William W. Bent

May 23, 1809 - May 19, 1869

Bent, William W., frontiersman (May 23, 1809-May 19, 1869). Born at St. Louis, he was a brother of Charles Bent and probably first went up the Missouri on a fur expedition about 1827, reaching the Green River. Bent and his brother failed in an attempt to join the American Fur Company and turned toward Santa Fe. Their 1829 freight caravan was attacked by Indians, but continued on to New Mexico where the goods were profitably disposed of, the wagons set out for the states, and William Bent joined a trapping party, wintering on the upper Arkansas River where Bent saved two Cheyennes from the Comanches, launching his lifelong association with the Cheyenne people. Late in 1830 he joined a trapping party to the Gila and San Pedro rivers, Arizona, where he weathered an Indian attack. When Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain organized a trading venture, William Bent set up a center on the upper Arkansas where the two Bents, with their brothers, George and Robert, met with Yellow Wolf and his Cheyennes in 1831 at the mouth of the Purgatoire; the Big Timbers fort was established in the Vicinity. John Gantt built his Fort Cass near the Arkansas and Fountain rivers, the site of modern Pueblo, in competition; William Bent constricted Fort William three miles east of Fort Cass to throttle the Bents' opponent, and by 1834 competition threatened to become murderous. The Big Timbers fort was abandoned in 1834 in favor of Fort William; William Bent then began construction of his more elaborate, adobe-construction, later to be known as Bent's Fort, farther east, near present La Junta, Colorado, competed in the summer of 1835. Gantt gave up his business that year. An important peace council of southern Plains tribes was held at the new Fort William (Bent's Fort) in the summer of 1835. The post became the pre-eminent mercantile center for the southern Plains. William Bent married Owl Woman, a Cheyenne, about 1837, and he "became an Indian in many aspects." Trade was extended to the Comanches after a peace council in 1840 at the fort, and the Bents influence extended deep into New Mexico. William Bent made few trips to Missouri, preferring to remain on the frontier. He scouted briefly for the army during the war with Mexico when Bent's Fort became a major military center for a period, Bent providing the steadying hand that kept the Cheyennes from the warpath against the Americans, but the southern Plains trade declined in volume, at any rate. About August 21, 1849, the fort was burned (not blown up, as often said), with most of its business already moved to Fort St. Vrain on the South Platte. His business partnership with St. Vrain terminated, William in 1853 built a sandstone fort 30 miles east of the former Bent's Fort (later, Fort Lyon). He prospered, but in 1856 determined to sell out. In 1859 he was named Indian agent, but dissatisfied with impossible problems in Indian-white relationships, he resigned in 1860. William's was a steadying hand for peace between the Cheyennes and whites, but his sons, George, Charles and Robert, were heavily involved in the Sand Creek massacre, the former two with the Indians, Robert with Chivington. In pursuit of compensation claims for use of his fort by the army William Bent spent the winter of 186701868 in the east. His second Cheyenne wife, Yellow Woman, having been killed by Pawnee scouts, in 1867 William married Adalina Harvey, a half-blood Blackfoot, at Westport. He died of pneumonia at his Purgatoire ranch, his estate worth more than $150,000. He was one of the frontier's major figures.


David Lavender, Bent's Fort. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday & Co., 1954.