Relive the days when trappers, soldiers, and explorers stayed at this bastion in southeast Colorado.
By Knolan Benfield
Approximately two months after westward-bound travelers left Independence, Missouri, on the Santa Fe Trail, Bent’s Old Fort would come into view from across the prairie. It was a welcome sight. For a while these weary explorers could relax, repair their wagons, and replenish their supplies.
The large adobe fort, a fur trading post on the Colorado prairie, played a central role in the opening of the West. It was built in 1833 by trader William Bent; his younger brother, Charles; and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain.
Matthew C. Field, writing for the New Orleans Picayune, arrived at Bent’s Old Fort in 1840. He was impressed. He wrote, “(The fort) is constructed with all the defensive capacities of a complete fortification . . . The arrangements for comfort are all such as to strike the wanderer with the liveliest surprise, as though an ‘air-built castle’ had dropped to earth before him in the midst of the vast desert.” The fort’s walls were 2 feet thick and 15 feet high. Two larger tower-like structures were outfitted with cannons.
Step through the gate and into the world of 1840s fur traders. A fur press, used to compact beaver pelts and buffalo hides into 100-pound bundles, dominates the plaza. Hitching rails frame the shaded interior of the covered walks surrounding the bright, sunlit plaza.
Warring Indians met for peace talks in the fort’s Council Room. Many Plains Indian tribes trusted the Bent brothers and few others.
Today the fort trader “” actually an interpreter with the National Park Service’s living history program “” will guide you back to a time of trading buffalo robes, beaver pelts, and horses with the Indians and the Europeans. The Trade Room is a hands-on place. Handle a cowhide; pick up a trade blanket; touch a bearskin; feel a buffalo robe, or even a beaver top hat.
The Bents and St. Vrain were the best-known traders in the Old West. With company stores already in Santa Fe and Taos, they built this fort on the Arkansas River, which was then the border with Mexico. This positioned the trading post near the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho hunting grounds, and a convenient distance from the Rocky Mountains, where fur trappers did their work.
William Bent, the chief trader and manager, made money off the Mexicans, because it was cheaper for them to buy manufactured goods from the new United States than to have them shipped from Mexico City. Indians traded for rifles; metal for arrowheads; cookware; and other supplies that changed their way of life forever. The trappers bartered for beaver traps, gunpowder, and flint.
The Bent, St. Vrain & Co. traded primarily for furs and buffalo robes and then sold them back East. Overall, the company made an average of $40,000 each year.
If you wish to do a little horse trading of your own during your visit, try the gift shop. You can buy a wooden canteen or a tin coffee cup, a trade blanket or a fife, even buffalo horns (large or small). These are authentic reproductions of what the Bent brothers traded. No beaver pelts are accepted in trade today, however; it’s not that authentic. The store also stocks books about the American West that are hard to find anywhere else.
A 20-minute documentary film about the fort titled Traders, Tribes and Travelers is available throughout the year, as are self-guided tours. So, you can visit almost any time.
The dining room is the largest domain in the fort. Only the owners and a few visitors ate there. Most fort employees and visitors prepared their own meals and ate in their rooms, or from a community cooking pot.
One important guest allowed to eat in the dining room was explorer John Fremont, who used the fort as a supply base for some of his famous expeditions. Another famous figure supplied the food. In 1841 Kit Carson agreed to a job as a hunter for the fort, earning $1 per day. “I accepted this offer and remained in their employ until 1842,” he wrote.
Take a stroll around the plaza. In the stillness of today, try to imagine what it was like in this isolated fort more than 150 years ago. With 40 or more people working from sunup to dark, and gambling at night, it was rarely still. The sounds of blacksmiths banging, carpenters hammering, broncos being broken, and all sorts of laborers laboring permeated the air. There was even a resident fort physician, but we’ll not dwell on the sounds that came from his place of business. And don’t forget all the livestock and chicken sounds, along with a few barking dogs.
Susan Magoffin, believed to be one of the first white women to travel the Santa Fe Trail, didn’t find it peaceful. She wrote, “There is the greatest possible noise in the patio [yard]. The shoeing of horses, neighing, and braying of mules, the crying of children, the scolding and fighting of men, are all enough to turn my head.”
William Bent had the trust of most of the Indians. He was married to Owl Woman, a Cheyenne, and lived in both worlds. Any Indian troubles were generally limited to the Comanche and Pawnee. The Southern Cheyenne and the Arapaho were the primary tribes that traded with William Bent. Indian trade extended far beyond the fort, as Bent’s traders traveled to the Indian villages with their goods.
At night, many of these hard-living men relaxed in the billiard room, with its bar and pool table. It is believed to have been the only pool table on the Santa Fe Trail.
The fort was built at the best crossing on the Arkansas River. Eighteen mules were needed to drag each huge freight wagon through the soft riverbed and into Mexico. A loaded wagon weighed from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds. The animals were so tired after fording the river that they needed half a day’s rest before moving on down the trail.
The entire scene changed when, during the Mexican-American War, the Santa Fe Trail became a principal staging area for conflict. General Stephen Kearny arrived with his army troops in 1846, ushering in a flood of government wagon trains. The increase in white people scared off the trading Indians; the over-killing of buffalo damaged trade; and the government never properly compensated the fort’s owners for use of the facility. The army’s horses and mules even overgrazed the grass.
The army offered to buy the fort but wouldn’t pay the asking price. It is said that, in 1849, William Bent abandoned the fort during a cholera epidemic and, in frustration, set fire to a gunpowder room, which blew up part of the fort. By then, William’s brother, Charles, had been killed in New Mexico, and St. Vrain had sold his interest in the venture.
In 1853 Bent built a large stone trading post, which he called Bent’s New Fort, 38 miles down the Arkansas River. But it was not the same. He leased this fort to the U.S. government in 1860 and moved to Kansas, where he died a few years later.
All that remains of Bent’s New Fort are some rocks from the broken foundation. But thanks to the National Park Service, Bent’s Old Fort still shows travelers the way to the world of the fur trader and the Old West.
The fort is open year-round. Living history demonstrations are offered daily from June 1 through September 1. In addition to the tours, special events take place at the fort from May through December. This year on October 9, a Santa Fe Trail Fur Trade Encampment will be held as re-enactors set up camps and bring the post back to life. For a full listing of events and more information, contact:
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
35110 State Route 194 E.
La Junta, CO 81050-9523
The fort is 8 miles east of La Junta. Entry fees are $3 for adults and $2 for children 6 and over. Certain park passes also are accepted.
All of the following RV parks are open year-round. For more listings, please check your favorite campground directory or the RV Marketplace, available online at FMCA.com and published in the January and June issues of FMC magazine.
Fowler RV Park
P.O. Box 306
Fowler, CO 81039
John Martin Reservoir State Park
30703 Road 24
Hasty, CO 81044
La Junta KOA
26680 U.S. 50
La Junta, CO 81050
Lamar Sportsman’s Campground & Horse Motel
5385 U.S. 50
Lamar, CO 81052