A National Historic Site, this adobe trading fort was built on the Santa Fe Trail by business partners Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain in 1833-1834. It served as a military outpost for the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846 and was abandoned in 1852.
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
35110 Highway 194 East
La Junta, CO 81050-9523
ph.: (719) 383-5010
fax: (719) 383-5031
Web site: www.nps.gov/beol/
Bent’s Old Fort was a crossroads of the West, located both on the north-south route between Platte River country and Santa Fe and the east-west path up the Arkansas River to the mountains. Its location along the Santa Fe Trail made the site a key trading center, a quasi-diplomatic mission, and later a military outpost for the Mexican War. As a trading establishment, the fort served fur trappers, traders, and caravans of frontiersmen bound for the Southwest; Mexicans who controlled the area south of the Arkansas; and various and often warring Indian tribes. With this mélange of interests, business partners Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain assumed an important diplomatic role, trying to establish and maintain a precarious peace among Indians, Mexicans, and Americans to further the fortunes of the trading post. In its military capacity, the fort served U.S. dragoon expeditions and topographical surveys, and became the advanced guard for the American conquest and settlement of the Southwest.
Bent’s Old Fort was built by the brothers Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain, who were business partners in the Indian and Santa Fe trade. In the 1820’s and early 1830’s, various competing companies with headquarters in St. Louis were staking claims to the profitable fur trade up the Missouri River and in the Rocky Mountain region. The ruinous competition and violent trade wars along the Missouri compelled Charles and William Bent to move southward in search of more lucrative areas. On the borderland of Mexico, they found a vast and as yet unexploited territory for the Indian and Santa Fe trade. American traders for years had tried vainly to market manufactured goods in New Mexico, where foreign trade was prohibited under Spanish rule. With the declaration of Mexican independence in 1821, however, merchants soon established a vibrant trade with New Mexico, reaping handsome profits and drawing new venturers into the market. By 1824, the Santa Fe trade was flourishing, creating a well-worn trading route along the Arkansas River.
Traders traveled by one of two routes to Santa Fe, both of which started at Independence, Missouri, the major outfitting center for trader caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. From Independence, the trail crossed the Kansas plains to the Cimarron Crossing on the Arkansas River, where it forked into southern and mountain routes. Most used the southern route to the Cimarron Cutoff. After 1845, the preferred route for wagons was the mountain branch, which proceeded up the Arkansas River beyond the Purgatory River in Colorado and continued in a southwesterly direction across the mountains at Raton Pass. The mountain branch was longer but safer from Indian attack, and was better watered and pastured as well. The two routes joined near present-day Waltrous, New Mexico, and then ran south and west to Santa Fe. A side route led to Taos. The location on the mountain branch put Bent’s Fort within easy reach of the southern plains Indians and the annual trading expeditions between Santa Fe and St. Louis.
In 1831, the Bent brothers with Ceran St. Vrain formed their mercantile firm, Bent, St. Vrain and Company, which became the largest trading enterprise in the Southwest, with stores in Taos and Santa Fe. Born of a prominent St. Louis family, the Bent brothers grew up in the great commercial center of the western United States. The river ports of St. Louis handled goods from all over the East and sent them toward the headwaters of the Missouri and Mississippi across the West, down to New Orleans, and to Mexico. It was also the outfitting center for government explorers and soldiers, hunters, trappers, naturalists, and traders. Charles, the elder son, became enamored of the expanding fur trade as a young man, joining the Missouri Fur Company in 1822 and becoming a partner in the firm Pilcher and Company in 1824. During this time, William Bent went to work for his brother in the Missouri fur trade. Like the Bent brothers, St. Vrain was also from St. Louis and entered the Missouri fur trade, but he quickly developed a special interest in the New Mexican market, organizing trading caravans and outfitting hunters and trappers in Taos and Santa Fe. The partners met either while growing up in St. Louis or while engaging in the burgeoning Missouri River trade. Experienced in both the Indian and New Mexican trade, the partners were ideally suited to launch their commercial enterprise. Upon the firm’s founding, Charles Bent assumed responsibility for securing credit for the company in St. Louis and procuring and transporting goods to New Mexico, where St. Vrain marketed the merchandise. Not long after the partners arrived in the Arkansas Valley in the late 1820’s, however, other traders and trappers began penetrating the area, posing a threat to the company’s new-found business. To fend off competitors, Charles Bent conceived the idea of building a major trading post comparable to the big forts along the Missouri River.
On a scouting trip, the Bent brothers are said to have discussed the idea of building a trading fort with Yellow Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne of the Hairy Rope Clan, who advised that the fort be built in the Big Timbers, a stretch of cottonwoods twenty-five miles downstream from the mouth of the Purgatory River. Here there were shelter, grass for horses, plenty of firewood, and numerous buffalo, and it was a common camping site for the Cheyenne. In the end, the partners selected a location on the north side of the Arkansas (in American territory), about twelve miles upstream from the Purgatory. In contrast to the Big Timbers, the site was in harsh terrain with few trees or grass, but it was still in buffalo country. It was also located on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail, and that allowed them to transport supplies and goods from the East to Mexican territory. Moreover, it was in border territory claimed by the Cheyenne, prairie Apache, Arapaho, Comanche, Ute, and Kiowa, and at times roamed by nomadic tribes of the Shoshone, Crow, Gros Ventre, and Pawnee. In 1826 the partners built a picket fort at the site, both for protection and as a headquarters from which to plan their operations. Soon afterward, they began building Bent’s Fort.
In Taos, William Bent and St. Vrain hired Mexican laborers to help build the post. William Bent undertook responsibility for supervising construction, which was completed sometime in 1833 or 1834. With the exception of a few second story rooms added to the fort’s southern and western walls in later years, the post’s essential features had been planned from the beginning. The massive adobe fort stood as the most imposing structure for nearly two thousand miles from the Mississippi to the Pacific, with the possible exceptions of the American Fur Company’s Fort Pierre and Fort Union far to the north. Since William Bent supervised the post’s construction, it was named “Fort William,” but it later came to be called Bent’s Fort among most trappers and traders who frequented the station.
When completed, the fort stood as a massive trapezoidal structure formed of adobe, or sun-dried brick. The tunnel-like main entry was secured by iron-sheathed outer gates and was large enough to admit freight wagons. Above the entryway rose a watchtower encompassing a swinging telescope. Defense towers stood at the northern and southeastern corners of the trapezoid, each equipped with field pieces and musketry. In case of attack, this arrangement allowed defenders to fire down along all four walls. The main entrance opened up onto the main plaza, measuring about eighty by one hundred feet, surrounded by trading rooms, living quarters, kitchen, pantry, cook’s quarters, dining hall, wash house, warehouses, blacksmith and carpenter shops, and a council room where Indians and others could assemble for talks. In the center of the plaza was a large fur press for processing buffalo hides. Beyond the plaza stood an extensive corral, its walls only six to eight feet high, but along the coping grew cacti to keep raiders from scaling them. The second story consisted of another row of living quarters, perhaps added as the business and retinue grew, and a billiard room.
By the fall of 1833, the Bents and St. Vrain were ready to start business. Charles Bent returned east to apply for a U.S. government trading license, which was granted on December 18, 1833. The move came at a fortuitous time, coinciding with a precipitous drop in the market for beaver pelts. In 1832, John Jacob Astor, owner of the giant American Fur Company, noticed silk hats on British men and foresaw the end to the lucrative trade in beaver felt. Prices for beaver dropped from $6.00 a pound to $3.50, signaling a dying trade that was soon replaced by a booming market for buffalo robes.
The Bents and St. Vrain had adeptly positioned themselves to exploit the new market. Their license granted them trading rights with Indian tribes far up into Wyoming. Yet, only a year after it had opened for business, Bent’s Fort faced an immediate threat from William Sublette’s and Robert Campbell’s new trading post on Wyoming’s Laramie River, near the junction of the North Platte River. Fort Laramie became more imposing when the American Fur Company assumed ownership in 1836, rebuilt the post a mile upstream, and considerably expanded its trading operations. Concerned over destructive competition, the two firms made a cartel agreement in 1838 that carved up the West into two large trading domains. Bent, St. Vrain and Company guaranteed that it would not encroach on American Fur Company territory above the North Platte River; in return, the American Fur Company ceded the South Platte River to the Bents and St. Vrain. Despite occasional disputes in the beginning, relations between the trading empires soon improved, and they began entering into joint business ventures. The Bents and St. Vrain also fended off smaller rivals seeking a toehold in the profitable Indian trade by establishing in 1837 a branch post, called Fort St. Vrain, on the South Platte. With the cartel agreement and the new trading post, the company expanded its extraordinary trading nexus and ensured its regional ascendancy.
During the winter trading season, expeditions ventured to Indian villages to exchange merchandise for buffalo hides. Traveling in groups of twos or threes, the traders brought an assortment of goods, including blankets, guns and ammunition, colored beads, brass wire, butcher knives, axes, and iron for making arrow heads. Coffee and sugar were used mainly as goodwill gifts. In the summer, the Indians often brought their furs to the fort as well as horses and mules to trade. The trade prospered so that by the early 1840’s, the company’s monopoly extended far up the South Platte. The firm employed over a hundred men from a variety of backgrounds–French, Mexicans, Spanish, Americans, and Indians. Many of those employed at Bent’s Fort were trappers looking for work after the precipitous decline in the beaver trade, including Dick Wooten, Bill Mitchell, Bill New, Old Bill Williams, and Kit Carson. These men were employed intermittently as traders with the Indians and mainly as buffalo hunters helping to supply meat for the fort’s large staff.
Although the Bents and St. Vrain had established trading hegemony over a vast domain, the company’s existence depended upon friendly relations with the Indians. Warfare was bad for business and the company operated with skill and subtlety to maintain a precarious peace among their client tribes. The Bents were the most adroit Indian negotiators in the history of the mountain trade and maintained unusual standards of honesty and equanimity in their dealings with the various tribes. They monopolized business with the southern Cheyenne and nearly did so with the Arapaho as well. The southern Cheyenne were the most important of the neighboring tribes because Bent’s Fort stood amid their hunting grounds. In 1837, William Bent, the partner who dealt most directly with the Indians, cemented his alliance with the Cheyenne by marrying Owl Woman, daughter of Gray Thunder, a powerful tribal shaman.
Aside from their own subtle diplomacy with the Indians, the company offered their fort as a de facto government post for treaty making by the U.S. Army. In 1835, the army arranged a general peace among the tribes near Bent’s Fort to end Indian forays against the Santa Fe Trail. Under Colonel Henry Dodge’s command, an army delegation met with leaders of several tribes, but the truce proved short-lived. Throughout the late 1830’s, the Cheyenne and Comanche waged bitter warfare against one another; in 1840 they finally made peace, three miles below Bent’s Fort. As part of the peace ceremony they exchanged gifts purchased from William Bent. With the end of hostilities, William Bent was able to open up a cautious trade with the Comanche. In April, 1846, the government located the Upper Platte and Arkansas Agency at Bent’s Fort to oversee the tribes along the foothills of the Rockies, a move that signaled the passing of an era of relative tranquility with the Indians. Prior to this point, the government had exercised little interest in the southern plains Indians. The growing government presence and the Mexican War, however, presaged more difficult times ahead for the company’s Indian relations.
Bent’s Fort was soon transformed into an advance military outpost for the U.S. conquest of the Southwest. As the post began launching military mapping and exploring parties, New Mexican officials viewed it as an ominous threat. The successful Texan rebellion against Mexico and the extension of diplomatic recognition of the republic by the United States exacerbated already mounting tensions between the two countries. When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, Mexico viewed it as an act of war, casting Bent’s Fort in the role of a strategic military supply depot and recruiting post. The Mexicans’ fears proved justified; the fort became a major staging point for the invading U.S. Army of the West. In July, 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny and an army of 1,650 dragoons and Missouri volunteers rested and resupplied at Bent’s Fort before marching unopposed into Santa Fe. With the steady flow of soldiers bound for the Mexican War, Bent’s Fort became a crowded depot, its yards filled with army wagon trains, teamsters, cavalry, and mounted infantry.
The Mexican-American War precipitated dramatic changes that ended the company’s trading empire. The massive influx of government soldiers and emigrant wagon trains produced simmering resentment among the Indians, and in 1847 open hostilities erupted. With the frequent traffic along the Santa Fe Trail buffalo herds were slaughtered or driven away from common grazing grounds, and the sparse grasslands and cottonwoods that the Indians needed for fuel, shelter, shade, and bark for winter forage were destroyed. Bent, St. Vrain and Company, which for fifteen years had maintained a fragile peace with the Indians of the southern plains, now found itself caught between the pressures of Indian hostility and relentless U.S. expansionism. The U.S. preoccupation with the Mexican War left trading caravans on the Santa Fe Trail ill-guarded and vulnerable to Indian attack. During the summer of 1847, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Pawnee killed 47 Americans, destroyed 330 wagons, and made off with 6,500 animals.
The Mexican-American War and Indian hostilities all but destroyed the once profitable Indian and Santa Fe trade. Charles Bent, who had been appointed New Mexico’s first territorial governor, was brutally murdered in an uprising in Taos. St. Vrain sold his interest in the firm to William Bent and departed for New Mexico. In 1849, the last vestiges of the once robust Indian trade ended with the outbreak among the Indians of cholera, most likely brought by emigrants. Embittered over his inability to sell the post to the government at a price he deemed fair, and with the business near collapse, William Bent set fire to it in 1852, leaving the fort in ruins.
Following the post’s destruction, William Bent moved his operations thirty-eight miles east to the Big Timbers on the Arkansas River and built a new stone trading fort, known as Bent’s New Fort. In 1860, the U.S. Army agreed to lease the post for sixty-five dollars a month but later refused to honor the agreement on the grounds that Bent held no title to the land. The army eventually built its own post downhill from Bent’s New Fort on the Arkansas. The post was named Fort Wise, after the governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise.
The original post, now known as Bent’s Old Fort, remained unused until 1861, when the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Line operating between Kansas City and Santa Fe used it as a home station. The post served as general headquarters for agents, conductors, and drivers, accommodated overnight passengers, and maintained a general repair shop. When railroads replaced the stagecoach, the remaining buildings were used as cattle corrals by ranchers. The historic post gradually disintegrated until February 26, 1926, when the grounds and remains were turned over to the La Junta Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Under the auspices of the DAR, the effort was begun to preserve and rebuild the fort. In June, 1954, the Colorado State Historical Society assumed responsibility for Bent’s Old Fort and subsequently turned it over to the National Park Service on June 3, 1960. By the summer of 1976, the National Park Service had completed the reconstruction of the historic fort. Today, Bent’s Old Fort resembles the post as it stood during its heyday in the mid-1840’s.
Brown, William E. The Santa Fe Trail. St. Louis: Patrice Press, 1982. A good source of information. Colorado Magazine, Fall, 1977. This issue is entirely devoted to articles on various historical aspects of Bent’s Old Fort. The issue contains five articles, including “Life in an Adobe Castle, 1833-1849” by Enid Thompson; “From Trading Post to Melted Adobe, 1849-1920” by Louisa Ward Arps; “From Ruin to Reconstruction, 1920-1976” by Merrill J. Mattes; and “Furnishing a Frontier Outpost” by Sarah M. Olson. The issue also contains a short section of biographical notes. Comer, Douglas C. Ritual Ground: Bent’s Old Fort, World Formation, and the Annexation of the Southwest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Addresses the history of Bent’s Old Fort and frontier and pioneer life in Colorado. Includes illustrations and maps. DeVoto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. _______. Bent’s Old Fort: The Year of Decision, 1846. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943. These two books contain highly readable accounts of the West. History of the Arkansas Valley, Colorado. Chicago: O. L. Baskin, 1881. An older account of this region. Lavender, David. Bent’s Fort. New York: Doubleday, 1954. While offensive in its treatment of Native Americans, this book is the most comprehensive source on the history of the old trading post as well as the exploits of the Bent brothers, Ceran St. Vrain, and its other inhabitants.