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BENT’S OLD FORT, Otero County, CO

 

By

 

Gary B. Speck

 

 

BENT’S OLD FORT is one of those fascinating historical places that all ghost towners should visit.  It is not a ghost town in the purist’s sense of the word, but it definitely falls into our definition of a ghost town.  In early July 2005, Ghost Town USA took a giant step back in time at this historic old frontier trading post.  A few wisps of puffy white clouds decorated an otherwise perfectly blue sky.  Warm morning sunshine glowed against the creamy-colored adobe walls of the trading post, tracing uneven patterns of light and shadow across the uneven plastered surface.  The clean, damp smell of the Arkansas River and faint aroma of wet grass and wood smoke wafted across the dry grass lining the trail where puffs of dust enveloped our boots. The serenading songs of hundreds of unseen birds in the cottonwood trees lining the riverbank neutralized the incessant buzz and nasty bites of a swarm of large black flies. A burly, bearded man, whose long, unruly hair was covered with a battered felt hat and carrying a huge-bladed axe exited the heavy, wooden front gate, strolling slowly towards large pile of split logs.  His long-sleeved white shirt stood in sharp contrast to faded denims and red vest. Looking up he greeted us with a warm smile and friendly hello.  Welcome to Bent’s Fort.”

 

We jumped 160 years from the 21st century, to the early 1840s. Established by Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain, Bent’s Old Fort was THE commercial and cultural crossroads on the Santa Fe Trail and Arkansas River from 1833-1849. It is located on the north side of the Arkansas River and just south of State Highway (SH) 194, some eight miles northeast of La Junta in the once-wild plains of Colorado’s southeastern corner.  This fur-trading post and frontier settlement has been accurately on the site of the original. 

 

Charles & William Bent were fur trappers and traders, and in 1830 joined forces with Ceran St. Vrain ship in Santa Fe. Charles Bent also captained wagon trains on the Missouri-Santa Fe route.  St. Vrain sold their goods in Santa Fe and obtained the silver and furs that Bent ran back to Missouri to obtain more trade goods to sell in New Mexico.  They also opened a store in Taos and in Santa Fe, solidifying their importance in the trade market.  Expanding to the north, the Bents and St. Vrain established a small trading post near where Pueblo, Colorado now is.  This post was too far from the active buffalo hunting grounds further down along the Arkansas River, so in 1833, they relocated to a spot along river and the Santa Fe Trail.  They built a fur-trading post out of adobe mud bricks to fortify it against any depredations from the local Native Americans.  They finished the fort a year later and called it Fort William.  It was more popularly called Bent’s Fort.

 

The Bent, St. Vrain Company’s empire was based on trading with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, to whom they bartered trade goods for beaver and buffalo pelts.  St. Vrain and the Bents were fair to, and maintained good relations with both the Arapaho and Cheyenne.  The Bents and St. Vrain would trade both at the fort and at the various Indian villages.  They even extended their reach and traded with other Indian nations, including the Blackfeet, Comanches, Gros Ventres, Kiowas, Lakota Sioux, Plains Apaches and Utes; all of whom lived and hunted outside the area immediately served by the fort.

 

They generally trade about 25 cents worth of trade goods for one buffalo robe, which they could sell in Missouri for five or six dollars. They traded items such as beads, blankets, brass wire, butcher knives, camp kettles, guns, iron and tobacco for the buffalo pelts, which were then pressed into bales of ten robes, and shipped by wagon to St. Louis.  In 1840 alone, they delivered 15,000 buffalo robes.

 

In addition to serving as the economic focus for a growing trade empire, this privately owned, adobe–walled fort was the only American outpost in the entire region.  It was 275 miles northeast of Santa Fe, and 530 miles west of Independence, Missouri.  As its importance grew, it supplied much-needed goods, services and camaraderie for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, as well as traveling army troops and explorers poking around in the mountains to the west.  During the summer of 1846, the fort was visited by Colonel Stephen Kearney’s 1600-member “Army of the West” on its way to campaigns during the Mexican-American War of 1846.  After Kearney captured Santa Fe, Charles Bent was chosen to be territorial governor.  Unfortunately only a few months later in January 1847, he was killed by an angry mob in Taos.

 

The fort’s population consisted of an average of 40-60 employees, but could reach 100.  As trust developed between the Fort’s occupants and the local Native Americans, the exterior trade window was used less, and the locals were allowed inside the fort’s walls to trade their goods inside the trade room.  This was almost unheard of on the American Frontier, and shows the high regard with which the post was held by the locals.

 

By 1849 the fort’s prosperity began to wane with a decline in trading and the death of Charles two years previously. St. Vrain and William Bent finally abandoned the fort.  One source claims Bent blew it up.  Another says he burned it.  In any case, a few years later William established a new post at what was known as Big Timbers, which is located near today’s Lamar, Colorado, some 30 miles east of the old fort. The old fort hadn’t been totally destroyed and was used off and on until the 1870s.  But by 1918 it was not much more than a memory.

 

Bent’s New Fort was built of stone and was in use from about 1852 until 1860 at which time it was leased to the United States Army and renamed Fort Fauntleroy, and later, Fort Wise (1859), Fort Lyon (1860), and finally abandoned in 1866. 

 

On June 3, 1960, the site of Bent’s Old Fort was added to the roster of National Historic Sites and within a few years reconstruction began based on contemporary descriptions from diaries, paintings and archeological evidence.  One of the most valuable of these resources was a set of detailed drawings of the post made by Army Lt. James Abert in 1846.  Abert was a member of the United States Topographical Engineers and made detailed drawings of the post during his brief stay at the post.

 

The fort is accurately rebuilt of heavy wood beams and adobe bricks all plastered over with a thin adobe plaster.  The ground floor is laid out in a square surrounded by business related rooms, while the second level consists mostly of staff and visitor’s quarters, along with a billiard room.   The walls of the post are laid out in a trapezoid shape with elevated bastions on the northwest and southeast corners. From these bastions, all parts of the exterior wall are visible.  Each bastion was also armed with a small cannon.

 

During its peak in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the fort was a small, self-contained city consisting of a blacksmith, carpenter shops, gunsmith and trading store (which also sold goods to travelers).  Quarters were also here for staff and guests, a kitchen and dining room served them meals and council rooms aided the trading post staff to palaver with visiting traders.  Upstairs, a billiard room provided needed diversion for guests and residents alike.  Corrals, storerooms, wagon room and a fur press all aided in making this a real community. 

 

A visit to Bent’s Old Fort is treading in the footsteps of history.  Rededicated in 1976 for the National Bicentennial celebrations, this old post has been fully and carefully reconstructed, and is staffed with “living history interpreters;” National Park Service personnel who are well versed in the post’s history and wear authentic period costumes.  Visitors can even pretend they’re traders by visiting the trade room and bookstore where “historically authentic reproduction trade goods” (Huh?) and books can be traded for silver and green paper.

 

This old historic fur-trading post is well worth a visit.

 

This was our Ghost Town of the Month for October 2010.

 

LOCATION:

·       NE¼ of NW¼  Sec 23, T23S, R54W, 6th Principal Meridian & 40° Base Line

·       Latitude: 38.0409410 / 38° 02’ 27” N

·       Longitude: -103.4296310 / 103° 25’ 47” W

 

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FIRST POSTED: October 10, 2010

LAST UPDATED: November 03, 2010

 

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