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The Santa Fe road grows up

by Nancy Christofferson

bents fort

SOUTHERN COLORADO AND NORTHERN NEW MEXICO — By the 1830s the road to Santa Fe was seeing increased traffic and more variations in the route. One variation that had been established in the 1770s to travel from Northern New Mexico to the Great Plains was still in use, though not by wagons. That was the Taos or Trapper’s Trail, running from the prairies of southern Colorado, up the Huerfano River valley and across Sangre de Cristo Pass to the San Luis Valley and thence south. It was heavily used in the early 1800s, especially for those whose destination was Taos because it saved travelers from laboring up the narrow and rocky Cimarron Canyon.

After Charles Bent’s initial and highly successful trading trip to New Mexico in 1832, for which his efforts brought in some $190,000, his attentions turned from trapping and trading on the upper Missouri River to simply trading on the plains and in New Mexico. While it is unknown exactly when he began construction of his large fortified trading post on the Arkansas River, it is known that the building was completed by the summer of 1834. By that time Charles, who was already partnered with Ceran St. Vrain, had been joined by his younger brother William. Since the latter was on site for construction and became a permanent fixture at the post, it was generally called Fort William, though it has come down in history as Bent’s Fort. His older brother continued his annual and semiannual trips between New Mexico and Missouri, as well as operating a mercantile in Taos where he was still collecting vast quantities of furs and pelts.

Bent’s Fort was quickly recognized as the largest building between Missouri and Santa Fe. It was a welcome sight for those traveling west who had not seen a respectable building since Council Grove, Kansas. The fort offered “amenities,” albeit frontier style, for the weary. Real beds were available, as were a wide assortment of domestic and wild meats, brought in daily by the fort’s hunters, blacksmithing services, fresh mules, horses and oxen. For many, it became a destination, and the road south from the fort a viable route with more wood and water than the Cimarron Cutoff.

The cutoff was shorter in miles, but closer to hostile tribes such as the Kiowa. However, it took less time and effort, so remained popular for heavily laden wagons reluctant to tackle the rigors of Raton Pass. Another, and older, cutoff crossed the very southeastern-most corner of Colorado instead of following the Cimarron River across the Oklahoma panhandle.

Once Bent’s Fort was operational, the Bent, St. Vrain, and Company hired a great many employees. These ranged from his black cook, Charlotte, and her husband Dick Green, who worked inside the fort, to livestock handlers, farmers, hunters, clerks, muleskinners, blacksmiths, and coopers, and all manner of men to keep such an operation going. Charlotte, who called herself “the only lady” in the area, was quite well known not only for her cooking but for her dancing skills, and being the only female partner, enjoyed her popularity at fandangos and other social events at the outpost.

During the heydays of the fort, in the 1830s and ‘40s, Bent’s Fort employed about 100 people. Some of the hunters did double duty as guides, and were regularly employed by military expeditions passing by on their way into the mountains.

As soon as the Bents had their trading post in full operation, they addressed the problem of transferring heavy loads between it and the markets of northern New Mexico. With all those employees, the company blazed a barely passable road over Raton Pass and took the first wagons over the route in 1834. They were the first to do so. Another first supposedly occurring in 1834 was the transport of the first printing press to New Mexico.

The Santa Fe trade brought some $200,000 into Missouri in 1835, and in 1836, the annual spring westbound caravan brought Richens Lacy Wootton to New Mexico. That same year, one of the many Chouteaus estimated the number of Indian warriors along the trail in the southwest. He believed there were at least 4,500 Comanche warriors and 1,500 Kiowa, augmented by about 300 Apache.

Less merchandise and less profit were noticeable in 1837, and by 1838, the trail was languishing from lack of travelers, with only about 50 wagons heading west. This was a direct result of the Mexican government imposing a steep tax on incoming merchandise. On the other hand, a very large caravan arrived in Missouri from Santa Fe, bearing about $150,000 in gold and silver specie and bullion.

In 1839, about 18 men bound for Oregon decided to take the “scenic route”, by way of Bent’s Fort. Six of them eventually turned up in Oregon territory.

Traffic remained sluggish for a few years, with the Bents and some Santa Feans about the only ones to make the journey, but 1843 proved to be the most profitable year yet. No less than 350 men were said to leave Missouri, and the returns that fall were as much as $450,000. Among these were several Bent and St. Vrain caravans as well as livestock drives. Charles Bent was taking cattle bred in the southwest to his farm in Missouri to fatten them up. He also drove many sheep east out of New Mexico. At the same time, St. Vrain was transporting western furs down the Arkansas from the fort through use of rafts. This was termed a “not altogether unsuccessful experiment”.

That same season, no less than 140 wagons belonging to New Mexicans were accompanied home by 177 dragoons under Capt. Philip St. George Cooke. The summer was especially rainy, and the troops demoralized by slogging, in one area, just 87 miles in 12 days, while about a dozen of the caravan members died from illnesses caused by the weather. The arrival of a Bent caravan, fully provisioned, was “opportune”.

The following summer was equally or even more rainy, and most of the caravans, including those of Bent and St. Vrain, spent a lot of time in camps spread across the prairie, waiting for rivers to go down and mud to dry up. Nevertheless, more than $100,000 in specie reached Missouri by fall.

All the mud had caused considerable damage to the road. Travelers reported it was “all cut up,” fanning out around the ruts and creating alternate routes to avoid bogs and other low areas.

Because of road conditions and the mounting tensions between the United States and Mexico (caused by the pending admission of Texas as a state, while Mexico was still claiming the land), travel was limited in 1845, though it was the year Colonel Stephen Watts Kearney led a large exploratory party over the Oregon Trail and returned via the Santa Fe. He was accompanied by Lieutenant James Abert, who fell ill and recuperated at Bent’s Fort before heading with his survey party into the prairies adjacent to the Canadian and other rivers.

That spring, Bent and St. Vrain’s caravan was said to be the first to depart by wagons from the new settlement called Independence. The company’s 18 wagons each carried 5,000 pounds of merchandise, and were pulled by five yoke of oxen each.

While Kearney was traveling east from southern Colorado, he passed numerous emigrant wagons bearing women and children. Indeed, leaving Independence that season were 160 wagons and carriages, nearly 2,000 oxen, 700 mules, 40 horses, and 200 men employed as drivers and laborers.

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