William Bent

Quick Facts
Important figure on the Santa Fe Trail
Place of Birth:
St. Louis
Date of Birth:
Date of Death:

William Bent (b. 1809), born into a prominent St. Louis family, left school when he was fifteen to join his brother Charles (b. 1799) in the fur trade. William soon developed a strong relationship with the Cheyenne, who advised him to build a fort along the Arkansas River and the Santa Fe Trail in what is now southeastern Colorado. Completed in 1833, Bent's Fort became a melting pot of different cultures and languages brought together by the prospect of trade. William eventually married Owl Woman, the daughter of a well-known Cheyenne medicine man. 

Bent consistently tried to mediate between Native nations and the federal government, even serving as Indian agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Many European Americans, however, still viewed Native Americans as obstacles to westward expansion. The discovery of gold in the southern Rocky Mountains in 1858 brought these tensions to a boiling point. In November of 1864, Col. John Chivington led some 700 members of the Colorado Territory's militia (including William's son Robert) in a massacre of over 150 Cheyenne that were seeking peace with white authorities. William's other children--George, Julie, and Charles--were camped with the Cheyenne, but they escaped unharmed.

William Bent spent his life at the intersection of American, French, Mexican, and Native American cultures. When he died in 1869, he bequeathed some land along the Arkansas River to his children, specifying that it should be granted to mixed-race settlers. Despite his many accomplishments, his life made little sense to Americans living outside the borderlands; in fact, a popular book on St. Louis written after his death listed William and his brothers Charles, George, and Robert as "unmarried"--despite (or because of) the fact that all had married Mexican or Native American women. 

Adapted from Anne Hyde, Empires, Nations, & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (New York: Ecco, 2012)

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Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Last updated: March 7, 2023