Monday, February 1, 2016

Bent's Old Fort NHS

Bent's Old Fort preserves the history of trade and frontier life at an extremely isolated yet important outpost along the Santa Fe Trail.  It is an extremely well-done historic site with plenty of interest to adults and families alike.

Originally from Missouri but drawn to the frontier fur trade, William and Charles Bent established the fort in 1833 as a trading post in present-day southeast Colorado, along with Ceran St Vrain, a prominent Taos citizen.  It sat along the Santa Fe Trail and beside the Arkansas River, which at that time was the border between the US and Mexico.  The Bent, St Vrain, & Co. forged close ties and good trade relations with many of the plains tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho.  Thus, at the fort, they created a booming trade business of beaver, buffalo, and other furs going east (which the people used to keep warm in the winter) and, in exchange, provided many East Coast and European wares, such as beads, blankets, pots, and knives for the Indians.

It wasn't just a trading post, though.  This was THE stop along the Santa Fe Trail.  There was nothing else between Fort Leavenworth, in present-day eastern Kansas, and Santa Fe in Mexican territory.  As people made their way to the allure of a new life in the ranch land of the southwest or along the California coast, this oasis was a welcome respite of near luxury to those that had spent the last 529 miles seeing no sign of civilization save for perhaps some Indians they preferred to avoid.

Although constructed in the style of a castle or fort, in reality, Bent never intended it to be a protective outpost manned by the Army.  His goal was free and peaceful trade between all peoples in the area.

The Council Room inside the fort was where Americans (and some Canadians) met to conduct large-scale trade with trusted Indian tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho.  This room also hosted peace councils between warring tribes, seen as a neutral ground because of Bent's reputation as a fair and peaceful man throughout the various tribes.

Council Room
 For those tribes that had not earned trusted status, they could still trade but via a window outside the inner gate to the fort.

The Trade Room for less trusted tribes.  Notice the exchange window below the chandelier in the upper left of the photo.
The Trade Room for Americans, French Canadians, and those Indians allowed inside the fort.
The Store Room for Furs Going East
The Dining Room served hot meals each night, and those invited by the Bents or St Vrain were treated to white tablecloths and a free dessert of pie.  Even without the white tablecloths, however, this would have seemed quite luxurious compared to trail life.

Dining Room
The fort also housed blacksmith and carpentry shops.  These stayed busy continually, fixing wagons, replacing horseshoes, and the like.  Think of it as the first interstate garage!  Behind the fort, a corral held the horses, oxen, or other stock belonging to the visitors.

Blacksmith Shop
Carpentry Shop
While the cook, blacksmith, and carpenter all lived in small rooms beside their work areas, the upstairs contained dormitory-style housing for the payroll trappers or those visitors passing through.

Living Quarters
 Also upstairs was the billiard room, where the men met to play pool or cards while imbibing on some of Europe's finest alcohol.

Billiard Room
 In 1846, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny rolled in from Fort Leavenworth with approximately 1500 personnel to consolidate his forces, rest for a few days, and decide on his next move on his march to California.  His mission was to take New Mexico and California from Mexico and set up civil governments in his wake, all while not disrupting existing trade in the area or inciting the Indians. (Piece of cake, right?)  Kearny commandeered two of the storage rooms to store his arms, ammunition, and supplies.

Army Supply Storage
It was late in the year, so Kearny ultimately decided on the southern route to Santa Fe to avoid the chance of bad weather even though that meant losing the wagons to bad terrain.  Kearny's mission was eventually fully successful, avoiding opposition in New Mexico and taking Los Angeles with the help of the Navy after losing in an arrogant assault at San Pasqual outside of San Diego.

By 1849, the growing tide of settlers and gold-seekers had disrupted the carefully nurtured trade industry with the Indians through over-grazing, significantly increased buffalo hunting, a cholera epidemic, and tension between the Indians and the newcomers.  As a result, the Cheyenne moved away, and Bent and St Vrain moved on, but they left a lasting lesson in melding diplomacy and economics with the Indian tribes at a time when most of America viewed them as hostile savages.  In a prolonged era to which we look back today through our lens of modernity and decry many national-level sins, this fort surely stands as a light in a dark time for all that we find noble about our country.

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