2010 Fur Trade Symposium

Gunsmith Matt Denison holds a replica he built of a blanket gun he at the 2010 Fur Trade Symposium in Three Forks on Friday.

THREE FORKS - The fact that so little is known about the fort that was built here 200 years ago can be blamed on three things: bears, Blackfeet Indians and the Arkansas River.

But piecing together what is known of the fort, one of the first permanent footprints made by Europeans in this area, has tantalized historians ever since fur traders on the frontier became history.

And, to mark the bicentennial of the mysterious "Fort at the Three Forks," historians from across the country converged in the small western Gallatin County town this weekend at the 2010 Fur Trade Symposium.

In 1810, an unknown number of men from the Missouri Fur Company traveled to the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers to take advantage of the abundant amount of beaver noted by the Lewis and Clark expedition just five years prior.

They built a fort near where the Jefferson meets the Madison, but their stay was short lived, historians say. Blackfeet Indians, not keen on the fur trappers arrival into their territory, killed several of the men. To make matters more precarious, the area was teeming with grizzly bears.

"They were constantly getting attacked by griz," said Jim Hardee, a historian and author from Tetonia, Idaho, who has studied what is known about the fort.

"After about three months at the fort, the Americans were gone," he told a crowd, some wearing clothes from the trapping period, gathered at the Ruby Theater in Three Forks.

Thus, the fort didn't have too much time to sink into the pages of history. But then the Arkansas River made matters worse.

Only one man who was part of the Missouri Fur Company expedition that set up the fort had a journal, Hardee said, and those notes were destroyed when they were dropped into the Arkansas River and destroyed.

The man, Thomas James, had to rely on memory when he recollected the fort some 36 years later to an interviewer, Hardee said.

Since the fort's fast rise and decline, it has been a topic of speculation in the Gallatin Valley, Hardee said. Many have claimed to have found evidence of the fort, including Peter Koch, but often times those accounts have only added to the mystery, Hardee said.

Even James' own account of erecting the fort over the course of a few weeks raises more questions that it answers.

"I think it's fascinating that we had a fort that long ago," said Robin Cadby-Sorensen, curator of the Three Forks Museum. "You're imagination just kind of goes with that."

While the Fort at the Three Forks was the celebrated piece of history at the Fur Trade Symposium, speakers also presented information on Lewis and Clark and the importance of the Three Forks area for Plains Indians.

The Crow called the area "where the rivers mix," said Adrian Heidenreich, of Billings.

It was also a place where tribes mixed, he said, as major game trails ran both north-sound and east-west through the area.

"The Three Forks was basically a central area where trails crossed," he said.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.