Malachite’s Big Hole
By 1830, Kenneth McKenzie, of the Upper Missouri Outfit of the Western Department, had made friendly contacts with the Blackfoot Indians further up the Missouri River and was ready to risk a post amongst this notoriously hostile tribe. McKenzie sent Jacob Berger, a former Hudson ’s Bay Company man who had previously had contacts with the tribe for his prior employer and already spoke the Blackfoot language. In 1830 Berger and a small party traveled up the Missouri to the confluence of the Marias River where he parlayed with the Blackfeet. He was successful in convincing a group of Blackfeet to accompanied Berger back to Fort Union for a conference with McKenzie where the Indians agreed to allow an American Fur Company post within their territory.
It wasn't until August of 1831 that James Kipp accompanied by about 75 men left Fort Union to establish the Blackfoot post. The Missouri River was low this late in the season, and the men struggled to move the keelboat loaded with trade goods and supplies upriver over the sandbars. The party didn't reach the intended post site, the mouth of the Marias River, until mid October. When the exhausted men arrived at the site, they found that there were already perhaps a thousand Blackfoot Indians waiting to begin trade.
Kip realized that his men couldn't conduct trade and build a fort simultaneously. Trading would leave the party terribly exposed should the Blackfeet take offense for any reason. Kip negotiated with the Blackfoot chiefs for a 75-day period in which the trading party could ready a fortified trading post prior to initiating trade. The new post was named Fort Piegan, after one of the principal subgroups of the Blackfoot nation. The fort was constructed of cottonwood logs and is reported to have been 110 feet square with palisades 25 feet high.
The Blackfeet eagerly embraced the presence of the American Fur Company men and their trade goods, supposedly bringing in 2,400 beaver pelts, buffalo robes and other furs within the first ten days that it was open. In spite of the commercial success, the men still harbored great fear of the Blackfoot Indians. Transporting the returns back to Fort Union in the spring of 1832 required approximately one-half of the fort personal. However, no-one was willing to remain behind at the fort and so Kipp took the entire complement of men down-river with him. When the Blackfeet found that the post had been apparently abandoned, contrary to promises made by the American Fur Company, they became enraged and burned the fort to the ground.
The following year McKenzie sent David Mitchell and a party of men up river to resume trade with the Blackfeet. Finding that Fort Piegan had been destroyed, Mitchell and his men proceeded an additional six miles up river where they established Fort McKenzie.
For more information about Fort Piegan see also:
Lepley, John G., Blackfoot Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri. Published by Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula 2004.
Hart, Herbert M., Tour Guide to Old Forts of Montana, Wyoming North & South Dakota. Published by the Pruett Publishing Company, Boulder Colorado 1980.
Malone, Michael P. and Richard B Roeder, Montana: A History of Two Centuries. Published by University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1976.