Last Updated on April 1, 2021 by Jim Ferri
During our foray into “Big Sky Country,” we discovered wonderful Ft. Benton and the Missouri Breaks…
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Marjorie Kean
We had just passed through Great Falls en route to Fort Benton, MT, about a 40-minute drive north. I remember thinking “It’s no wonder they call this ‘Big Sky Country’.”
Growing up in the East and never having been to Montana, I was finding the drive amazing. The two-lane road sliced across a seemingly endless flat plain crowned with the biggest and bluest sky I could ever envision.
As we sped along I kept thinking about what a foreign traveler, from either Europe or Asia perhaps, would think upon seeing the vastness of this land where there is nothing but open space as far as you can see.
Fort Benton, MT, a Historic Fort
Just 40-minutes after passing through Great Falls, the road hooked southeast towards the Missouri River. Within minutes we were in the town of Fort Benton.
Fort Benton, MT is located along the Lewis & Clark National Historic trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. It is also the gateway to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Built in 1847, it was the last fur-trading fort on the Upper Missouri.
It was abandoned only 34 years later after its sun-dried adobe bricks succumbed to the ravages of Montana’s weather. It was also the time when the steamboats on the Missouri River succumbed to the growth of the railroads.
Once in near ruin, the Fort Benton has been rebuilt by the non-profit River & Plains Society. Today it is operated as a part of their Heritage Complex and Museums in the town of Fort Benton.
The Fort Benton Trade Store
When we arrived at the fort we met Kirby Hoon who was to be our guide for our short visit. Prior to our visit neither my husband nor I knew anything about the place other than that it’s considered the birthplace of Montana. But affable Kirby turned out to be a font of information.
Charming and highly knowledgeable of the area and its colorful history, Hoon was well-read and highly educated, and knew much about the history of the area and its early settlers.
Our first stop was at the fort’s trade store where Kirby told us about the traders, Indians and early settlers, and what life was like at the time they lived there. The store has been recreated to look as it did at the time. Skins are draped over the counter, large barrels of provisions standing on end, various goods for sale on the shelves and walls, etc., all giving a feel for what the outpost really looked like years ago. There was even an anteroom with a window that allowed traders to keep a gun trained on Indians that entered the fort to barter.
A sign on one wall gave a recipe for creating “Trade Whiskey”: “mix 2 gallons of Missouri River water, 1 quart of alcohol, 1 twist of rank black chewing tobacco, 1 handful of red peppers, 1 bottle of Jamaican ginger and 1 cup of black molasses. Mix well until strength is drawn from the tobacco and peppers.”
Fort Benton’s Fascinating Exhibits
We then continued on to the fort’s warehouses. They’ve been converted into small museums with interesting art, both sculptures and paintings, which depicted Indian life. It showed the Black Foot Indians, the predominant tribe in the area (who were, explained Kirby, adept horse thieves and one of the first tribes to have horses in this part of the world), their way of life and the hardships they had to endure.
Along with the exhibits, Kirby’s description of the history, events and living conditions on the banks of the Missouri provided a fascinating insight into the people and place of the time.
One other mini-museum was an agricultural exhibit that showed the evolution of farm machinery. Another depicted the lives of pioneer women and the tools and instruments they used in daily life.
Hornaday Buffalo Exhibit in Fort Benton
We also saw the Hornaday Buffalo exhibit, considered the most significant collection of the animals in the world. They were collected in 1886 by conservationist William Temple Hornaday at the request of the Smithsonian, from the last remaining wild buffalo herd in the U.S., so that future generations could see what man had destroyed.
The exhibit of the six animals was on display in the Smithsonian for 70 years before being put into storage and forgotten. Today they stand in Fort Benton’s Museum of the Northern Great Plains, almost exactly as they were at the Smithsonian. It’s a beautiful display.
Hornaday is widely credited with helping to save the buffalo from complete extinction. The buffalo image seen on U.S. coins was drawn from the great bull in the exhibit, as was the Great Seal of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service badge.
The Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center
The last place we saw was the Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center. The National Monument is a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River that has been designated as “wild and scenic,” thus protecting it and ensuring it will remain just as Lewis and Clark first saw it. The ”Breaks” are the rugged valleys, ravines and badlands that surround the river.
We were lucky enough to be able to speak with Connie Jacobs, the manager of the center, who was rightfully proud that in 2013 the Missouri Breaks had been designated by National Geographic Traveler as one of the 20 best places in the world to visit that year.
While we didn’t make it out to the river we did enjoy our time in the Interpretive Center with the hands-on exhibits about the land and the area’s wildlife and culture. We also saw the rifle of Nez Perce Indian Chief Joseph, stepped inside a replica steamboat pilothouse and viewed a life-size replica of the incredibly large Murphy wagons that pulled freight brought to Fort Benton by riverboats to the far-flung reaches of the Territory.
Much of the area in the National Monument is inaccessible by road, which makes multi-day canoe and float trips (booked through local outfitters if you’d rather not go it alone) quite popular.
Making your trip on the Missouri River a bit easier today is the fact that you go with the flow of the river, not against it, as Lewis and Clark had to do many years ago.
If you go:
Montana Office of Tourism
PO Box 200533
Helena, MT 59620-0501
Tel: (406) 841-2870
Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center
701 7th Street
Fort Benton, MT 59442
Tel: (877) 256-3252