelity, and possesses the entire confidence of the Indians. His wife [Natawista], a full-blood Indian of the Blood band of the Blackfoot tribe, is also deservedly held in high estimation.” He also noted that though Natawista had “made little or no progress in our language, she has acquired the manners and adapted herself to the usages of the white race with singular facility. Their children have been sent to the States to be educated in our best schools.”
A little history about Alexander Culbertson and Natawista, or Medicine Snake Woman is appropriate. Culbertson was approximately 30 years of age when he proposed marriage to the 15 year old Natawista; rather proposed marriage to her family. There seems to be some discrepancy about the year of the marriage as in Stevens’ notes in 1853 the couple is already married with children; yet, the National Park Service information dates the marriage around 1840. Regardless, it was not an unusual pairing as such marriages were beneficial to both husbands and wives. Culbertson secured trade ties through Natawista’s family and tribe and she gained access to, and a degree of control, over his trade goods and relationship.
Section from what was renamed "Barter for a Bride". Natawista is the one wearing the red trade blanket; the warrior on horseback is her brother. Art historians believe the painting's original title was "A Family Group." Painting by John Mix Stanely, 1853. U.S. Department of State. Accession # 1965.0053
Natawista was to prove invaluable when during the journey from Fort Union to Fort Benton.
[i] Intervale is low lying ground, usually adjacent to or near a river.