After the US Civil War ended in 1865, young men flooded into Montana in search of gold and other ventures. Settlement expanded into the newly created Montana Territory.
Canada joined in Confederation in 1867, and western Canada – the “Northwest Territories” as it was then known – was transferred to the young Dominion. However, the government had no real presence in the west.
An American law made it illegal to sell or trade alcohol in Montana’s “Indian Country,” but alcohol was widely used as an incentive for trade with Indigenous people. When the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Company withdrew from trade in the late 1860s, free traders stepped in. Beyond the reach of the law, the Canadian prairies were filled with opportunity for gold prospectors, wolfers, and whisky traders.
In December 1869 Alfred B. Hamilton and John J. Healy obtained supplies from Fort Benton, Montana, and headed north. They set up a trading post at the meeting of the St. Mary and Belly (now Oldman) Rivers. A traditional gathering site for the bands of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the site would become the centre of a booming commercial trading post system.
Fort Hamilton was a simple structure with six rooms. Healy and Hamilton made huge profits in their first season, but their fort was badly damaged in a fire. Healy and Hamilton decided to build a larger and more permanent fort. They hired a former Hudson’s Bay Company carpenter, William Gladstone, to build the new fort with a crew of about forty, mostly Métis, men.
Fort Whoop-Up, as it became known, was built with squared cottonwood logs, and was designed for defense: It was enclosed by a palisade with a heavy oak gate, bastions, high windows, and bars over the chimneys. It was also equipped with a rifle cannon on wheels, and a smoothbore cannon. Buildings faced inward to an open central square. There was a kitchen, trading room, blacksmith shop, living quarters, stabling for the horses, a well, and cellars.
Buffalo robes were the main trade commodity. Robes were sold in eastern markets as sleigh blankets or coats, while the hides made excellent belts for industrial machines. The robes were shipped east by steamboat on the upper Missouri river. At the peak of the robe trade, up to 75,000 robes passed through Fort Benton, Montana, each year.Most of the trade was done in winter months, when the buffalo robes were thickest. A whole “head and tail” robe was worth about $12 in trade goods, and a split robe half that. First Nations’ demand for certain types and quality of goods sharpened competition among traders.
Buffalo robes, deerskins, wolf pelts, and other furs were exchanged for firearms, utensils, blankets, tobacco, flour, and other provisions. The most profitable trade good was whisky, which was kept in a large barrel and dispensed by the jug or cupful. One to two liters of whisky traded for one robe. This “fire water,” as it was often called, was diluted with water, and might contain anything from chewing tobacco, to burnt sugar, tea or ink to add flavour and colour.