07-May-2004 -- It is shear coincidence that we visited this confluence exactly four years after the first visit. A dear friend with business in Plentywood, Montana invited us to meet her for dinner at 6:00 PM so we looked for a nearby confluence to explore during the day. This one certainly provided more than a day's worth of activity. We left our home in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada before 7:30 am, crossed the United States border and headed south. It was a beautiful sunny day with temperatures reaching 25°.
At first glance, this confluence near the North Dakota/Montana border appears to be just another boring prairie landscape. On second look, an area within 2 or 3 km of this confluence is brimming with historical and geographical events. Nearby is the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the 1880s Fort Buford military post, and the 1880s Fort Union Trading Post.
This confluence site is located in a newly planted field. Highway 1804 and a railway track run parallel to the field. We parked near the bridge over the railway track then walked 261 meters along the fence line to the 48th parallel. Alan walked carefully across the rows of plants to zero the GPS. To save the young plants, I took the pictures from beside the barbed wire fence, 10 meters from the actual confluence.
During the ice age, the Missouri River was the boundary between the glaciers to the north and ice free area to the south. This region later became the home of the "Plains Tribes", consisting of the Assiniboine, Crow, Blackfeet, Plains Cree, Plains Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikira and Sioux Indians. The first "white men" to discover the region were Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, who in 1804, began a voyage of discovery with 45 men, a keelboat, two canoes and a dog. Lewis and Clark were instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to map a new route to the Pacific Ocean, make contact with Native Americans, obtain specimens for further study, and keep a full record of activities during the expedition. Over a three-year period they traveled through lands that later became 11 states. Here is how Captain Lewis described this confluence area in his diary on April 25, 1805, " ...I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, particularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers.... the whole face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk & Antelopes; deer are also abundant..." Read more about Lewis and Clark.
It was the hides of the animals mentioned by Lewis that attracted American Fur Company owner John Jacob Astor, America's first millionaire, to the area. He built Fort Union Trading Post, the grandest fort on the Missouri, in the fall of 1828. The location of the post near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers (and 3 km west of the confluence site) provided an ideal locale to trade with several different tribes. In the beginning, beaver was the primary fur taken in trade from the Indians. As the beaver trade declined, bison robes dominated until the post closed in 1867. As many as 150,000 bison robes were shipped out of Fort Union each year. The post, reconstructed under the National Park System, now attracts thousands of people each summer to do a little trading and learn the story of "good old" Fort Union. Read more about Fort Union.
The Missouri River with its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, continues east from the confluence until it joins the mighty Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. The Missouri/Mississippi River system is one of the longest in the world. From the 1760s to 1831 keelboats which were mainly human powered by oars, poles, sails, or a cordelle, supplied Fort Union and other forts along the river with enough goods to last a year. These large boats could carry between 20 and 30 tons of goods in their large cargo box and would average 20 km a day, often taking the entire season to reach the mouth of the Yellowstone. In 1831 steamboats became a regular feature along the Missouri River to Fort Union. They could haul a large cargo as well as 100 passengers. One catastrophic journey in 1837 carried smallpox when it left St. Louis. The death toll from smallpox to the Prairie Indian Tribes around Fort Union is estimated at 17,000.
On May 7th, 2004 there were numerous fishing boats at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Perhaps 50 or 60 motorhomes, campers and tents were set up on shore. The "Confluence Boat Ramp" was a busy place because it was opening day of the Paddlefish season. The Paddlefish is a fish with a long snout shaped like a paddle. A fish cleaning station was set up with a sign: "Free Fish Cleaning for Roe Donation - sponsored by Williston Area Chamber of Commerce and Friends of Fort Union Trading Post" The flavor of Paddlefish caviar is acclaimed by many to be second only to Beluga. A nearby concession stand was selling hamburgers, hot dogs and drinks for people to enjoy at tables under an awning.
Located 1.75 km southeast of the confluence is the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. The Center presents exhibits that explore the geography and geology of the area, its prehistoric life, and the impact of people arriving by trails, railway tracks, rivers and roads. This includes the Lewis and Clark journey, the fur trade era, Fort Buford, and the development of the modern-day irrigation and energy industries. On this day there were Arbor Day celebrations at the Interpretive Center. Commemorative Cottonwood trees from Smith Grove near Lewis and Clark's winter encampment were being planted. At 1:00 dignitaries spoke, a local school band provided music, a school choir sang, and students helped plant the trees. Refreshments of lemonade and cookies in the shape of a cottonwood tree or a canoe were served in the picnic shelter at 2:00.
1.5 km directly south of the confluence site is Fort Buford. It was one of a number of military posts established in 1866 to protect overland and river routes used by immigrants settling the West. The fort has a storied history including the surrender on July 20, 1881 of the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. Now a State Historic Site, Fort Buford offers history, beauty, and recreation. A museum in an original military building tells the fort's story. In July of every year the 6th Infantry reenactment group holds its annual Fort Buford Sixth Infantry Frontier Military Encampment. Read more about Fort Buford.
It was a good day with many adventures. We saw and met interesting people from across America who were visiting this historic area. Our total drive was 687 km, much of it through very scenic territory. We also had a good meal and wonderful visit with our friend in Plentywood, Montana. This was one of our more interesting confluence visits and certainly our first opportunity to visit a confluence near a confluence.