Not knowing any history about the place before we visited Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in Colorado, we were expecting a military fort. But it is not really a fort at all. Although it certainly hosted the military during the Mexican-American war, the “fort” was actually established as a trading post along the Santa Fe Trail.
Bent is the surname of the two brothers who, along with another partner, built Bent’s Fort in the early 1800’s. It was strategically situated on the bank of the Arkansas River (then, the boundary between the US and Mexico) and was the only white American settlement west of the Missouri River.
Bent’s Fort served as a waypoint for travelers and adventurers traveling the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe (then, part of Mexico). This branch of the Santa Fe Trail was the “wet” route from Cimarron (near present day Dodge City, Kansas) to Santa Fe. Unlike the shorter, dryer trail option to the south, this route had lots of water but was much harder going over the Sangre de Christo mountains. Bent’s Fort was a great stopping point to resupply.
Bent’s Fort was not established only to support the Santa Fe Trail. It operated as a trading post from 1833 to 1849, doing brisk trade with fur traders and Native American tribes in beaver pelts, buffalo robes, powered horns, tobacco, cloth and blankets, pipes, gunpowder, tools, dried foods, belts and beads. William Bent intentionally avoided alcohol. His wife was a Cheyenne, and he maintained good relations with surrounding Native American tribes.
Unlike other outposts, this one was built of adobe. Four foot thick walls surrounded a central plaza. All of the rooms faced inwards and even though it was a trading post, it was built for protection with heavy wooden gates, gun slits and corner bastions.
The fort you see today is a reproduction of the original, abandoned in 1849 and destroyed. It became a national park unit in 1960, an important site along the Santa Fe National Historical Trail. In fact, Bent’s Old Fort will be hosting the Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial Symposium on September 23, 2021.
When you visit Bent’s Old Fort, you may be surprised at the landscape. When most people think of Colorado, they think of the Rocky Mountains. But this area is flat and semi-arid. When we drove there, we were surprised to pass sunflowers and sorghum.
Then, all of a sudden, the fort rises up in the horizon. No wonder they call it the “Castle of the Plains”.
You won’t need a long visit. There is a self-guided tour and depending on the season, there are re-enactors. And of course the visitor center has lots of great information. But if you are interested in the Santa Fe Trail and America’s westward expansion, it’s a worthy stop.
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