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. 

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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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IT'S NOT JUST the physical fort that has been resurrected – the spirit lives on through its people. Enter the fort today, and you’ll likely be greeted by a man in fringed buckskin breeches and a coat fashioned from an old Hudson’s Bay blanket. That’s John Carson, a park service staff member whose 9-to-5 job is to work in the fort just as its employees did 175 years ago. It’s a living history park, where the staff answers questions without breaking character.

Carson acts the role of a Bent, St. Vrain & Co. hunter. It’s a part he was born to play. Carson is the great-grandson of legendary frontiersman Kit Carson, a frequent visitor to Bent’s Fort who was employed there as a hunter in 1841. John Carson has kept alive the expertise in trapping and hunting, and inquisitive guests can spend an afternoon mining his knowledge.

There’s also Greg Holt, who has reenacted the role of craftsman at the fort for 25 years. He is a master of 19th century blacksmithing and woodworking who built many of the reproductions seen in the fort. The torch of antiquated trade skills is kept burning much as it is at Colonial Williamsburg, a more famous living history destination in Virginia.

Besides the staff, there is a dedicated cadre of 100 or so volunteers who populate the fort as traders, trappers, soldiers and Indians for special events like the annual Christmas celebration or the Fur Trade Encampment. Children can learn to make adobe and other old-time skills in the Kids’ Quarters program, and adults interested in learning more advanced crafts – blacksmithing, for instance – can go to the Living History Encampment.

“Our mission is to bring the fort to life and to provoke listeners into wanting to learn more,” Holt said. “It’s to tell the story of a forgotten past.”

Bent’s Old Fort operated in a gray area of history.

“You can go to sites and see the War of 1812, you can go to sites and see a lot about the Civil War, but we’re right in between,” he said.

Carson continued that thought.

“If you look most college textbooks, you might get a paragraph on the fur trade, a couple sentences on the Santa Fe Trail,” Carson said. “With us being at the fort, people can be introduced to this place, this era, this area in the development of the country.”

One of his favorite parts of the job is when he can “hook somebody” with a living history demonstration.

“They’re going to come back, but when they do, they’re not just going to be in tourist mode,” he said. “They’re actually going to get down and dirty with the rest of us, doing the skills and so forth.”

About 25,000 people visit Bent’s Old Fort every year, including day-trippers from Denver, busloads of area school kids and people who happen to be traveling on nearby U.S. Route 50. But the place deserves attendance an order of magnitude greater.

The fort used to be a center of life in Colorado. These days, the nearest center of activity is La Junta, population 7,000. It is treasured by the people who live there, but it’s off the radar screen of many Coloradans who live in big cities more than 100 miles away. If it were in the Denver metro area, you can be sure it would be a “must-go” destination for anyone looking to get the genuine Colorado experience.

But Bent’s Old Fort is a must-go. It’s not that far. In Holt’s quarter century at the place, he has seldom, if ever, heard anyone say it wasn’t worth the visit. 

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