It would prove to be the last of the fur trading posts located on the Upper Missouri, although it did prove to be an integral economic center for the area, especially after the completion of the Mullan Road in 1861 and the Alder Gulch gold strikes and the beginning of the Bannack camps in 1862.
A Change of Strategy
Pierre Chouteau, Jr. wasn’t one to let the chance for investments to pass him by, so he and his brother switched from selling beaver furs to buffalo pelts. The strategy worked and the men were able to get several more years of lucrative profits from the fort.
Relying on river transportation alone just wasn’t going to be a viable long-term option, not if the US wanted to open the western lands up to settlers. For one thing, steamboats couldn’t make it much further than Fort Union, far to the west of Fort Benton.
Wagon trains were already heading out west from the east, most notably on the Oregon and California Trails which had been seeing heavy traffic since the early 1840s.
This was still viewed as the best option for getting men and materials across the country, and good roads would be needed. Discussions got underway in 1852 and it was decided that a route through the Washington Territory would be surveyed.
Chosen for this task was Isaac Ingalls Stevens, President Franklin Pierce’s newly appointed governor of the Washington Territory.
Isaac Stevens Comes to Montana
He spent the next few years fortifying forts in New England before his support of Pierce during the 1852 election endeared him to the future president.
That support earned him the appointment as Territorial Governor of the recently-created Washington Territory.
Another office that came to him with that position was that of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory. He would prove to be a popular territorial governor with the white settlers, but not so much with the tribes of the area. Another task given to him was choosing the most desirable route for a new wagon road west.
The route that was desired in 1853, the year it was decided that Stevens would undertake the task, was envisioned as a possible future rail route. The result of Stevens’ nearly six-month trek west was a two-volume book entitled Report of Explorations for a Route for the Pacific Railroad near the 47th and 49th Parallels of North Latitude, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Puget Sound, and which was released in full between 1855 and 1860.
John Mullan Tags Along
Stevens must have been impressed by the young man for he placed him in charge of surveying an old wagon route which stretched from Fort Benton all the way to Fort Walla Wall in Washington.
It took Mullan the winter of 1853-1854 to get all of the information that he needed to begin constructing what would become the Mullan Road. He and his men tramped over 1,000 miles through the Rocky Mountains looking for sites with promise, both for the road and the future railroad.
By the time Mullan returned to Missoula on March 31, 1854, he had a $30,000 Congressionally-approved budged for the road, as well as numerous supplies left by Isaac Stevens’ party which was heading to Washington Territory. Mullan himself headed to Washington DC to try and secure extra funding for a project he knew would require more than he’d been given.
He left Washington Territory in January 1855 and headed for the capital. Instead of giving him the funds he wanted however, Mullan was ordered to head to the Seminole War which was just then getting started in Florida.
He’d be stuck there for three years, not arriving back in Oregon Territory until May 15, 1858, and after the Secretary of War approved the building of the road.
Hazard, Joseph Taylor. Companion of Adventure; A Biography of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, First Governor of Washington Territory. Binfords and Mort: Portland, 1952;
Hubert H. Bancroft. History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. The History Company, San Francisco, 1890. Chapter V: Indian Wars 1856-1858, Chapter IV: Indian Wars 1855-1856.
Kautz, Lawrence G. August Valentine Kautz, USA: Biography of a Civil War General. McFarland & Company, Inc.: Jefferson, 2008. p 60-1.
Kirk, Ruth; Carmela Alexander. Exploring Washington's Past : A Road Guide to History (Rev. ed.). University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1995. p 189.
Malone, Michael Peter; Roeder, Richard B.; Lang, William L. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. The University of Washington Press, 1976. p. 72-3.
Richards, Kent D. Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry. Brigham Young University Press: Provo,, 1979. Reprint, Pullman, Wash.: Washington State University Press, 1993.
Rockwell, Ronald V. The U.S. Army in Frontier Montana. Sweetgrass Book: Helena, 2009. p 50-5, 70-1.
Toole, K. Ross. Montana: An Uncommon Land. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1959. p 85-8.
Utley, Robert M. and Washburn, Wilcomb E. Indian Wars. American Heritage Press, Inc.: New York, 1977. p. 181.