Malachite’s Big Hole
Early in the summer of 1832 Kenneth McKenzie sent David Mitchell, upriver to continue trade with the Blackfoot Indians. On the upstream trip, a storm struck while the brigade was in the vicinity of the Musselshell River, sinking the keelboat with $30,000 worth of trade goods and a loss of two men drowned. Mitchell returned to Fort Union where he obtained a new boat and outfit and was on his way up-river again in June.
Finding that Fort Piegan had been destroyed, Mitchell continued six miles further up the Missouri River where he established a new post named Fort McKenzie in honor of Kenneth McKenzie. Work on the structure was conducted in an atmosphere of absolute fear and frenzy as thousands of suspicious and hostile Blackfoot Indians gathered to watch the work. Peace held during the construction because although unfriendly, the Blackfeet were still anxious to obtain trade goods. Once the stockade was completed, trade commenced, even though work still continued on the interior structures. The structure as completed was 140 feet square with bastions at its diagonal corners. For eleven years Fort McKenzie served successfully as post through which access and control of the Blackfoot fur trade was maintained by the American Fur Company. The above photo is of the site of Fort McKenzie. The fort was located behind the trees in the foreground. The photo also shows the high bluffs across the river from which disgruntled Indians would fire down into the fort.
The Blackfoot were enthusiastic about the trade and their own trading post, and returns for the winter of 1832-33 exceeded those of the previous year at Fort Piegan. In the spring of 1833 Mitchell returned down river to Fort Union with a keelboat loaded with pelts and robes, meanwhile leaving twenty-seven whites, along with their Indian women and children behind at Fort McKenzie.
While taking on a new outfit at Fort Union that spring, Mitchell met two relatively new traders, Alexander Culbertson and Alexander Harvey, who would be returning upriver with him to Fort McKenzie. Prince Maximilian of Wied-New Wied, a naturalist-scientist, and Karl Bodmer, an artist were also at Fort Union. They too would accompany Mitchell back up river to Fort McKenzie. While at Fort McKenzie, Bodmer made several drawings of the fort.
Maximilian described the fort as follows: “A quadrangle whose sides are 45 paces and 47 paces. Two blockhouses on opposite corners each with some piece of cannon. Dwellings are one story, most without floors, generally with an open fireplace and a chimney, wooden door, and small window with parchment instead of glass. A very flat roof covered with green sod, where inhabitants post themselves when in case of being attacked they have to fire over the high pickets which make the back wall of the dwellings. When trading the inner gate is closed. The entrance to the Indian store between the gates is then free. Guards are then posted at the store. The fort’s gate is 120 paces from the river” (Reference)
Theft of the post’s livestock by Indians was a continual difficulty at the fort. The problem was partially solved with by pasturing the animals on an island (Horse Island) in the Missouri River, or by confining the animals within the Fort’s stockades at night.
Apparently there were plans in place by the time Maximilian and Bodmer arrived at Fort McKenzie, to replace the structure to a more favorable location. Foundations had been prepared, and a work party sent out. For unknown reasons work on the new site was discontinued. The move may have been considered because the interior of Fort McKenzie’s stockade was vulnerable to gunfire from atop the high bluffs on the opposite side of the river.
The Blackfoot Indians were very dangerous customers, and in spite of having the fort for protection, the post employees lived in an extremely hazardous environment. With the exception of the Gros Ventre, the Blackfoot existed on a war-time basis with all of their neighbors, and got along only slightly better within the different divisions of the Blackfoot nation. Anytime there were large numbers of Blackfeet at the fort, tensions ran high, and violence was a certainty, either white/Indian, or Indian/Indian.
Attack of the Assiniboine. White traders generally chose not to become involved in Indian wars and battles preferring to maintain neutrality rather than risk offending or alienating a tribe (of potential customers). Early one morning on August 28, 1833 a party of about 600 Assiniboine warriors attacked an encampment of about thirty Piegan lodges situated outside the palisades at Fort McKenzie. When the attack began, there was initially an assumption by the traders that the Blackfeet were attacking the fort, but it quickly became clear that this was an Indian battle. Although fur companies generally tried to remain neutral in Indian/Indian conflicts, personnel from Fort McKenzie on this occasion did provide assistance to the Blackfeet because the Assiniboine were far out of their normal range, and never traded at Fort McKenzie (although they did trade at the company’s Fort Union post). The Blackfeet were sheltered within the fort, given supplies of powder and ball, and the wounded were given aid. A number of men and engages, including Culbertson, Mitchell, Harvey and even Maximilian took up arms along side the Blackfeet against the Assiniboine. Below is a drawing by Karl Bodmer of the early morning assault by the Assiniboine.