Bent, St. Vrain & Company
William and Charles Bent were sons of a wealthy and influential St. Louis judge.
They could have lived lives of relative ease in St. Louis but they were drawn by
the trading opportunities in the Arkansas River Valley. In 1829 they led a caravan
to Santa Fe. A year later they formed Bent, St. Vrain & Company with Ceran St.
Vrain, a Taos trader and ex-trapper. Charles directed the Santa Fe trade, taking
up residence in Taos and taking seasonal trips to St. Louis. He married into a prominent
Taoseño family and used his influence to increase trade between the Americans and
the New Mexicans. In 1846, after General Stephen Watts Kearney took the territory
with the Army of the West, Charles was appointed Provisional Governor of New Mexico.
Shortly thereafter, he was killed in Taos in an uprising of Pueblo Indians and New
Mexicans. (that’s William Bent on the left.)
William Bent was at home in the open country of the Upper Arkansas River. Disdaining
the hoop-skirted women of St. Louis, in 1837 William married Owl Woman, daughter
of a Cheyenne chief. After that, he was continually moving netween the two cultures
(the Cheyennes knew him as “Little White Man”) as he increasingly
identified with his Cheyenne relatives.
George Bent was the son of William Bent and Owl Woman. He spoke English and Cheyenne
fluently and attended the finest schools in St. Louis as a boy. As a young man he
enlisted in the Confederate army to fight alongside Choctaws and Cherokees. In 1864,
at the age of 21, George was captured and paroled home (meaning back to Colorado,
no more war). He sought a safe haven with his mother at Black Kettle’s camp on Sand
Creek but he was still there on November 29, 1864 when Colonel John M. Chivington
and his soldiers made a killing sweep through the peaceful camp. Owl Woman and his
brother were killed, he was badly wounded. He remembered the night following the
attack as: “the worst I ever went through. There we were on that bleak, frozen plain,
without any shelter and not a stick of wood to build a fire with. Most of us were
wounded and half-naked. From that time on,” he said, “both in war and in peace,
I have been with the Cheyennes.” George vowed to avenge the massacre and joined
with the Dog Soldiers in attacks on freight trains, towns, ranches and military
posts. In 1866 he married Magpie, Black Kettle’s niece and they had two children.
William died on his Purgatory River ranch in May of 1869. George died among the
Cheyennes at Colony, Oklahoma, in 1918.
Ceran St. Vrain ran the company stores in Taos and Santa Fe and served as American
consul in Santa Fe during the 1830’s. (this other drawing is St. Vrain)
The old grain mill built by St. Vrain in Cimarron, now a museum
The Bent, St. Vrain & Company’s Mexican trade grew rapidly as their wagon trains
travelled between Independence and Westport, Missouri, and company stores in Santa
Fe and Taos where they traded cloth, glass, hardware and tobacco for silver, furs,
horses and mules.
In 1833, William and his brothers built Fort William on the north bank of the Arkansas
River where it was close enough to the Rockies to draw trappers, near the Cheyenne,
Arapaho, Kiowa and other tribes for trading, and on the Santa Fe Trail near a ford
across the river. As the fur trade declined in the 1830’s, the Indian trade became
a mainstay of the business and Fort William really came into its own. The Bents’
reputation drew growing numbers of Indians to the fort and made their traders welcome
in most villages. They dominated the Indian trade on the southern Plains very quickly.
Their reputation was such that in 1846, the fort (then known as Bent’s Fort) was
used as headquarters for the Upper Platte and Arkansas Indian Agency. That year
also saw the coming of the Army of the West. The fort’s strategic location made
it the perfect staging point for the invasion of Mexico’s northern province. While
this was happening the traders’ storerooms became filled with military supplies,
soldiers were quartered all over the fort and their livestock stripped the land
before the army headed on its’ way. Later, a growing stream of goldseekers and other
settlers disrupted the carefully nurtured Indian trade. The Cheyennes moved away
from the polluted water holes, the decimated cottonwood groves and the declining
bison herds. Finally, escalating tensions between the newcomers and the Indians
capped by a cholera epidemic killed the trade.