Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette operated the fur-trading post Fort Vasquez from 1835 to 1842. After ruthless competition and changing trade patterns caused the pair to leave the fort, it served as a landmark along the South Platte River Trail before gradually disappearing back into the plains. Interest in the Rocky Mountain fur trade revived in the early twentieth century, leading to a full-scale reconstruction of the fort in the 1930s. The rebuilt fort now serves as one of History Colorado’s regional museums.
Rocky Mountain Fur Trade
The fur trade in North America started with the early colonists in the seventeenth century and spread quickly through the Great Lakes region. By the early 1800s, various companies were competing to control the fur trade along the upper Missouri River and in Oregon. The trade expanded to the plains and the central Rocky Mountains in the 1820s. In 1822 William Ashley and Andrew Henry organized the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to tap this trade, eventually employing or buying furs from mountain men such as Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.
When Ashley and Henry started the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in St. Louis, they placed an advertisement calling for 100 young men to travel up the Missouri River as trappers and traders. One of the young men who responded was twenty-three-year-old Pierre “Louis” Vasquez (1798–1868). A St. Louis native, Vasquez was the son of a Spanish father and a French-Canadian mother. He spoke English, French, and Spanish fluently. His older brother had served as an interpreter in Zebulon Montgomery Pike’s ill-fated 1806–7 expedition up the Arkansas River and returned to tell Louis stories of the mountains on the far side of the plains. Louis Vasquez saw the Rocky Mountain Fur Company ad and jumped at the chance to see the mountains for himself.
Vasquez happened to participate in the period of the fur trade that has become legendary—the brief years when mountain men, Native Americans, traders, and St. Louis agents gathered for an annual trading rendezvous, where they bartered furs for goods, restocked supplies, drank whiskey, and told stories. By the early 1830s, Vasquez had a reputation among the men of the fur trade as “Old Vaskiss,” an experienced mountain man trusted with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company’s most difficult and important tasks.
When Vasquez had first come west with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, he was joined by five brothers named Sublette. The youngest of the brothers, Andrew, entered the fur trade in 1830, when he was twenty-two. Andrew Sublette was a great marksman, and he quickly made a name for himself. In 1834 he entered into a business partnership with Vasquez. The two seasoned mountain men planned to pursue the trade in buffalo robes with Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans along the South Platte River.
Four Forts on the South Platte
In the 1830s, established trading posts put an end to the old fur-trading practice of the annual rendezvous. In 1833 Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. built Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, which became an important trading post on the Santa Fé Trail between Missouri and New Mexico. The post was essentially a wholesaler of buffalo hides, buying cleaned and prepared hides from nearby bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho and selling the hides in St. Louis.
When Vasquez and Sublette began their partnership in the middle of the decade, they decided to start their own trading post on the South Platte River. Their fort would be roughly halfway between Fort William (now known as Fort Laramie) on the North Platte River and Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River. With a location on the South Platte, Vasquez and Sublette hoped to carve out trading territory previously claimed by Bent, St. Vrain, & Co.
Fort Vasquez was built in 1835 on the east bank of the South Platte. Vasquez and Sublette hired Mexican workers to construct an adobe structure about 100 feet on each side, with walls 2 feet thick. Vasquez served as the bourgeois (or “booshway”) of the fort, responsible for daily operations and the bottom line. The fort had up to twenty-two traders as well as other workers to cook, herd, hunt, and perform repairs.
Fort Vasquez operated without competition for only a few months. Lancaster Lupton established Fort Lupton in 1836, and Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb secured financing to build Fort Jackson in 1837. In addition, the powerful Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. sent Marcellin St. Vrain, Ceran St. Vrain’s younger brother, to gain a foothold in the South Platte trade with Fort St. Vrain. By 1837 there were four trading posts engaged in cutthroat competition on a short stretch of the South Platte.
There was not enough trade to sustain four forts for long. In addition, Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. was a relative behemoth, with enough money and power to squash its upstart competitors, and the nature of the trade was changing yet again as new wagon routes such as the Oregon Trail took shape. In 1840 Vasquez and Sublette took only 700 buffalo robes to St. Louis, while Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. hauled 15,000. Bent, St. Vrain, & Co. bought Fort Jackson from its backers in 1838. Vasquez and Sublette sold Fort Vasquez to other traders for $800 in 1842; later that year it was reported as abandoned. Lupton abandoned his fort in 1844, leaving Fort St. Vrain the only one of the four forts still in operation.
Fort Vasquez lasted seven years as a trading post on the South Platte. The two men who bought it from Vasquez and Sublette fared poorly in business, lost horse and mule herds to Indians, and abandoned the fort without paying for it. Vasquez, meanwhile, moved with the trade. He entered into a partnership with Jim Bridger at Fort Bridger, a trading post on the Oregon Trail in southwestern Wyoming, where he stayed until 1855.
The Fort as Way Station
During the 1858 Colorado Gold Rush, the four old forts became well-known landmarks on the South Platte River Trail. In 1864 a man named John Paul took over Fort Vasquez and made it into a way station for stage travel. Gradually, settlements began to close in around the fort. The town of Platteville was founded about a mile away in 1871. Over the decades, the remaining buildings served as a military bivouac, a school, a post office, and a church. In 1915 William Perdieu and his family purchased the property and made it part of their ranch, called Fort Vasquez Ranch.
Remembrance and Reconstruction
Interest in the four decaying forts on the South Platte revived in the early twentieth century, as they shifted from usable structures to historic sites that were celebrated and preserved. In 1911 the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument at the site of Fort St. Vrain. Soon, other monuments followed at Fort Lupton and Fort Vasquez. When LeRoy R. Hafen became state historian in 1924, his work on the Rocky Mountain fur trade helped focus renewed historical and cultural interest on legendary mountain men like Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez as well as on old trading posts like Fort Vasquez.
After the Fort Vasquez site was deeded to Weld County in 1934, the Platteville Community Club led an effort to rebuild the fort and make it into a museum. The project got started when the town of Platteville secured more than $2,800 in funding from the Works Progress Administration. The new fort was not an exact replica of the original. Little archaeological work had been done before the reconstruction began. Local workers moved the walls a few yards farther away from US 85 and introduced some architectural elements and structures not found in the original fort. The new Fort Vasquez was dedicated in August 1937, in a ceremony attended by a crowd of 2,000 people.
A widening project on US 85 endangered Fort Vasquez in the 1950s, but local and historical groups spoke up to save the reconstructed fort. The road was rerouted to run on either side of the fort, isolating the fort on a large island in the highway median. It shares the space between the two halves of the highway with a weigh station located on the southern tip of the fort’s island.
In 1958 the Colorado Historical Society assumed ownership of Fort Vasquez, with plans to turn it into a regional museum. The society also conducted archaeological work on the old fort from 1963 to 1970. The excavations revealed the fort’s original location, which was within steps of the reconstruction, as well as the foundations of numerous rooms, entrances, fireplaces, and other architectural features.
The Fort Vasquez Museum opened in 1964. It received a major restoration in 2005. The grounds now include a life-size bison sculpture by local artist Stephen C. LeBlanc as well as a Cheyenne tipi, which would have been a common sight at the fort during its original trading days.