Bent's Old Fort is located about 4 miles Northeast of La Junta, CO along the scenic Arkansas River. The parking lot is about 1,000 feet from the fort. There are shuttles if you are unable to walk that far, but I suggest that you walk, if at all possible. This allows you to slow down and start imagining what it must have been like to be traveling the Santa Fe Trail by horse or wagon.
Bent's Old Fort was built in 1833 out of adobe not as a military fort but a trading fort. So why would you need a fort for trade? Well, this was the ONLY fort between the Missouri River and the Mexico territory settlements! (now Texas & New Mexico) William and Charles Bent along with their buddy Ceran St. Vrain were building quite the trading empire (monopoly) west of the Missouri. They also owned Fort St. Vrain to the north and Fort Adobe to the south along with stores in Taos and Santa Fe. As I said, quite the empire.
Imagine yourself in a wagon. You left St. Charles or St. Louis, Missouri about two months ago. It's been a long dangerous crossing of the prairie and then you see it! What an oasis Bent's Fort would have been: safety, food, clothes, blankets, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a bath and new people to talk to.
There was another major advantage for coming this way west. Two years after building the fort, William Bent married the daughter of a highly regarded Southern Cheyenne Shaman (medicine man). According to the docents at the fort, William Bent became like a son to the Southern Cheyenne tribe. He was very influential in maintaining peaceful relations in the area. This trickled over to the Indian relations with the US government and remained congenial until well after the Mexican-American War.
Bent also insisted that his employees trade fairly and respectfully with the Indians. Whiskey in trades was very restricted. Don't we wish all white men coming west would have behaved as well as the Bent Brothers?
This is the gate to the fort. Although things were quite peaceful, if you came to the fort with ill intentions this handsome cannon would be there to greet you. In addition to more on the roof.
There were two sets of gates separated by about 20 feet. Inside this protective zone was a window into the fort. This is where tribes other than the Southern Cheyenne did their trading. Only the Southern Cheyenne were allowed into the inner sanctum of the fort, unless you were a chief or shaman there for an intertribal council.
Here are some shots of the inner courtyard.
In the southwest corner of the fort was St. Vrain's little one room quarters where he stayed when he was present in the fort. At first look, you wonder why in the world would he choose this location in the fort? Then it becomes clear as you look around his apartment and see the flight of stairs going down to the kitchen on the first floor. The fire in the kitchen was kept going all the time, so the heat would have risen up to his room and you didn't have to go out in the cold for grub and coffee...smart, very smart.
Also, if he walked out his front door and walked on the roof about 30 feet to the left he was in the door of another room. This room was for the owners and men of rank and visitors of status.
This is a billiards table, nearly twice as big as pool tables today. In the back is a fireplace (on the left) and a bar (on the right) and of course checkers as you walked in.
These are examples of the private quarters of owners, soldiers and mexican immigrants who lived at the fort.
And now for the rooms of the fort where the business of the frontier took place.
This was the Council Room. This is where William Bent would entertain important American Native chiefs and discuss matters of the day.
The Trading Post was probably everyone's favorite room after the dining room. Interesting fact that I learned from one of the docents: The braves would compete for the best hides and prices for them, in order to buy the best fabrics and beads for their wives. I thought this was a little silly until he told me that the women ruled the home. If they were unhappy with what their husbands brought home from the trading they could kick them out and find a more suitable husband.
This is the dining room.
Fur storage room. See those white packages? There about 10 buffalo hides in each of them. You can see how condensed they are compared to the stack of loose buffalo hides sitting next to them. The hides were pressed together until they were very flat and bundled to protect them for the trip back east. By pressing them, they took up half the space in the wagons and thereby were able to take twice as many in a trip. Pretty smart! You may have noticed in the courtyard pictures a structure in the middle of the fort. It is not a well, it is a hide press.
What is not evident when you are in the fort courtyard is that there is a wide alley that surrounds the fort. The fort is basically double walled. These areas were used for stabling horses and protecting livestock.
I noticed that all the windows and doors had buffalo hide nailed around the edges. This was to keep the cold and heat out...brilliant, just brilliant.
Just a couple more shots.
In 1846 the US government thought the fort should be the Upper Platte and Arkansas Indian Agency. It became a staging area of sorts for the Army and with the Army came disease and great misfortune. By 1849 Bent's Old Fort was abandoned.
By now you may be wondering why is it called Bent's Old Fort? The answer to that burning question also came in 1849. St. Vrain wanted out and sold his share of the trading company to William Bent. William had been appointed the first Governor of New Mexico Territory (and was assassinated in the Taos Revolt). This left only Charles in a fort and land consumed with cholera and so he left and built Bent's New Fort about 40 miles down the Arkansas River hoping to rekindle the trading business on his own. What a difficult time that must have been for all of them!
Life is like that though, isn't it? One minute, everything is going great and you have all the people you love around you, and the next you have been stripped raw with grief, hardship and disappointment. Martin Luther King Jr. said,
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Please visit this incredible historic site and you will not be disappointed. The docents are all in period costume and are a wealth of information. I learned so much visiting with them! They truly make history come alive.