A Handsome Situation

The Marias River

by John Mix Stanley

Historic painting of the Marias River mouth by John Mix Stanley

Special Collections, K. Ross Toole Archives, The University of Montana, Missoula

Chromolithograph from Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (1855-1861), Vol. 12, Plate 26.

On the height at center the artist has imagined a fort or trading post such as Lewis and Clark recommended for the mouth of the Marias. Fort Piegan—named for the Piegan tribe of the Blackfeet Nation, whom the traders hoped to attract—was built there in the winter of 1831 by James Kipp of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, to tap into the regional Indian trade, but it lasted less than a year before Blood Indian warriors burned it down. The following year the manager of Astor's Upper Missouri Outfit, headquartered at Fort Union, sent an experienced trader, Jacob Berger, to establish a new satellite post eight miles up the Missouri from the mouth of the Marias. Berger named it Fort McKenzie in honor of his boss, Kenneth McKenzie. Despite the accidental arrival of a devastating smallpox epidemic in 1837, the post thrived until 1844, when an ugly incident precipitated by the new management, Francois Chardon and his lieutenant, Alexander Harvey, made it necessary to abandon the place in early April. Sometime after that its structures were burned by unknown persons.

It must have been the morning of June 3, 1805, as they stood on the point west of Maria's River, looking over the land, that the two captains agreed the promontory opposite them would make "a proper and handsome situation" for a trading post. On his sketch-map of the vicinity, Clark made note of it for future reference.

But why did they even bother with the thought, since they had no evidence that any Indians—at least none they had talked to—seemed to know of the place? Simply because they were routinely observant, and in topographic terms alone this appeared to be a prime location.

Thirteen months later, Lewis was to capitalize on the idea. Returning to Maria's River for a second and more extensive look, he and his three companions had an "interview" one evening with eight Piegan men. That was 195 miles upstream on the south fork of the Marias, now known as the Two Medicine River. On the defensive, but still in possession of his diplomatic savvy, he allowed himself the advantage of a couple of little white lies.

I told these people . . . that I had come in surch of them in order to prevail on them to be at peace with their neighbours particularly those on the West side of the mountains and to engage them to come and trade with me when the establishment is made at the entrance of this river.

The first attempt to build a post at the mouth of the Marias was made in 1831, at the height of the fur-trade era. The last attempt was made in 1866, when Missouri River commerce was at its peak.

Brulé ("burned") Bottom

Site of Fort McKenzie, 1832-1844

Round, irrigated field on a bottom of a big bend in the Missouri

Courtesy Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc.

View south; Little Belt Mountains on the horizon.
The verdant circle in the foreground is a farmer's field watered by a center-pivot irrigation system.