24 July 2009

New book shares many pictures from Fort Benton's history

From the 22 July 2009 Fort Benton River Press:

You can take a journey through the history of Fort Benton in the pages of the new book by local historian Ken Robison. The book, entitled Fort Benton, is part of a Postcard History Series, and is full of postcard images of Fort Benton and the surrounding area. The book takes you back to the early days of Fort Benton, as you see Indians and buffalo, the fort, the Upper Missouri River, steamboats, wagon trains, Fort Benton buildings, the town’s colorful characters, the old bridge, floods, farming and ranching, and Shep. It is an interesting and entertaining way to browse through local history. The book is available at the River Press.

Ken Robison explains that postcards were the “emails” of 100 years ago. In the early 1900s, postcards became popular, because they allowed the traveller or sender to send a few words and an image to friends and family - in place of the long letters previously used. Real photo postcards were inexpensive and easy to produce. The innovation of a short greeting on a postal image became wildly popular, and grew even more popular with the introduction of the automobile. The traveling public simply loved postcards. Robison’s book celebrates the era of the postcard.

Arcadia Publishing, the publisher of the Robison’s Fort Benton book, allows a format that blends words with images. Enough words can be included with one or two images on the page to tell short stories about Fort Benton’s legends, people, and events. Robison used this combination of words and images to tell the history of Fort Benton on the Upper Missouri. The book’s title could have been Fort Benton on the Upper Missouri, since Robison incorporated images and words that flow through the history of the area.

Robison is donating all profits from the Fort Benton book to the Overholser Historical Research Center to be used for acquiring new collections for the center.

Most of the 220 images in the book are from Robison’s personal collection, and are being donated to the Overholser Historical Research Center (OHRC) during 2009. About 30 images are from Montana’s premier postcard collector Tom Mulvaney, including scenes people at the OHRC have never seen before, like the interior lobby and dining room at the Choteau House. Some images are from the OHRC Imagery Archives. Karen Bryant kindly allowed Robison to use several of her excellent images on postcards she sold in her store, such as the restored Grand Union.

Robison included some images that are not yet out on postcards, such as the five wonderful grand murals by Bob Morgan that enrich the Agricultural Center’s community events hall, and a photo of the River and Plains Society’s treasured Chief Joseph Surrender Rifle.

The book concludes with a page about the River and Plains Society, Fort Benton’s broad-based nonprofit group that operates the museums complex, the community events center, and the Overholser Historical Research Center. This is the first book to provide the public with information about River and Plains Society.

The following is taken from Robison’s introduction to his Fort Benton postcards book:

Fort Benton is a small town with a big history! Fort Benton, the book, uniquely presents Fort Benton’s history and flows through each of the eras:

Fort Benton has been blessed from its beginning with talented historians, artists, and photographers. We owe a great debt to first historian Lieut. James G. Bradley, longest resident photographer Daniel Dutro, longest editor of the River Press newspaper Joel F. Overholser, teacher and historian John G. Lepley, artists Karl Bodmer, John Mix Stanley, Gustavus Sohon, Charles M. Russell, James Trott, Brian Morger, and David Parchen, for recording, photographing, and drawing the history of the Upper Missouri. I’ve also used art by Fort Benton friends Bob Morgan and Charles M. Russell.

Fort Benton’s story begins with the Missouri River and its spectacular natural features along the White Cliffs. The story extends to the American Indian and the buffalo that occupied the land long before the arrival of American explorers and fur traders. Blackfoot Indians long used the natural ford at Fort Benton to cross the Missouri River into Judith and Musselshell hunting grounds. Lewis and Clark made their fateful decision on the course of the Missouri at Decision Point and proceeded on past the Fort Benton river bottom on their journey to the Pacific.

The story spans the fur trade era 1830-1860s when Blackfoot, Gros Ventres, Assiniboin, and Cre traded with St. Louis-based adventurers who moved up the Missouri to establish trading posts. In 1846-47 Alexander Culbertson built Fort Benton as a post for the Upper Missouri Outfit of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company. This story highlights both the Native Americans and the fur traders.

In 1859 steamboats arrived a few miles below Fort Benton delivering trade goods and Indian annuities and taking furs and buffalo robes downriver to eastern markets. As the head of navigation on the Missouri River, Fort Benton became the hub for the St. Louis to Fort Benton steamboat trade 1859-1889, bringing thousands of tons of freight to the frontier. Bringing large (200-260 feet length) steamboats up the long, muddy Missouri River was a daunting task.

The year 1860 proved an exciting time at the Fort Benton trading post. Three military groups arrived during July-August that year. First came Major George Blake and a military regiment by steamboats Chippewa and Key West. Captain William F. Raynolds arrived July 14 after coming down the Missouri River from its origin at Three Forks and exploring the Yellowstone Basin. On August 1 Lieutenant John Mullan arrived at Fort Benton after blasting the Mullan Military Wagon Road from Fort Benton to Walla Walla. In 2010, the national Mullan Road Conference will be celebrated in Fort Benton to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Mullan Road.

With the strikes at Gold Creek and Bannack in 1862, Fort Benton became a major frontier transportation hub. Fort Benton merchant princes formed trading and freighting empires extending from Fort Benton in every direction, to the mines and camps throughout Montana and northward up the Whoop-Up and Fort Walsh trails to Canada. Fort Benton supplied military posts at Fort Shaw and Fort Assiniboine. These were wild and wooly days, and the streets of Fort Benton were roamed by the rich and famous, scoundrels and killers, merchants and gamblers, Indians and soldiers, Irish Fenians and exiled Metis, and eventually by women and children. This book samples these colorful characters and the historic trails radiating from the head of navigation on the Missouri.

During the height of the steamboat era, Fort Benton underwent a building boom with many brick buildings replacing original adobe, log, or wood frame buildings. The trading firms powered a vast business empire that in the words of historian Paul Sharp made Fort Benton the “Chicago of the Plains.” This was a time of made and lost fortunes and colorful characters.
Railroads brought immense change as Fort Benton shifted to ranching, with tens of thousands of cattle and sheep on the open range and large shipments to markets in Chicago. In the early 1900s, the fertile lands of north central Montana opened to dryland farming, with the homesteaders arriving by railroad from the East. Fort Benton became the trading center for ranchers and farmers in the heart of what is now “Montana’s Golden Triangle” agricultural region. This book celebrates both the open range ranching era and the following homesteading era.

This history highlights the legends, stories and people making their mark on each era of the area’s history. Sampled are the early Chinese and Black Americans who made their mark and then moved on; adventurers like whiskey trader Johnny Healy and fearless lawman X. Beidler; cowboy artist Charlie Russell and his Fort Benton friends; military leaders and soldiers; and legendary loyal dog Shep. Historic buildings are featured, like the original block house at Old Fort Benton (Montana’s oldest original structure); the Grand Union Hotel, built at the height of the steamboat era in 1882, now restored to its elegant grandeur; the grand Chouteau County Court House built in 1884 and still used today; and the Fort Benton iron bridge, that began with a steamboat swing span and continues today as a scenic walking bridge.

Fort Benton became a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and then an Historic District with eight individual buildings on the National Register of Historic places. Fort Benton is a Preserve America city, on the National Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, and the river entry post for the Upper Missouri , now part of the 149-mile National Wild and Scenic River System and the Upper Missouri Breaks National Historic Landmark. In 2004 Fort Benton became a contributing site on the National Historic Nez Perce Trail in recognition of Fort Benton military and civilian forces at the battles of Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon.

Today, the City of Fort Benton retains much of its “steamboat days” character. The steamboat levee is now a park running the length of the community with many interpretive signs. As you follow the levee trail from the Interpretive Center downriver to Old Fort Benton you walk hallowed ground through the pages of history.