Alexander Culberson, Indian Trader

Alexander Culbertson joined the American Fur Company in 1833 and for the next 30 years served as the company’s principal trader with the Blackfoot. His success in dealing with the Blackfoot was due in part to the fact that he had married Natawista, the daughter of a prominent Blood chief (the Blood are a part of the Blackfoot Confederacy).  

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His first post was at Fort MacKenzie on the Missouri River in Montana. It was here that he married his first Indian wife, the daughter of White Buffalo, a Piegan Blackfoot chief. The marriage, witnesses by Prince Maximillian, involved the exchange of horses, a rifle, and other goods. The marriage, however, did not work well and Culbertson is reported to have sent his wife back to her people.

In 1845, he established Fort Lewis (named for Meriwether Lewis) as a trading post for the Blackfoot on the Upper Missouri. Soon, however, the Blackfoot informed him that it would be better if he relocated the trading post to the other side of the river.

In 1847, the log palisades of Fort Lewis were dismantled and float to the new post on the north side of the river. No sooner was the new fort, still known as Fort Lewis completed, than Culbertson ordered the men to start making adobe bricks. A new two-story house was erected for him and the fort was gradually rebuilt out of adobe.

In 1850, Culbertson officially named the trading post Fort Benton in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton who had saved the company’s license following a dispute with the federal government over illegal whiskey trade with the Indians.

Alexander Culbertson and his Blood Indian wife Natawista were the first family of Fort Benton. Natawista wore dresses such as those worn by Eastern women for parties. She preferred gowns for festive occasions at the fort. Culbertson would wear a black cutaway formal coat with tales and a vest, a black beaver top hot, and a ruffled shirt front with tie for festive occasions and when entertaining important guests.

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While trading posts, such as Fort Benton, were located far from American cities, the traders lived in a highly structured society. The Agent-In-Charge or Bourgeois ruled as a king: Culbertson was often called the King of the Upper Missouri. His family lived as well as anyone in high society in the East. His quarters had windows and a mantled fireplace with mirrors. Their custom-made furniture was as fine as that of any home in the East.

While most of the people at the trading post ate at the company mess, seated in tables according to social class, the Bourgeois and his family took their meals in their quarters. The meal was served by cook’s helpers and eaten from china plates, with silverware and wine from glasses. Important guests would dine with the Bourgeois and his family.

The Living Quarters:

Shown below are photographs of the reconstructed agent’s living quarters at Old Fort Benton. The family lived in a single room.

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The Office:

The Choteau and Company Office in Fort Benton was the place where all the important records of the fur trade were kept. About 40,000 buffalo robes were sent each year down the Missouri River, initially by mackinaw and keelboat, and then after 1859, by steamboat.

Also kept in this office were items to be used as gifts for the chiefs. These included special blankets, fancy military uniforms, top hats, and two-gallon cans of the 170 proof “high wine” which was used to make trade whiskey. Adding Missouri River water to the “high wine” made it go as much as 200 times further.

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Shown below are photographs of The Company office at the reconstructed Old Fort Benton.

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On display in the office area is a cannon similar to that positioned in the fort’s blockhouse for defense.

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