George Bent (1843–1918) was a half-white, half-Native American soldier who fought in multiple battles for the Confederacy during the Civil War and for the Cheyenne people in various wars of the late nineteenth century. His life reflects the shifts in alliances and the balance of power in Colorado over the course of the nineteenth century, from the Indian-dominated fur trade era through the age of American Indian removal in the late 1860s.
George Bent was born at Bent’s Fort on July 7, 1843. His mother, Owl Woman, hailed from a prestigious Cheyenne band, and his father was the renowned fur trader William Bent. His maternal grandfather was White Thunder who, as the Keeper of the Sacred Arrows, was an important spiritual leader for the Cheyenne. When George Bent was born, his mother’s family was still regarded with deep reverence even though White Thunder had fallen in battle five years earlier.
William Bent was the builder and proprietor of Bent’s Fort and perhaps the most powerful white man in the Upper Arkansas River country during the 1830s and ‘40s. His trade empire stretched from his fort on the Arkansas River south into the Staked Plains (“Llano Estacado”) of Texas and north into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains. Most of the great names of the fur trade at one time or another were employed by William Bent: Kit Carson, Jim Beckwourth, Old Bill Williams, Uncle Dick Wootton and, on occasion, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger.
Owl Woman and William Bent watched over an ever-growing family. Mary was born in 1838, Robert in 1840, George in 1843, and Julia in 1846. When Owl Woman died giving birth to Julia, William followed Cheyenne customs and married her sister, Yellow Woman. George’s half-brother, Charley, was born sometime before 1850.
Raised at Bent’s Fort, George seldom lacked playmates. Indian women and their children hailing from a dozen tribes and bands lived at the fort, and the young Bents could always find something to do. Even in the summer, when the men were away trading or hunting, there was excitement. Cheyenne and Arapaho war parties on their way to attack Ute and Pawnee camps often stopped over at the fort to dance through the night. In fall and winter, villages of Cheyenne and Arapaho were just upriver from the fort, where George usually could be found with his stepmother, learning the language and ways of the Cheyenne. About this time, George received his Cheyenne name, Do-hah-en-no (Beaver).
In the spring of 1853 George Bent left the Cheyenne and would not see them again for another ten years. William decided that it was time for the Bent children to leave the wilds of the Upper Arkansas for the streets of civilization. The Bent children traveled to Westport, Missouri, where they were entrusted to Colonel Albert G. Boone, grandson of Daniel Boone and William’s friend and trade associate. In Boone’s care, George grew into adulthood and graduated from Webster College, making him one of the most-educated men in the west. He still spoke English with a thick Cheyenne accent.
In the spring of 1861 the Civil War erupted, and Bent immediately felt the pull of the conflict. Out of school for the summer, he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private in the First Missouri Cavalry. He fought in the 1861 battles of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both in Missouri, then at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in 1862. On August 30, 1862, Bent was captured with 200 other rebels near Memphis, Tennessee, and marched off to Gratiot Street Military Prison in St. Louis.
Fortunately for Bent, he had previously spent four years in St. Louis and was known by friends and schoolmates as one of the city’s most prominent young people. As Bent and his fellow prisoners were paraded through the streets of the city on their way to Gratiot Street, an old classmate recognized him. Bent’s older brother Robert also happened to be in the city doing business for their father, and the classmate told Robert of George’s capture. Robert, in turn, told Robert Campbell, George’s legal guardian. Campbell knew nearly every Union officer in St. Louis, and within the day George Bent was granted parole. On September 5, 1862, Bent signed his allegiance to the Union and was released into the custody of his father. Home was now his father’s new ranch on the Purgatoire River, a place he had never seen before.
Return to Colorado
In Bent’s absence, the Upper Arkansas country’s political landscape had changed drastically. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie had given the land lying between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers and between the Rocky Mountains and the Smoky Hill River country to the Cheyenne and Arapaho in perpetuity. “Perpetuity,” however, ended up being less than a decade. The new sweep of immigration to the region during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 demanded a new treaty, the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were restricted to a small, triangular reservation in east central Colorado. A desolate area bounded on the south by the Arkansas River and on the east by Sand Creek, its only redeeming feature was that it still supported the great bison herds, though most Cheyenne knew that the herds would disappear within a generation.
Following a year-long disagreement with the Union garrison at Fort Lyon, Bent refused to give up his Confederate sentiments and elected to move in with his mother’s people in April 1863. He settled with Black Kettle’s band of Southern Cheyenne. While living there, Bent joined the Crooked Lances military society, taking part in raids against the Ute, Pawnee, and other enemies of the Southern Cheyenne. In the summer of 1863 Bent participated in his first battle as a Cheyenne, a violent clash with a band of Delaware trappers.
George’s half-brother Charley had also joined the Cheyenne, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the nearby white settlements. Armed encounters between the Cheyenne and whites became more common, and wild rumors circulated in Denver and the mountain camps claiming that the Bent boys were leading war parties against ranches and stagecoaches on the South Platte. In truth, George Bent was an intimidating figure to most whites. He was a veteran of several major battles, familiar with army tactics, an expert horseman, and trained in all manner of weaponry, from knives to cannons. As a Cheyenne who was fluent in English, Bent was also able to intercept dispatches and disrupt the army’s plans. In addition, he stood at just under six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds at a time when most men barely broke the five-foot mark.
But contrary to the rumors, Bent, his half-brother Charley, and Black Kettle did not consider themselves enemies of the whites. To be sure, fights between the Cheyenne and whites occurred with some regularity, but these clashes usually involved the Lakota or a separate division of the Cheyenne known as the Dog Soldiers.
Sand Creek Massacre
In August 1864, after a series of violent clashes and attacks involving Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, Arapaho warriors, and US troops, Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans called on all “Friendly Indians of the Plains” to go to places of “safety”—military forts—and surrender to the authorities. William Bent was tasked with spreading the word to the Cheyenne, who were already camped near Fort Lyon, an authorized place of “safety.” In nearly the same breath, Evans authorized the “citizens” of Colorado Territory to “kill and destroy” all hostile Indians on sight. The proclamation did not explain which Indians were hostile, but a few days later, both directives were nullified when Evans received word that the War Department had approved his request to draw up a 100-day volunteer regiment. Meanwhile, Black Kettle and White Antelope led 500 Cheyenne to the Great Bend of Sand Creek, forty miles above Fort Lyon.
At dawn on November 29, 1864, along Sand Creek, a thousand volunteer troops under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington attacked Black Kettle’s peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapahos. George Bent lay in the sleeping village, along with his half-brother Charley, his sister Julia, and his stepmother Yellow Woman. Bent’s older brother Robert guided the soldiers descending upon the camp. Grabbing his rifle and ammunition, George Bent dashed outside and observed mounted soldiers charging the village.
George looked over to Black Kettle’s lodge and, as he recalled later, saw a large American flag “on a lodge pole in front.” The chief was shouting for his people not to run, “as he had been told by whites [that] the troops would not attack his village.” White Antelope, who had advanced toward the soldiers singing a Cheyenne death song—“Only the Mountains Live Forever”—was cut down in a hail of gunfire. Black Kettle’s wife was shot nine times. George Bent and Black Kettle figured her dead and fled before the advancing soldiers. They joined Little Bear, Spotted Horse, Big Bear, and Bear Shield as they ran for the sandpits on the west side of the camp. Upon noticing soldiers already shooting into the pits, they headed for the upper end of the village, where George suffered a gunshot wound to the hip. He hid in a sandpit alongside Spotted Horse and Bear Shield, managing to survive the bloodshed until the soldiers withdrew in the late afternoon.
After Sand Creek
George Bent wrote that after Sand Creek he remained with the Cheyenne in war and peace. When he recovered from his hip wound, he participated in several revenge raids against US troops alongside the surviving Cheyenne. He rode with the Dog Soldiers in the sacks of Julesburg in January and February 1865 and helped briefly cut off Denver from the rest of the nation. He fought with the Cheyenne at the Battle of Platte River Bridge in July 1865, and he was with Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors in Montana as they fought against General Patrick E. Connor’s grand Army of the Plains. Despite his involvement in armed conflict against the US government, Bent became an official US interpreter in 1866, a position he held for the remainder of his life. When the Cheyenne were removed to the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma, he joined them, thus leaving behind the white world and the riches of his father’s estate. George Bent died in Colony, Oklahoma in 1918.
Adapted from David Fridtjof Halaas, “All the Camp was Weeping: George Bent and the Sand Creek Massacre,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 15, no. 3 (1995).