Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
Bent's Old Fort, on the north bank of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, was one of the most significant outposts on the Santa Fe Trail and as the principal outpost of American civilization on the southwestern Plains was instrumental in shaping national destiny there. In the heart of Indian country and buffalo hunting grounds and at the crossroads of key overland routes, it was a fur trading center and rendezvous for traders and Indians; a way station and supply center for emigrants and caravans; and the chief point of contact and cultural transmission between whites and Indians of the southern Plains. In the 1840's, when traffic on the Santa Fe Trail was at its height, Bent's Old Fort, on the Mountain Branch, resembled a great Oriental caravansary and an Occidental mercantile house. In its later years it was a military staging base for the U.S. conquest of New Mexico.
Among the earliest western fur traders were the brothers William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain, all of whom in the 1820's began to engage in the Mexican and Indian trade. In 1831 or 1832 Charles Bent and St. Vrain formed a partnership, which in time became Bent, St. Vrain, and Co., and entered the Santa Fe trade. In the late 1820's or early 1830's William Bent, who had apparently been trading independently, erected a large adobe fort on the north bank of the Arkansas River, 12 miles west of the mouth of the Purgatoire. At first named Fort William, it was also known as Bent's Fort and finally as Bent's Old Fort. Elaborately constructed, it was eventually a massive adobe structure of quadrangular shape having 24 rooms lining the walls, supported by poles. Two 30-foot cylindrical bastions, equipped with cannon, flanked the southwest and northeast corners. The walls were 15 feet high and 2 feet thick and extended 4 feet above the building roofs to serve as a banquette and were pierced with loopholes. On the south side was a cattleyard, enclosed by a high wall. A self-sufficient institution, the fort was operated by about 60 persons of many nationalities and vocations, including blacksmiths, trappers and traders, carpenters, mechanics, wheelwrights, gunsmiths, cooks, cattle herders, hunters, clerks, teamsters, and laborers.
The fort was the headquarters of Bent, St. Vrain, and Co. and the great crossroads station of the Southwest, for it was located at the junction of the north-south route between the Platte River and Santa Fe and the east-west route up the Arkansas River to the mountains. Mountain men stopped by to exchange their beaver skins, obtain supplies and traps, and visit with one another. Traders forwarded their fur shipments and obtained goods. For 16 years Bent, St. Vrain, and Co. managed a highly profitable trading empire stretching from Texas to Wyoming and from the Rockies to Kansas, as well as participating in the Santa Fe trade.
In 1835 William Bent, who acted as resident manager at the fort, married the daughter of a prominent Southern Cheyenne and became especially influential with that tribe. Besides encouraging intertribal peace, he required his employees to trade fairly with the Indians and restricted the use of whisky in trade. His influence helped the Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes remain friendly to the United States until well after the War with Mexico. Because of its reputation as a neutral area in Indian country, the post was a natural meetingplace for southern Plains tribes and U.S. officials, as well as for intertribal councils.
In 1835 Col. Henry Dodge met at the fort with the chiefs of several tribes to discuss depredations on the Santa Fe Trail. Five years later, at a major peace council held 3 miles to the east, William Bent served as mediator among several tribes, including the Cheyennes and Comanches, who made a peace pact. Taking advantage of the fort's location and Bent's singular influence, the Government in 1846 designated it as the Upper Platte and Arkansas Indian Agency. The agent was Tom Fitzpatrick. His activities among the Indians inhabiting a huge area, running eastward from the Rockies and from the Arkansas River on the south to the Missouri River on the north, helped bring about treaties at Forts Laramie (1851) and Atkinson (1853) that temporarily brought a degree of peace to the Plains.
Powerful as the Bents and St. Vrain were, as the War with Mexico (1846-48) approached, events beyond their control were destined to destroy the company and the trade. In 1846 the U.S. Army decided to use their post as a staging base for the conquest of New Mexico. That summer Gen. Stephen W. Kearny and his Army of the West, consisting of about 1,650 dragoons and Missouri Volunteers-from Fort Leavenworth, Kans., followed by some 300 to 400 wagons of Santa Fe traders, rested at the fort before proceeding to occupy New Mexico.
When Kearny departed, Government wagon trains congregated in ever-increasing numbers. Horses and mules overgrazed nearby pastures. Quartermaster stores piled up at the fort, and soldiers, teamsters, and artisans in Government employ occupied the rooms. Not only did the Government fail to compensate the company adequately, but trade also suffered because the Indians were reluctant to come near when so many whites were present. Following the soldiers into New Mexico were scores of settlers, gold seekers, and other adventurers who slaughtered the buffalo, fouled the watering places, destroyed scarce forage, and used up precious wood. The company was caught between the millstones of resentful Indians and invading whites.
Several other factors accelerated the company's demise. In 1847 Charles Bent, who the year before had been appointed the first Governor of New Mexico Territory, was assassinated by Taos Indians during a revolt. The following year St. Vrain sold his interest in the company to William Bent. The final blow was a cholera epidemic, which in 1849 spread from emigrant wagons and decimated the Plains tribes. That same year the disillusioned William Bent abandoned the fort, moved 38 miles down the Arkansas, and founded Bent's New Fort in an ill-fated attempt to restore his trading business.
Bent may have partially blown up and burned Bent's Old Fort at the time he departed. By 1861, at the end of more than a decade of disuse, the fort's rehabilitated walls sheltered a stage station on the Barlow and Sanderson route between Kansas City and Santa Fe. When the railroads replaced stagecoaches, the buildings served as cattle corrals and gradually collapsed and disintegrated. Yet as late as 1915 parts of the old walls were still standing.
Early in the 1950's the State Historical Society of Colorado acquired Bent's Old Fort from the Colorado chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The society arranged with Trinidad (Colo.) State Junior College to perform the initial archeological investigation and determine the fort's general outlines. The society then erected a low wall, about 3 to 4 feet high, delineating them. After the National Park Service activated Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in 1963, it tore down the wall and completed comprehensive archeological excavations. Plans are being made to reconstruct the fort. Exhibits at the site interpret its significance.
NHL Designation: 12/19/60
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005