18 April 2010

Celebrating 150 Years of the Mullan Military Wagon Road

By Ken Robison

During May 20-22, 2010, the River & Plains Society in Fort Benton will host the national 150th Anniversary Mullan Road Conference. This conference celebrates the completion of the Mullan Military Wagon Road in 1860, the first wagon road from Fort Benton to cross the Rocky Mountains to Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory, into the Inland of the Pacific Northwest. The 624-mile long Mullan Road joined the Missouri River with the Columbia River, blazing the path through the plains and valleys westward from Fort Benton into the rugged mountains of western Montana and Idaho. The road was built by US Army 1st Lieutenant John Mullan between the spring of 1859 and August 1860 with an expedition of some 230 combined military and civilian men. Parts of the original Mullan Road can still be traveled today, and, weather permitting, the Conference will included a field trip from Fort Benton into the Sun River valley past Birdtail Rock to the Dearborn River.

The Conference also will celebrate the arrival of the first steamboats at the Fort Benton levee July 2nd, 1860. When the Chippewa, commanded by Captain Joseph LaBarge, and the Key West, under Joseph’s brother Captain John LaBarge, moored at Fort Bento’s levee, it heralded the beginning of the steamboat era at the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Aboard the two steamers, belonging to Pierre Chouteau & Company (known as the American Fur Company), were owners Pierre and Charles Chouteau, their agents Fort Benton “Factors” Andrew Dawson and Alexander Culbertson, Indian agents, company employees, military supplies, and Indian trade goods. Also onboard the crowded steamboats were Major George A. H. Blake and his First Dragoons, some 300 soldiers who were poised to become the first, and last, direct military users of the Mullan Road on their way to Washington Territory.

A final exploration group arrived at Fort Benton in that amazing summer of 1860 before Lieut. Mullan, to await steamboat passage down the Missouri. The Military Reconnaissance Expedition of Captain William F. Raynolds had spent the past year exploring the Yellowston basin and had come down the Missouri River from the Three Forks, past the Great Falls of the Missouri, to arrive at Fort Benton July 14th. With the Raynolds Expedition was topographer Lieutenant James Dempsey Hutton, who took the first known photograph of the Fort Benton trading post from across the Missouri River. During that summer of 1860, there was no town of Fort Benton, only the trading post, and an opposition post, Fort Campbell, which by the spring of 1860 had been bought by Pierre Chouteau & Company. Yet, in the words of John Strachan, one of Mullan’s men, “Fort Benton has everything . . . a bakery, blacksmith, carpenter and cooper shops, trade offices for buying, others for selling and retail shops. Goods are sold at enormous prices . . . sugar is sold at $1 and up a pound and everything else in proportion. Business amounts to about $160,000 a year, with buffalo robes the staple of the trade.”

The 150th Anniversary Conference will begin May 20th late Thursday afternoon with a tour of Old Fort Benton, the reconstructed American Fur Company fur and robe trading post built in 1846-47 at the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Resident Mountain Man “Burnt Spoon” will lead the tour group into the 1850’s past to see the original Block House (Montana’s oldest permanent structure), the newly reconstructed log Stockade and Bourgeois House (the Factor’s Quarters), and into the Trade Store and Warehouse where the River & Plains Society will host an evening reception in the fur trade museum. The River & Plains Society is the non-profit that operates the museums complex in Fort Benton and the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center. A Fort Restoration Committee leads the effort to reconstruct Old Fort Benton.

Friday will be held at the Montana Agricultrual Center-Lippard Auditorium beginning with regional Mullan Road activity reports from Washington state, Idaho, and Montana. Morning presentations will include: “Going to the Mountains: Major Blake’s Army Dragoons on the Upper Missouri” by Washington State University doctoral student Marc Entze; “Artists Gustavus Sohon and John Mix Stanley Images Along the Mullan Road” by Dr. Paul McDermott of Maryland; “Early Travelers Along the Mullan Road” by Lee Hanchett, author of Montana's Benton Road; and “Natural Resources along the Road” by Dr. John E. Taylor of Helena. The luncheon speaker will be Cultural Historian Bob Doerk discussing “Inni - The Buffalo of the Plains.”

Friday afternoon talks and demonstrations will include: “Mullan Road On-Line Resources Including a Google Earth Mullan Road Fly-Thru” by Dr. Bill Youngs of Eastern Washington University, and Ron Hall; “Sampling the Minckler Mullan Road Collection” which includes unique photographs, diaries, and material from Mullan's wagonmaster John A. Creighton, by Art Historian Thomas Minckler and Ken Robison; “Through Indian Country: Native American Perspectives on Mullan and Regional Development” by Dr. Richard Scheuerman of Seattle Pacific University; and “Actions to Designate the Mullan Road a National Historic Trail” led by Courtney Kramer, Gallatin County Historic Preservation Officer. Friday evening will feature a reception and dinner with Bruce Druliner aka “Burnt Spoon” bringing to life “Old Fort Benton in the 1850s through stories and songs.”

Saturday morning begins with “Surveying along the Mullan Road” by Montana surveyor re-enactor Bill Weikel, followed by a field trip into the Sun River valley with bus guide commentary about the route of the Mullan Road and key historic, cultural, and geological features. Stops will be made at Sun River Leaving (Vaughn), Sun River Crossing, St. Peter’s Mission, and a box lunch at Birdtail Rock Stage Stop. Weather permitting the tour will continue on over Birdtail Divide to Dearborn Crossing and on to Fort Shaw. At this historic fort, the Sun River Valley Historical Society will show General Gibbon’s original Military Quarters and will talk about valley history including the military at Fort Shaw and the later famed Indian School.