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Fort Connah | St. Ignatius, Montana

Historic or Prehistoric Place, Historic Site

Holding its own against the ravages of mountain weather and time, the well-crafted and solid structure in an open field may be Montana's oldest building. This remnant of Fort Connah, established in the Mission Valley around 1847, is now supported by a new foundation and topped with fresh shake. A black powder range lies nearby, as well as two more antique structures donated and reassembled at the historic site. The dream of a museum quietly waits in the wings.

Thanks to the dedication of the Fort Connah Restoration Society, an interpretive sign at the highway pullout overlooks the site where visitors can view the post, black powder range, and reconstruction efforts. This is about seven miles north of St. Ignatius on Highway 93. Visitors may walk to the simple buildings via a simple footpath, although you may need to clamber over a gate. Although access to the buildings is limited, FCRS is recruiting volunteers with the hopes of opening the doors to Montana's history.

Public access and stewardship of the site is due largely to the largesse of Joe McDonald, a respected educator and tribal leader. He is descended from fur trapper Angus McDonald who established this trading post along Post Creek almost a decade before Jesuits arrived in the valley to establish a mission church that remains open to the public in St. Ignatius.

Please respect the generosity of the McDonald family by treading lightly during your visit.

Fort Connah – Cate Turner-Jamison

Driving Directions from Nearest Town or Landmark

The Fort Connah Historic Site is located at Post Creek, Montana on US Highway 93 seven miles north of St. Ignatius. Look for the Historic Marker on the east side of the road.

The early spring morning has draped the mountains in a veil of cloud, casting a curtain across the rugged peaks, one of which bears the name McDonald. But shafts of light break free, warming the frosted yard surrounding a seemingly common log construct, one of many such buildings abandoned in cattle pastures here. Fog swirls around one of the oldest known structures in Montana this morning, rising like ghosts from the ground.

It must have been about fall, in 1847, when fur-trader Angus McDonald and his family traveled north to Fort Flathead (Saleesh House) near present-day Thompson Falls. There they found Neil McArthur in charge of a well-kept Hudson Bay Co. (HBC) post, and at some point, perhaps over a bottle of cognac, the plan to move the outpost emerged.

There had been skirmishes, and perhaps the two men were considering safer circumstances, or, perhaps, they simply sought better trading ground for their native clients. Likely the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai tribes helped to decide the matter, placing the new site roughly 20 miles east in what would one day be called the Mission Valley, a lush vale of glacial moraine and stunning views.

MacArthur set forth quickly, leaving Fort Flathead in the reliable hands of McDonald, and began work right away. The following spring, with snow still in the mountains, McDonald and his family arrived at the partly constructed post and Angus took up his pen. “Here there was begun by MacArthur, and finished by me, the last post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the territories of the United States.” Initially the post was named Connen, after the Scottish River, but local dialects quickly softened the word to Fort Connah.

The HBC post became a central hub of activity in the Mission Valley, providing shot and powder, blankets and beads, food and staples and other commodities then in demand. The Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai gathered there, both socially and to do business. In 1854, Jesuits arrived and established the mission at nearby St Ignatius. When McDonald was recalled to a station at Fort Colville in 1852, the post came under charge Michael Ogden.

In the early 1850’s, under provisions in the Oregon Treaty, the U.S. government began pressuring the British interests maintaining operations in the territory. Still, business continued at Fort Connah, and by 1868 Angus’ son Duncan headed the outfit as clerk. A settlement was reached with the government and an exchange of $50,000 in gold bullion was paid to HBC for Fort Connah. Duncan concluded business by 1870 and the post was closed. This final endeavor brought Fort Connah to where it still stands today, haunting the present with stories from our past.

On this early morning in March, 162 years later, a light skiff of snow warmed by intermittent sun draws forth mists, forming enough familiar shapes that I call out “Hallooo…?” -- mimicking my own ancestral Scots accent -- a feeble attempt to find humor in the unsettling trick of light. Another breeze shifts the air, and vapors rise, spiraling into a startling shape that suggests an ancient tipi.

Quick as thought, the sun melts away the momentary lapse of imagination. But the vision stays in the mind, just as clearly as Angus McDonald’s name lingers on the snow-capped peak shadowing Fort Connah.

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