Excerpted from Sam Arnold’s Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail.
In the early 1830s, the beaver fur trade in the mountains was still thriving, and fur companies built trade forts at strategic points along the trail to supply both free and company trappers, and to provide goods for the American Indian trade.
From 1824 to 1846, the Arkansas River served as the border between the United States and Mexico. It was logical that Missouri traders Charles and William Bent, along with their St. Louis partner, Ceran St. Vrain, built a huge adobe trading fort on the north side of the Arkansas River, near the place where the wagon trains crossed into Mexico (present-day La Junta, Colorado).
Begun in 1834 and completed in 1835, the huge adobe citadel, called Bent’s Fort, stood next to the Santa Fe Trail about 60 miles east of the Rockies. It was the region’s most important center for the fur trade and buffalo hide business, and it became the hub of a vast commercial empire that reached from present-day Amarillo, Texas on the east, to the Gila River on the west and Fort Laramie, Wyoming in the north.
Some 60 employees lived within the thick adobe walls of Bent, St. Vrain & Company. On any day in the courtyard, you would have been likely to meet scruffy, buckskin-clad mountain men, French-Canadian trappers, Missouri-twanged mule-drivers, ox teamsters, odorous buffalo skinners, a German or English tourist, an Irishman in a U.S. soldier’s uniform and probably, several southern Cheyenne or Arapahoe Indians.
From its giant American flag, boasting 27 stars at the time, to its lemonade and mint julep “hailstorms,” Bent’s Fort offered a welcome haven for trappers, traders, travelers, soldiers and tradesmen alike. It was truly the western outpost of American civilization at the time.
Today, living historians recreate the sights, sounds and smells of the original Bent’s Fort with guided tours, special events and more. If you’re interested in learning more about the famed trading post a little closer to home, we encourage you to visit Tesoro Cultural Center’s website for information on K-12 education, as well as adult and senior programs. Huzzah!