Bending History at Bent's Old Fort

Ever wondered what life was like for frontier-era fur traders? Visit the living history museum at Bent's Old Fort and experience it for yourself



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PRESIDING OVER the operation was William Bent, who first came to Colorado as a teenager on trapping expeditions with his brothers. William was just 24 when he and his partners established Bent’s Fort, also known as Fort William, with older brother Charles and St. Vrain.

St. Vrain already had many connections with traders in Taos, New Mexico, and Charles, too, established close trading ties with Mexican allies in Taos.

William quickly earned a reputation as an honest broker among the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The relationship became so friendly that just a few years after the fort’s construction, William married Owl Woman, daughter of a prominent Cheyenne leader. The couple moved easily between the white and Indian worlds – when Owl Woman stayed with him in the fort, William covered the floor of his room with buffalo robes and put blankets on the walls; when he stayed in her village (where the hardy if diminutive William was dubbed “Little White Man”), he kept a writing desk in the buffalo-hide lodge.

A spirit of cooperation permeated the culture of the fort. William was instrumental in negotiating a peace between the Cheyenne and Arapahoe on one side and the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa on the other.

“Bent’s Fort was the one spot on the Santa Fe Trail where exchanges with Indians were welcomed and encouraged, and the effects of those conversations on both sides were far-reaching,” writes historian Anne Hyde in Empires, Nations and Families: A History of the North American West.

Buffalo robes were the lifeblood of the fort. The hides with thick winter fur were in demand across America and Europe, where they served as carriage blankets and bedding. Indians would trade buffalo robes for about 25 cents worth of goods like food, beads and gunpowder.

Bent, St. Vrain & Co. compressed the robes into bundles of eight to 10, loaded them onto wagons on the Santa Fe Trail bound for Independence, Mo., then had them shipped to St. Louis, where they would fetch $3 to $6 each.

The number of buffalo robes sent east from Bent’s Fort was mind-boggling – as many as 15,000 a year. The buffalo trade at the fort signaled a change in the way of life of the tribes in the area.

“It changed the buffalo from being something they lived off of into currency, the way they buy other things,” Wallner said. This change caused a jump in the killing of buffalo and a dwindling of the herds. In modern parlance, it was not sustainable.

Bent’s Fort entered its last phase in 1846, when Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny used it as a staging area for the U.S. Army of the West’s invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Among the 1,700 soldiers was topographical engineer Lt. James Abert. He became seriously ill during the march from Kansas and spent weeks recuperating at the fort, and it is thanks to the detailed sketches and diagrams he made then that we have a very good idea what the place looked like.

Kearny appointed Charles Bent as the first American territorial governor in freshly conquered New Mexico, but that distinction would prove short-lived. Local Pueblo Indians rebelled against American rule. A group of rebels surrounded the adobe house where Charles was staying, shooting him in the chin and stomach, then filling him with arrows.

He was scalped alive, then killed, his mutilated body dragged through the streets. The attackers spared his wife and other women, who had attempted to escape the siege by digging an egress through the adobe walls with an iron spoon.

With his brother dead and St. Vrain wanting out of the enterprise, the beaver trade all but over and the buffalo becoming scarcer, the final straw for William was a cholera epidemic that decimated the tribes in the area and left the fort deserted.

The abandoned post burned down in mysterious circumstances; some accounts have William himself lighting his fort’s black powder stores to keep the Army from using it. A few years, later he built Bent’s New Fort on the Arkansas River some 40 miles downstream, though it never had the same level of importance as the old one.

What was left of Bent’s Old Fort fell into ruin. When it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, all that was left were the foundations. But the fort rose from the ashes in 1976, when it was rebuilt to the precise specifications found in Lt. Abert’s and other contemporary accounts. Just as in 1833, laborers were brought in from Taos to make the tens of thousands of sun-baked adobe bricks that were needed.

Every room in the fort is full of faithfully reproduced period items. There’s the room where Lt. Abert was nursed back to health, his hat and coat hanging as if he’ll shortly return; a fully functional blacksmith’s and carpenter’s workshops; and storerooms brimming with trade goods. Visitors are free to walk just about anywhere.

 

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