National Historic Site - Colorado
by Curtis Van Fange
On the prairie of southeastern Colorado beside the Arkansas River stands a time warp, Bent’s Old Fort, a place locked in the 1830s when the United States was just beginning its great push westward. Built in 1833, Bent’s Old Fort was, for most of its 16 years, the only white settlement on the entire Santa Fe Trail, which ran from the U. S. frontier community of Independence, Missouri, southwestward to the Mexican provincial capital of Santa Fe.
The idea of Bent’s Old Fort took root in the late 1820s, a few years after Mexico won her independence from Spain and the American William Becknell opened the trail for commerce. It had become clear that the buffalo hides and beaver pelts from the western prairies and mountains would find markets in the United States, and that clothing, costume jewelry, personal care items, furniture, dishes, cooking utensils, writing materials, books, agricultural tools, liquors and many other items from U. S. producers would find markets in northern Mexico.
Recognizing opportunity, two brothers named Charles and William Bent and an entrepreneurial and aristocratic Frenchman named Ceran St. Vrain formed a partnership called Bent, St. Vrain Company, and the partners constructed Bent’s Old Fort for the purpose of opening a trade in buffalo hides with the Indians of the Southern Great Plains. Finding almost instant success, the partners soon expanded, building other trading posts to the north and south and opening stores in Santa Fe and in Taos.
Bent’s Old Fort, on the long and grueling Santa Fe Trail, would become a place of sanctuary for merchant caravans, adventurers and military campaigners. It provided livestock, food and water, supplies and wagon repairs. In 1846, it served as a staging area for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny’s “Army of the West,” which was charged with capturing New Mexico at the outbreak of the Mexican American War.
By 1849, Bent’s Old Fort experienced a seismic shift of fortune. The war had ended. The U. S. had seized the Southwest. The great migration west, accelerated by the discovery of gold in California, had begun. The economic tides of the frontier shifted. Trade on the Santa Fe Trail slackened. Disease struck. Plains Indian raiders remained a threat. Bent’s Old Fort was abandoned and partially destroyed, its remaining walls falling to the rains and winds of the prairie. William Bent built another fort Bent’s New Fort not far away, but its fame never equaled that of Bent’s Old Fort.
In 1963, an archaeological excavation, sponsored by the National Park Service, uncovered artifacts that, together with diaries, sketches and paintings, helped researchers reconstruct the remarkable history of Bent’s Old Fort. This led the Nixon administration to approve legislation to reconstruct the fort as it originally was built.
And so Bent’s Old Fort stands today, a historic site frozen in time. High, sturdy adobe walls provide protection from long-past Indian raiders. Nineteenth century merchandise lies in storage rooms awaiting trade between frontier merchants. Blacksmith and carpentry tools, a stocked frontier kitchen, and carefully made beds in upstairs rooms stand ready for travelers weary from long days on the Santa Fe Trail.
Bent’s Old Fort Facts
Approximately six miles northeast of La Junta, Colorado, on State Highway 194.
Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Summer (June 1 through August 31): 8:00 am to 5:30 pm
Winter (September 1 through May 31): 9:00 am to 4:00 pm
- Adults $3.00
- Children (6 to 12) $2.00
- Children (under 6) No charge
- Federal Passports Honored
- Respect the fort, taking care on steep stairways and open walkways. Stay off fort walls and furnishings.
- Respect the animals, keeping a safe distance.
- Keep pets leashed.
- Caution children about the need for respect.
- Stay on designated trails
- Do not smoke within the fort grounds.
- Do not have open beverages within the fort grounds.
- Report safety hazards to rangers.
For Additional Information
National Park Service
Bent’s Old Fort
35110 Highway 194 East
La Junta, Colorado 81050-9523
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