Living History at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

Step into what had once been a melting pot and a trading post on the old Mexican border.

In the arid Colorado high plains, north of the Comanche National Grasslands, is an old fort.

It’s not the original old fort. The guy it’s named for blew it up.

We’ll get to that.

The entrance is marked by a cobblestone arch and two stone markers. The Daughters of the American Revolution and the State of Colorado installed the first marker in 1908 to commemorate the Santa Fe Trail.

Entrance to Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site and arches provided by the DAR

Originally installed on a farm to the west, the marker was moved atop a pedestal to the left of the arch. The second marker, situated in between the two pillars, was “Erected at the request of the Daughters of the American Revolution” in 1910 by A.E. Reynolds.

That marker also referenced the Santa Fe Trail, as well as “the point on the trail where the brothers Charles and Col William Bent erected Bents Fort in 1829 – the most famous stopping point on the trail.” The arch itself was erected by the La Junta chapter of the DAR in 1930.

I think it’s safe to say that without the DAR, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site might not exist today.

The women were keenly interested in preserving the history of the pioneers and the Santa Fe Trail, and they found an ally in Albert E. Reynolds. “A.E.” owned the land and decided to give it to the La Junta chapter of the DAR in 1926, and the arch was built four years later to mark the entrance to the site.

In 1954 the DAR deeded the land to the State of Colorado for $1. The state sold it to the United States in 1960 for the same price, and it officially became part of the National Park Service.

This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!

US flag flying over Bent's Old Fort

Located north of the Arkansas River, a vital artery that was nearly hidden by the tall grasses along its banks, the imposing adobe structure was a painstakingly created reproduction of the original fort.

The original had only existed for sixteen years, but during that time it was the trade center for pioneers, Native Americans, and Mexicans along the Mexico border, and was the only major permanent white settlement between Missouri and Mexico.

The Bent brothers, Charles and William, built the fort in 1833 (despite what the marker claimed) with the help of their financial partner Ceran St. Vrain. It soon became a thriving trading center that primarily dealt in buffalo robes from the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, but if you had an item of value you could probably find a buyer.

Bent’s Fort was known as a melting pot, with multiple nationalities occupying the place at any one time. While many languages were spoken, the one they all understood was commerce, and it kept the Bents in business until the Mexican-American War in 1846.

Store at Bent's Old Fort includes examples of what settlers would have traded in the mid-1800s.

The next few years were a turmoil. Charles Bent became Governor of New Mexico but was murdered within a year, and in 1849 William Bent set off explosions in the fort which destroyed a good portion of it.

One story considered the cholera epidemic the reason for this destruction, but another suggested that William was irritated the government wouldn’t pay him for their use of the fort during the war and, to add insult to injury, refused to buy it from him at a decent price.

Hostilities with Native Americans were increasing and he’d planned to move up the Arkansas to Lamar anyway, so rather than let those Army fiends have it for free he blew the thing up.

We didn’t know any of this as we followed the quarter-mile trail from the parking lot to the fort. We walked through the thick-walled entry and a man in period clothing stepped out from behind a cooking fire he’d been tending.

“Welcome,” he said. “Did you bring items to trade?”

“Um, no,” we replied, entertained and confused at the same time.

“This is a trading post, you see,” he explained.

Ah. We’d thought it was a military garrison, with its single entrance, corner bastions, and loopholes for firing at attackers.

Corner bastion at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
Loophole for firing at attackers from one of the corner bastions at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site.
Cannon aimed over the Arkansas River

We’d left our National Parks Access Pass in the car so Jim walked back to retrieve it and met Gina and Lou on the way back. They were also on a month-long road trip, traveling from London, Ontario, and visiting National Parks, Monuments, and Historic Sites. When they reached the fort we were all four invited to watch an introductory film, but upon hearing it was twenty minutes Jim and I declined.

“We can’t spend much time here, unfortunately,” we said. “We’ve got to get back on the road.”

Famous last words.

Exploring the fort was fascinating. There was very little to take you out of the era. We spoke some with John, one of the interpretative actors who brought the past to life. Later in the gift shop we found a postcard with a man on horseback. “Is this John?” we asked. It was, and he graciously signed it for us before we left.

Interpretive actor at Bent's Old Fort
Dining room china
Bedroom at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
Room at Bent's Old Fort
Canteen
dried chiles
Pelt press at Bent's Old Fort

We explored just about every nook and cranny in the place, from the armory to the blacksmith shop to the dining room set with china. We ended up leaving at the same time as our Canadian friends. “I can see why it takes you so long to get places!” Lou quipped. Apparently they were making better time than we were.

Lou was right; it was past time for us to get back on the road.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my book,
Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1.

Interior of Bent's Old Fort

Visiting Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is located at 35110 State Highway 194 E, La Junta, CO. There’s a Living History fee of $3 for adults, $2 for 6-12 year olds with children under 6 years age free.

There are several special events throughout the year, including Native American and Mexican heritage days.

You can take a self-guided tour, or guided tours are offered between September and May. There’s also a mile-and-a-half long hiking trail with interpretive signs. You’ll walk through the cottonwoods along the Arkansas River and learn about the ecosystem. Visit www.nps.gov/beol/index.htm

Find hotels near Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

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