Charles and William Bent helped to “open the West” by establishing Bent’s Fort in Colorado in 1833. It was the only privately owned fortification in the west and the only major permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail. The fort was established to trade with the Plains Indians and area trappers.
Though the brothers grew up to become the stereotypical traders and mountain men of the West, their father, Silas Bent, originally from Massachusetts, was a prominent land surveyor and Supreme Court judge for the Missouri Territory.
Charles Bent (1799-1847) – One of the famous Bent brothers who helped “open the West,” Charles was born in Charleston, Virginia, in 1799 to Siles Bent and his wife, Martha Kerr. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1806. Charles attended college briefly at Jefferson College in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. He then returned to St. Louis and went to work for the Missouri Fur Company in 1822, probably fur trading on the upper Missouri River. In 1825 he became a partner with Joshua Pilcher in a re-organization of the company, but they were not very successful in competing with the American Fur Company.
He then joined the army, and when he was discharged in 1828, he turned his attention to the Santa Fe trade. He and his younger brother, William, took a wagon train of goods from St. Louis to Santa Fe. There they established mercantile contacts and began a series of trading trips back and forth over the Santa Fe Trail. In about 1830, he formed a partnership with Ceran St. Vrain, another trader from St. Louis, and their new endeavor was called Bent, St. Vrain & Company. In addition to its store in Taos, New Mexico, the trading company established a series of fortified trading posts to facilitate trade with the Plains Indians, including Fort St. Vrain on the South Platte River and Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, both in Colorado; and Fort Adobe on the Canadian River in Texas.
In 1835, Charles “Carlos” Bent married Maria Ignacia Jaramillo, born in Taos, New Mexico. Maria’s younger sister, Josefa Jaramillo, would later marry Kit Carson.
In September 1846, Charles was appointed as the first civilian Governor of the newly acquired New Mexico Territory by military Governor Stephen Watts Kearny. Though his office was in Santa Fe, Bent maintained his residence and a trading post in Taos, New Mexico Territory.
On January 19, 1847, Charles Bent was scalped and killed by Pueblo warriors during the Taos Revolt.
William Bent (1809-1869) – The younger brother of Charles Bent, William was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 23, 1809. The brothers established Bent’s Fort in Colorado in 1833 to trade with the Plains Indians and area trappers. Furs, horses, and other goods were traded for food and household goods by travelers along the Santa Fe trail, fur trappers, and local Mexican and Native American people. He also acted as a mediator between the Cheyenne Nation and other Native American tribes. Bent negotiated a peace among the many Plains tribes north and south of the Arkansas River, as well as between the Native Americans and the United States government.
In 1835, William Bent married Owl Woman, the daughter of White Thunder, a Cheyenne chief and medicine man. Together they had four children, including George Bent, who would grow up to be a leader among the fierce Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. William Bent was accepted into the Cheyenne tribe and became a sub-chief. In the 1840s, according to the Cheyenne custom for successful men, Bent took Owl Woman’s sisters, Yellow Woman, and Island, as secondary wives. He had his fifth child with Yellow Woman. After Owl Woman died in 1847, Island cared for her children.
William served as a scout for Stephen W. Kearny and Sterling Price during the Mexican-American War. He became the primary manager of the fort when Charles moved south to Taos, New Mexico Territory, to become the new governor. In 1849 he destroyed the fort and built a new trading post farther down the Arkansas River in 1853.
Somewhere along the line, William’s Cheyenne wives left him. In 1869, he married a young woman named Adaline Harvey, the educated mixed-race daughter of Alexander Harvey, a friend who was a prominent American fur trader in Kansas City. Bent died shortly after their marriage, and Adaline bore their daughter, his sixth child, after his death.
William Bent was buried in the Las Animas Cemetery.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2022.
Santa Fe Trail – Pathway to the Southwest