Santa fe trail
Bent's Old Fort
In the late 1820s, William Bent, one of his brothers, Charles, and Ceran St. Vrain from St. Louis pooled their resources to establish themselves in the fur trade on the High Plains and in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of what is now Colorado and New Mexico. They invested inherited wealth. (Wikipedia, William Bent; Wikipedia, Ceran St. Vrain)
By 1845, the firm of Bent, St. Vrain & Company was operating stores in Santa Fe and Taos, Nuevo México, and three fortified trading posts:
• Fort William (ca. 1834) on the Arkansas River, which was -- and is -- popularly known as Bent's Old Fort (Wikipedia, William Bent)
• Fort St. Vrain (1837) to the north on the South Platte River (Wikipedia, Fort Saint Vrain)
• Adobe Walls (ca. 1845) to the south across the Canadian River (Wikipedia, Adobe Walls, Texas)
Bricklayers from Taos and Santa Fe, Nuevo México, built the forts of adobe from indigenous materials, and all the sites were abandoned by 1849. None of the original structures survive. In various parts of the West, other fur-trading companies operated similar outposts.
In the early days, Bent's Fort was the only settled place on the Santa Fe Trail between Arrow Rock, Missouri, and Santa Fe, Nuevo México. It was positioned to take advantage of the trade along the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. Also, it was central to the north-south axis of Bent, St. Vrain & Company's fur trade.
Bent's Fort was, thus, a cultural center and even a melting pot. English, Spanish, and French were linguae francae, along with several Indian tongues.
William Bent's brother Charles was appointed military governor of New Mexico Territory during the Mexican-American War. In his correspondence, he had made no secret of prejudice against Mexicans, Indians (Wroth), and the Catholic Church (Tyler). His bigotry did not endear him to his new constituency -- notwithstanding that his wife was Mexican. He was assassinated at his home in Taos in what was then New Mexico Territory, at the beginning of the Taos Revolt (Wikipedia, Charles Bent").
[Note: Let me apologize again for not having consulted any paper books while preparing this Web page. I might have if my eyes were up to it. Particularly, I did not read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which I gather casts Padre Antonio José Martínez, el cura de Taos, as a villain. Padre Martínez is one of the most influential characters in the later history of New Mexico, but opinion about him is polarized; he is hardly mentioned nowadays except in glowing panegyrics or else in echoes of Cather's less than laudatory fictional account. Apparently his historical role has undergone recent rehabilitation, and the rivalry between him and Charles Bent has been reevaluated.]
Quelling the Taos Revolt may be seen as an instance of Manifest Destiny backed by commercial interests overcoming parochial interests. In my untutored opinion it is equally well understood as the last triumph of landed gentry over proponents of what we now recognize as Liberation Theology among other events leading up to the Civil War.
William Bent, Charles' brother, had as many as six biracial children by three wives.
Bent's son George was literate in English and spoke Cheyenne, Spanish, Comanche, Kiowa, and Arapaho. He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War but later (1862?) took the oath of loyalty to the Union. He was present with two siblings at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 and testified before two military inquiries and an investigation by the Joint Committee of Congress (representing the northern and the border states) during the aftermath. Those responsible were never disciplined, but such testimony nevertheless prevented the atrocity from being covered up. George rode with the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers during the Indian Wars until he was recruited to work as an interpreter for the U.S. government. He died of influenza in 1918 (Wikipedia, George Bent).
Celebrities drifted in and out of Bent's Fort. The best known among present-day readers is John C. Frémont, the western explorer, who wrote such stirring accounts of his own expeditions to the delight of publishers. He was the first ever Republican Presidential Candidate. He was also an insubordinate Union general. His two guides are famous, too: Thomas Fitzpatrick of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Kit Carson, whose renown as an Indian Fighter was promoted in dime novels. The sister of Carson's third wife was married to Charles Bent.
In addition to celebrities, there were personalities who inhabited the fort such as Charlotte Green. Charlotte, her husband, and her brother-in-law were black slaves of William Bent. Charlotte was the master cook. She considered herself a gifted dancer, and contemporary accounts of fandangoes held at Bent's Fort credit her with being the life of the party.
Charlotte's husband, Dick, was in Charles Bent's home in Taos in what was then New Mexico Territory when Bent was assassinated. Dick Green traveled with the Army's punitive expedition from Santa Fe back to Taos and was wounded during the fight to end the Taos Revolt. For this, the Bent family granted him manumission (Wikipedia, William Bent).
We know about Bent's Fort from first-hand accounts of such literate adventurers who traveled there as Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus and George Ruxton.
Also, we have second-hand accounts of those who later corresponded with literate inhabitants. Among these are famous historians and anthropologists. Henry Schoolcraft included material provided by Charles Bent in his six-volume study, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. George Bird Grinnell authored two books about the Cheyenne. One of them was ghostwritten by George E. Hyde and was based on George Bent's reminiscences. Hyde went on to write a biography of George Bent, which was published in 1968.
The history of the inhabitants of Bent's Fort is, thus, well attested.
The Stars and Stripes waved here on the north bank of the Arkansas River, which had become part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. The land remained unorganized territory until long after Bent's Fort was abandoned.
This flag, which has 27 stars, is a replica of the one adopted after the admission of Florida to the Union in March of 1845. It flew briefly until the admission of Texas to the Union in December (Independence Hall Association).
The river was the dividing line between various political regimes. In Native American terms, the north bank belonged to the Cheyenne, and the south bank belonged to the Comanche (Wikipedia, William Bent).
In Mexican-American terms, the south bank was Mexican territory until Texas won its independence in 1836, after which it was in dispute -- first between the Republic of Texas and Mexico and then between the United States and Mexico after Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845. This dispute was the pretext for the Mexican-American War 1846--1848.
The northern border of Texas was moved south -- away from the Arkansas River -- when New Mexico Territory was organized as part of the Compromise of 1850 (Wikipedia, Territorial Evolution of the United States).
Bent's Old Fort was occupied from at least 1834 until 1849. In 1852, its fixtures were salvaged for the construction of Bent's New Fort 55 miles east, and then (perhaps) the old fort was destroyed (Wikipedia, Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site).