The Santa Fe Trail

A map of the Santa Fe Trail

A map of the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1830's. Texas is still an independent republic and Mexico extends well into Colorado. During the main operational life of Bent's Old Fort Trading Post from 1833-1849, it was right on the Mexican border on the Arkansas River. There were two branches of the trail. The Mountain branch stayed out of the desert but crossed over the rugged and foreboding Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was used by foot and horse traffic as well as Native Americans, mountain men and fur traders.The Cimmarron branch took a more direct and shorter route, but required crossing a waterless desert in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle region as well as dealing with the Comanches. This was the route that most wagon trains took and was more heavily used than the northern route. Both routes were fraught with danger and hardships.

On November 16, 1821, a trader from Independence, Missouri named William Becknell arrived in Sante Fe, New Mexico with three packhorses loaded with trade goods. It took him eight weeks to travel the 900 miles over paths and crossings used for centuries by the Plains Indians, the Conquistadors and the mountain men. Strictly speaking, he was a smuggler. New Mexico was still a Spanish province and trade with norteamericanos was forbidden. Others had tried their luck getting goods to the lucrative southwest markets. Most had been imprisoned and their goods confiscated. Becknell figured he had nothing to lose. He was bankrupt and sold everything he had to obtain the $300 of merchandise he had with him.

Arriving in New Mexico, he was greeted enthusiatically by everyone, including soldiers. Unbeknownst to him, Mexico gained its independence from Spain just weeks earlier. The pent up demand for manufactured goods exploded. Becknell sold his goods for $6,000 and left with saddlebags full of silver. He returned in 1822 via the Cimmarron route with three ox cart wagons carrying $3,000 in goods. He went home with $91,000.

In between those trips, others made their way to New Mexico to cash in. However, it was William Becknell who had the luck and the perfect timing to be the first to open what became one of the most important and lucrative trade routes ever. History recognizes him as the "Father of the Santa Fe Trail".

The Santa Fe Trail was much more than a trade route. Settlers, soldiers and adventurers used it. So did the 49ers when gold was discovered in California. Stage coaches and eventually, the railroads followed the trail. It was also a military invasion route in two wars. In 1846, U.S. forces invaded Mexico during the Mexican War. In 1862, Confederate forces invaded Arizona and New Mexico as part of a plan to seize California and establish a coast to coast Confederacy. Their incursion came to an abrupt end on March 28, 1862 at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which was fought astride the trail at Pecos, NM.

As trade and travel increased on the trail, so did the need for services, support and security. The trail spawned a whole support structure and new economies. Wheelrights, blacksmiths, teamsters, tradesmen, coopersmiths, jewelers, gunsmiths, mercantilists and more all found their services in demand. However, almost all of this activity took place at the two ends of the trail. If you needed to fix an axle, replace a mule or get medicine in between, you had a real problem. Additionally, the vast amounts of goods and silver bullion on the trail made the prairie an increasingly dangerous place. Banditos, renegades and outlaws found the Santa Fe Trail a target rich environment. The traffic also strained relations with the Plains Indians. The Comanche, in particular, were dangerous and prolific raiders.

The federal government responded by establishing a military presence along the trail. A chain of forts was built to service and protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Some, like Fort Lyons in Colorado, were short-lived. Others, like Fort Union in northern New Mexico, were major installations that were used for decades. This fort building didn't start in earnest until the 1850's. For the first three decades of its existence, the Santa Fe Trail was a wild and wooly place. To compensate for this lack of protection, caravans traveling the trail became large and were heavily armed. Organizing and leading them was big business.

In 1880, the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached Sante Fe and the trail returned to the prairie. This highway of grass lives on today as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. Major highways criss-cross the trail route and there are a number of areas where the wagon ruts of the original trail are still clearly visible. Also along the trail are numerous historic sites that flourished and faded during the 59 year period (1821 - 1880) that the trail was active. One of those sites is Bent's Old Fort Trading Post.

"If you build it, they will come" ... Field of Dreams (1989)

A photo of Bent's Old Fort National Historic site

A view of Bent's Old Fort Trading Post. It looks like the set for a French Foreign Legion movie and was one of a kind. Rising up out of the untamed Great Plains, it was almost 300 miles from the nearest help. It was designed with security in mind and was built strongly to defend against an attack that never happened. These defenses included double walls, corner bastions, cleared fields of fire and cannon. Follow the link for a video view from the top of the southwest bastion.

After surveying the trail in 1825, it took the federal government over 30 years to start building forts on the Santa Fe Trail. Profit-driven free enterprise did it in less than 10. In 1830, three men entered into a partnership to do business on the Santa Fe Trail. Brothers Charles and William Bent were explorers and fur trappers. In the years before the trail, they gathered beaver pelts along the upper Missouri River and in the Rocky Mountains. Ceran St. Vrain was also a fur trapper turned businessman from St. Louis. All were experienced frontiersmen with extensive knowledge of trade operations. Additionally, the two brothers had developed good relations with the Indians during their frontier years.

The Bent & St. Vrain Company launched later that year. At first it was a direct trade and storefront operation based in Santa Fe. St. Vrain stayed there to manage the company and acquire goods while Charles Bent ramrodded ox cart trains back and forth to Missouri. William Bent went north to southwest Colorado to conduct trade with the Native Americans, especially the Cheyenne. Beaver pelts, Indian rugs, turqoise and silver went east. Manufactured goods came west. The product with the highest demand was colored cotton cloth.

Ten years after William Becknell first opened the trail, business was booming in both directions. The eastbound goods of the Southwest went all the way to Europe. The Bents and St. Vrain got rich, but they didn't rest on their laurels. They came up with a new product and a new way to make money without the high risk of the trail.

By 1833, the market for beaver pelts was diminshing. It had been a good run but people were clamoring for something else, something new. That something was buffalo robes. Used by the Native Americans for centuries, tanned buffalo robes made great blankets, coats, hats and just about any other article of clothing. It was warm, wind resistant and waterproof. The Bent & St. Vrain Company went all in for buffalo and used the Plains Indians as their suppliers. In Colorado, William Bent suggested building a trading post to facilitate this activity. They expanded the idea to include logistics, supplies, medical, storage, hospitality and mercantile support for all users of the Mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail and the surrounding areas. It would also provide security and a safe haven for all who came there. William Bent supervised its construction and the company named it Fort William in his honor. However, the name didn't stick. All along the trail, it was known simply as Bent's Fort.

Crossroads of the Santa Fe Trail

The plaza of Bent's Old Fort National Historic site

The inside plaza of Bent's Fort taken from the northeast corner near the front gate. Although the exterior dimensions of the post are quite large, the interior is rather small. On a busy day in peak season (spring and early summer) there could be several hundred people inside the walls taking care of business and hundreds more encamped outside. In the slow season (late summer and fall) there might be less than 100. Prime hunting season was late fall and winter, when the buffalo fur was thickest. Follow the link for a video tour inside the plaza.

Bent's Fort was a walled town that rose up out of the plains. When finished in 1834, it was the strongest fortification west of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It was built in classic Spanish style with an open plaza contained within the thick 15 foot high double adobe walls. The interior walls also served as walls for rooms and shops. The post was well positioned for the company's plans. Located near present-day La Junta, CO, it was 300 miles from Santa Fe and 600 miles from Independence. One hundred yards to the south were the Arkansas River and the Mexican border. To the north were the Plains Indian tribes and the buffalo hunting grounds. The Santa Fe Trail ran east-west right next to it. Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, mountain men, Native Americans, free blacks, settlers, soldiers, trappers and more made their way to the fort and all were welcome. The Bents wouldn't have it any other way. On any given day, upwards of a dozen languages were heard. Cheyenne villages encamped outside the walls next to traders and settlers. It truly was a cultural crossroads.

The post had everything a famished worn out traveler could want including a tavern, a billiards room and even a barber shop. There was a well with fresh water inside the walls. An adobe ice house near the river meant iced drinks could be served almost all year. People who had been eating hard tack and jerky for weeks could have a sit down meal served on china. There was a resident doctor and tradesmen of every description.

Supervised by William Bent, Bent's Fort anchored a trade empire that extended for 500 miles in every direction and influenced economies around the world. It was a time of unbridled risk taking, entrepeneurship and good old fashioned capitalism. Financially, it was a gold mine for the company. The profits to be made were enormous. A gallon of brandy bought in Independence for $2 could fetch $25 in Santa Fe. A buffalo robe bought for 25 cents at the fort could be sold in St. Louis for $6. By the time it got to Europe, it was $60. In a typical year, over 15,000 buffalo robes were shipped out.**Historical footnote: Tanning a buffalo skin into a robe was a long messy process. All tanning was done by women and it took at least a week to tan a hide. After being scraped, cleaned and stretched out on a frame, the skin was rubbed with the animal's brains, liver bile and bone marrow mixed in with lather from the root of the soapweed yucca plant. **

Everybody came to Bent's Fort and they all spent money or traded goods. Whether buying, selling, trading, brokering, repairing, storing, packing, re-supplying, guiding, negotiating or anything else, Bent & St. Vrain Company got a piece of the action. They did it while being fair and welcoming to all. Throughout the region, peace and prosperity reigned. It seemed it would never end - but it did - and sooner than expected.

The End of the Line

Press used to compact buffalo robes for shipping.

This was probably the single most important piece of equipment on the post - the fur press. With this, buffalo robes were compacted into packages for shipping. Each package weighed about 100 lbs. and contained 8-10 robes. They were shipped by the tens of thousands. In 1840, one trading house in St. Louis recorded receiving almost 70,000 buffalo robes. The number of animals killed was staggering. Within a decade of this kind of hunting pressure, the buffalo were on the decline, but it got worse. Biologists estimate that in 1850, there were 20 million buffalo on the Great Plains. The U.S. Government did a "buffalo census" in 1880 and could only find 500 of them.

By the mid-1840's, Bent's Fort was becoming a victim of its own success as huge problems started to become evident. The thick stands of cottonwood trees which lined both sides of the rivers in the region were gone, cut down for lumber and firewood. Grazing grass was getting thin. The post became a breeding ground for disease. Travelers along the trail brought their illnesses with them and often stayed over at the fort to get well. The nearby buffalo hunting grounds were emptying out. Both Indian and white hunters were killing them by the thousands for buffalo robes. As Native Americans sought guns, whiskey, tobacco and other trappings of the white man, their traditional way of life began to change. This was particularly true of the Cheyenne, who were the most prolific of the robe hunters. No longer could they hunt buffalo and bring their kill back to their villages at the fort. Now they had to move everything and stay away longer as they ranged further and further afield to get their robes. But the ultimate nail in the coffin was the Mexican War.

In May of 1846, the U.S. and Mexico declared war on each other as a result of lingering territorial disputes in the Southwest. One of the major campaigns of the war for the U.S. was the New Mexico Campaign. Led by General Stephen Kearny, its mission was to seize the Mexican territories of present-day New Mexico and California. By July of that year, Bent's Fort had become a strategic military installation and jumping off point for the attack on Santa Fe. This was done with the full cooperation of Charles and William Bent. Charles, with detailed knowledge of the region and its people, became an advisor to Kearny and worked behind the scenes politically to reduce the chances of fighting. William Bent was an active participant in the campaign, leading his own independent "spy company". They were Kearny's eyes and ears.

On August 15, 1846, General Kearny entered Santa Fe without a shot being fired and claimed Nuevo Mexico as U.S. territory. Kearny soon moved on to Alta California to complete his campaign. Before he did, he appointed Charles Bent as the first territorial governor of New Mexico. The cultural crossroads now became a flashpoint. The former citizens of Mexico chafed at and resented their new American rulers. The Plains Indians also grew restless as soldiers, settlers and miners poured into the area. Resentment exploded into violence in Taos, New Mexico on January 19, 1847. Known as the Taos Revolt, an angry and vengeful mob broke into Bent's house, murdered and scalped him in front of his family, then dragged his body through the streets. His family escaped by digging through adobe walls to the house next door.

Charles Bent had been the driving force and inspiration of the Bent & St Vrain Company and Bent's Fort. His death also sucked the life out of both of them. William Bent and Ceran St Vrain tried to keep it going but the magic was gone along with the buffalo, the prairie grass and the timber. Problems continued to pile up. In early 1849, cholera swept the plains and killed half the southern Cheyenne, Bent's best trading partners. St. Vrain turned over his share of the post to Bent, who tried to sell it to the Army. They had basically taken it over and chased away all the paying customers. They refused. In fact, they never paid a dime for any of the goods and services obtained from Bent during the war and afterwards. Bent packed up his stuff in 20 wagons and left. A trail party arrived at Bent's Fort on August 22, 1849 and found it empty and smoldering, partially destroyed by fire. The exact circumstances of that destruction are not known.

Bent's Fort Rides Again as Bent's Old Fort

1964 excavation photo

From the National Park Service, the excavation of Bent's Old Fort in progress in May 1964. You're looking at the southeast corner of the plaza. The two men kneeling by the wheelbarrow are working in the blacksmith shop. The re-construction was a major undertaking. 160,000 adobe bricks were used along with 800 cottonwood trees and 112,000 linear board feet of Ponderosa pine. The bricks, the wooden fixtures like doors and all metal parts were handmade by craftsmen on site. Construction began on May 27, 1975. It opened to the public on July 25, 1976 during America's Bi-centennial summer. It is one of a kind.

The site of Bent's Fort was utilized for another 30 years. The Kansas City and Santa Fe Stagecoach Company, contracted to carry the U.S. Mail, rebuilt some of the walls and used it as a major way station until the railroad came through. It had a postmaster until 1873. Later, it was part of a cattle ranch. No one knows when Bent's Fort was abandoned for the last time. By 1900, its lumber, adobe and furnishings had been thoroughly picked over and there was almost nothing left of the "castle on the plains" that once stood there.

In 1960, the National Park Service acquired the land at Bent's Fort and designated it a National Historic Site. An extensive archeological excavation was done from 1963 to 1966. It recovered thousands of artifacts and charted the rooms and walls. Convincing the government to re-build it took almost a decade. These were the turbulent, nation-changing years of the "long hot summers" in the cities, Woodstock, Viet Nam and Watergate. President Gerald Ford finally signed off on it in August 1974.

Reconstruction began in 1975 with help from diaries and drawings from travelers of that era. Particularly invaluable were the journals, drawings and water color paintings of U.S. Army Lt. James Abert. He visited the fort three times and was fascinated with it. He accurately measured, diagrammed and drew every square inch of the place. Also very useful was the diary of Susan Magoffin, who spent a month at the fort in the summer of 1846 and was the first white woman to travel the length of the Santa Fe Trail. She died giving birth to her fourth child in 1855 at the age of 28. The diary was published by her daughter in 1926 and is still in print. It gives detailed accounts of life on the trail and at the post. The result was a near perfect reconstruction of Bent's Fort built with similar materials and outfitted with accurate period reproductions. Role players re-enact life at the post. Special events and ceremonies are common. Visiting Bent's Old Fort is like stepping back in time.

So, Was There Ever a Bent's New Fort?

Google Earth view of Bent's New Fort

Although in ruins, you can clearly see the outlines of Bent's New Fort in this aerial view from Google Earth. Imagery date is 2013. The post itself, outlined in red, was 12 rooms around an open plaza. The entire structure was built of stone. Two cannons sat at the corners of the roof. The defensive earthworks were put in place by the Army when this became an annex of Fort Lyon. You can also see the close proximity to the river, which was itself a major interior transportation route by this time. Additionally, the photo points out wagon ruts on the trail.

As a matter of fact, there was. When William Bent abandoned Bent's Fort in 1849, he went 40 miles down the Arkansas River to an area called Big Timbers and built a stone fort of similar design on a bluff directly overlooking the river. Completed in 1853, he called it Bent's New Fort and ran a successful business for seven years. Then the Army showed up again and announced they were building Fort Lyon a mile away on the river. Given his last experience with them, Bent folded his business and negotiated a long term lease with them. They used Bent's New Fort as a commissary and support facility. The Army never made any lease payments to Bent, claiming he was a squatter on Indian land.

William moved to a ranch about 15 miles away and lived there for the rest of his life. He was also an Indian agent and led caravans along the trail, particularly over the treacherous Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He married three different Cheyenne women and had four children who were raised as both white and Native American. Kit Carson once said of William Bent, "I think he personally knows every Indian in Colorado". He was a wealthy and influential man who moved easily between two cultures and was respected by both.

He continued to trade with and advocate for the Native Americans until his death on May 19, 1869. He died of pneumonia that he contracted while leading yet another party over the mountains. He was just shy of 60 years old. Upon his death, the title of the land for both forts passed to his daughter Julia. She sold both tracts in 1870, ending the 40 year family ownership of both of the Bent's forts.

The remains of Bent's New Fort can be visited today. There are several historical markers and the outlines of the fort are clearly visible. It's a unit of the Park Service but is on private property. Thanks to the property owners, you can park by the gate and visit the site. Stay on the trails and leave gates the way you find them. Watch out for rattlesnakes. Just up the road are wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail. It's really out there off the beaten path but it's a fascinating footnote to the history of the area. The GPS location is N38.0945 W102.7602.

Bent's War

Painting of the Sand Creek Massacre

Contemporary Western artist Andy Thomas paints a frightening and realistic image of the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. At dawn, 600 Colorado cavalry troopers stormed into the camp at full gallop. The chief, Black Kettle, was an advocate of peace who thought he was protecetd by a treaty. Thinking the attack was a mistake, he flew a white flag and an American flag. It didn't matter. The soldiers killed as many Indians as they could. Most of the victims were women and children. Those who hid in the sand banks of the creek were blown out by artillery. Those who ran were hunted down and killed, some as far as 10 miles away. Not content with the killing, the soldiers horribly mutilated the dead. This orgy of violence lasted eight hours.

All three of William Bent's sons were there. George and Charles were in the camp, but escaped. Robert, forced at gunpoint to lead the troops to Black Kettle's camp, had a ringside seat for the whole thing. Much of the eyewitness testimony we have comes from him. Sand Creek changed America forever. Never again would the whites and the Indians live in harmony as they had for several decades in and around Bent's Fort. The memories and acrimony linger to this day. Black Kettle survived, only to be killed in a similar attack at the Battle of the Washita River in Oklahoma on November 27, 1868. The attack was carried out by the 7th Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer's first Indian fight. His next one was eight years later at the Little Bighorn.

History doesn't happen in a vacuum. There are often threads connecting events that seemingly have no relation to each other. The Bent family was crucial to Colorado and the opening of the American West in the early and mid 19th century. ** Historical footnote: Patriotic service ran in the family. The father of Charles and William - Silas Bent, Jr. - surveyed the Louisiana Purchase and was a judge on the Missouri Territory Supreme Court. Their grandfather - Silas Bent, Sr. - participated in the Boston Tea Party. He joined the Minutemen right after Lexington and served for the entire war. ** Despite all their good work and positive influence, they had their share of violence and tragedy befall them. Charles was killed by a mob. Disease, war and disaster forced William to abandon his fort and quite possibly burn it down. This unfortunate legacy continued with his new fort and his sons.

William had four children - three sons (George, Charles and Robert) and a daughter (Julia) - by his Cheyenne wife Owl Woman. They were raised in both cultures and moved between them like their father, but George and Charles identified with the Cheyenne and spent most of their time with them. Robert worked with his father.

In November 1864, Colonel John Chivington - the hero of the Battle of Glorieta Pass - came to Fort Lyon with 600 cavalry troopers from the 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, a territorial militia. His orders from the Governor were to exterminate any Native Americans he found. He planned to attack the southern Cheyenne led by Black Kettle who were encamped about 50 miles north of the fort along Sand Creek. The final plans were made and orders issued at a meeting in a room of Bent's New Fort, which was now owned by the Army. Several officers protested but Chivington ignored their concerns. They placed William Bent under guard so he couldn't warn the Indians and forced his son Robert to lead them there.

The attack on November 29, 1864 was the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the most wanton and disgraceful acts of violence in American history. George and Charles were in camp when it happened. Both escaped but George's wife was killed. In the aftermath, he and Charles declared war on the whites. The period of comity and good will that had existed between the whites and the Indians - that the Bents worked so hard to cultivate - was gone forever.

Both joined the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. The Plains tribes - Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota - joined forces and mustered a 1,000 man army for revenge and retaliation. They burned and plundered the Platte River Valley in northeast Colorado. Years later, an elderly George Bent told historians that, "...the whole valley was lighted up with the flames of burning ranches and stage stations." The major action there was the raid on Julesburg on January 7, 1865. They returned on February 2, plundered any remaining supplies and burned down the town. Soldiers at nearby Fort Rankin did not venture out.

From there, many went north to join the Lakota in Red Cloud's War in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. George Bent was present at the Fetterman Fight, the most significant battle of that conflict. This Indian army waged war against the whites along the Overland Trail and the Bozeman Trail for almost five years. It finally came to a violent end on July 11, 1869 when their camp was jumped by U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of Summit Springs near Sterling, CO. Charles Bent was killed. George survived but his war making days were over as was the Indian War in Colorado.

He became an interpreter and negotiator who assisted both sides as he tried to work within the system. Neither side trusted him completely and he faded away, living to ripe old age. In his later years, he was sought out by historians and spoke freely about his experiences. He died in Washita, OK in 1918 at the age of 75, a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic of that year.

Bent's Legacy

Historical marker on the Santa Fe Trail

A typical historical site on the backroads of the Santa Fe Geocaching Tour. This is a toll house on a private road built by a rancher in 1871. It offered a shortcut into New Mexico over a navigable mountain pass. Although the tolls were only collected for two years, the road was used until the 1880's when the railroad came through. The cache is hidden inside the structure. There are dozens more like this all along the trail.

Bent's Old Fort hardly rates a mention in the history books. The re-built historical site is off the beaten path and doesn't get a whole lot of visitors - about 30,000 a year. In the decade between excavation and reconstruction (1966-1976) there was a lot of discussion on whether it should be re-built at all. Even though it had been designated a National Historic Site in 1960, the bean counters in Washington viewed it as just another old trading post returning to the prairie.

This old trading post is much more than that. It tells the story of a cultural and economic crossroads that changed the country and opened up the West. It ushered in a brief period of U.S. history when whites and Native Americans lived together peacefully and prospered because it was good business. It's an ironic tragedy that the success of Bent's Trading Post also sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The positive forces it set in motion overwhelmed it in less than 20 years. Violence, disease and ignorance replaced peace and prosperity. In the end, Bent's Old Fort was destroyed, key members of the Bent family were ruined or dead and the Plains Indians were decimated.

The National Park Service does a great job of presenting Bent's Old Fort as an immersion learning experience. You'll feel like you're there as it happened and you'll leave shaking your head.

Exploring the Area

If you've never heard of Bent's Fort, you're not alone. Natasha and I are history buffs and we'd never heard of it until we saw it in our NPS Passport Stamp book. So off we went. We figured on a quick look around, get the stamps and then on to bigger and better things. We ended up staying in the area for two days. It's the perfect Off the Beaten Path destination. If you like history and exploring along back roads, you'll love this area.

Highway 50 that runs across Colorado and Kansas basically follows the trace of the Santa Fe Trail. There are historical sites and museums all along that road or a short drive from it. The Santa Fe Trail Association has put out the Santa Fe Geocaching Tour (SFGT) to spur interest in the trail. All 73 of the cache names start with SFGT and are placed at historical places along the trail, including forts, cemeteries, old towns, abandoned buildings and more.

If you travel out that way, don't miss the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. It's way out there, about a 90 mile drive from La Junta, CO. The last eight miles are on a dirt road. It's a simple site, manned by Park Service interpreters and sometimes some Native Americans. Treat it as hallowed ground, which it is. The enormity of the tragedy here defies belief. It's worth the trip to pay your respects and complete the circle of events related to Bent's Old Fort.

Adios por ahora ... Boris and Natasha