|Most of Fort Union from just outside the southwest bastion|
This all goes back to a fortunate convergence of geography and company policy. The AFC, via the Chouteau family, was noted for its support of artists and scientists, including such notables as John James Audubon, George Catlin, Joseph Nicollet, and Prince Maximilian of Weid, and encouraged their activities (Chaky 2015). Alexander Culbertson, the bourgeois (or manager) of Fort Union from 1837 to 1847, at times traveled from Fort Union to Fort John on the Laramie River, via Fort Pierre in what is now South Dakota. Fort John is better known as Fort Laramie, which incidentally also did not start out as an Army post, but as a fur trading post. It only became an Army post in 1849. The Fort Pierre–Fort John route took him across the Mauvaises Terres (spelled various ways in various sources), today better known as the White River Badlands. On these trips, he would occasionally collect fossils. He is probably the source of the first scientifically reported Badlands fossil, a jaw fragment which became named Paleotherium prouti and which is now known to have belonged to a brontothere (Wischmann 2000). He definitely provided the fossils that Joseph Leidy described as Poebrotherium wilsonii (a camel) and Merycoidodon culbertsonii (an oreodont, in fact "the" oreodont) (Chaky 2015), kick-starting vertebrate paleontology in the Badlands and west of the Mississippi in general. Early press on these finds in the late 1840s attracted other geologists. Among them was David Dale Owen, at that time working on a survey of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He dispatched subordinate John Evans to the Badlands in 1849. Evans returned with another load of vertebrate fossils which was sent to Leidy, whose descriptions of the bones makes up a chapter in Owen's massive 1852 survey publication. The AFC got into the act by sending Alexander's brother Thaddeus with another group in 1850 to make additional collections. In 1853 there was even an early foretaste of the Bone Wars when a government railroad survey crew including Evans butted heads with Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden and Fielding Bradford Meek (Chaky 2015).
Another lasting trace of the early paleontological work in the area is the name of a rock unit that is commonly exposed in western North Dakota and eastern Montana: the Fort Union Group (North Dakota Geological Survey name) or Fort Union Formation (Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology name). This Paleocene-age sedimentary unit is the source of the Wannagan Creek fossils which can be viewed at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and makes the picturesque badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Little Missouri National Grassland. It does not appear to be exposed within Fort Union Trading Post NHS, although it is exposed in the uplands just beyond. Hayden used Fort Union as his base of operations in 1854 and early 1855, making collections of nonmarine mollusks from sites around the fort (Hartman 1999; Chaky 2015).
|The Fort Union Group in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP|
Chaky, D. 2015. Fossils and the fur trade: the Chouteaus as patrons of paleontology. We Proceeded On 41(2):12–23.
Hartman, J. H. 1999. Western exploration along the Missouri River and the first paleontological studies in the Williston Basin, North Dakota and Montana. Proceedings of the North Dakota Academy of Science 53:158–165.
Owen, D. D. 1852. Report of a geological survey of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota; and incidentally of a portion of Nebraska Territory. Lippincott, Grambo & Co., Philadelphia, PA. Available at http://archive.org/details/mobot31753000174885 or http://books.google.com/books?id=Y_ZYAAAAYAAJ.
Wischmann, L. 2000. Frontier diplomats: Alexander Culbertson and Natoyist-Siksina' among the Blackfeet. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma.