Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is one of the more unique frontier forts built during the Westward Expansion. Like Fort Union Trading Post in North Dakota, Bent’s Old Fort was built as a trading post, not a military outpost.
Bent’s Old Fort, located on the plains of southeastern Colorado, served as a landmark along the Santa Fe Trail. This adobe fort was not only a respite for weary travelers on the trail, but it also served as a trading post for the local tribes, trappers from the mountains and Mexicans coming north.
Add in two additional National Park sites in close proximity, Amache and Sand Creek Massacre national historic sites, and it makes the perfect stop for any history buff or park enthusiast.
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The History of Bent’s Old Fort
Traders Charles and William Bent, along with their partner Ceran St. Vrain, founded the fort in an ideal spot to encourage trade and make money in 1833. They located the fort not far from a ford across the Arkansas River along the Santa Fe Trail. It was just on the American side of what was the border with Mexico and then the Republic of Texas. The fort was close enough to the mountains of the Front Range to attract trappers. It was easy enough for the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche to trade there.
They traded beaver and bison hides, silver, blankets, horses and mules from the tribes in exchange for manufactured goods like cloth, glass, axes and firearms. Soon, the fort controlled trade among the tribes of the Southern Plains. The fort became the headquarters for Federal Indian agencies. The US Army also used the fort as a staging point during the Mexican-American War.
Its success was its destruction, as well. As more and more folks moved west, they strained resources and brought more conflict with the tribes. By 1849, St. Vrain had tried to sell the fort to the US Army. William Bent tried to burn the fort down and move it 40 miles away.
The fort was rebuilt in 1976, using archeological excavations and the detailed drawings of an Army engineer who spent several days at the fort. So, it is as close to what the fort was in the 1800s as possible.
Exploring Bent’s Old Fort
One of the cool aspects of visiting Bent’s Old Fort is the rangers and volunteers act as living historians. They dress in period-appropriate clothing. As you stop in after entering the gate, you can get a map to explore the fort on your own. You can also join one of the tours offered by the National Park Service.
Our first visit to Bent’s Old Fort was back in 2014 and it was quite rushed. This time, we wanted to take our time and really explore the site. We made a point to watch the video first. Then we took the tour with a volunteer who led us through the fort. Having toured the site on our own the first time, I highly recommend making a point to take the tour.
Our guide led us through the council rooms and trading rooms. She explained how trade with the tribes worked and demonstrated how bison hides were compressed for transport. She also went into detail about day-to-day life. All told, the tour lasted about an hour and was quite informative.
We spent another half hour exploring the rest of the fort not covered in the tour. We checked out the various other rooms, including the room where Susan Magoffin spent 12 days recovering from illness and a miscarriage. Magoffin’s journal famously documents life on the Santa Fe Trail in the wake of the onset of the Mexican-American War. She is also part of the same Magoffin family which settled in El Paso, TX.
I would plan on spending at least two hours visiting Bent’s Old Fort, especially if you can be here for a tour, which we highly recommend.
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
Located about 80 miles northeast of Bent’s Old Fort is the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Sand Creek Massacre NHS tells the story of one of the darkest chapters in American history.
On November 29, 1864, members of the Colorado Volunteers attacked around 750 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes camped along Big Sandy Creek. Over eight hours, the soldiers killed around 230 mostly women and children. The next day, the soldiers returned and committed atrocities to the corpses.
When you get to the site, head over to the visitor contact station to see if the ranger is planning on doing a presentation. There is no visitor center nor exhibits in the contact station. But there is a rather excellent outdoor exhibit area in the grass under the cottonwood trees near the contact station.
This was our second visit to this site, like Bent’s Old Fort, and we wanted to make sure we got a chance to hear a ranger presentation on the massacre. The presentation was quite good. It went into significant detail regarding the events leading up to the massacre, making a point to go over the national reaction to the events.
We also drove up on the bluff overlooking the massacre site and see where the events took place. There are plenty of informational signs along the top of the bluff explaining the events.
If you can see a ranger presentation, we recommend it and your visit will take about an hour. If you cannot catch a ranger presentation, plan on spending about half an hour here. Despite the brevity of the site, the significance and its place in history is palpable.
Amache National Historic Site
Amache National Historic Site is located about 66 miles east of Bent’s Old Fort. The site preserves another dark story in American history: the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
This is one of the newest units of the National Park Service, authorized on March 18, 2022, and preserves one of the 10 Japanese-American internment camps, the fourth preserved by NPS. At this point, the National Park Service is working out the details of the land acquisition with the town of Granada, CO.
But what makes this site really cool is it was originally preserved by the local high school as a class project. Students from Granada Undivided High School created the Amache Preservation Society, which managed the site from 1990 on. As a teacher, that is really cool.
The site has a museum in the town, which goes into depth about the camp and the people who were interred here. While the museum is not as polished as what we found at Minidoka or Heart Mountain (two other Japanese internment sites that we have visited), it was quite extensive and well done. We were quite impressed with the level of detail this group included in these exhibits.
The actual camp is located just west of town and is not much more than a grid of dirt roads with exhibit signs. Touring the site gives you an idea of the scope of the camp and the signs tell a poignant story. Still, it is not the same as walking inside one of the barracks buildings to see what life was like.
We know, as the site is further developed, the National Park Service will add exhibits that give a more hands-on experience of the internees of this camp. Indeed, there is a reconstructed barracks building and guard tower at the north end of the camp but they were not open for visitation when we were there.
Still, even though we have been to two Japanese-American internment camps before, the impact of this site was profound.
Where to Stay and Eat When Visiting Bent’s Old Fort
On our first trip here, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in La Junta, CO. We found this hotel to be quite comfortable and would certainly stay here again.
That said, there’s not much to La Junta, especially in terms of campgrounds, and for our most recent visit, we decided to stay in Lamar, CO instead.
We camped at the Sundance High Plains RV Park and Cabins on the south side of Lamar. Even though the campground was located right off the highway, road noise was minimal. The campground was not much more than a gravel lot with connections, but we didn’t have any issues with the campground and would stay here again.
In terms of restaurants, we decided to try out The Max Chophouse, a relatively new restaurant in town. I can’t quite say I was impressed by the restaurant but I will say they were definitely working on being better. The food was well prepared and tasty but the service just wasn’t quite there, yet. Still, we enjoyed our meal and we can tell they are working hard to be a good restaurant.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Bent’s Old Fort
While Bent’s Old Fort is a bit off the beaten path for most folks, it is certainly worth the detour into the plains of southeastern Colorado. The history of this unique site and getting to explore an expertly reconstructed historic fort is well worth the detour.
When you add in the Sand Creek Massacre and Amache sites, this becomes a multi-day stop. And while it might seem like there is nothing worth exploring here, we are constantly amazed at how much beauty we find in the Plains.
The long and short of these sites: they are worth the detour. The history, both good and bad, is part of the fabric of this nation.
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