Fort Benton: A Small Town with a Famous Name

Fort Benton: A Small Town with a Famous Name

"Fort Benton, Montana, is right to take pride in the man for whom it is named."

Fort Benton (population about 1,500), the seat of Chouteau County, is known as “the birthplace of Montana” for a good reason. Established in 1846, it is the oldest, continuously inhabited community in the state. Because it sits at the very start of the Missouri River’s navigable waters, it was once known as “the world’s innermost port.”

At least two other factoids make Fort Benton an interesting place. One is an animal; the other is the town’s namesake.

If you’re a dog lover and you visit Fort Benton, don’t miss the bronze sculpture of “Shep.” Below his name are the words “Forever Faithful.” When his master passed away in 1936, Shep followed his casket to the train station. For the next five and a half years, he greeted every arriving train. The locals who cared for him believed the lovable canine was hoping his master would come back. 

If you’re a history buff, you might know that the town is named for a famous United States Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton. Why is a Montana town identified so closely with a politician who, so far as we know, never set foot in the Territory of Montana and who died three decades before statehood?

Benton was a remarkable fellow. Born in North Carolina in 1782, he served as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Later, he moved to Missouri and became the first person to be elected to the Senate five times, serving there for 30 years. 

Here’s one for Ripley’s Believe It or Not: In 1813, Benton and Jackson endured a brief falling-out in spectacular fashion. During a tavern brawl in Nashville, Benton shot Jackson in the shoulder. The two did not speak to each other for a decade, until newly elected Tennessee Senator Jackson took his seat next to the freshman Missouri Senator Benton. They reconciled and became the closest of friends and political allies for the rest of their lives.

When Fort Benton’s founder, Alexander Culbertson, gave the town its name on Christmas Day 1850, he intended to honor the Missouri senator who championed the settlement of the American West. Benton had authored the first Homestead Act which granted land to settlers who would farm it. More than any other member of Congress, he was a tireless advocate of America’s “manifest destiny.”

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Daily Tribune, famously wrote in 1865, 

“Washington [D.C.] is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting, and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West, and grow up with the country.”

Thomas Hart Benton said as much, many times, long before Greeley stated it so memorably.

The Missouri senator’s nickname, “Old Bullion,” derived from his uncompromising stance in favor of hard money—gold and silver. He didn’t care for paper money even if it was just a receipt for the real thing. The U.S. Treasury printed a 100-Dollar Gold Note in 1922 and put Benton’s portrait on it, though the man had died 64 years earlier and might not have appreciated his picture on a piece of paper, even it was redeemable in gold.

Benton was half-way through his 30-year Senate tenure when President Jackson killed the federal government’s bank at the time, the Second Bank of the United States. Benton supported the move, believing as Jackson did that government had no business in banking. They thought it favored moneyed interests and would exert inflationary pressure on the economy.

They were as right then as would be any critic with the same views today. Benton and Jackson would be horrified at today’s Federal Reserve, which has victimized the country with almost non-stop monetary mischief since its birth in 1913. (For instance, we now know that it caused the Great Depression by artificially lowering interest rates in the 1920s and then jacking them up from 1929 to 1932.)

In the 1840s, as Missouri gravitated towards the South in its political sympathies, Benton’s once sky-high popularity in the state waned. He was out-of-step, though proudly so, with the increasingly pro-slavery, pro-secession sentiments of his state and his party, the Democrats. In 1850, a senator from Mississippi pulled a gun on him but was wrestled to the ground before he could shoot Benton.

John F. Kennedy included a chapter on Thomas Hart Benton in his 1956 book, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy regarded the Missourian as a man of integrity and noted, among other examples, that Benton had once admonished a lobbyist seeking a ship subsidy that he wouldn’t support it unless “when the vessels are finished they will be used to take such damned rascals as you out of the country.”

Fort Benton, Montana, is right to take pride in the man for whom it is named.


Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at

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