In the past year I’ve visited Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site twice. The place fascinates me. This “living history” site is a reconstructed adobe fort near La Junta, Colorado. Originally it was an important post on the Santa Fe Trail. Even though it is surrounded by high adobe walls and boasts two impressive towers it was a fur-trading post, not a military post. The military frequently passed through but were not actually stationed there.
Entering the fort, you pass through an outer door, a covered passageway, and an inner door before arriving in the central plaza. Within was essentially a small town, complete with carpenter shop, blacksmith, gunsmith, billiard room, dining room, trading room and accommodations for those who lived there as well as anyone else passing through. A variety of cultures and languages mingled at the fort. The hospitality and refinement shown visitors became legendary.
Since it is reconstructed (as opposed to restored), period-costumed interpreters conduct activities throughout the fort as they would have in the 1830’s and 1840’s. They do repair work and build tools and necessities in the blacksmith shop and carpenter shop, etc. As a result, you feel as if you truly have stepped back in time.
Bent’s Old Fort was built and operated by the firm of Bent, St. Vrain & Co. Completed in 1834, its primary function was as a trading post dealing with the nearby tribes. Friendly tribes freely wandered throughout the fort but if there was some concern about intentions, the inner door could be closed and the trading could be conducted through a window opening from the covered passageway into the trading room.
After the prices for beaver pelts plummeted, the buffalo robe trade took on increased importance. In the center of the plaza stands a buffalo robe press which was used to compress the hides into neat bales that could more easily be transported. Thousands of these robes were shipped east from Bent’s Old Fort.
Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain established a vast trading domain and wielded considerable influence with the various factions. Located near the north bank of the Arkansas River, the fort was on the border with Mexico as, at that time, the Arkansas formed the boundary. The balance established changed however in 1846 with the U.S. declaration of war on Mexico and ensuing invasion. Charles Bent was named territorial governor but was killed a few months later in the Taos Revolt. The Revolt was promptly put down and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain continued in business for a time but, following a cholera outbreak in 1849, the fort was abandoned and burned. There remains the question of who burned the fort – perhaps it was William Bent himself?
Fortunately for us, one of the visitors to the fort in 1845 was a young topographical engineer, Lt. James W. Abert, who did many watercolor sketches and made painstaking measurements of the fort’s rooms and walls. From archeological work and the use of Abert’s drawings it was possible to reconstruct the fort as it had been.
There are a number of books relating to Bent’s Old Fort. Two of my favorites are accounts by visitors to the fort in the 1840’s:
Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin by Susan Magoffin
Wah-to-Yah and the Taos Trail by Lewis Garrard
For more information: