Day Trips & Beyond: Bent's Fort, Colo.

Once the superstore of the Santa Fe Trail

Once on the international border between two nations, Bent’s Fort was at the crossroads of many cultures. The National Park Service has rebuilt the trading post to its 1833 appearance.

After days of slow travel over a desolate prairie, the sight of the walls of Bent’s Fort must have brought joy to many weary travelers. For 16 years the trading post was the center of activity on the Santa Fe Trail and helped open the West to settlement. (Photos by Gerald E. McLeod)

Depending on your method of conveyance, in 1841 it would probably take around 23 days of steady progress to travel the 800 miles from Independence, Mo., to Santa Fe, N.M. Most travelers at the time followed the wagon-wheel ruts of the Santa Fe Trail.

Between 1825 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was the main route into the Southwest, until it was replaced by railroads and eventually highways.

The Santa Fe Trail was a small part of an international trade route that began on the docks of New York City and Boston and curved around to Mexico City. Thousands of explorers, adventurers, immigrants, and traders made their way west and south on the trail.

The post was completely rebuilt by the National Park Service in 1975 using descriptions, drawings, and archaeology findings.

Of course, in the early years of the trail there were no towns along the route, and the route crossed the territory claimed by often hostile natives. But brave businessmen found a lucrative trade in importing goods to the Spanish colonies of New Mexico and buying animal skins from the Plains Indians for American markets.

In 1830, three former fur trappers joined together to form Bent, St. Vrain & Company. Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain had established several trading posts in what is now New Mexico and Colorado where they bought or traded for hides. The largest and most famous of these trading posts was Bent’s Fort on the northern route of the Santa Fe Trail.

From 1833 to 1849, Bent’s Fort was the only permanent supply and resting spot between the Mississippi and Rio Grande rivers.

Bent’s Fort was a complete town with all of the essential services that travelers would need. Even though accommodations were sparse, having four walls, a roof, and a meal was appreciated by the travelers.

Built by New Mexican workers from Taos, the two-story adobe walls with round towers at opposing corners enclosed a small town around an open plaza. Visitors to the fort described it as a bustling place with all kinds of humanity in a relatively small place.

The fort was on the north bank of the Arkansas River, at the time the border between the United States and Mexico, and, after independence, Texas.

When the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846, Bent’s Fort was a rendezvous point for the invasion of New Mexico.

After the capture of Santa Fe by the U.S. Army without a shot being fired, Charles Bent was appointed territorial governor. His tenure soon ended when he was killed by angry Pueblo Indians in Taos. Bent’s share of the trading firm went to partner Ceran St. Vrain and his brother, William.

The firm soon disbanded and the partners went their separate ways. William Bent built a new fort 40 miles downriver from the old fort. St. Vrain moved his business interests farther west.

After the military turned down an offer to buy the property, the fort was abandoned by Bent, St. Vrain & Co., or rather left to squatters. Other traders used it for short periods. The adobe remains were used as a stagecoach station and a mail relay station. But the mud walls never again saw the activity that they had once known.

The trading post was an armed fortress, but keeping the peace between native tribes, trappers, and travelers was good for business. Thousands of buffalo hides made their way east from the post.

By 1919, the adobe bricks had been removed or melted into the prairie. Over the years the site began a journey through various owners until it joined the National Park Service in 1960.

In 1975, the NPS began reconstruction of the original post using archeological findings, drawings, and descriptions. Visitors to the historic fort step back in time as costumed guides explain the rooms and equipment from when Bent’s Fort was a castle on the prairie.

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is in southeastern Colorado eight miles east of La Junta, 15 miles west of Las Animas, and about 3.5 hours north of Stratford, Texas. Admission to the site is free. On the first weekend of June each year, the Santa Fe Trail Encampment is the largest living history event held at the fort. Other special events are held throughout the year. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/beol.


Gerald McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for the past 24 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips," is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 40312, South Austin, TX 78704.

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