by Charles W. Bowman
Having surveyed the natural aspects of the country, we
proceed from a view of the arena to discuss the actors. History, in its proper
acceptation, has to do with men. Bent County, though not presenting as much of
the picturesque in nature as some of her neighbors, can perhaps antedate any of
them in her annals. So far back are we enabled to go that the story even now
begins to be clothed with a gauzy film of romance. The early past with its
heroes rises before our vision veiled in a bluish haze like the distant
The stories of James Pursley, who, in 1802, is reputed to have crossed the plains to Santa Fé, and of Pike, Lewis and Clark, who in 1804, explored the Arkansas to its mountain gorge, have been told. The faint traces of their footsteps had long been obliterated when the real drama opened in Bent County.
The firm of trappers known as Bent, St. Vrain & Co., consisting of Charles Bent, Ceran St. Vrain, and Robert, George and William, brothers to Charles Bent, came to the site of Bent's Fort in 1826, from the Upper Missouri or Sioux country, whither they had gone from St. Louis in the service of the American Fur Company. They at once constructed a picket fort, containing several rooms as a place of defense and headquarters preparatory to opening trade with the Indians. Two years later, they commenced at the same place a large adobe fort, which was finished in 1832. These were the first improvements made by white men in Bent County, and for ten years thenceforward the firm and its employes were the only white traders in the country.
They found the country occupied by the Comanches and Kiowas, who, previous to this time had had no dealings or communications with the whites. Those were halcyon days for the Indian. He had never felt the contaminating touch of a Government treaty. He was in innocent ignorance of the use of firearms, of sugar, coffee or rum. He used a rawhide vessel for boiling his meat and a flint knife for carving it, and for war and the chase his weapons were the spear and arrow. The Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowas, Comanches and a small band of Apaches peopled the plains, while the Utes, Apaches and Crows held the mountains. Between the Plains and Mountain Indians hostility had always existed. The Cheyennes also had a traditional enemy in the Pawnees. Pawnee Rock was named from a battle fought between them, at which the Pawnees resorted to the rock for defense. The Comanches numbered from 4,000 to 5,000, the Kiowas about 4,000. These two tribes, with the band of Apaches before mentioned, occupied the Arkansas River and the country south. The Cheyennes and Arapahoes occupied generally the country between the Arkansas and the Platte.
In 1836, William Bent went to the Platte and won for a wife, a Cheyenne maid, the daughter of a chief, a man of large influence in his tribe. After this matrimonial alliance, the chief made frequent visits to the Arkansas Valley, always accompanied by a considerable number of his tribe. The result finally was, that the larger portion – perhaps three-fourths of the tribe – moved to the Arkansas permanently. From that time, there were two divisions of the Cheyennes, known as Northern and Southern. With the exception of an occasional personal difficulty between an Indian and the trader, the Indians were entirely friendly.
William Bent was the principal trader for the firm. With an outfit of pack mules, it was his custom to go to the Indian villages during the winter and exchange blankets, paints, trinkets, beads, cloth, sugar and coffee for furs and robes. The Indian camps or villages were moved from time to time to the places where game was most abundant. George and Robert remained at the Fort, where there was more or less trading all the time. St. Vrain spent most of his time at Sante Fé or Taos, New Mexico. Charles Bent, though the head of the firm, soon established his home at Taos.
Among those earliest in the service of the firm were William Bransford, now of Las Animas County, Ben Ryder, Metcalf, Chat DeBray, Bill Williams and John Smith. The last named was a young man of considerable education, from Philadelphia. He spoke the Cheyenne and Sioux languages fluently. It was suspected by the trappers that he had fled from home to avoid the penalty of some peccadillo, and that Smith was not his real name.
In 1831, Kit Carson came to Bent's Fort, and was employed by the Bents as a hunter, at which, it is supposed, he continued up to the time of Fremont's first expedition.
From the first the firm established direct communication with the East and made annual trips by wagon to Independence Landing. At that point they received their supplies, shipped by steamboat from St. Louis, and there they forwarded by boat to St. Louis their robes and peltries.
Freighting to Santa Fé was begun by Mexicans perhaps as early as 1846. Maj. George C. Sibley had located a route at least as far as the United States boundary, afterward known as the Santa Fé Trail. Isolated expeditions from the American frontier to Santa Fé are reported from the year 1822 to 1840, but it is safe to assume that the freighting business was irregular and unimportant till after the establishment of peace at Guadalupe Hidalgo, in 1848. William Bent began hauling annuity goods in 1849, and from this on made two trips a year.
Charles Bent and St. Vrain became identified with the people of New Mexico, and their relation to the firm was finally severed about the fall of 1847. In that country they found congenial society, or at least a society which was preferable to the solitudes of the plains. William Gilpin brought out in 1847, an expedition against the Indians, and applied to Bent, St. Vrain & Co., for provisions. Charles Bent was opposed to furnishing them, but William buying out his brother's interest became head of the firm and undertook the contract. Groceries were brought from Santa Fé by pack mules for this purpose: beef was raised at the Fort. The contract looked a little hazardous, but the vouchers were faithfully paid by the Government.
Robert Bent died October 29, 1841, at the age of twenty-five years, and was buried near the Fort. George died not far from this date and was also buried there, but the remains of both were subsequently removed to St. Louis.
About this time came out from St. Louis, a young man who afterward became somewhat conspicuous as a politician, viz., Frank P. Blair. He accompanied Bent's train in the summer, and remained until the next spring.
William Bent's first wife bore him five children, named respectively, Mary, Robert, George, Julia and Charles. Her death followed closely the birth of the last, and her husband married her sister, then living with the tribe.
The years 1842 to 1849 includes the period of Capt. Fremont's various exploring expeditions, on the first three of which he was accompanied by Kit Carson. On the second expedition, in the summer of 1843, Fremont being on the Fontaine qui Bonille, sent Carson to Bent's Fort (or Fort William as it was called by its proprietors) for a re-enforcement of mules, which were furnished by Bent to the number of ten, each equipped with a back-saddle. In 1845, on his third expedition, his route being along the Arkansas, Fremont halted at Bent's Fort, from which point he sent a message to Carson, then settled at Taos, that he wished him again to accompany him as guide. This Carson hastened to do, selling his property at a sacrifice, and placing his family under the care of Charles Bent, also resident of Taos.
Col. Fremont's fourth expedition, which started in 1848, brought him to Bent's Fort a second time. From a letter written there under date November 14, 1848, to Col. Benton, at St. Louis, the following extract will prove of interest:
"We found our friend, Maj. Fitzpatrick, at a point about thirty miles below this in what is called the "Big Timber," and surrounded by about 600 lodges of different nations, Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas and Arapahoes. He is a most admirable agent, entirely educated for such a post, and possessing the ability and courage necessary to make his education available. He has succeeded in drawing out from among the Comanches the whole Kiowa nation with the exception of six lodges, and brought over among them a considerable number of the Apaches and Comanches. When we arrived he was holding a talk with them, making a feast and giving them a few presents. We found them all on their good behavior, and were treated in the most friendly manner; were neither annoyed by them nor had anything stolen from us. I hope you will be able to give him some support. He will be able to save lives and money for the Government, and knowing how difficult this Indian question may become, I am particular in bringing Fitzpatrick's operations to your notice. In a few years, he might have them all farming here on the Arkansas."
This expedition proved a most unfortunate one for Col. Fremont, who in the dead of winter undertook to cross the range to Grande River, a venture which would not be undertaken now except on snow-shoes, and that with convenient stations in reach. The result was he lost most of his men, animals and stores, and was compelled to fall back on Taos, which he reached the latter part of January. The mistake which led to this disaster, according to Fremont, was in having engaged Bill Williams, a hunter at Bent's Fort, as guide. Williams, he says, "proved never to have in the least known, or entirely to have forgotten, the whole region of country through which we were to pass." At Taos, Fremont again met Kit Carson, and was for several weeks his guest, in the meantime re-organizing preparatory to proceeding to California by a southerly route. While at Taos, Col. Fremont met Messrs. St. Vrain and Aubrey, en route from Santa Fé to St. Louis.
On these two latter expeditions Fremont obtained at Bent's Fort considerable supplies of provisions and equipments.
As an example of the business methods of those days at Bent's Fort, the following copy from an original paper is of service:
FORT WILLIAM, ARKANSAS RIVER
March 13, 1843
On or before the first day of September next, I promise to pay to the order of Bent, St. Vrain & Co., the just and full sum of Three Hundred Dollars, without defalcation, for value received, payable in good, merchantable beaver, at the rate of four dollars per pound.
WILLIAM S. WILLIAMS.
Test.: W.A. Train
Fort William, Arkansas River
March 13, 1843
I have four beaver traps, belonging to Bent, St. Vrain & Co., for the use of which for my present hunt, I am to pay them one pound good beaver, each; and, if they are not returned, I am to pay them eight dollars each for them, or thirty-two dollars.
WILLIAM S. WILLIAMS.
Test.: W.A. Train
Sterling Price and his command en route to Mexico in
1847-48, traveled by way of Bent's Fort, and was accompanied by William Bent in
the capacity of guide as far as Taos. From this brief association with the
military, Bent fell heir to the title of Colonel, and this title ever afterward
distinguished him from other members of the family.
Bent's Fort was blown up in 1852, by its proprietor. The Government had been making overtures for its purchase, and had made Col. Bent an offer of $12,000, while his price was $16,000. He was very emphatically refused the offer, and one day while on a spree loaded all the goods he could get on his wagons, sixteen in number, set fire to his premises and pulled out. A considerable quantity of powder remained in the fort, and, as the train wound its way down the river, the ascending flames accompanied by a succession of loud reports told how effectually the fortress was being converted into a ruin. Thus the Arkansas Valley was again devoid of human habitation.
The first camping place for the caravan was at the mouth of Horse Creek. In the spring of 1853, Col. Bent commenced a new fort forty miles east of the first, on the same side of the Arkansas. This he completed the next year, and here he continued his former business of trading with the Indians and freighting.
In 1859, Col. Bent was appointed United States Indian Agent for the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, but resigned the next year. In the fall of 1859, he leased his new fort to the Government, when it was occupied by troops and called Fort Wise, in respect of Gov. Wise, of Virginia. The same year, Bent also began improvements near the mouth of the Purgatoire, at the place now known as Judge Moore's. This was the first improvement in the county, outside of the forts. The structure consisted of a stockade enclosure 100x100 feet, with rooms on the north and west sides. The year 1860, R.M. Moore, a son-in-law of Bent, came out from Jackson County, Mo., and occupied the stockade. Col. Bent began to haul goods for the Government from Leavenworth to Fort Union in that year, and continued as freighter and Indian trader till his death, May 19, 1869. While en route from New Mexico to the States to buy goods, he became indisposed and stopped at his son-in-law Moore's house. Here he gradually grew worse, his ailment proving to be pneumonia, and in spite of skilled medical attendance, died in seven or eight days form the time of attack.
Col. Bent was the latest survivor of the original firm. His brother Charles was appointed Governor of New Mexico, but had been assassinated by Mexicans and Pueblo Indians of that Territory at his home at Taos. St. Vrain died of disease about the year 1867, and as a monument of his endeavor while in New Mexico, left to his heirs and assigns a half-interest in the immense tract of land granted to him and Cornelio Vigil by the Mexican Government, of which more particular mention is made in another chapter.