Along the Santa Fe Trail
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
As we pass through heavy wooden doors in the thick adobe wall we enter the world of a 1840s fur trading post along the Santa Fe Trail, Bent’s Old Fort. Positioned on the north banks of the Arkansas River in current day eastern Colorado the fort was truly an outpost between two worlds 170 years ago.
The south side of the river was Mexico. Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the trail, lay 530 miles to the east. Santa Fe was still a month away for the trade wagons pulled by oxen and mules. This was the Western Frontier – Indians roamed the plains in search of diminishing buffalo herds, hunting and trapping.
Brothers Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain partnered to establish a trade business. Construction began in 1833 on an adobe fort near the Santa Fe Trail’s Arkansas River crossing.
An accredited living history program helps today’s visitors relate to the time when the fort hummed with activity. Anvil pings rung through the blacksmith shop as a smithy repaired wagon wheels and shod tired animals. Beaver and buffalo hides were pressed into 100-pound bales for shipment to St. Louis. A resident doctor administered to the ill and injured. Trappers, traders, travelers and Indians bartered in the Trade Room.
Today the fort is filled with artifacts and replicas recalling the 16 years when Bent’s Fort was the headquarters of a thriving trade empire. Visitors relive those days on either guided or self-guiding tours. An introductory film offers background and overview.
Moving through the rooms we realize this was essentially a village. Image the scents of foods cooking over the cottonwood fire, the pleasure of eating at a table in the dining room after weeks on the trail. The three warehouse areas would have been filled with boxes, barrels, and bundles of supplies from guns to tobacco. The Council room served as the place for trade term agreements and solving grievances as interpreters communicated between sign language and English.
In Indian Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick’s quarters we study the “Winter Count”, a Cheyenne picture history painted on an elk hide. Our guide points out important events such as the meteor shower of 1833, the murder of Charles Bent and outbreaks of illnesses.
Up the stairs we visit living quarters of the Doctor Hempstead, visiting trappers including Kit Carson, clerks and partner Ceran St. Vrain. Recreation could be found in the billiard room as well as “drinkables”. From the two corner bastions we scan the plains for miles in all directions and watch the animals in the corrals behind the fort. Today a single tepee standing in front of the fort represents the Cheyennes and Arapahos who camped just outside the walls.
When You Go: Bent’s Old Fort NHS is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours are 8am-5:30pm June 1 – August 31, 9am-4pm September 1 – May 31. Guided tours are available at 9:30am, 11am, 1pm and 2:30pm in summer and at 10:30am and 1pm September through May. The fort is a 1/4 mile walk from the parking area. Don’t miss the well stocked Western National Parks Association bookstore and trade room.