By Lotte Govaerts
This is the third post in our series on the Oscar-winning movie The Revenant. In the first and second installment we explored the history and archaeology of the Grand River Arikara (Sahnish) villages and the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. In this third post we will examine the history and archaeology of Fort Kiowa (Fort Lookout), the trade post featured in the movie.
One location depicted in The Revenant is a fur trade post on the Missouri River named Fort Kiowa. This post is based on a real 1820s Missouri River fur trade establishment, whose official name appears to have been Fort Lookout, but which was also referred to as Fort Kiowa (sometimes spelled Kiawa or Kiaway), or Fort Brazeau (or Brasseaux, or other spelling variations).
There has been considerable confusion and debate among historians and archaeologists surrounding the exact location and identification of this fort (see Chittenden 1902, Mattes 1949, Anderson 1961, Lueck 1983). The confusion stems, in part, from the fact that the fortification was known by multiple names. At one point in time, Forts Lookout, Kiowa, and Brasseaux were thought to be three different forts located on the same stretch of the Missouri River1. However, newly discovered source material led mid-20th century historians to the conclusion that there was just one, short-lived fur trade establishment near the mouth of the White River, known contemporarily by those three names2.
Further adding to the confusion is that the location was later occupied for other purposes after the fur trade establishment was abandoned, and that there was at least one other Fort Lookout on the Missouri in the 19th century: a military post established in 1856 and abandoned in 1857.
Finding the exact location of Fort Lookout / Kiowa / Brazeau has been complicated as well. The site of a contemporary fur trade establishment named Fort Recovery or Cedar Fort is better established. It was located on the opposite shore of the Missouri from the present-day town of Chamberlain, South Dakota. Historians know that Fort Lookout was located north of Fort Recovery, and to the south of the Big Bend of the Missouri, but not much more than that.
The fort was established in the late summer or fall of 1822 by Joseph Brazeau, Jr. for the company officially known as “Bernard Pratte and Co.”, also known as “the French Fur Company”. A trading license for the Pratte Company dated July 19, 1822 shows that the company was licensed to trade with the Sioux, Ponca, Cheyenne, Arikara, and Mandan on the Missouri north of Council Bluffs (Anderson 1961, p. 222).
The Pratte Company and the Columbia Fur Company both became part of the American Fur Company in 1827. Some reorganizing of forts took place along the Missouri after this merger. It appears that Fort Lookout was abandoned during this reorganization, although the location was later reoccupied by other establishments (I will discuss this in more detail in my series on the historical archaeology of the River Basin Surveys).
Fort Lookout /Kiowa is described thusly in the Atkinson – O’Fallon journals: “Fort Kiawa consists of a range of log buildings containing 4 rooms – a log house & a store house forming a right angle leaving a space of some 30 feet. At the south corner of the work is erected a Block House near which stands a smiths shop. At the No. corner is erected a small wooden tower, the whole work enclosed by cottonwood pickets. The sides or curtains to the works 140 feet each.” (Jensen & Hutchins 2001, p. 107)
River Basin Surveys archaeologists investigating the Fort Randall Dam/Lake Francis Case area set out to find the site of Fort Lookout/Kiowa and started examining a possible location for this site, based on Mattes’ (1949) historical research and local informants’ statements. They thought they had discovered the location of the fort at archaeological site 39LM57. However, upon excavation they found that it could not be the site of the original Fort Lookout. The actual designation of the site discovered at 39LM57 became the topic of some debate (Miller 1960, Anderson 1961, Lueck 1983) and remains so to this day (a topic for another time). Researchers do appear to agree that the actual site of the 1820s Fort Lookout (Kiowa/Brazeau) must have been destroyed by the changing channel of the Missouri River sometime between the site’s abandonment and before the RBS investigations took place.
No descriptions of the fort other than the one cited above have come to light, and with the site destroyed, there is no archaeological evidence either. However, we do have some archaeological evidence from other upper Missouri fur trade establishments that existed around the same time.
A number of Missouri river fur trade posts were investigated during the River Basin Surveys (RBS, see our RBS pages). Some of these sites received more attention than others. Some posts outside the RBS areas have been investigated by archaeologists more recently. One such post was Fort Union, the flagship of the Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company. This fort was established in 1828, only a few years after Fort Lookout was established and abandoned. This post was much larger than Fort Lookout, and in use for a much longer period (1828-1867). The site was turned into a National Historic Site in the 1960s and has been extensively researched by archaeologists3. A reconstruction of what the fort would have looked like in 1851 can be admired at the park by visitors today. The real Hugh Glass apparently worked out of Fort Union some years after his bear-related adventures (see Lassey 2016).
More similar to Fort Lookout, but long since flooded by Lake Sakakawea is the site of Fort Floyd in North Dakota. This site was investigated by RBS crews in advance of the construction of Garrison Dam, although they referred to it as “Kipp’s Post” (Woolworth & Wood 1960). Its name was later identified as Fort Floyd (Hunt 1984). The fort was a temporary fur trade post, preceding the construction of Fort Union4.
Fort Floyd was established by the newly created Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company, previously the Columbia Fur Company. However, the post had its origins in a slightly earlier venture established by James Kipp (hence the name given to the site by RBS researchers). Kipp built a fort near the mouth of the White Earth River in or around 1826 to trade with the Assiniboine. The fort was intended to serve this purpose for one winter only.
Immediately after the 1827 American Fur Company merger, the Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO) set out to build a post by the mouth of the Yellowstone. This venture failed as the company couldn’t reach their destination that year, and instead built another post at the White Earth River (Coues 1898, p. 108). It is likely that instead of building an entirely new post from scratch, the company re-occupied Kipp’s abandoned post.
Documents show that the name Fort Floyd was in use by 1828. Hunt (1984, p. 11) cites a letter from Kenneth McKenzie to Pierre Chouteau, dated March 15, 1829, in which he talks about his arrival at Fort Floyd the previous winter. He also mentions, in the same letter, that Hugh Glass came to Fort Floyd the previous fall, attempting to negotiate a deal between the UMO and the independent Rocky Mountain fur traders.
At some point in the year 1828, the UMO was successful in establishing a post at the mouth of the Yellowstone. This location was considered superior, and Fort Floyd must have been abandoned shortly thereafter (see Hunt 1984 for discussion on exactly when the fort was abandoned).
As the site of Fort Floyd was located in the area to be flooded by the construction of Garrison Dam, a River Basin Surveys field party under G. Hubert Smith carried out test excavations at the site in 1954. They found the remains of an (approximately) square palisade, 96 feet on each side. This palisade was constructed out of upright cottonwood posts. There was a bastion or blockhouse on the northeast corner. The remains of four buildings were found inside the palisade, along the northern wall, facing the entrance, which was located in the middle of the southern palisade line.
A range of three buildings appeared to have been the main structures in the fort. They were determined to most likely have been log cabins, on account of the large amount of fired-clay chinking found in that area. There were also remains of floor joists, hewn-plank flooring, window glass, and numerous nails, a door bolt catch and a portion of a lock.
The westernmost structure in that range was determined to have been a kitchen, based on the presence of many fragmented animal bones, broken dishes and cups, and what appeared to be the remains of a chinked stick chimney. There was also a kitchen refuse trench found just outside this building. The other two buildings were probably the residence and storehouse.
The fourth structure must have been a less solid construction, and may have been a shed for equipment or possibly furs.
Additional artifacts recovered from the site include items for use in and around the fort by those who lived there: tools, weapons, weapon parts and accessories, construction materials, household goods, personal and clothing-related items. Many trade goods were also recovered, including approximately 6,700 beads, as well as catlinite pipe fragments. There were also native-manufactured tools and ceramics present at the site. Additionally, RBS researchers recovered and analyzed faunal and botanical specimens (see Woolworth and Wood 1960). By examining these items in their historical context we can generate a concept of what life and trade was like at Fort Floyd, and by comparing the artifact assemblages and architectural remains from multiple trade posts, we can make some educated guesses about life at Fort Lookout/Kiowa as well.
More detail on the history and archaeology of Fort Floyd and several other upper Missouri trade posts will follow in my series on the River Basin Surveys.
1. See Chittenden 1902, p. 324 for an example, and Anderson 1961, p. 221 for discussion.↩
2. Among the evidence supporting this conclusion is a letter from the Leavenworth expedition*, published in the National Intelligencer (cited in Anderson 1961, p. 222), which was dated “Fort Brazeau or Lookout, July 22, 1823”). The journal entries from the Atkinson – O’Fallon expedition+ from the summer of 1825, discussing the signing of the June 22 Treaty with the Teton, Yankton, and Yanktonai describes the location of said signing as“Fort Kiawa” (Jensen & Hutchins 2001, p. 106-107), while the official text of the treaty lists the location as “Fort Look-out” (Kappler 1904, 227-230). For a thorough description of the evidence on why there was almost certainly no other nearby fort, see Anderson 1961.
* The “Leavenworth Expedition” is the name used to describe the summer 1823 campaign against the Arikara (Sahnish) under Colonel Henry Leavenworth (1783-1834) and his Sixth Regiment, as well as a contingent from the Missouri Fur Company and ca. 750 Dakota warriors, as discussed in the first two posts in our Revenant series.
+ Brigadier General Henry Atkinson (1782-1842) and Indian Agent Benjamin O’Fallon (1793-1842) were sent on an expedition to negotiate peace treaties and trade deals with the Upper Missouri tribes in 1824. They returned in 1826. See Jensen and Hutchins 2001.↩
4. The existence of Fort Floyd as a separate entity to Fort Union has been somewhat controversial as well. Chittenden (1902) suggested that they were one and the same: that Fort Floyd was renamed Fort Union after another nearby post by that name was abandoned. Later researchers were unable to confirm this theory, and again based an alternate theory on sources that became available, including the travel accounts of Prince Maximilian , which mention Fort Floyd and its location as Maximilian* passed it on his way to Fort Union (see Hunt 1984, p. 14).
* Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied (1782-1867) was a German explorer and naturalist. He traveled to Brazil and the United States where he studied the flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples. He traveled up the Missouri in the 1830s and later published an account of his travels (Thwaites 1906).↩
Anderson, Harry H. “The Fort Lookout Trading Post Sites - A Reexamination.” Plains Anthropologist 6, no. 14 (1961): 221–29.
Chittenden, Hiram M. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. 3 vols. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1902.
Coues, Elliott, ed. Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri - The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur 1833 - 1872. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1898.
Hunt, William J. “Fort Floyd: History and Archaeology of an Enigmatic 19th Century Trading Post.” North Dakota History 61, no. 3 (1994): 7–20.
Jensen, Richard E, and James S Hutchins, eds. Wheel Boats on the Missouri: The Journals and Documents of the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition, 1824-26. Helena; Lincoln: Montana Historical Society Press ; Nebraska State Historical Society, 2001.
Kappler, Charles J., ed. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904.
Lassey, Rod. “Hugh Glass - Beyond the Bear, Hugh Glass on the Upper Missouri.” https://www.nps.gov/fous/learn/historyculture/hugh-glass.htm.
Lueck, Edward J. “Prince Maximilian’s ‘Two’ Fort Lookouts, and More (or Less).” South Dakota Archaeology 7 (1983): 80–98.
Mattes, Merrill J. “Historic Sites in the Fort Randall Reservoir Area.” South Dakota Historical Collections 24 (1949).
Midwest Archaeological Center. “Fort Union Trading Post.” https://www.nps.gov/MWAC/fous/index.htm.
Miller, Carl F. “The Excavation and Investigation of Fort Lookout Trading Post II (39LM57) in the Fort Randall Reservoir, South Dakota.” In River Basin Survey Papers, Vol. 17. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 176. Washington, D.C., 1960.
National Park Service. “Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service).” https://www.nps.gov/fous/index.htm.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. “Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834 by Alexander Philip Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied.” In Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Vol. 22, 23, 24. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1906.
Woolworth, Alan R., and W. Raymond Wood. “The Archaeology of a Small Trading Post (Kipp’s Post, 31MN1) in the Garrison Reservoir, North Dakota.” In River Basin Survey Papers 15 - 20, Vol. 176. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 1960.