Part of a family that built the most extensive commercial network in the frontier southwest, William Bent outlived the days of trappers and traders, surviving to see his world destroyed by the relentless pressure of white expansion.
Born in St. Louis in 1809, one of four sons of a Missouri Supreme Court Justice, William Bent followed his older brother, Charles, into the fur-trading business. William was trapping along the upper Arkansas river by age fifteen, and in 1829 he helped his brother take a wagon train of trade goods down the Santa Fe Trail.
With a partner, the Bents soon formed a trading company that bought and sold across the southwest -- Mexican blankets, New Mexico sheep, buffalo robes from the Plains, pelts from the Rocky Mountains, horses, mules and all manner of manufactured goods. At the center of this network stood Bent's Fort, a massive adobe outpost on the north bank of the Arkansas River in present-day Colorado, which William Bent constructed in 1833 and where he served as field manager of the company's far-flung operations.
Life at Bent's Fort involved prolonged contact with the Indian peoples of the southern Plains, and like many white traders and trappers, William Bent came to occupy a sort of cultural middle ground between the Indian and white worlds. In 1835 he married the Cheyenne Owl Woman, with whom he raised four children until her death in 1847. His two subsequent marriages were also to Indian women.
At the same time, however, Bent's trade in government supplies gave him a quasi-official role within the region. In 1846, at the outbreak of the Mexican War, it was natural that Bent would be called on to guide General Phil Kearney's troops along the Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico. Three years later, it was perhaps Bent's assumption that the government would pay him back for all his services that caused him to blow up Bent's Fort rather than sell it to the army at what he considered an insultingly low price.
In 1857, Bent constructed a new outpost thirty-eight miles downstream from his old fort, gathered a group of settlers and created the first permanent American colony in Colorado. Two years later, however, in 1859, the Pikes Peak gold rush brought a flood of Americans into the region, and Bent suddenly found himself cutoff from the middle ground on which he had operated for so long. As tensions rose between the expanding white community and the embattled Cheyenne, Bent strove mightily, both as an Indian agent for a brief time and as a private citizen, to maintain a measure of peace and mutual toleration. In the end, however, all his efforts failed.
On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington marched toward the Cheyenne's Sand Creek reservation, determined to destroy the Indians encamped there, a band led by the peace chief Black Kettle. Chivington posted a guard on William Bent to prevent him from warning the Cheyenne leader, and he forced Bent's son, Robert, to guide him to the site. There he and his volunteers slaughtered more than two hundred men, women and children, taking scalps and other grisly trophies which they later exhibited to cheering crowds in Denver.
The Sand Creek Massacre turned William Bent's world upside down. Not only had his son Robert been made an unwilling accessory to the atrocity, Bent's other three children, Charles, Julia, and George, had been living in Black Kettle's encampment at the time of the attack. After the massacre, Robert, who moved much more in the white world, testified against Chivington, though to no avail. His brother Charles, meanwhile, joined the militant "Dog Soldiers," a group of young Cheyenne warriors committed to driving the Americans from their homeland by any means necessary. At one point Charles apparently tried to kill even his own father.
William Bent, his heart broken, soon moved to Westport, Kansas, where he died in 1869.
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