Monday, June 9, 2008 -- Williston, ND
Today we made the short drive from Prairie Acres RV Park near Williston to the Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. The State Historical Society of North Dakota has an interpretive center on high ground overlooking the point where the two rivers join. Today, the Yellowstone in particular was swelled from still melting snow and recent rainfall -- much of which we experienced when in Bozeman a couple weeks ago. The immediate area of the confluence is still natural and mostly undisturbed thanks to the US Army's use of the land as a fort and military reservation during the last half of the 19th century. If not for the Army it would have been a perfect place for a town.
Because the various river confluences along their way where so important to Lewis & Clark, and were so noted in their journals, we've made it a point to see as many of the important ones as possible. This one is even more interesting to us since we spent so much time along both of these rivers further upstream... the Yellowstone in Yellowstone Park and at Pompey's Pillar and the Missouri at Three Forks, Great Falls, and at the James Kipp Recreation Area. At this point, the Yellowstone is actually the larger of the two rivers. It's also the largest un-damed river in the USA.
The Confluence Interpretive Center also includes the historic site of Fort Buford about a half-mile down the road. Established in 1866 as a military post and supply depot, the fort lasted for 29 years. It also provided some measure of security to settlers and commercial ventures as they pushed west. Forts were often built along rivers as they were the main "roads" of the day. But as railroads flourished, the greater efficiency and reliability of rail travel pretty much killed reliance on the river. As that happened, Fort Buford went into decline and was eventually closed in 1895.
The most notable historic event to take place at Fort Buford was the official surrender of Sitting Bull in 1881. The original post headquarters building is one of the few structures that still exists and it was in this building that Sitting Bull threw in the towel.
Our guide around the fort was an actor named Arch who, when he's not working for the State Historical Society, portrays a number of historic characters in one-man shows. His passion for history coupled with a receptive and captive audience had him falling into character a number of times during our tour. What I anticipated would be an hour stop became three hours. But we both agreed it was a thoroughly enjoyable, unusual, and memorable stop.
About 4 miles up the Missouri from Fort Buford was the site of historic Fort Union. Fort Union was not a military fort, but a trading post where Indians would trade furs for trade goods such as beads, guns, blankets, knives, kettles, and cloth. For it's day it was designed and decorated to project an aura of grandeur and power. It existed from 1828 to 1867 -- so it pre-dated Fort Buford. In fact, many of the building materials used in Fort Union were scavenged and recycled to build Fort Buford.
All of this activity in the confluence area demonstrates how active the west was becoming in the years after the L&C Gang passed through here. With the fur industry seeing dollar signs and other settlers drawn by land and a chance at a fresh start, this was the century of explosive settlement of the west, of the promise of Manifest Destiny. All this activity would surely have happened with or without Lewis & Clark. But perhaps, at least in this iteration of history, the Corps of Discovery provided the spark that ignited the whole thing.