Stepping Back In Time: Bent’s Old Fort

Over the weekend I went to Bent’s Old Fort with my wife and mother-in-law.  Bent’s Fort was an adobe brick fort built along the Santa Fe trail in what today is Southeast Colorado, near La Junta, (bonus points if you know how to say La Junta properly and extra points if you know what it means.)   Bent’s fort opened in 1833 by the Bent brothers, Charles and William along with their business partner Ceran St. Vrain. The fort was at the hub of the fur trade, and a popular stop along the mountain branch of the Santa Fe trail.  The Bent brothers were known for their fair trading with the Cheyene tribes and the fort as a whole was known to have a diverse mixture of cultures that all worked together equally, which was rare when compared to life East of the Mississippi.  The fort’s population ranged from 60 to 200 at any given time.  One of the more famous guests was Kit Carson.

Unfortunately by 1849 the fur trade began to dwindle along with the bison herds. In part this caused St. Vrain to end his partnership with the Bents.  Adding to the fort’s troubles was a cholera outbreak and conflict between American settlers/miners and the Plains Indian tribes. The US government attempted  to buy the fort from Bent, but he refused what he considered an inadequate offer.  William Bent abandoned the fort and after returning in 1852 to salvage equipment, the fort mysteriously burned down.  Some speculate William burned it down out of frustration over the decline in the fur trade.  Or perhaps he burned it down in anger over the murder of his brother Charles in New Mexico.  Or he may have simply  not wanted anyone else to occupy it.  Others speculate that the local tribes or Mexicans burned it down.  No one knows for sure.  William went on to build another fort several miles away, and had success trading for several years, eventually he leased it to the US army.

In 1960 the site became a National Historic site, and reconstruction was finished in 1976.  The reconstruction was aided by drawings and measurements by LT Abert, an engineer of the Western Army who stayed at the fort during its heyday.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the fort, it is one thing to simply read through a book or website but to walk the same grounds and see similar sites as the Bents and others did during the 19th century  was  a great experience.

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