In the early and mid-nineteenth century, when the western United States was in a seemingly unending state of flux as people competed for dominance over the land and its resources, three men moved to what would eventually become southeastern Colorado and there established a trading and commercial empire. The Bents—brothers William, Charles, and George—arrived in the area in the late 1820s, and established two trading posts that were essential in the eventual establishment of permanent communities in the region.
The Bents’ empire mixed the American influence of St. Louis and Westport, Missouri, with the existing Spanish and French Canadian influences and traditions in the region. The Kiowa, Comanche, Plains Apache, and Nuche (Ute people) also controlled territory in southeastern Colorado and influenced the region’s cultural medley. As the Bents increased their economic domain, the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples made increasing inroads into the plains bounded by the Rockies on the west, the Platte Rivers to the north, and the Arkansas River to the south.
Perhaps anticipating the value of the small, but competitive tribes who came to the region to capitalize on the wild horse trade, in 1838 William Bent (sometimes called “Colonel,” “Little White Man,” and “Gray Beard”) joined the Cheyenne tribe by marrying Owl Woman (Mistanta), daughter of White Thunder, the esteemed Keeper of the Arrows. Owl Woman bore four children: Mary, Robert, George, and Julia. When Owl Woman died at the birth of Julia, William continued with Cheyenne tradition and married her sister Yellow Woman, who gave birth to his fifth and last child, Charlie. At some point Yellow Woman left, so William married his third and last wife, Island, another sister of Owl Woman.
Even though the beaver-trapping era of the mountain men and voyageurs was coming to an end in the early 1830s, the Bents and their partners, the St. Vrains, were expanding their trade empire with the construction of Bent’s Old Fort (Fort William), 1832–34. They pioneered the bison hide version of the fur trade, and by the mid-1840s the Bents were trading tens of thousands of bison hides, along with other animal hides, for consumption in the East. Bent’s Old Fort was located on the Santa Fé Trail, and this major trade route put William Bent at a pivotal point on the border of US Territory and the Mexican nation, which gained independence from Spain in 1821.
Bent’s Old Fort was a focal point on the Santa Fé Trail, and had served for at least sixteen years as a haven for local trappers and traders until it was misused by General Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West during the Mexican-American War in 1846. Kearny intended Bent’s Fort as a rallying point for preparation of the invasion of New Mexico, northern Mexico, and the expedition to California in support of Americans already living there. This did not sit well with William Bent, and in 1849 it is debated whether or not Bent actually blew up or destroyed his old fort before abandoning it. Being a consummate businessman, Bent would hardly have expended the many barrels of black powder necessary to raze the thick-walled adobe fort. Perhaps he only planted explosives enough to ruin fireplaces, cooking rooms, the well, the blacksmith’s shop, and anything else that might be of value to the federal government. A second theory is that the cholera epidemic that year may have also influenced Bent’s decision to abandon the fort.
In 1853, photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho mentions that “all the material saved from the fort was removed to Mr. Bent’s house, on Big Timber.” In the 1860s, a portion of the fort was renovated by the Missouri Stage Company and served as a stage stop for various companies, including Barlow and Sanderson, until the 1880s.
In 1853, William again took to building a so-called New Fort at the “Big Timbers” section of the Arkansas River. He chose a bluff overlooking the river valley and began a new trading post there, which was situated near the camping grounds of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa, who came there regularly, according to early travelers and diarists. Comanche and some Pawnee were known to frequent the area as well. Some estimated that at any one time, there could be thousands camped in the vicinity. The New Fort established a place for negotiation and resupply for the government and its agents. It established a destination for the building of the cut-off military road from the Smoky Hill River to the Arkansas River in 1853–56. It saw the tribes gather for their annual annuities and saw many major and minor councils held between the tribes and with the government representatives.
In its short active life, 1853–67, Bent’s New Fort saw the conflict between whites and Native Americans rise from Sumner’s Solomon River expedition against the Cheyennes to Chivington’s atrocious attack at Sand Creek. It also found itself as a jumping-off point for soldiers in campaigns against Plains Indians in the Red River War. On the other hand, it served as a destination for military and civilians who tried to maintain peaceful relations between the government and the tribes. There is no denying the key role that Bent’s two forts played in the commerce and development of southeastern Colorado.