The Life of William Bent

William Bent, a prominent trader during the Fur Trade era, was born in St. Louis in 1809. Bent followed his older brother, Charles, into the fur-trading business as a young man.

(Photo: Fine Art America)

William and Charles Bent formed the Bent St. Vrain Company, which specialized in American Indian trade. After traveling the Santa Fe Trail several times, the Bent’s – along with Ceran St. Vrain – formed Bent’s Fort, an adobe outpost along the north bank of the Arkansas River near present-day La Junta, Colo. in 1833. The fort was built out of adobe – rather than wood – because of its protective nature against hostile American Indian attacks, which often involved burning. For much of its history, Bent’s Fort was the only permanent settlement along the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and Mexico. Bent’s Fort was known as the “Castle of the Plains,” as it quickly became a hub of commerce and trade along the trail. William Bent served as the field manager of the company’s trade operations.

(Photo: Cowboys and Indians Magazine)

In 1835, William Bent married Owl Woman, a member of the Cheyenne. Bent eventually became a sub-chief of the tribe. The couple raised four children together until Owl Woman’s death during child birth in 1847. As was the custom, Bent married Owl Woman’s sister, Yellow Woman, shortly after. Following Yellow Woman’s death in the 1860s, Bent remarried one more time late in his life.

(Painting: James Abert circa 1845)

Because life at Bent’s Fort involved frequent contact with American Indian tribes, Bent became a mediator among the Cheyenne and other American Indian tribes. Bent was responsible for negotiating peace between many of the American Indian tribes north and south of the Arkansas river, and United States government.

(Photo: Colorado Virtual Library)

In 1849, it is believed that William Bent destroyed Bent’s Fort as he did not want to have to sell his fort to the United States Army.  He abandoned the site and later built a new outpost 38 miles downstream called Bent’s New Fort. His attempts to facilitate peace between American Indians and the United States Government ultimately were unsuccessful. Tensions escalated in the fall of 1864, leading to the Sand Creek Massacre.

Bent eventually died on May 19, 1869 after catching pneumonia.

If you’re interested in learning more about William Bent and the Bent family, watch live streams of our most recent Historic Lecture Series installments, including George Bent: Man of Many Worlds by John Steinle (view here), and George Bent and His Five Wives: Uncovering A Half-Breed History of North America by Dr. Anne Hyde (view here).