A piece of Colorado history is kept alive by Kit Carson's great-grandson.
From a distance, the low-lying structure appears to be a sand hill rising from the inhospitable Colorado plain. The mud slip, troweled smooth over adobe brick walls, changes colors in shades of buff and brown as the sun moves across the boundless sky.
An American flag whips atop it in the breeze, and the Arkansas River flows or trickles nearby, depending on the winter’s snowpack in the Rockies. As you close in across the yellow grass, as horseback trappers and U.S. Army wagons once did nearly two centuries ago, a square tower takes shape. Soon walls and a stout gate become visible, and the mass of the fort strikes home.
Bent’s Fort grew from the soil of the plains, and in fact did so twice. Originally opened as a trade compound on the Santa Fe Trail in 1833 by the entrepreneurial Bent brothers, William and Charles, and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain, it was abandoned 16 years later and the adobe walls melted back into the ground. It rose again on the excavated outline of its former foundation under the guidance of the National Park Service in 1976 as a historical phoenix.
Today, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is an elegant example of hands-on history, nurtured under the watchful eye of John Carson, a park ranger and interpreter whose roots here are as deep as those of the cottonwoods along the river.
In his mid-50s, John is compact and fit as a Western fiddle. His weathered face is wildly mustached, appearing either stern or impish as his words warrant. He wears tanned leather and a trade blanket tucked and belted tight as a coat. He can man the forge in a pinch, and he knows how to turn the screw hard on a hide press to compact a bundle for shipping. He is intimately familiar with every inch of the adobe compound, knows the story of how it was built both the first and second times, and can explain the intricacies of the economic trade that rumbled through here 180 years ago. And he just so happens to be the great-grandson of Kit Carson.
Kit spent time here working for the Bent brothers as a hunter. He made his final home 15 miles east in Boggsville, where he moved his family in 1867. Kit’s youngest son, Charles (named after his friend and fort founder Charles Bent), is John’s grandfather, and his line of the Carson clan has stayed in the La Junta area ever since. John grew up in the Arkansas Valley down near the Purgatoire River, some 15 miles south.
There is a 550-mile loop of the Santa Fe Trail from Bent’s Fort into New Mexico and then north back into Colorado that is marked with places where Kit Carson helped to define the American West. The area is made up of a rugged geography of grassland, canyons, and mountains. Bent’s Fort, Boggsville, Rayado, Fort Union, Santa Fe, Taos, and Fort Garland each were home to Kit in his various capacities as hunter, farmer, rancher, brevet general in the U.S. Army, and government agent to the Taos Pueblo and Muache Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes.
“The [Mountain Route of the] Santa Fe Trail followed the north bank of the river to Fort William,” John says, referring to the old-timers’ name for Bent’s Fort. “Across the river was Mexican land. The route was a ribbon, not really a path, changing with the amount of water in the river and with the captain who was leading a particular expedition.”
Bent’s Fort was Kit’s stop in 1841 when Kit came down from the mountains in search of steady work and someone to take care of his then-motherless children following the collapse of the beaver trade and his first Arapaho wife’s untimely death. Neither child survived to carry on the Carson family name. John and the rest of the clan are descended from Kit’s third wife, Maria Josefa Jaramillo, whom he married in Taos after leaving Bent’s Fort and leading expeditions with John Charles Frémont west through the Rockies. But Kit was in and out of Bent’s Fort all his life, making friends with the entrepreneurs and mountain men who passed through and signing on with expeditions and trading caravans provisioned at the fort.
The first Anglo-American settlement in what is now Colorado, the fort served as a gathering place for trappers to bring their furs to market and Plains Indians to trade their buffalo hides for goods coming from St. Louis on the merchant wagons. In fact, John is now working on the logistics for the 2015 Fur Trade Symposium (September 23 – 26), when the fort will fill with academics and aficionados of that specific slice of American history. Déjà vu.
The current fort is unique in the National Park Service as a fully reconstructed edifice, accurate in every detail. While most other national historic sites let the ruins speak for themselves (like Fort Union, not far away across the border in New Mexico and another location where Kit Carson spent time), Bent’s Old Fort takes pride in serving as a living, breathing model that is constantly updated as research uncovers more information about its history. During the long winter days when few, if any, visitors make the trek out on the Colorado plains, the park rangers take advantage of the time to study old journals from 19th-century travelers. If something new is cited as being at the original fort, they incorporate it. As John notes, “If we include it, it better be documented.”
The 4-by-9-by-18-inch adobe bricks stacked in the rebuilt walls were formed and baked on-site. The timber vigas overhead were cut from the cottonwoods at the Arkansas River’s edge. And the iron hardware on shutters and doors was hammered at the forge that is still the heart of the compound.
This fortress of mud, wood, and iron stands true to its heritage at the center of Western expansion. It is all serenely real. While you are here, your senses convince you it is indeed another time. The sound of hot iron being hammered out, the smell of cottonwood burning in the distinctly Spanish kiva fireplaces in the lower rooms, the nickering of horses coming from the corral out back — they could all be from 1833. The Hudson’s Bay blankets and the traps hanging in the trade room are all authentic wares. Even the letter-ing on the H.E. Leman rifle cases is accurate.
Only the unnerving squawk of the peacocks, which are seemingly out of place as they strut through the corral with the horses and oxen, may pull you back to the present. But even they are true to history. “They are a great alarm system,” John says. Skittish, they sounded enthusiastically when intruders were near.
The bird alarms weren’t really necessary, however, because the fort in its history was never attacked, not even by the Plains Indians. Such an attack wouldn’t have made sense. “I mean, the Cheyenne were the fort’s largest trading partner, so why disrupt that?” John says. “My guess is that if you attacked, it would be a long wait before you got to swap goods again with the Bents. Now, that doesn’t mean that horses weren’t stolen.”
Making history come alive has always been John’s bent. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in history, he taught high school for 20 years. He then taught evening classes at Otero State Junior College on the southern fur trade and the Santa Fe Trail — his specialties. All the while he volunteered at the Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico, and at the fort — places important to his family history. When a position opened at Bent’s Old Fort eight years ago for an interpretive ranger, John applied and became a government employee. “There is something special about these historic places to me,” John says, “because I know the history; I know the importance of these areas; I know the family.”
There are many special events at the fort during a given year, all endeavors to bring it alive out of time. When there are some 60 volunteers in period clothing manning the fort for an encampment, the courtyard raucous with sound and color, it feels as if you are there during a chaotic day in the late 1830s.
“History is a good story, if you let it be,” John says. “You teach here in a way that can convey so much more knowledge than in a book. You get the detail.” John wades visitors into the Arkansas River and shows them how to set traps, while other rangers make adobe bricks with children. “You give folks a good feel of what skills were needed, what roles had to be filled, in order to live day to day on the Santa Fe Trail.” John may draw the line at the kitchen, where he feels the least adept, but he does craft his own clothes, from design to last stitch. The moccasins and deerskin pants he wears this day are of his own making. Yes, he hunted the deer, tanned the hide, and then sewed up the pants with stout thread. He will not win any couture awards, but his utilitarian work is functional and will last.
The walls of the fort are re-mudded every year under the guidance of Eddie Aragon, a National Park Service employee who has been at the site for 33 years. He also makes any changes to the architecture and hardware that are warranted by ongoing research. The original fort was built by workers who were experts in handling the adobe that the Bents brought up from Taos. It was laid out much like a working hacienda from the era, with one major difference. In the middle of this courtyard is a massive hide press used to bundle the buffalo robes into a shipping size of 10 per 100-pound stack. This was an international business, not a homestead.
I ask John if he ever considered writing a history of Kit and his stay at the fort, because surely his perspective on the controversial man would be a unique one, but John demurs. “My great-grandfather was a man of few words, and likewise his sons. There’s not much in the way of family stories that would add to the record, so I would have to research it all to make it stick. No one talked, so there are no secrets.”
John interrupts our conversation to hurry toward a family that has entered through the front gate to help orient them and answer questions. In the 1840s that conversation might have been in English or French, Sioux or Ute, but most likely in Spanish. The irony of Kit’s great-grandson, dressed in homemade clothing and speaking with modern-day tourists at the fort that once housed and employed his great-grandfather, is not lost on him. Simply put, “It fits,” he says. A perfect day for him would be spending time in the river setting the traps, riding the ponies, and doing good, hard physical work.
As we sit under the west portal of the courtyard, looking into the bright, clear light of an early spring day, I ask John what he sees when he looks out over the fort where so much of his own history began. On quiet days, he says, he imagines William and Charles Bent, Ceran St. Vrain, “The father of the U.S. Cavalry” Stephen Watts Kearny, Sacagawea’s explorer son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, and, yes, Kit and his wife Maria Josefa working and walking through the courtyard nearly two centuries ago.
“I can visualize it, them, the day,” he says. “I can see this place come alive with all of them. And I can feel — and know — what it was like.”
From the July 2014 issue.