Originally called Fort William, Bent’s Fort was established by William and Charles Bent and their partner Ceran St Vrain in 1833 on the north bank of the Arkansas River. At the time the river was the international boundary between the US and Mexico, Bent’s Fort operated as a Fort and trading post, fur trappers, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and other tribes all came to trade.
Traders at the fort exchanged, cloth, glass, hardware and tobacco for silver, furs, horses and mules. Indians camped outside the gates on the prairie and exchanged buffalo hides and horses – no questions asked - for blankets, axes and firearms, although I imagine the traders were careful about who got the firearms.
The Trading Room.
The fur press, centre below, was used to compress the fur into bales to make it easier for transportation.
The fort must’ve been a welcome sight for travellers who’d been two months on the Santa Fe Trail, as it gave them an opportunity to repair wagons, stock up on supplies and rest before continuing their onward trek across the prairie and mountains.
Generally different types of people mixed freely at the fort, but at meal times the upper classes and their guests ate in the dining room. The cook was William Bent’s slave, Charlotte and she was famous for her pumpkin pies and flapjacks. Everyone else either cooked their own meals or ate from the community pot, I’m not sure I’d want to know what exactly was in a community pot!
Susan Magoffin, who was 18 at the time, travelled the Santa Fe Trail with her husband on the way to trade in Mexico, she spent 18 days at the fort after she lost her baby and was delighted with her room, which she noted in her journal had two windows. Mind you she wasn’t as delighted with the mosquitoes.
In 1846, because the Bent’s were effective peacemakers, the fort was used as the headquarters for the Upper Platte and Arkansas Indian Agency. When the US went to war with Mexico the fort’s strategic location on an established road made it an ideal staging post for troops.
Settlers and gold seekers disrupted the carefully nurtured Indian trade, faced with polluted water holes, decimated cottonwoods and declining bison tensions exacerbated between the Indians and whites, a cholera epidemic was the final nail in the trade coffin. The fort was burnt, it’s thought by William Bent after he tried unsuccessfully to sell it to the US army.
The billiard room and bar
The fort was reconstructed in, I think, the 1970’s by the park service with the aid of drawings done by Lt, James Abert in 1846 and from accounts by contemporary visitors and archaeological findings.
Bent’s Old Fort is a living history site with the rangers dressed in period costume. It gave you us real feel for what life might’ve been like back then and you know what, I think I prefer now!
Have fun, we are!