Fort Union Trading Post Questions and Answers

Every park we work at has common questions unique to that park.  The Fort Union Trading Post questions (and answers) were also unique to the park.  So I thought I would wrap up my posts about Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site by talking about the unique questions and their answers.

One of the questions we usually answered, and which we didn’t get much at Fort Union, was “where are the restrooms?”  At most parks, the person working at the Visitors Center desk gives a short, one-paragraph summary of the park’s history.  At Fort Union the desk person didn’t do that because people entered at the Trade House and got a longer talk by the ranger working there.  Consequently, when people came in the Visitors Center, I would say hello, tell them the museum was on the other side of the stairs and that the restrooms were to their right.  So I avoided getting asked the question by answering it up front.

Where the Missouri River used to be

But there were several other Fort Union Trading Post questions we got asked a lot.  One of the most common was “Where is the river?”  Fort Union Trading Post was built in 1828 along the bank of the Missouri River.  But today, you can’t see the river when you are on the ground at Fort Union.  Over the course of the last 200 years, the river has moved almost half a mile south.  The south bank of the river is primarily sand and each spring, when the water gets high, the river changes course slightly.  Over time it is moving further away from the fort.  You can walk to the river, and you can see it from the second floor of the bastion, but all you see from the front gates is the cottonwoods and the river valley.

The Missouri River from the park trail

Another Fort Union Trading Post observation, although not a question, was “Look at all the prairie dogs!”  It did, however, require an answer because they were not prairie dogs, they were Richardson’s ground squirrels.  As I explained in a previous post, they looked like prairie dogs but were half the size and had long tails instead of short ones.  We were able to use the observation as a teaching moment.  We could also talk about the ways the National Park Service works to control animals in the park who have become a nuisance.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel

A question that had several variations was “What does bourgeois mean?”  The Bourgeois was the manager of the fur trading post, so we used that term to talk about various men.  We used that term, as opposed to manager, because that was what the people at the time used.  The fur trade in North America was basically started by the French, so many of the terms used were French.  Even though most of the people who worked at Fort Union Trading Post were US citizens, they kept using the French words for positions:  bourgeois, engagées, voyageurs.

One of the confusing things for people was that we use the term “bourgeoisie” today to refer to middle-class, especially people who desire to appear more upper class than they really are.  But, as the manager, the bourgeois was middle-class.  People use the slang “bourgie” these days to refer to someone who is pretentious or has questionable taste.  Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded a song in the 1980’s called “Bourgie, Bourgie” about a person who flaunts new money with flashy clothes a new car.   A more recent video along the same thing was recorded by Migos and is called “Bad and Boujee.”

Two Fort Union Trading Post questions that are related will close out this post.  The first is “Where did the soldiers live?”  People think that anything that has the word “fort” in it means a military establishment.  But “fort” means anyplace that is strong or has fortifications.  A trading post needed fortifications as an outpost in the wilderness.  Although Fort Union Trading Post never needed to defend its position against Native Americans or other traders, many of the fur trading posts did.  There were never any soldiers stationed at Fort Union Trading Post.

Officers’ Quarters at Fort Buford

There were, however, soldiers stationed at Fort Buford, which was the related question “How do you get to Fort Buford?”  Most of the people who visited us also visited the nearby State Historical Site of Fort Buford.  Fort Buford was a military post, built as more settlers moved into the area.  The soldiers came after the Civil War and were prepared to defend the railroad surveyors, settlers, and railroad workers moving through the area.  Fort Union Trading Post closed in 1865 and the army bought its buildings, took them apart, and floated them down the Missouri River to help them build Fort Buford.  So the two forts are related, even though they were not open at the same time.  To get to Fort Buford, you take a right out of the parking lot, a left at the stop sign, and turn on the first road to the right.

We always enjoy answering questions.  The Fort Union Trading Post questions were fun to answer and allowed us to interact with visitors on a deeper level.  If you want to see the questions from any of the other places we worked, you can find them in these posts:   Death ValleyChickamauga and ChattanoogaKings MountainFort FredericaGrand PortageSan Juan, Pipe Spring, and Fort Necessity.