Fort Belle Fontaine was built in 1805 on the
south bank of the Missouri River near its confluence with the
Mississippi River. The fort was the first U.S. military outpost west
of the Mississippi River in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory
and served as a starting point for many
expeditions to the American West. Fort Bellefontaine Park offers
sweeping views of the Missouri River and overlooks the location of
the site of Lewis and Clark's first campsite after they left Camp
River Dubois in 1804 and the site of the fort where they spent their last night on their return trip in
The original sites of the Corps campsite and the first Fort Belle
Fontaine have been destroyed by shifts in the Missouri
River channel. The grounds below the bluff became a popular summer retreat
during the late 1930s. In 1936 the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) built a grand limestone staircase down from the bluff and a number of
other structures. In 1986 the County acquired most of the property
and turned it into a park. Interpretive markers along a hiking trail
designate points of interest and help visitors learn about the
important role the Fort played in American history.
The fort was originally called Cantonment Belle Fontaine and was
located at the mouth of
Coldwater Creek, then called La Petite Riviere or St. Ferdinand
River. The site was selected by General James Wilkinson, first governor and
military commander of the Louisiana Territory. Buildings were
erected by three companies of the First Infantry under the
supervision of Lt. Colonel Jacob Kingsbury. The Fort took its
name from a nearby spring
named "Belle Fontaine" which means "beautiful fountain" in French.
Besides being a military outpost, the fort served as an "Indian
Factory" or trading post for the local Sac, Fox, and other Native
American tribes of the region. The “Factory
System” was established under provisions of the
Trade and Intercourse Act
that was passed by Congress in 1791.
This act was one of four Trade and Intercourse Acts that Congress
legislated between 1790 and 1799 to regulate relations with Native
Americans. It was believed if trade goods were provided at a fair
price the Native Americans would stay close to the factory posts and
eventually assimilate into the European culture. In 1808, the
factory at Fort Belle Fontaine was closed and its mission was
relegated to Fort Osage near present day
Kansas City and Fort Madison in Iowa.
Lewis and Clark Connection
September 22, 1806 - John Ordway
"towards evening we arived at Bell fountain a Fort or cantonement
on South Side which was built since we ascended the Missouri & a
we moovd. a short distance below and Camped, the
Company of Artillery who lay at this fort fired 17 Rounds with the
the most of our party was Quartered in the Canonment."
the first night after leaving Camp River Dubois on May 14, 1804 the Corps of
Discovery camped on an island near the site of the future Fort Belle
Fontaine. On September
22, 1806 the Corps spent their last night of their journey at Fort
Belle Fontaine before they completed the Voyage of Discovery with their
arrival in St. Louis the next day. In addition to
resting and celebrating their return to civilization the members of the
expedition shopped at the post store. Clothes were purchased for Chief Sheheke (Big White) of the Mandans for his trip to visit President Jefferson
|Visit our special Lewis
and Clark Section to learn more about the Corps of Discovery’s
experience during their stay in the Middle Mississippi River Valley. greatriverroad.com’s
special coverage includes information on all of the region’s sites and
events as well as supplemental articles relating to the expedition’s
experience during the winter of 1803-04.
In 1809, command was given to Daniel Bissell, a Revolutionary War
participant from Connecticut. Bissell found Fort Belle Fontaine’s buildings
in disrepair and the garrison in ill health. He also recognized the
strategic danger of the site being located at the bottom of a high bluff. In
1810 he received permission to relocate the post to higher ground. The new
fort was completed in 1811 and consisted of 30 buildings of hewn logs with
stone foundations. Blockhouses and palisades set the fort off in a rectangle
atop the Missouri River bluffs. Today, the original fort site would be
located in the middle of the river. Bissell's house, which
was built after his service in the War of 1812 features many Bissell
family items. The General Daniel Bissell House is a couple of miles south of
Fort Belle Fontaine on Bellefontaine Road.
The Fort's location near the confluence of the Missouri
and Mississippi Rivers made it a launching point for a number of discovery
expeditions to the American West. U.S. Army officer Zebulon Pike’s
explorations of the upper Mississippi in 1805 and of the Spanish
southwest in 1806 began at Fort Belle Fontaine. Stephen Long's 1818 scientific
expedition and Colonel Henry Atkinson's Yellowstone Expedition in 1819 also
left from Fort Belle Fontaine. The fort also became a command and
supply center for a number of new frontier posts including Forts Snelling,
Atkinson, Crawford, Armstrong, Smith, and Clark that helped pioneers settle
the western territories. Fort Belle Fontaine
also played a role in the War of 1812
against the British. In 1814 an invasion force that assembled at the fort
and led by Gov. William Clark temporarily occupied Prairie du Chien (present day Wisconsin) and
erected Ft. Shelby. In 1815
soldiers from Fort Belle Fontaine helped provide security for the Indian
council at Portage Des Sioux where representatives of many Midwest tribes took
part in peace negotiations with an American contingent led by territory Governor William Clark.
When Meriwether Lewis was Governor of Louisiana Territory he would make frequent trips from St. Louis over the Bellefontaine Road to
socialize with old Army friends at the fort. By 1825, the Fort's wooden
buildings were crumbling, and it was decided to abandon Fort Belle Fontaine.
In 1826, the troops stationed at Fort Bellefontaine were relocated to
Jefferson Barracks, the new military post south of St. Louis. A contingent
of soldiers remained at the fort to protect the aging arsenal facility. Fort
Belle Fontaine continued to supply munitions for the troops at Jefferson
Barracks until a new arsenal in St. Louis was completed in 1828 after
which Fort Belle Fontaine was permanently abandoned.
In 1913 part of the Fort site became "Bellefontaine
Farms," later known as the Missouri Hills Home for Boys, a detention home
and training school for boys operated by the city of St. Louis. The facility
is now a residence for boys and girls under the care of the Missouri
Division of Youth Services and still occupies part of the Fort Belle Fontaine
site. Visitors must cross through the Missouri Hills Home grounds to access
the park. During the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) constructed a number of limestone structures to enhance the Missouri
Hills Home estate and attract visitors to the picturesque landscape. The
centerpiece is the “Grand Staircase,” a series of limestone stairs set into
5 tiers that is still intact and usable. Other structures include “Comfort
Stations” and picnic facilities along the riverbank. These improvements
helped make the area a popular summer retreat during the late 1930s.
During the late 1980's, land developers became interested in the land overlooking
the river. To prevent the site from becoming a subdivision the Fort Belle Fontaine Historical Society convinced St.
Louis County to purchase the land and preserve it so future generations
would know the Fort Belle Fontaine story. In 1986, the County acquired
most of the property and turned it into a park. The park features picnic
facilities and a hiking trail with interpretive markers that designate
points of interest about the important role the Fort played in American
history. Fort Belle Fontaine is the site of several annual events
including the Fort Belle Fontaine Historic Encampment and Black Powder
Shoot in September.
Visiting Fort Belle
to one half hour past official sunset
There is no charge to visit to visit Fort Belle
Fort Bellefontaine Park is
located along the Missouri River in north St. Louis County.
I-270 take the Bellefontaine Road exit (second exit in Missouri after
crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge from Illinois. Take Bellefontaine Road
north until it ends at the guard gate at the Missouri Hills Home where
visitors must sign in before proceeding to the park.
Learn more about the
St. Louis area.
- Use the official site of Fort Belle Fontaine Park.