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Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site is located just 5 miles from La Junta and over 150 years back in time. This reconstructed trading post located on the Santa Fe Trail was the last United States outpost before crossing the Arkansas River and entering Mexico. The Fort was originally built in 1833-34 by brothers Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain for the Native American fur trade but soon became an important stop along the Santa Fe Trail.
It is fortunate that there are numerous surviving records of Bent’s Fort; complete measurements, original plans, and drawings. All these were called upon to help reconstruct the fort as it was in the early 1800s. In the mid 1970s the National Park Service, using the 1846 measurements and drawings of Lt. James W. Abert, a topographical engineer attached to Kearney’s Army of the West, rebuilt Bent's Fort on its old foundations. Based on the surviving records and archeological evidence it is believed that the reconstructed fort is 95 percent accurate. Today the visitor to Bent's Fort in La Junta can walk the same paths and see the same sights that the Native Americans, Santa Fe traders, mountain men, explorers, and soldiers once saw.
History of Bent's Fort
Charles Bent was an experienced trader. He had been making numerous wagon train trips along the Santa Fe Trail for years. His brother, William Bent, joined Charles out west in 1829. William was a true friend to the Indians and was an advocate for them at a time when the political winds blew in a different direction. William built a trading stockade on Fountain Creek near the confluence of the Arkansas River in 1831 (now Pueblo, Colorado). In 1832 his brother Charles joined him.
The beaver trade had reached its zenith and the trade in buffalo robes was just beginning. These were the years before the great buffalo slaughter of the 1870s by the white buffalo hunter who nearly drove an entire species to extinction. During these early years the Indians killed the buffalo for food and robes for their own needs. The buffalo provided the economic system of the Plains Indians. Buffalo robes became an economic commodity for the Indians; they brought their robes to the trading posts to exchange for the white man’s goods. This was the incentive for building Bent’s Fort. On the advice of their friend, Yellow Wolf chief of the Cheyenne, Charles and William decided to build a new trading post closer to the buffalo hunting grounds on the eastern Colorado plains.
In 1833 the Bent brothers along with their business partner, Ceran St. Vrain, started construction on an adobe fort on the north bank of the Arkansas River, the international boundary between Mexico and the United States near where La Junta is located today. Lumber was scarce on the plains so they turned to adobe as an alternative. In the arid Southwest, adobe was the perfect building material. Adobe was made of clay, water and sand mixed with straw. This mixture was poured into forms and dried in the sun to form bricks. Laborers from Taos and Santa Fe were brought in to help build the fort. Bent’s Fort became a multi cultural center where all peoples, including Indians, Mexicans, Blacks and Whites were welcomed. Bent’s Fort served as neutral ground for peace talks with the Indians. Free trade and free talk led to a casual environment and an easy mixing of different cultures and groups. Intermarriage was encouraged by the Bent brothers; in fact William Bent was married to Owl Women, a Cheyenne.
Between the years of 1833 – 1850 Fort William or Bent’s Fort as it would later be called would become an important commercial hub of the Santa Fe Trail whose influence would help shape the manifest destiny of a young United States. American trade and influence radiated from here south into Mexico, west into the Great Basin and north to southern Wyoming. In its hey-day, Bent's Fort, was the only outpost of civilization between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, Mexico. As the dangers on the Cimarron Cutoff increased more and more traders started using the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and Bents Fort became the stopping place to rest, repair, and outfit the Santa Fe caravans before crossing over into Mexico and facing the formidable Raton Pass.
Bent’s Fort was constructed in the form of a parallelogram, with the northern and southern sides being about 150 feet long. The eastern and western sides measured about 100 feet in length. On the northwestern and southeastern corners of the fort round bastions were built. These “towers” were about 10 feet in diameter and 30 feet high and provided with portals for the discharging of cannon and small fire. The walls of this adobe fort were six or seven feet thick at the base and rose to between seventeen and eighteen feet high. The main entrance opened on the eastern side, perhaps in deference to Native American custom of placing their own entrances facing the rising sun. Two immense plank doors provided a secure entrance.
Bent's Fort was a busy place, employing about 60 men. At any one time large parties of these men, would often be gone, taking buffalo robes and other goods to market and returning with a new stock of trade goods or hunting buffalo on the surrounding plains to feed the fort. In it's hey day Bent’s Fort was the Southwest's most important outpost of white civilization. Many notable figures from western history stopped at the fort including John C. Fremont, Francis Parkman, Kit Carson, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Stephen Watts Kearny.
In May 1846 war was declared with Mexico. Now Bent’s Fort took on new importance as the staging ground for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West. Kearny was ordered to march overland and seize New Mexico. The summer of 1846 seventeen hundred regulars and volunteers with the equipment to wage full scale war used Bent’s Fort as the rendezvous point before invading Mexico. To move the men and equipment into New Mexico Kearny made improvements to the trail over Raton Pass further increasing the popularity of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
After the war with Mexico Charles Bent became the Governor of New Mexico. His governorship was short lived though. On January 19, 1847 revolting Mexican and Pueblo Indians brutally murdered Bent and other Americans in Taos.
The U.S. Government never paid the Bents compensation for housing and supplying the Mexican War troops. At this same time the increasing unrest among the southern Indian tribes prompted raids on Santa Fe wagon trains causing a decline in business at Bent’s Fort. William Bent offered to sell the fort to the U.S. Army in 1849, but they declined the offer. Rather than letting the Army get the fort for free a frustrated William set fire and blew up the gun powder room of the fort. Bent’s Fort was blasted into ruins. Though portions of Bent’s Fort survived to be used as a stage station, post office and ranch headquarters into the 1880s – an important era of the Santa Fe Trail had come to an end.
William Bent built a new fort on the Arkansas River at a place known as Big Timbers (west of Lamar, Colorado) in 1853, but the glory days of trading with the Indians were over. In 1859 William leased his new fort to the Army which had constructed a new camp of operations, Fort Lyon, nearby on the Arkansas River to protect Santa Fe traffic along the Mountain Branch of the trail.
William Bent died on his Purgatory River ranch in May of 1869.
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