When you think of Colorado, your mind likely conjures images of towering, rugged, snow capped peaks; wild, rushing rivers carving their way through deep canyons; and alpine valleys carpeted by colorful forests of aspen.
But, the beauty and grandeur of the Rocky Mountains make only half of Colorado’s story. Some of the old west’s most fascinating stories have played out against the sweeping high plains of eastern Colorado.
You can relive some of that history at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. Standing on the banks of the Arkansas River about 3 hours south of Denver outside of the town of La Junta, the fort has been painstakingly reconstructed to look and feel as it did nearly 200 years ago when it served as an important hub of commerce, political negotiation, and cultural exchange along the Santa Fe Trail.
The Santa Fe Trail
French fur traders first blazed the Santa Fe Trail in the 1790s connecting St. Louis and the Mississippi River across the Great Plains to the city of Stanta Fe, which, at the time, was part of Mexico. From there, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of Interior Lands) facilitated the movement of goods and trade south all the way to Mexico City.
In the 1820s, after the United States had purchased the Louisiana Territory and Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Arkansas river formed the border between the two nations and the Santa Fe Trail became a major trade route. Here, where the trail crossed the river into Mexico, the brothers Charles and William Bent and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain decided to build the base of operations for their booming trade business. Close enough to the Rockies to attract trappers and convenient to Native American hunting grounds, the spot was strategically situated to capitalize on the growing trade between Mexico and the US.
Seat of a Trading Empire
Wagons laden with manufactured goods from St. Louis such as textiles, glass, hardware, and tobacco passed through the fort on their way to Bent, St. Vrain & Company stores in Taos and Santa Fe. Wagons returned east loaded with silver from Mexican mines and the beaver pelts and buffalo hides the Bents had acquired from trappers and Native Americans. The fort quickly became the epicenter of a trading empire that stretched from Montana to Mexico City.
But the fort offered more than a place to trade goods. It stood as an oasis of comfort and security along the desolate and arduous Santa Fe Trail. For years, it stood as the sole permanent structure on the trail between Missouri and Mexico. The Castle on the Plains, as it became known, attracted weary travelers from all directions.
Here, the traveler could replenish his supplies, drink fresh water from the well, fix his wagons, catch up on news from home, find employment, and even enjoy an evening of whiskey and dance at one of the fort’s famous “fandangos”. Visitors remarked on the number of languages they heard as French trappers, Mexican laborers, Indian traders, and American settlers mixed freely within the fort’s walls.
Understanding that peace among the tribes as well as between the tribes and the American settlers was good for business, William Bent cultivated strong relations with the Native Americans. He married a Cheyenne woman, Owl Woman, and gained a reputation for his fair dealings and respect for Indian culture. This reputation led to the fort playing host to several important peace councils between the tribes. It became the seat of the US Government’s Upper Plate and Upper Arkansas Indian Agency responsible for managing relations with the tribes.
Though built for security and defense, sporting two bastions equipped with cannon and a look out tower, the fort never came under attack. But it became a major military outpost during the Mexican-American War. It housed troops and artillery and served as the staging point for the invasion of Mexico’s northern provinces.
The Changing Landscape of the West
By the end of the 1840s the military presence and increased numbers of settlers moving into and through the area had damaged the habitat of the buffalo that was the heart of the fort’s trading economy. The Mexican American War had ended the Bents’ trade agreements with Mexico. A cholera epidemic, deteriorating relations with the tribes, and the deaths of his brother and his wife convinced William Bent to abandon his fort and move 40 miles down river where he built Bent’s New Fort in 1853. The new fort never attained the success the old fort had enjoyed and Bent eventually leased it to the army.
Wagons loaded with goods and settlers would continue to ply the high plains along the Santa Fe Trail until they were replaced by trains in the 1880s. William Bent would spend the rest of his life attempting, unsuccessfully, to mediate peace between the US Army and the Native American tribes of the southwest. He died of pneumonia in 1869.
Congress established the Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in 1960 and the US Park Service took on the painstaking task of excavating the site. So little of the original fort remained that the Park Service broke with its policy of only preserving historic sites and embarked on a reconstruction based on drawings, historical accounts, and archeological evidence. The reconstruction was completed in 1976, in time for the United States’ bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial celebrations.
Visiting Bent’s Old Fort
In its day, Bent’s Old Fort stood at the crossroads of nations, cultures, and commerce. Today, it is a little off the beaten path. From Pueblo and I-25 take US 50 about 70 miles east through small farm communities and past some fresh produce stands to the town of La Junta. From there, it’s about 8 more miles east on CO 194. The route from La Junta is well-marked with signs.
Start your visit at the exhibits by the parking lot. Restrooms are also available here. Then, take the paved pathway about a quarter mile to the fort’s entrance. Admission is $3 per person. The self-guided tour booklet is well worth the $1 donation.
Stepping into the fort, you may think you have traveled to the year 1833. Volunteers in period costume are on hand to answer questions as they reenact tasks the fort’s original residents would have carried out. The smell of wood smoke from a campfire fills the air. Live chickens, cats, and a peacock scurry around the fort’s grounds and add to the authenticity of the experience.
The self guided tour takes visitors through the reconstructed rooms on the fort’s two floors including the kitchen, living quarters, blacksmith and carpentry shops, and even a billiards room all fitted out with reproductions of the items the fort’s residents would have used in their daily routines.
Outside the fort, a mile and a half long hiking trail loops through the surrounding cottonwood groves and marshes along the river.
The efforts of the volunteers and the Park Service to make your visit to Bent’s Old Fort feel so immersive make it worth the trip off the beaten path. You will leave with a taste of what it was like to live in this little castle perched on the immense, open plain almost two centuries ago.