Visiting Bent’s Fort
Earlier this fall I spent a few days in Colorado at a book trade show, and then took the long, scenic route home by traveling south to Pueblo then east to LaJunta before eventually turning north back toward home. My chosen destination was Bent’s Old Fort, one of the truly great places in the American West.
Built and managed by William Bent, in partnership with his brother Charles, and Ceran St. Vrain, this fort on the Arkansas River became the most important place in southern Colorado during the first half of the 19th century. The fort was a trade center for Southern Plains Indians, particularly the Cheyennes after William Bent married Owl Women, and for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. It became a way station for fur trappers, freighters, soldiers, and Indians.
The western personalities who spent time at Bent’s Fort are legion. Certainly there were the Bent brothers themselves. Charles, the eldest, William, George, and Robert. Kit Carson was here, as was John C. Fremont, and the lesser known John James Abert, a topographer. In 1846 Stephen Watts Kearny brought his Army of the West to Bent’s Fort en route to Santa Fe and a place in history as the commander who took Santa Fe without firing a shot.
Irish immigrant Thomas Fitzpatrick, who established himself in the mountain fur trade after signing on with William Ashley to head into the West in search of beaver in 1823, later owned Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
In 1844 he was with Fremont and Carson as they traveled through the Great Basin, across present southern Wyoming, and then headed south into Colorado. They would travel through North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and follow the Arkansas to Bents Fort.
Fitzpatrick was already familiar with the post, having hauled goods on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831. He guided Kearny here in 1846, but was not with him during the Mexican-American War, instead taking messages to Washington, D. C., where he received an appointment as Indian Agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas rivers.
Fitzpatrick, who had longstanding relations with the various tribes, settled in at Bents Fort, conducting business from his small office/quarters.
William Bent eventually abandoned”some say burned”Bents Fort. But the site is now owned by the National Park Service and the adobe structure has been rebuilt.
I arrived there shortly after it opened on a Sunday morning in September to find it wonderfully empty. Now, indeed, to really appreciate what Bents Fort was in its heyday, you’d need to be there during one of the many reenactments held throughout the year when it is bustling with trappers, traders, emigrants, freighters, soldiers, Indians and the like. But I loved the feeling of having the place almost all to myself. When I first arrived there was one Park Service interpreter, a black cat, and a peacock. It was quiet and I could enjoy the ambiance of the fort without the intrusion of 21st century hustle-bustle. I enjoyed the interpretive film, visited the gift shop, and explored the nooks and crannies of the many rooms.
Before I departed, some three hours after I arrived, more visitors had come to the fort, and of course I spotted more fort animals as well. With half a dozen other people there, I began to feel crowded so departed for lunch in LaJunta and then the long drive toward home.
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