At A Glance
Location: Fort Belle Fontaine County Park
Hours: Daily 7 AM – 8 PM
Fort Belle Fontaine is a former United States military base that’s located in St. Louis County, just across the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from Alton, IL. The fort was the first major United States military post established in the Louisiana Territory and served as the starting point for many western American expeditions.
Before Fort Belle Fontaine was used by Americans, it was a Spanish military post. However, after the Louisiana Purchase, a treaty was made between the U.S. Government and the Native American Fox and Sac tribes in 1804, allowing the fort to be used as a fur trading post by the U.S. government.
The fur trading post was only used from 1804 until 1808 when it was discontinued and repurposed into a military fort for the U.S. It served as the main office of the Department of Louisiana and was the regional headquarters for the Army during the War of 1812. There were two other sister forts that controlled trade with western Indians and the Upper Mississippi, respectively, and those were Fort Osage near modern-day Kansas City and Fort Madison which is in Iowa.
Old Fort Belle Fontaine Cemetery was founded in 1809 after the original encampment for the fort was moved to a new location. The cemetery was located about 100 yards or more from the Cantonment buildings, which from 1805 to 1826 was home to up to 40 military officers and 100 enlisted soldiers.
The cemetery’s location was confirmed to be on the bluffs to the south bank of the Missouri River, around 100 yards from the abandoned blockhouse in 1911. By this time, the old cemetery was strewn with mortar and rocks, which was debris from the old tombs. Since the tombs were constructed out of masonry, just two feet from the ground, most inscriptions were illegible and the tombs were basically in ruins.
Eventually, some of these tombs were relocated to the newly opened Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery and laid to rest with 33 new headstones. Hence, several unmarked burials still remain at the old Fort Belle Fontaine Cemetery.
Also, we should note that the old cemetery is not related to the 1849 Bellefontaine Cemetery located on the road leading away from the fort. Today, a portion of the fort is preserved within the Fort Belle Fontaine County Park, and an archeological site associated with Fort Belle Fontaine was listed in 2016 on the National Register of Historic Places.
What to Expect at Fort Belle Fontaine
Today, Fort Belle Fontaine State Park comprises 305.6 acres in north St. Louis County roughly three miles from where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet. The park is split into four main areas: Belle Fontaine Spring, the Missouri River, Coldwater Creek, and a 50-acre plot of wetlands and upland prairie.
Visiting the park you’ll get a good look at what Missouri looked like during the time of Lewis and Clark, from 1804 to 1806. This is an excellent spot to enjoy a picnic, just marvel at the history of what’s left of the fort, or take a hike on one of their beautiful trails.
Today, there’s not much going on at the fort. The remains are now part of the Belle Fontaine State Park, where you can hike or enjoy the scenery.
Belle Fontaine is not a person. It’s a name that’s been given to several places around the world, and is a French phrase for “Beautiful Fountain.”
The first U.S. fort established west of the Mississippi River was Cantonment Belle Fontaine. Established in 1804, it was located on the banks of the Missouri River in north St. Louis County.