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Fort Union celebrating 50th year as historic site

WILLISTON -- Oil has changed the landscape of northwestern North Dakota, but one historic site still looks much the same as it did in the mid-1800s. As Fort Union Trading Post celebrates the 50th anniversary of being designated a National Histori...

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Fort Union Trading Post, pictured June 12, near Williston, is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a National Historic Site this month. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON -– Oil has changed the landscape of northwestern North Dakota, but one historic site still looks much the same as it did in the mid-1800s.

As Fort Union Trading Post celebrates the 50th anniversary of being designated a National Historic Site, Museum Curator Fred MacVaugh credits community members with pushing for the site’s preservation.

“Really if it wasn’t for the interest of North Dakotans and Montanans, this historic site might not exist,” MacVaugh said.

Fort Union operated as a trading post along the banks of the Missouri River from 1828 to 1867 when it was razed by the Army for construction materials for nearby Fort Buford.

As early as the 1920s, there was local interest in preserving the site near Williston, which became threatened by gravel mining, MacVaugh said.

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North Dakota purchased the land and designated it as a state historic site. Later, continued advocacy for the site led to action by Congress in June 1966 that designated Fort Union as part of the National Park Service.

Today, the reconstructed fort on the foundation of the original stands impressive on the prairie landscape.

An exhibit at the James Memorial Art Center in Williston this month highlights the community efforts that led to funding the reconstruction. The exhibit also features the artwork of George Catlin, who visited Fort Union in 1832 and painted several portraits and landscapes of the area.

With the exception of the occasional oil train or truck traveling by and agricultural activity in the area, the landscape around the fort looks similar to how it did when it was active.

“Despite the oil boom, this is still a landscape that you can recognize from the 1830s and 40s, which is truly unique,” MacVaugh said.

Sawyer Flynn, 19, is among the community members who appreciate the historical significance of the fort. Flynn began volunteering at the historic site at age 14 and this year is working as a National Park Service intern, portraying for visitors a clerk at the trade shop.

“I just love this site. It has such a rich and interesting history,” Flynn said. “It’s a symbol of peaceful interaction between the tribes and the traders.”

The fort’s biggest annual event, the Fort Union Rendezvous, starts Thursday with a kids’ day and continues through Sunday. The event features living history demonstrations such as beaver skinning, gunsmithing and pottery making.

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“It gives visitors an opportunity to wander through a camp and get that feeling for what a mass gathering of people would have been like in the frontier era,” MacVaugh said.


If you go

What: Fort Union Rendezvous

When: Thursday-Sunday. Park hours are 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Most demonstrations begin at 10 a.m. A fun run is 9 a.m. Saturday.

Where: Fort Union Trading Post is on the North Dakota-Montana border, 25 miles southwest of Williston.

Other events: A Fort Union exhibit is on display at the James Memorial Art Center in Williston through June 30. Fort Union also has an Indian arts showcase on Aug. 6-7 and a living history weekend Sept. 3-5.


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