Bent’s Fort, near La Junta, was a major trading post along the border between the United States and Mexico. That’s right, before the invasion of Mexico in 1846 the Arkansas River was the border! I never knew it was that far north.
The approach to the fort traverses a large marsh. There is a trail around the marsh, but the weather prevented the journey.
The fort also sat on the Santa Fe Trail, a major trading route that spanned the country. In the present day, the Trail cuts right through La Junta and nearby you can walk the old trail and see the old stone markers. Closer to Trinidad, you can see wagon ruts. The Santa Fe Trail was not an emigrant trail like the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. It was strictly trade goods, the prime commodity being Buffalo hides.
My visit to Bent’s Fort has changed my opinion on the near extinction of the Buffalo from the great plains of the United States. I had always been taught that the westward expansion of the White Man into the Plains Indians’ territory produced an orgy of killing that eventually wiped out the Buffalo. The Indians wanted to preserve the land and its inhabitants, while the evil White Man, then as now, wanted to destroy it. What I learned at the Fort was a new twist to this sad tale.
Trading Room. Here Buffalo hides were traded for guns, kettles, chocolate, corn, knives, flint and other goods.
The Indians themselves, in a lust for European trade goods, did much of the killing. They were far more adept at tanning the hides, which was a very laborious process. Contrary to myth, they did not use every part of the Buffalo when killed for this purpose, there was just too much. One could argue that it was the White Man who put the lust in the Indian’s heart, but if the culture, religion, and habits of the Indian were so much more environmentally conscious than white society, they would not have been tempted. The reality is, the Plains Indians were no less human than anyone else. They were influenced by the same passions and the same vices. To idolize them for being above such banalities is misguided.
Carpenter's Room. After the long journey from Missouri, I am sure many a traveler had need of this "auto body shop".
During the fort’s heyday, it teamed with activity. The Bent’s were very fair and adept peacemakers. Their egalitarian approach to business, rare in its day, made business thrive. At one point the Arkansas Indian Agency made the fort their headquarters.
Dinning Hall: Ah, the lure of civilization in the wilderness. The Fort Cook also hosted numerous "fandangos" where all manner of society mingled in a most undignified manner. After dinner many retired to the...oh horror...billiard room.
In 1846, the year of the Mexican-American War, the fort was used to house soldiers and their supplies. In unfortunate modern parallels, they over consumed what the land could provide. The fort never really returned to its peaceful ways. Some sort of military presence was always there. Shortly after the war, gold seekers and settlers took their toll on the area as well.
Standing in the courtyard looking at the entrance. It was these storm clouds that prevented us from hiking Picketwire Canyon.
On this trip to Bent’s Fort, we saw only the two National Park Employees, dressed in period costumes and no one else. That is not a realistic depiction of the fort, which was crowded and noisy with the tones of five or six languages. Behind the fort was a corral filled with the braying of pack animals.
The Buffalo hide press. Note the colorful Park Ranger in period costume. He was always posing like this.
By 1849, much of the Buffalo was gone from the immediate vicinity of La Junta and most of the trees had been destroyed. It was believed that Charles Bent burned his own fort after an unsuccessful attempt to sell it to the US Army.
A trip to Bent’s Fort is well worth the effort, particularly if you combine it with a trip to one of the canyons in the area. Vogel and Picketwire are particularly noteworthy.