One of the great ironies of recent history is the talk about the need for a “wall” between the United States and Mexico. In 1829, there was a legitimate need for this wall. Not to keep people out of the United States, but to keep them in!
That was because in 1829, Mexico offered something the United States did not: freedom. In 1829, Mexico abolished slavery — 36 years before the United States officially did. Any runaway slave who could find the Santa Fe Trail and follow it to the Arkansas River (which was then the border with Mexico) had only to cross the river and they would be free. But finding and taking the Santa Fe Trail was no easy task.
Few roads have seen as much history as the Santa Fe Trail. The famous dirt road snaked for 900 miles across open prairie from Missouri to Old Mexico. The trail lasted only 60 years, but from 1821 to 1880, it was the United States’ first international highway. And one of the first roads to freedom for thousands of enslaved African Americans.
The story of the Santa Fe Trail begins a decade before Plymouth Rock back in 1610, when Spanish explorer and colonist Pedro de Peralta laid out the Villa de Santa Fe — the City of Holy Faith — in what was then Northern Mexico. It was an ambitious plan with a grand Governor’s Palace on the plaza. But at first, of course, there were bloody battles with Native Americans, who resented the intrusion and in 1680 revolted, throwing the Spanish out of the territory and occupying the Palace for 12 years.
But slowly over time, Santa Fe became a peaceful and prosperous city. And one of the most isolated in the world. The Spanish government forbid any trade with the Norte Americanos of the United States and anyone who tried was arrested.
Then in 1821, William Becknell changed that. He was a bankrupt Missouri trader, one step ahead of the U.S. law, who decided to take a big risk. He smuggled the first three wagons of goods to ever cross the Great Plains, somehow dragging them over rivers and up mountains and finally into the plaza of Santa Fe, where instead of being arrested, he was treated as a hero! There had been a revolution, the Spanish were thrown out and the newly created Mexican government welcomed trade.
Overnight, the word was out and great caravans of wagons began assembling for the tremendous profit to be made trading with Mexico. The typical wagon train didn’t follow one wagon after another, as shown in films. No one liked eating the dust of the wagon ahead, and there was plenty of land, so the wagons spread out in columns. Caravans of 10 to 100 wagons traveled together for protection. Trade mushroomed from $65,000 in 1825 to $1 million 20 years later.
The Santa Fe Trail became one of the most important commerce roads in the world, bringing goods from Europe — wool, silk, iron tools and cotton cloth — to Mexico and returning with furs, silver, mules and horses. Traveling on the trail were a wild assortment of characters — fur trappers and mountain men dressed in buckskins, famous guides like Kit Carson, big-hatted vaqueros and cowboys, soldiers from three different armies, gold seekers, journalists and adventurers. And runaway slaves.
In 1829, the Mexican government abolished slavery. In the civilized parts of the United States, where a man was judged by his abilities, not the color of his skin, slavery was not an issue. But in the towns and cities of the United States and throughout Texas, slavery was still very much the law. One of the issues that led to war between Texas settlers and Mexico was over slavery. The Mexican government was outraged by the amount of slaves that Texas settlers were bringing into what was then Mexico. In many ways, the Alamo was one of the first battles of the eventual Civil War, fought to decide the issue of slavery once and for all.
But while it was easy to see where freedom lay, getting there was anything but easy. Thousands of huge 6,000-pound Conestoga wagons creaked across the dirt tracks, pulled by teams of 20 oxen. These wagon trains with their white canvas covers billowing in the wind like sails, slowly moved across a sea of grass at a rate of 15 miles a day, passing through the traditional hunting grounds of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Comanche and Apaches. Besides the Indians, there were raging rivers to cross, massive herds of buffalo to be negotiated, mountains to be conquered, drought, cold, snow and thunderstorms. Thousands of African Americans worked as teamsters and drovers on these caravans, especially after the Civil War when they were free to look for new opportunities in the West.
And then, just like that, the Santa Fe Trail was gone. In 1878, there were 500 dusty wagons rolling into Santa Fe from the trail every day. But two years later, the railroad from Missouri was completed. Where once it had taken three months to travel to Santa Fe by foot, by rail it took just three days. The famous trail quickly faded into obscurity, wind and rain washing away all but a few traces.
Today, modern highways follow some of the original route and most people zoom by at 75 miles per hour. But slow down, and it’s possible to still see some of the old trail. There are natural landmarks and even some ruts in the prairie, carved there by wagons nearly 200 years ago.
BENT’S OLD FORT
Best of all, the U.S. National Park Service rebuilt the most famous site on the trail, the amazing adobe castle, Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta, Colorado.
Enter the gates of this mud-colored trading post, past massive towers guarded by cannons, and you are time-tripping back to the 1830s. Here, you can listen to tales from mountain men and soldier reenactors, touch the wagons they pulled across the prairie and see the exact same views they did when this adobe fort marked the border between Mexico and the United States.
The fort began in 1835, when brothers William and Charles Bent and their partner Ceran St. Vrain decided to build an Indian trading post along the Santa Fe Trail, on the banks of the Arkansas River. This was at the time the border between Mexico and the United States and the center of Native American hunting grounds. Profits could be huge. The Bent’s could buy a buffalo robe from Native Americans for 25 cents worth of trinkets, and sell it in Missouri for $6.
But the Bents didn’t want to build just any old trading post or fort. They envisioned a fortified town — a castle, really — that would be built of adobe bricks, guarded by towers and cannons. It would be a place that could provide all the luxuries of the city to hungry travelers who at this point had been weeks on the trail.
The Bents brought 100 workers from Mexico, pushed mud and straw into wood forms to create sun-dried bricks, and over two years, built their dream. A visitor in 1839 marveled, “it was as though an air built castle had dropped to the earth in the midst of a vast desert.”
The original fort vanished, along with the trail, long ago. But the National Park Service working with original plans, drawings and archeological excavations, built an exact replica.
Today, the first view of the fort takes your breath away. The fort’s parking lots are several hundred yards away. As you leave the parking lot and climb a small rise, there suddenly is Bent’s Fort in all its glory, sitting on the plains just as it would have appeared to wagon trains.
Once inside the reconstructed fort, you are back to the 1830s, surrounded by bustling reenactors portraying the blacksmiths, gunsmiths, hunters, traders, soldiers and horse wranglers who kept the fort in business. It was a busy and multi-cultural place filled with many languages and people. The Bent’s owned three slaves who lived here, of whom Charlotte was a renowned cook. Native Americans frequently camped outside the fort while trading, and today, teepees still dot the horizon.
The center of the fort was an open plaza, surrounded by two story buildings. On the bottom floor were the storehouses, trading rooms, a barber shop, dining rooms, a kitchen and a blacksmith shop. The upper floors had more private rooms and even a billiard table and bar. Some 60 to 100 people lived in the fort, and it could accommodate up to 15 prairie schooners in a walled adobe corral. No one worried about people stealing goods from the corral — the walls were protected on top by living cactus.
The trading rooms were packed with beads, brass wire, red cloth, tobacco, hoop iron, tomahawks, bracelets, bright colored blankets, and of course whiskey. Traders also set up shop on the rolling prairie around the fort. Among them were many African Americans, who had good relationships with the Native Americans and worked as trappers and traders in the mountains.
Kit Carson worked at the fort as a hunter, supplying meat for the workers, before becoming more famous as a trail guide and soldier. So did Jim Beckwourth, the African American mountain man and guide who later discovered the pass in California that bears his name. Ironically, though he founded Pueblo, Colorado, played a role in discovering Berthoud Pass in Colorado and was the first to discover and explore many other sites in the state, there is no pass, 14er or mountain in Colorado named after him.
Amazingly, William Bent didn’t live in the fort he built. His wife, a Cheyenne named Owl Woman, didn’t like all the constant noise of wagons coming and going, and the hammering in the blacksmith shop, and the traders and trappers drinking whiskey and carousing. So she lived in a teepee by the river. She made William live there too.
When war between the United States and Mexico broke out in 1846, Bent’s Fort became an army post. After the war, trade fell off, and the Bents had difficulties with the U.S. government. One story is that they set fire to the fort rather than have the United States take control. At any rate, the fort was abandoned and the adobe bricks eventually washed away, like the trail it had served, leaving only the wind, the grass and the big skies of the Great Plains. Ironically, black slaves could still be free in Mexico, but now they had to cross Colorado and New Mexico to get to the U.S. border, a much more dangerous and almost impossible task. Many of the slaves living in Santa Fe (which was now part of the United States) had a difficult choice to make because, without official papers, they could once again be considered slaves. Many of them moved further south below the new U.S. border.
THE FORT RESTAURANT
The first reproduction of Bent’s Old Fort was created by Sam Arnold in 1963 in Denver as The Fort restaurant.
Today, the restaurant is run by his daughter Holly Arnold Kinney and The Fort still dishes up more buffalo than any other restaurant on the planet. It’s a wonderful place to soak up the atmosphere of the Santa Fe Trail, while tasting buffalo, elk, quail, rabbit — even rattlesnake is on the menu. Try the “Bowl of the wife of Kit Carson — a soup served by Kit Carson’s granddaughter with chicken, rice, chipotle chili, dried garbanzo beans and cheese, served with avocado, cilantro and lime. Wash it down with a Prickly Pear Margarita made with real cactus juice. As the mountain men used to say, “Waaaah!”
If you go: Bent’s Old Fort is located in La Junta, Colorado, 190 miles from Denver and 280 miles from Santa Fe. It is a wonderful place to begin to discover the fascinating and forgotten history of African Americans in the West.