Whoop-up Trail out of Ft Benton, Montana
July 21, 2007.
We are staying in Dick's RV Park in Great Falls, Montana. It is a nice enough park with paved FHU sites & Cable for $27. They do charge extra for wifi but we found an open wifi signal in the park. There isn't a lot of choice in Great Falls, it is either Dick's or KOA and we avoid KOA if at all possible. Bottom line, we would recommend Dick's when stopping in Great Falls.
Ft Benton is on the Missouri River and you already know that the Missouri River was the path that Lewis and Clark used as their route to the Rocky Mountains. Lewis and Clark were sent to find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. Ft. Benton would be the most inland (furtherest west) that river traffic could go because of falls on the Missouri River.
Keep all this in mind since Ft. Benton would be the terminus of water transportation it would become the start of overland commerical traffic.
This area of the Missouri River contained two forts. Fort Cotton was built in 1842 by the Union Fur Company, but existed only two years before it was abandoned. Fort Lewis was owned by the American Fur Company in 1845. Fort Lewis, like Fort Cotton, only lasted for two years before it was dismantled and moved down river where it became Fort Benton. Both posts were built for robe trade with the Piegan of the Blackfoot nation. Fort Lewis was named for Captain Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, that passed this way in both 1804 and 1806.
Keep this in mind as we more thoroughly discuss the Whoop Up Trail.
Fort Benton is one of those historic places that has not received the credit it deserves in the western expansion of this nation. Originally a trading post of the American Fur Company it became the northern most point of navigation on the Missouri River. The first steamboat from St. Louis arrived in 1859. Fort Benton boomed in the early 1860's as a point of entry to the newly discovered placer mines of western Montana. Supplies were freighted out of Fort Benton by means of ox teams and much profanity.
One early observer stated; "Perhaps nowhere else were ever seen motlier crowds of doubed and feathered indians, bullskined-arrayed half-breed nobility, moccasined trappers, voyageurs, gold seekers and bull drivers...(sic)"
Missouri River at Fort Benton the beginning of the Whoop-up-Trail
When steamboats plied the Missouri in the 1800s, Fort Benton was the world's innermost port; waterfalls just up the river prevented further navigation. During the 30-years that steamboats regularly docked here the town bustled with the activity of merchants, traders, cowboys, American Indians, miners and adventurers. Today, Fort Benton's restored main street honors its rich and rowdy history.
End of Whoop-up-Trail in Fort Benton on the Missouri River
The Fort Benton Levee (on the left side of the river) was a busy place back in the days following the Civil War. For example, on June 14, 1869 nine sternwheelers were moored along the levee unloading whiskey, gold pans, salt, bacon, boots and miners. Ox teams hauled the freight from the levee to far-away points.
To give you an idea of the commerce passing through Ft Benton keep in mind that six hundred "mountain-boats" (since they came nearly to the Rockies) docked at Fort Benton from 1859 to 1890. These steamboats supplied the U.S. Calvary, the Indians they hunted, Canadian Mounties, and whiskey-runners. Benton merchants were plumb impartial about business. They shipped goods to places like Fort Whoop-Up 210-miles away in Canada.
Sometimes historically important things are overlooked in text books, in my opinion the Whoop-up Trail, is one of those things. The Whoop-up Trail was extremely important to to the early history of Canada. The Whoop-up Trail was a wagon road from Fort Benton to Canada. Whiskey traders carried supplies north and brought buffalo robes south to Fort Benton for transport down river by steamboat. Later the Whoop-up Trail supplied the Northwest Mounted Police at Fort Macleod. From 1869 to 1883 most supplies came up river by boat, then by wagon to Canadian settlements as far north as Calgary and Edmonton. The trail ran up the Teton, by the Knees, via Baking Powder Flats to Shelby, then across the Canadian border and the Milk River to Fort Macleod and Lethbridge.
The Whoop-up Trail became a winding 210 mile commerce route from Fort Benton on the Missouri River to Fort Whoop Up at the junction of the St. Mary and Old Man rivers near Lethbridge, Alberta. Sometimes referred to as the Benton Trail it became infamous as the Whoop-Up Trail. Mule trains carried whiskey barrels north and brought back hides and furs.
However, things changed with the arrival of the R.C.N.P (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The Whiskey trade effectively ended in 1874.
Teams of oxen continued to ply their way back and forth over the Whoop Up Trail, bringing in supplies to the new town of Fort Macleod. The merchants in Fort Benton had well stocked stores in Fort Macleod and where they conducted a thriving two way trade.
The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1883 ended the long established connection with Fort Benton. The Whoop Up Trail began to decline in importance. The last bull train to passed through Lethbridge from Fort Benton in the spring of 1885.
Buffalo robe transported over Whoop-up-Trail
This is one of the buffalo robes that were transported south from Canada to be transported down river by steamboat to St. Louis.
The Whoop-up Trail from Fort Benton to Fort Macleod was the main artery of commerce in the 1869-1883 era. Twenty yoke of oxen was a team and each team hauled three of the heavy freight wagons loaded with trade goods, calico and whiskey. They returned to Fort Benton with hides for the St. Louis market. Until the closing of the river trade this road was the source of supply for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the boundary survey and the Canadian Pacific Railway. The resourceful, fearless plainsmen and bullwhackers gathered at this end of their hazardous journey.
Until next time remember how good life is.
Mike & Joyce Hendrix
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Until next time remember how good life is.