Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado was an isolated fortress in the 1800s | Western Colorado
A question arises as we approach Bent’s Fort, or Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site as it is now known: why here?
Why, in 1833, Charles and William Bent, and their partner Ceran St. Vrain, chose to locate their new trading post in a marshy bend in the Arkansas River, away from the main route of the Santa Fe trade route Trail?
“The valley there is barren,” wrote historian David Lavender. “Wood and grass have never been plentiful.” Why choose this spot when there was more wood and better grass 30 miles downriver?
Whatever their reasoning, the trading post was successful for 16 years. For most of that time, it was the tallest structure between St. Louis and the Pacific Ocean. The partners’ business empire stretched from Mexico to Wyoming, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
Traders, trappers, travelers and Amerindians go there regularly. Seven languages were frequently spoken at the fort – English, French, Spanish, Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux, and Ute.
It was the only permanent supply stop for more than 800 miles along the route from Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe.
The U.S. Army used its supplies on several occasions, most notably in 1846. That year it served as a staging area for General Stephen Watts Kearney’s Army of the West as it prepared to invade the New Mexico, then part of Mexico.
Bent’s Fort was built in 1833 on the north bank of the Arkansas River, about 70 miles southeast of present-day Pueblo. At the time, Arkansas was the border between Mexico and the United States, so the site was an important stop before American traders entered Mexico.
However, it was not the main trade route at first. During the 1820s, most caravans on the Santa Fe Trail took the Cimarron Crossing, turning southwest near present-day Garden City, Kansas.
The mountain branch that reached Bent Fort added 100 miles to the trip. It was harder on the wagons and required a steep climb over Raton Pass between Colorado and New Mexico.
But the Mountain Branch also had more reliable water than the Cimarron Crossing, and there was less chance of Indian attack, especially from the fearsome Comanches.
Additionally, half a dozen Indian tribes frequented the area where the fort was built. Trading with several tribes for buffalo hides became a mainstay of the fort.
Like so many early merchants, the Bent and Saint-Vrain brothers were from Saint-Louis.
Charles entered the fur trade as a teenager, working in the upper Missouri River. Younger brother William joined a few years later. From 1829 they switched to trading on the Santa Fe Trail.
St. Vrain also worked in the Missouri fur trade as a youth, but by the late 1820s he had settled in Taos and traded between Missouri and New Mexico.
Around 1831, Charles Bent and Saint-Vrain became business partners. In 1832 they joined William in planning a trading post on the Santa Fe Trail. They settled at the site along the Arkansas River.
William Bent was to manage the position, while St. Vrain looked after a company store in Taos. Charles obtained goods at St. Louis and led caravans to the fort and then to Taos. But all three have spent considerable time on the trails.
Over 100 experienced workers were recruited from Taos and began work in late 1832 or early 1833 to build the post. The structure was massive. The walls were 14 feet high and about 3 feet thick. It was 137 feet wide by 178 feet long.
A corral of about the same size was adjacent to the fort. But its walls were only about 5 feet high, so cacti were planted along the top to deter intruders – animal or human.
At the northeast and southwest corners of the main structure, lookout posts have been added, each with its own small cannon. A watchtower with a large bell was built above the main entrance to the fort.
Inside the structure, rooms were built around the central plaza – sleeping quarters for trappers and workers, and larger quarters for partners and guests. There was a large dining room and kitchen, a doctor’s office, a blacksmith shop and a carpentry workshop. There was a warehouse for furs, ammunition and trade goods.
Many visitors did business inside the fort walls, but spent their nights outside – Native Americans, including the Cheyenne friends of William Bent, Mexican traders, mule skinners, horse cart drivers, oxen and trappers not employed by Bent, St. Vrain and Co.
Dances, or fandangos, were frequent at Bent’s Fort, open to all. A slave girl named Charlotte Green, whom Charles had brought from St. Louis, was considered the best dancer. She also served as a cook, while her husband, Dick, did various tasks for the Bents.
Storytelling, horse racing and other forms of play were regular activities. Large dinners were held on special occasions, with fruits and vegetables that had been transported. Gardens were attempted outside the fort walls, but fell victim to stray cattle.
Bent’s Fort suffered few attacks. On several occasions, horses and mules left outside during the day were stolen by raiders, and once a Mexican shepherd was killed by Comanches.
Robert Bent, younger brother of Charles and William, was killed by Comanches while hunting buffalo near the river.
Disease was another threat. A smallpox epidemic during the construction of the fort took the lives of many people. Bent’s Fort was abandoned partly because of the cholera epidemic of 1849, and William Bent burned all but the adobe walls to prevent its spread.
Charles Bent was already dead by then, killed by angry New Mexicans in Santa Fe in 1847 after being appointed by General Kearney governor of the newly acquired American territory.
Ceran St. Vrain and William Bent dissolved their partnership in 1849. In 1853 William built Bent’s new fort 40 miles down the Arkansas from the old fort. He leased it to the army in 1860. William died in 1869 on his ranch near the old fort.
The old abandoned fort slowly disintegrated and few people paid attention to it until 1912, when the La Junta chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a marker at the site and then acquired the land from a local breeder.
The site was transferred to the Colorado State Historical Society in 1954. In 1960 it was named a National Historic Site and taken over by the National Park Service.
Reconstruction of Old Bent Fort began in 1975, using the dimensions recorded by Lieutenant James Abert during his visit in 1846 and sketches by other visitors. Reproduction opened in 1976.
Sources: “Bent’s Old Fort”, by David Lavender; “Bent Fort, Crossroads of Cultures on the Santa Fe Trail,” by Melvin Bacon and Daniel Blegen; “When was Bent’s Fort Built,” by LeRoy Hafen, The Colorado Magazine, April 1954; “Branches of the Santa Fe Trail”, by Kathy Weiser, Legends of America, legendsofamerica.com; “Old Fort of Bent National Historic Site”, nps.gov/beol/index.htm.