One of the most important stations on the Santa Fe Trail, as originally located, was Bent’s Fort. It was situated on the Arkansas River in what is now Bent County, Colorado. It is deemed necessary to give some account of it because of the fact that it was the largest post on the trail and exerted a considerable influence on the trade of the Plains. In some form and in different locations it persisted until a very late day.
Silas Bent was born in Massachusetts, in 1744, and it is said that he was one of the party who threw the British tea into Boston harbor. He married Mary Carter, by whom he had seven children, the eldest being Silas. This son was born in 1768, and in 1788 he went to Ohio, where he practiced law and held various offices. In 1806 he was appointed by Albert Gallatin a deputy surveyor of Upper Louisiana, and moved to St. Louis. He held numerous offices there and died in 1827. By his intermarriage with a Virginia lady, Martha Kerr, he had eleven children,Charles, Julia Ann, John, Lucy, Dorcas, William, Mary, George, Robert, Edward and Silas. Charles was appointed Governor of New Mexico by General Kearny. The Bent brothers were engaged in the fur trade, those best known in that connection being William and Charles. Associated with them was Ceran St. Vrain, of Canadian-French extraction; the firm was at one time known as Bent, St. Vrain & Co. They built a fort on the Arkansas River above the present city of Pueblo, at the mouth of Fountain Creek, in 1826. This proved a poor location, and in 1828 they abandoned the place and went down the river, and in 1829 completed Fort William, so called for William Bent. This fort was long known as Bent’s Fort, and in later years was spoken of as Bent’s “old” fort. It was one of the most important posts in the West, being situated at the point of the Santa Fe Trail where the travel north and south from the Platte country to Santa Fe crossed it. The walls were of adobe, six feet thick at the base and four feet at the top; the floor was of clay, and the roofs of the covered portions were of clay and gravel supported on poles. At the northwest and southwest corners were round towers thirty feet high and ten feet clear on the inside, and loop holed for artillery and musketry. The entrance was on the east, and was closed by a heavy gate of wood. Inside the fort were two divisionsone for offices, living-rooms, and store-rooms; the other for yards for wagons, stock, etc. The dimensions of the fort were about as given by Hughes, though other authorities vary from these figures slightly. In 1852 William Bent destroyed the fort, burning the combustible portions and blowing up the walls with gunpowder. In 1853 he built Bent’s “new” fort, about thirty-five miles lower down the Arkansas and on the same (north) side. It seems that he had long contemplated this removal, as the following quotation from the work of Emory will show:
About 35 miles before reaching Bent’s Fort is found what is called the “big timber.” Here the valley of the river widens, and the banks on either side fall towards it in gentle slopes. The “big timber” is a thinly scattered growth of large cottonwoods not more than three quarters of a mile wide and three or four miles long. It is here the Cheyennes, Araphoes, and the Kioways sometimes winter, to avail themselves of the scanty supply of wood for fuel, and to let their animals browse on the twigs and bark of the cottonwood. The buffaloes are sometimes driven by the severity of the winter which is here intense for the latitude, to the same place to feed upon the cottonwood. To this point, which had been indicated to the Government as a suitable one for a military post, Mr. Bent thinks of moving his establishment.
Bent transacted business at the new location until 1859, when the fort was leased to the Government. In the winter of 1859-60 Bent moved up to the mouth of the Purgatoire. The name of the fort was changed to Fort Wise in 1860, and in 1861 again changed, this time to Fort Lyon, in honor of General Nathaniel Lyon, the hero of Wilson Creek. Because of the encroachments of the river on its walls the fort was moved twenty miles lower down the river in 1866, but it served as a stage station for some years longer.
Francis Parkman arrived at Bent’s Fort shortly after the “Army of the West” had passed, and thus describes it:
Bent’s Fort stands on the river, about seventy-five miles below Pueblo. At noon of the third day we arrived within three or four miles of it, pitched our tent under a tree, hung our looking-glasses against its trunk, and having made our primitive toilet, rode towards the fort. We soon came in sight of it, for it is visible for a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles around was cropped close by the horses of General Kearny’s soldiery. When we came to the fort we found that not only had the horses eaten up in the grass, but their owners had made way with the stores of the little trading-post, so that we had great difficulty in procuring the few articles which we required for our homeward journey. The army was gone, the life and bustle passed away, and the fort was a scene of dull and lazy tranquility. A few invalid officers and soldiers sauntered about the area, which was oppressively hot; for the glaring sun was reflected down upon it from the high white walls around.Oregon Trail, pp. 306, 307.
William Bent was married to a Cheyenne woman.