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Visit Four Forts on the South Platte, September 19

Ella Marie Hayes
Saratoga, Wyo.
Noel V. Hayes, Jr.This pastoral view looking in a southerly direction from the gate into the Fort St. Vrain site shows one of the new blue and white historical marker signs that have been erected, and the former nuclear plant near Platteville in the background.

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As a child, I always was aware that Fort Vasquez just south of Platteville, Colo., was only a few miles from our Milliken farm. We drove past it whenever we went to Denver, but never stopped. It was not until recently when the Oregon-California Trail Association (OCTA) Convention materials arrived that I discovered there were four historic trading posts – Fort St. Vrain, Fort Vasquez, Fort Jackson, and Fort Lupton – within a few miles of each other along the South Platte.

I was looking forward to visiting the Cherokee and Overland Trail sites close to “my roots” during the 2009 OCTA Convention in Loveland, Colo., but learning about the Four Forts on the South Platte that were right at our back door was really a bonus. On a recent trip to Colorado we stopped at Fort Vasquez to learn more about the forts.

During a brief period of time the four fur trading posts had appeared within a 15 mile reach of the South Platte River, competed vigorously with each other, and then were abandoned. At no other time or place in history of the fur trade were there ever this many competing posts so closely located and active at the same time.

This was partly due to abundant natural resources – cottonwood trees for construction and fuel, buffalo for food and hides, and low grade coal beds used for blacksmithing. But a major factor was the locale fell within the area of influence of two very powerful fur trading interests – American Fur Company [1] out of Fort Laramie to the north and the Bent, St. Vrain & Company out of Bent’s Fort to the south – who were eager to protect what they considered their exclusive trading areas, and expand them if possible at the expense of any and all competitors, even if it meant taking heavy losses.

Fort St. Vrain, approximately six miles north of Fort Vasquez, was especially intriguing because it was so close to my childhood home. We found that the route to Fort St. Vrain was now marked with new blue and white Historical Marker signs. Although, only a granite monument erected in 1911 by Centennial State Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, plus a wooden sign telling of a 1967 archaeological Survey conducted by the Colorado State Historical Society, mark the pastoral spot today, we could not help but envision a once busy trading post scene.

Construction on Fort St. Vrain began about 1837 by the Bent brothers and French fur trapper, Ceran St. Vrain, on the “Trapper’s” or Taos Trail which ran from Fort Taos, New Mexico, past Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail near La Junta, Colo., to Fort Laramie in Wyoming.

Marcellin St. Vrain, Ceran’s younger brother, was appointed to manage the fort for the Bent & St. Vrain Company. He worked to protect the Bent brothers’ interests and lure business away from the other trading posts.

Fort Vasquez was constructed about 1835 by Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette. The goals for building this independent fort were different – prompted by the goal to carve out a small niche market and make a profit from the trade.

The firm of Vasquez and Sublette were doomed to failure from the beginning due to the intense competition in the immediate area. Their partnership was dissolved in 1840-41 and the fort and its contents sold to Messrs. Locke and Randolph. Following a string of bad luck these men left without completing payment for the fort. The post fell into disrepair, but continued to be used into the 1850s and 60s as a temporary shelter for emigrants and as a corral for livestock.

Fort Vasquez was reconstructed in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration to create jobs as well as restore the historical structure. After the Colorado Historical Society acquired the property, a series of archaeological excavations uncovered the fort’s original foundations, and artifacts are now included with other exhibits in the Fort Vasquez Museum.

Fort Vasquez Museum, acquired by the Colorado Historical Society, is open daily during the summer, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Winter Hours (Labor Day to Memorial Day) are Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Fort Jackson was constructed in the spring of 1837, by American Fur Company in response to construction of Fort Vasquez. American Fur Company considered this area as part of the trading territory within the sphere of Fort Laramie to the north.

Two of the company’s most able traders, Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb, were sent to manage the operation. They probably employed American Fur’s typical response to the opposition outfits – to overwhelm the competition by under-pricing their trade goods and bidding over-market prices for furs.

Although little is known of the location or structure of Fort Jackson, this post is of great importance because, unlike the other posts, some of the business records still survive.

Fort Lupton, the southernmost of the four fur trading posts, was built by Lancaster Lupton, (Lupton Fur Company) in 1837 after he obtained the necessary trading license, financial backing, and trade goods. The goals for establishing his fort, like Fort Vasquez, was simply to make a profit.

While before 1837 there was only Fort Vasquez along the South Platte River, by the end of 1837 there were four forts within 15 miles challenging each other. Fort Jackson was the first to capitulate under the Bent’s power. It was sold to Bent and Company in 1838; its goods and supplies added to the inventories at Fort St. Vrain.

By 1942, Fort Vasquez was abandoned, but Lancaster Lupton managed to hold out until 1844 before he was unable to sustain the business and abandoned the post. It is a testament to his managerial skills, energy and tenacity, that even with no prior experience in the fur trade, he was able to hold out for three years longer than the veteran traders Vasquez and Sublette.

After the post was abandoned by Lupton, it was used as a temporary shelter by travelers passing through, and later by a ranch. During the 1970s the site was extensively disturbed by heavy industrial operations complicating efforts to interpret the site. In the early 1990s archaeological test trenches were dug at what was believed to be the site of the fort, but fail to delineate the outline of the fort.

In 2003, the South Platte Valley Historical Society began reconstructing Fort Lupton at a location several hundred feet south of the presumed original structure. The Society is creating a Historic Park on the north side of Fort Lupton approximately a half mile west of U.S. 85 on Weld County Road 14 1/2 that includes the fort replica and other historic structures.

For readers who missed the OCTA Convention in August in Loveland, there will be another opportunity to visit the Four Forts on the South Platte River on Sept. 19. The annual tour will begin at Fort Vasquez at 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m. Tour participants will be transported between fort sites in a school bus for presentations by representatives of the responsible Historical Society.

A different presenter at each fort will provide a program and answer questions starting at Fort Vasquez (Colorado Historical Society); moving on to the Fort St. Vrain site (Platteville Historical Society); then to the approximate site of Fort Jackson near Ione; on to Fort Lupton Historical Park (South Platte Valley Historical Society); then returning to Fort Vasquez.

The tour cost is $35 per person; $30 for members of the three historical societies. Proceeds cover tour expenses, with the balance divided among the historical societies. The Double Tree Restaurant in Platteville is also providing a coupon for each participant giving a discount off a meal at their eating place.

For tour reservations or more information, please call Fort Vasquez Museum in Platteville at (970) 785-2832.

[1] Although several names were used at various times for some of the forts and companies, only the current names are used in the article to eliminate confusion. Fort St. Vrain aka Fort George (for George Bent) or Fort Lookout; Fort Lupton aka Fort Lancaster (for Lancaster Lupton); American Fur Company aka Pratte, Choteau & Company out of Fort Laramie in Wyoming (formerly called Fort William.)

As a child, I always was aware that Fort Vasquez just south of Platteville, Colo., was only a few miles from our Milliken farm. We drove past it whenever we went to Denver, but never stopped. It was not until recently when the Oregon-California Trail Association (OCTA) Convention materials arrived that I discovered there were four historic trading posts – Fort St. Vrain, Fort Vasquez, Fort Jackson, and Fort Lupton – within a few miles of each other along the South Platte.

I was looking forward to visiting the Cherokee and Overland Trail sites close to “my roots” during the 2009 OCTA Convention in Loveland, Colo., but learning about the Four Forts on the South Platte that were right at our back door was really a bonus. On a recent trip to Colorado we stopped at Fort Vasquez to learn more about the forts.

During a brief period of time the four fur trading posts had appeared within a 15 mile reach of the South Platte River, competed vigorously with each other, and then were abandoned. At no other time or place in history of the fur trade were there ever this many competing posts so closely located and active at the same time.

This was partly due to abundant natural resources – cottonwood trees for construction and fuel, buffalo for food and hides, and low grade coal beds used for blacksmithing. But a major factor was the locale fell within the area of influence of two very powerful fur trading interests – American Fur Company [1] out of Fort Laramie to the north and the Bent, St. Vrain & Company out of Bent’s Fort to the south – who were eager to protect what they considered their exclusive trading areas, and expand them if possible at the expense of any and all competitors, even if it meant taking heavy losses.

Fort St. Vrain, approximately six miles north of Fort Vasquez, was especially intriguing because it was so close to my childhood home. We found that the route to Fort St. Vrain was now marked with new blue and white Historical Marker signs. Although, only a granite monument erected in 1911 by Centennial State Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, plus a wooden sign telling of a 1967 archaeological Survey conducted by the Colorado State Historical Society, mark the pastoral spot today, we could not help but envision a once busy trading post scene.

Construction on Fort St. Vrain began about 1837 by the Bent brothers and French fur trapper, Ceran St. Vrain, on the “Trapper’s” or Taos Trail which ran from Fort Taos, New Mexico, past Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail near La Junta, Colo., to Fort Laramie in Wyoming.

Marcellin St. Vrain, Ceran’s younger brother, was appointed to manage the fort for the Bent & St. Vrain Company. He worked to protect the Bent brothers’ interests and lure business away from the other trading posts.

Fort Vasquez was constructed about 1835 by Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette. The goals for building this independent fort were different – prompted by the goal to carve out a small niche market and make a profit from the trade.

The firm of Vasquez and Sublette were doomed to failure from the beginning due to the intense competition in the immediate area. Their partnership was dissolved in 1840-41 and the fort and its contents sold to Messrs. Locke and Randolph. Following a string of bad luck these men left without completing payment for the fort. The post fell into disrepair, but continued to be used into the 1850s and 60s as a temporary shelter for emigrants and as a corral for livestock.

Fort Vasquez was reconstructed in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration to create jobs as well as restore the historical structure. After the Colorado Historical Society acquired the property, a series of archaeological excavations uncovered the fort’s original foundations, and artifacts are now included with other exhibits in the Fort Vasquez Museum.

Fort Vasquez Museum, acquired by the Colorado Historical Society, is open daily during the summer, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Winter Hours (Labor Day to Memorial Day) are Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Fort Jackson was constructed in the spring of 1837, by American Fur Company in response to construction of Fort Vasquez. American Fur Company considered this area as part of the trading territory within the sphere of Fort Laramie to the north.

Two of the company’s most able traders, Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb, were sent to manage the operation. They probably employed American Fur’s typical response to the opposition outfits – to overwhelm the competition by under-pricing their trade goods and bidding over-market prices for furs.

Although little is known of the location or structure of Fort Jackson, this post is of great importance because, unlike the other posts, some of the business records still survive.

Fort Lupton, the southernmost of the four fur trading posts, was built by Lancaster Lupton, (Lupton Fur Company) in 1837 after he obtained the necessary trading license, financial backing, and trade goods. The goals for establishing his fort, like Fort Vasquez, was simply to make a profit.

While before 1837 there was only Fort Vasquez along the South Platte River, by the end of 1837 there were four forts within 15 miles challenging each other. Fort Jackson was the first to capitulate under the Bent’s power. It was sold to Bent and Company in 1838; its goods and supplies added to the inventories at Fort St. Vrain.

By 1942, Fort Vasquez was abandoned, but Lancaster Lupton managed to hold out until 1844 before he was unable to sustain the business and abandoned the post. It is a testament to his managerial skills, energy and tenacity, that even with no prior experience in the fur trade, he was able to hold out for three years longer than the veteran traders Vasquez and Sublette.

After the post was abandoned by Lupton, it was used as a temporary shelter by travelers passing through, and later by a ranch. During the 1970s the site was extensively disturbed by heavy industrial operations complicating efforts to interpret the site. In the early 1990s archaeological test trenches were dug at what was believed to be the site of the fort, but fail to delineate the outline of the fort.

In 2003, the South Platte Valley Historical Society began reconstructing Fort Lupton at a location several hundred feet south of the presumed original structure. The Society is creating a Historic Park on the north side of Fort Lupton approximately a half mile west of U.S. 85 on Weld County Road 14 1/2 that includes the fort replica and other historic structures.

For readers who missed the OCTA Convention in August in Loveland, there will be another opportunity to visit the Four Forts on the South Platte River on Sept. 19. The annual tour will begin at Fort Vasquez at 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m. Tour participants will be transported between fort sites in a school bus for presentations by representatives of the responsible Historical Society.

A different presenter at each fort will provide a program and answer questions starting at Fort Vasquez (Colorado Historical Society); moving on to the Fort St. Vrain site (Platteville Historical Society); then to the approximate site of Fort Jackson near Ione; on to Fort Lupton Historical Park (South Platte Valley Historical Society); then returning to Fort Vasquez.

The tour cost is $35 per person; $30 for members of the three historical societies. Proceeds cover tour expenses, with the balance divided among the historical societies. The Double Tree Restaurant in Platteville is also providing a coupon for each participant giving a discount off a meal at their eating place.

For tour reservations or more information, please call Fort Vasquez Museum in Platteville at (970) 785-2832.

[1] Although several names were used at various times for some of the forts and companies, only the current names are used in the article to eliminate confusion. Fort St. Vrain aka Fort George (for George Bent) or Fort Lookout; Fort Lupton aka Fort Lancaster (for Lancaster Lupton); American Fur Company aka Pratte, Choteau & Company out of Fort Laramie in Wyoming (formerly called Fort William.)


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