Bending History at Bent's Old FortSubscribe Now!
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
(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
IMAGINE A ROAD MAP of Colorado. A little north of center of our beloved rectangle is Denver, with major highways radiating like spokes from a hub. Bigger cities hug the foothills of the Front Range up and down I-25: Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Pueblo. Follow I-70 west and you’ll hit Grand Junction, and there’s a town in nearly every mountain valley. Take the highways across the eastern Plains and you’ll find town names emblazoned on the water towers serving a host of farming communities.
Can you picture it?
Good. Now erase it all.
That’s what a map of Colorado’s cities looked like in the early 1800s – blank, except for Bent’s Old Fort, an adobe castle on the Plains next to the Arkansas River near modern-day La Junta in southeast Colorado. The fur-trading post along the Santa Fe Trail was the only building for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Native people had lived in Colorado centuries before the first Europeans set foot here. Nomadic tribes like the Utes in the mountains and Cheyenne on the plains had long made this their home as they followed the game herds. With its opening in 1833, Bent’s Fort became one of the first signs of the Anglo-American expansion that transformed this region.
While the world around it has changed, the reconstructed fort today looks exactly as it did in 1846. Standing in the wide courtyard behind high adobe ramparts, it’s easy to forget what century you’re in, marvels Alexa Roberts, National Park Service superintendent of Bent’s Fort.
“Unless you hear a train, you wouldn’t know you’re in 2012 right now,” she said. “You experience the sights, the smells, the sounds of the day.”
Rebuilt in 1976 on the foundations of the original structure, the fort is a formidable presence, boasting walls 14 feet tall and 30 inches thick with two rounded bastions on the corners resembling the turrets of a medieval fortress.
Though fortified, its purpose wasn’t military; the fort was part of a commercial enterprise called Bent, St. Vrain & Co. Its founders, the Bent brothers, Charles and William, and partner Ceran St. Vrain came from Missouri to make money buying beaver pelts and especially buffalo robes to sell in the east, and by selling manufactured goods to the diverse mix of customers on the Plains.
It may seem odd that Colorado’s first business started in what might seem to be the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, it was in the middle of everywhere.
“Bent’s Fort was an incredibly important economic and political center,” said the National Park Service’s Bill Gwaltney, an expert on the fur trade. Bent’s Fort was Colorado’s power center long before the rise of Denver and the Front Range.
The outpost was a key stop on the Santa Fe Trail, the commercial link between Missouri and Santa Fe, the capital of the Mexican province of New Mexico. The Arkansas River, just a few hundred yards to the fort’s south, was until 1848 the international border between Mexico and the United States.
From here, you can just make out peaks of the Rocky Mountains on the western horizon, where French-Canadian and American mountain men trapped beaver. In Europe, beaver fur hats became wildly popular in the first decades of the 1800s, which fueled this early Colorado commerce. To the east of Bent’s, Plains Indians hunted the vast roaming bison herds.
Everyone came to Bent’s Fort, which became the base of operations for the company’s expansive trading empire. There were 40 to 60 employees on average, plus travelers and customers of all descriptions. It was a towering Babel of tongues, with seven or eight languages spoken daily: Spanish (the most common), English, French, Cheyenne and Arapaho, among others.
In a time when most Americans used products from no farther than 30 miles from where they were born, Bent’s Fort was the modern version of international trade. There were glass beads from Venice, blankets from England, guns from Belgium, trade silver from Germany, ginger and tea from China, sugar from Havana. The fort even boasted a full-size billiard table and a bar, as well as a well-appointed kitchen and dining room. There were wild parties called fandangos where people from all backgrounds danced together.
From Missouri, it would take travelers 50 or 60 days to get to Bent’s Fort. So after a long and weary journey, to finally arrive was a “big deal,” said Rick Wallner, the park service’s chief of interpretation at the fort.