Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

A Fracas on the Santa Fe Trail

and the Building of Bent's Fort

The United States east of the Upper Mississippi River was opened to the white race by the settlers, who fought to locate their homes in the country of the Shawnees, the Mingos, the Delawares, the Potawatomis, and all.

The newer United States of the vast Louisiana Territory, west of the Upper Mississippi River, was for a long time thought to be of little value as a home land. Its value seemed to lie in furs and in trade with the natives.

After the exploration by Captain Meriwether Lewis and his friend Lieutenant Clark, the fur-hunters were the Americans who opened the trails into the country of the Sioux, the Arikaras, the Blackfeet, the Crows and all. They did not make permanent homes; they built only rude forts, as store-houses, and when outside lived in camps like Indian camps. They did not till the ground. When they left, the country was about the same as before, given up to the wild men and the wild animals.

This, during fifty years, was the principal use made of the Missouri River portion of the Louisiana Territory, in the northwest. And in the southwest portion little more was done, but the American merchants were the ones who opened that.

Young Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike first explored it, sent out by the commander-in-chief of the army, in 1806, while Lewis and Clark were still homeward bound from the other direction. He traveled up the Arkansas River and into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and landed as a prisoner in Santa Fe of New Mexico.

The news that he brought back, of New Mexico and the way to get there (an easier way than his own round-about tour) encouraged the merchants and capitalists of St. Louis to hope that a trading route, back and forth, might be opened with Mexico. Calico, cotton, shoes, tobacco, trinkets and the like were to be sold for gold and silver, or exchanged for buffalo-robes, beaver-furs, blankets, and wool—all at one hundred percent profit over the original cost. Mexico manufactured very little, and was eager for American goods.

As the result, through the country of the Kiowas and the Comanches there was opened the great Santa Fe Trail of the merchants and traders. From the Missouri River at the Kansas border it struck out into present central Kansas, headed southwest to the Arkansas River, and passing on across the desert into northeastern New Mexico arrived at old Santa Fe, seven hundred and seventy miles.

The other great national trail, the Oregon Trail of the fur-hunters, was long a pack trail, until the wagons of the emigrants and gold-seekers to California began to throng it. The Santa Fe Trail soon became mainly a wagon trail, for the Santa Fe caravans.

From the Missouri River the traders set out, twenty, thirty, forty wagons in a train huge canvas-covered Conestogas, thirty feet in length with boxes six feet in depth, carrying three tons of freight and drawn by eight span of oxen or mules. From the lead span's noses to the end-gate of the wagon the length over all was thirty yards. These Santa Fe wagons were not prairie schooners; they were prairie frigates.

Thus they lumbered on, at not better than fifteen miles a day; and during their fifty or sixty days' trips out, loaded, and their forty days' trips back, partly empty, the Kiowas and Comanches, the storms and the hot dry desert, saw to it that they did not have easy sailing.

Among the early Santa Fe traders were the Bent brothers, Charles, William and George, of a large and well-known American family. Their grandfather Silas Bent had been captain of the Boston patriots who in 1773 dumped overboard the English tea on which the Colonists refused to pay a tax; their father Silas Bent, Jr., was first judge of Common Pleas in St. Louis; their younger brother Silas III became a naval officer and discovered and chartered the warm-water flow or Japanese Current of the Pacific Ocean; and they themselves aided civilization by building the massive Bent's Fort of the Plains, on the Arkansas River in south-eastern Colorado—for many years the only trading-post and supply depot that could be depended upon, in all the Southwest.

There had been a few traders killed, almost every year, by the Indians; but in 1828 matters grew so bad that the St. Louis merchants asked help from the Government. This year 1828 not only were several traders killed; a party of Comanches who knew nothing of the killings were invited into camp and were shot, except one, out of revenge. The one escaped, to tell his friends. Of course, after this nothing but war could be expected from the southwest Indians, who would be only too glad of an excuse to capture the white man's goods and teams.

William Bent, and perhaps George, already were looking up a site for the fort. They had been attacked, and almost wiped out in a fierce battle. Charles Bent, who was older than they, had made the round trip to Santa Fe. In the spring of 1829 he started again.

The caravan numbered thirty-five wagons and seventy men. He was captain in charge. Under him there were Traders Samuel C. Lamme, William Waldo, and other wagon owners, determined upon making the trip as usual. It would never do to let the Indians close the trail.

Besides, President Andrew Jackson, "Old Rough and Ready," the hero of the battle of New Orleans in 1815, had directed that a soldier escort be furnished as far as the Arkansas River. The Arkansas was the boundary line agreed upon between the United States and Mexico. It was about half way. The Mexican government promised to meet the caravans there, with other soldiers, and escort them the rest of the way, and bring them back to the United States frontier. That was the arrangement.

Fort Leavenworth, up the Missouri, had been located two years before. Troops were ordered from there, to join the caravan. They were four companies of the Sixth United States Infantry commanded by Captain (brevet Major) Bennet Riley, after whom Fort Riley of Kansas is named. Major Riley had fought as a young officer in the War of 1812. He had just gained his brevet of major for having served as captain for ten years. Promotion was very slow.

The caravan owners and its hunters and adventurers were glad to see the sturdy infantry. Infantry is poor stuff with which to catch Indians quickly; cavalry was more used, in a chase: but after a time the Indians grew to fear the infantry more than the cavalry.

"Pony soldiers run; walk-a-heaps no can run, must fight," they said.

So while the caravan might have preferred dragoons or mounted riflemen, to scour on either side and ride in front and rear, it must have taken comfort in the presence of the plodding solid "walk-a-heaps," the unbeatable dough-boys.

Now for the first time since the Lieutenant Pike expedition of 1806 a detachment of American regular soldiers marched into the Southwest between the Missouri River and the Arkansas.

The march of a Santa Fe caravan was a noble sight: the enormous hooded wagons, flaring like poke bonnets, each drawn by twelve and sixteen oxen or mules, lumbering on in a long double file or sometimes four abreast; the booted teamsters trudging beside the fore-wheels, cracking their eighteen-foot lashes; the armed out-riders guarding the flanks—galloping here and there in quest of Indians and game; the captain and his aides spying the country ahead; and the caballada or herd of loose extra animals bringing up the rear.

The gait was only two or two and a half miles an hour, so the Major Riley infantry easily kept pace.

When the Arkansas River had been reached, at the crossing or ford Major Riley made camp, to wait until the caravan returned. The teams were doubled and trebled—twenty, thirty, forty animals to a wagon; and with them all straining and snorting, a dozen teamsters cracking whips and shouting, and the heavy •Conestogas careening to their hubs in the quick-sand, the crossing was won.

No Mexican escort had appeared. Captain Bent boldly led on, into Mexico.

This portion of the Santa Fe Trail was especially perilous. Between the Arkansas River and the Cimarron River (which through most of the year was no river at all) there was no water for fifty and sixty miles, except right after rains. The stretch was called the "water scrape." All the five-gallon kegs hanging under the wagons had to be filled, and the teams were hustled day and night in order to get across as quickly as possible.

It was a hot country, of soft sand hub-deep and of wind-swept tracts so hard that the wagon wheels left no trace. Caravans traveled by compass; and even then were likely to toil and wander miserably, with their mules and oxen dying from thirst. The Indians loved to catch a caravan in here. The Kiowas and Comanches frequently lay in wait among the billowy sand-hills.

Thus it came about that the Bent caravan, this July of 1829, was attacked on the very first day out from the Arkansas. It had marched only nine or ten miles. The going was very bad, in the hot, flowing sand. All around arose the sand-hills, shimmering yellow, with the sun beating down out of a blue sky. The wagons were strung in a long straggling line, while mules and oxen, their tongues hanging, tugged hard. The teamsters, their feet blistering in their cowhide boots, their beards and flannel shirts caked with dust, urged manfully.

The sand-hills, fifty feet high, formed a complete circle around this sandy basin here. The caravan had entered by a narrow passage, and was stringing across, for another narrow passage. Whether the passage opened into the country beyond, nobody knew. Trader Lamme and two companions spurred ahead, to find out: a foolish thing to do.

They disappeared among the hollows; were gone not half an hour, when on a sudden, distant gun-shots soundly thinly, and back into sight galloped two of the men, racing full tilt, bare-headed. Following fast there came a drove of other figures—and as if from the very ground, on right and left of the leading wagons, still more figures up-sprung. A chorus of wild whoops echoed.


All the caravan was in confusion. Horsemen rode, teamsters shouted as they grabbed their guns from the seats and swung their whips. Oxen bellowed and jumbled, mules snorted and balked, the herders of the caballada shrieked for help.

"Close up! Close up!"


"Charge 'em! Meet the beggars!"

"No! Under yore wagon, everybody!"

"Get out o' my way! Yip! Gee, Buck!"

"Haw, Spot! Haw, Whity! Haw with you!" "Dun these mules! We'll all be wolf meat." "Look! There's nigh a thousand of 'em!"

The out-rider guards had lined, on either hand, to stand the enemy off while the wagons bunched. A rear guard sped to protect the caballada. Captain Charles Bent tore back from the advance. He was bare-headed. His long black hair streamed in the breeze that he made. He was mounted on a rangy, raw-boned black mule, with split ears—Comanche brand. No man more fearless ever ranged the plains. A host in himself, was Charles Bent.

His voice fairly thundered as he sped along the struggling line of wagons and teams.

"Bring on those wagons! Corral! Don't lose your senses, men! We're all right. But corral, corral!"

The two fugitives arrived, breathless, their animals sweat-covered and blown. Alas, neither of them was Samuel Lamme, and Samuel Lamme had not appeared.

"We've lost Lamme!" they shouted. "The Injuns got him, first fire."

"Fetch up that cannon. Unlimber," Captain Bent was shouting.

It was a small brass cannon, but had been so wrapped to protect it from the sand that the men could scarcely untie the knots. Away galloped Captain Bent, on his split-ear mule, to encourage the skirmishers' line. He had to be everywhere at once.

Out yonder the rifles and shot-guns were volleying, as the skirmishers, slowly retreating, held the Indians off. The leading wagons had turned broadside to the trail; one by one, or two by two, the other wagons lurched on—they also turning right and left, their teams inside, and their fore wheels almost touching the rear wheels of the wagons already halted. In this way a corral was being formed, in shape of an oval, with an opening at the end, for the caballada to enter.

That was desperate work. Around and around scurried the Indians, lying low upon their ponies' backs or hanging to the farther side, whooping, shaking their blankets, and launching their arrows and balls. They were Kiowas and Comanches both; and had the caravan just about where they wanted it.

The corral was completed; the caballada jostled in; the teamsters crawled here and there, to poke their guns through the wheels; in rode the skirmishers, Captain Bent last. The circling Indians pressed closer, and the cannon piece was yet useless, although the men yanked and slashed.

But the rifles and muskets kept the enemy off. When finally the cannon was unlimbered, aimed, and fired, it only broke the circle. The Indians scattered; and yelling angrily settled down to a siege.

The sun of mid-afternoon was scorching. The wagons on the west end of the corral furnished a little shade, but even in the shade the sand burned the skin. The men, lying flat, shifted wearily. The animals dropped their heads, and panted. The bare yellow hills around quivered. All the little basin was like a furnace. There was not a drop of water except in the casks, and this water would not last long—the air would suck up what men and beasts did not soon drink. The Indians need only wait.

What a fix! The attack could not have been made in a worse place, were it not for the soldiers.

Captain Bent called a council. The Major Riley escort, scarce ten miles back, was the main hope. Some way must be found to summon them.

"But we're in Mexico. It's ag'in the law of nations for soldiers from one country to march in time o' peace into another country."

"Never mind. They're Americans and they'll not stop to figure on boundary lines," Captain Bent answered. "They'll come, I'll wager, even if it brings on war with a dozen nations. Who'll take the back trail? There ought to be enough to make a running fight."

Nine men volunteered. They had a slim chance, but some of them might break loose. They rode away, in the full open. The Indians could not fail to see them.

Rifle-pits had been dug for the outposts. In the pits and in the corral the merchants, teamsters, and hunters sweltered, while they anxiously gazed. Scattered in squads among the dips and hollows, the Indians uttered never a sound. Then they burst into a yell. They saw the nine horsemen bolting for the north.

Aha! Several of the Indians had swooped in chase. No! They turned again. What did they fear? The cannon? Or a trap? Or didn't they care? They preferred waiting for bigger booty. Evidently they did not know about the soldiers at the river. The nine riders had got away! Now if the Indians only would hold off for a few hours, the caravan was saved. There seemed to be more than a thousand of the Kiowas and Comanches—in one grand charge they could ride right over the corral; but they knew that they would lose many a warrior, and they planned to get the victory more easily.

The Major Riley command were loafing in their tents and in the shade of the few cottonwoods, until the sun should set. Everything was peaceful—and plaguey hot. Then a sentry's musket gave the alarm signal; he shouted and pointed; the sergeant of the guard ran; from the tents officers and soldiers boiled out, or sprang to their feet, in the shade; bathers in the river plashed for their clothes; and the men on herd commenced to gather their oxen, mules and saddle animals.

A squad of horsemen were galloping in from the south; as they approached they called and waved, and pointed backward. They were a part of the traders who had left the camp only a few hours before. Something had happened, and that could be only Indians. Major Riley did not delay to ask.

"Sound the general," he bade, buckling on his saber at the door of his tent; and the chief bugler sent the notes rollicking through the waves of heat.

Officers ran hither-thither; the men ran; the teamsters ran; the herd swung in, for the parked wagons. The "general" was the first signal to form ranks.

The leading horsemen of the nine couriers galloped into the water and surged across. By the time the last had arrived, the second signal, the "assembly," had been sounded; the tents were being struck, baggage tied, and the oxen driven to their yokes. The companies were about to form.

All these preparations took some time. Two hundred men cannot break camp in an instant and march with bag and baggage into Indian country. And when "To the color," as the final call was known, had been sounded, the sun was set, and the first purple was flowing into the hollows of the vast, lonely land.

The major was going, with his whole force. The couriers had reported one thousand Indians, at the least; the sand-hills were full of them; all the Kiowa and Comanche nations were rallied to close the trail. It would not do to leave an unprotected camp, and no men were to be spared.

In the twilight they forded the shallow Arkansas—the army oxen straining in their yokes, a squad of soldiers pushing each wagon. They entered Mexico; all were liable to arrest, but who cared?

The couriers guided into the sand-hills. The major and his staff followed on their mules. The column of footmen and wagons toiled after.

They could hear no sounds of fighting, before. The twilight deepened. They must move cautiously. The Indians had seen the couriers ride out, they might be laying an ambush. A file of skirmishers fringed either flank, well out; scouts examined the country, ahead. Every ear was pricked, every eye searched right and left.

The silence was very mysterious. The couriers had reported that the Indians' circle was wide, to avoid the cannon. When the stars read midnight, the major thought that he surely had arrived at the scene. The word was passed that every wheel and hoof and foot should be muffled as much as possible, and the infantry were halted, to await the baggage train.

They proceeded. About one o'clock their advance struck the wagon corral itself. The Indians had not discovered them; the caravan outposts had not discovered them: either side might have surprised the other side, evidently, but neither side knew. In fact, they had not been expected before morning. No one had dreamed that Major Riley would risk a night march through the sand-hills, infested with a thousand and more Indians.

Now the corral and the soldiers waited for morning. At first daylight the reveille was sounded in the army camp. This was military regulations, but gave the Indians warning.

The shrill notes pealed far among the slumberous dunes. The Kiowas and Comanches, leaping to their feet, stared amazed. Down there, at the wagon corral, two hundred blue-coated American soldiers had grown over-night! Musket barrels faintly gleamed, two score fresh wagon-tops glimmered, figures hastened to and fro, there was clatter of arms.

Wah! These were no traders. They were warriors—American warriors. That made a different proposition. How had they come, and from where?

"We will go," the chiefs decided. "The Mexican soldiers may be coming, too, and we shall be caught between."

So they all rode away.

Major Riley determined that the whole party must march on. To stay here, in this little basin surrounded by the hills, was dangerous. It was no place in which to fight. He would escort the caravan at least a day's stint farther, into more open country.

First, Trader Lamme's body was found, and buried. He had been arrow-shot and lanced; scalped, stripped, and his head cut off. So he was left under the desert sand, and later his bones were dug up and reburied in St. Louis. Then the long column wended for the narrow pass out. It was reconnoitered and found to be undefended. They hastened through, while occupying the high ground on both flanks, and after a short but hard march halted, to camp.

Major Riley was still game. He agreed to advance another day's stint, in order to see the caravan well started into safer regions. With the rise of the sun, a gale also arose. The wind blew hot and hotter, driving the sand in clouds and almost smothering the men and animals. Therefore little could be done. The mules and oxen had to be unyoked—they stood with tongues out and tails to the gale; the wagon covers lashed and bellied; the men sheltered themselves as best they might from the stinging storm out of a clear sky.

By four o'clock in the afternoon the wind died. Every vestige of a trail had been wiped clean; but in ten miles the column luckily blundered upon sign of water, in a dry creek-bed. Hurrah! The scouts searching about found water itself: a pool, in the midst of an acre or two of grass!

The surface of the pool was covered with dead fish, killed by the heat of the sun. That made no difference. The pool was wet.

Major Riley and his soldiers turned back the next morning. Captain Bent took the caravan on, to Santa Fe.

From here, he and his brothers that fall located their trading post. The place was two hundred and sixty miles north of Santa Fe, on the north bank of the Arkansas River, fourteen miles above the mouth of the Purgatory River, or about half way between the towns of La Junta and Las Animas in present southeastern Colorado.

One branch, the Mountain Branch, of the Santa Fe Trail, led up the Arkansas, to it, and on, to turn south across the Raton Mountain for Santa Fe. The Cheyennes gathered near-by, every fall, for their great winter camp. The Utes from the Rocky Mountains, one hundred and thirty miles west, sometimes came down. A traders' and trappers' trail between Santa Fe and the Platte River passed this way. It was a sort of a cross-roads, in the wilderness.

Bent's Fort, called also Fort William after William Bent, was built of adobe or clay bricks. It was one hundred and fifty feet long and one hundred feet wide. Its walls were eighteen feet high, and six or seven feet thick at the base. The tops formed a parapet or walk. In two diagonally opposite corners were bastions of round towers, thirty feet high, swelling out so as to command the walls. The main gateway was thirty feet wide and closed by a pair of huge plank doors. Over the gateway there was a sentry box, floating the United States flag. The six-pounder brass cannon of the caravan was mounted upon a wall, on a swivel, to fire in all directions; other cannon were added.

Bent's Fort became famous. Soon all the Indians for leagues around knew of it. The Arapahos and the Southern Cheyennes traded in their buffalo robes here; the mountain Utes, and the Red River Comanches of northern Texas came in. At one time, in the late fall and in the winter, twenty thousand Indians would be camped within sight of it.

Trappers from north, west and south made it their market and headquarters. Traders trailed in, from the States and from New Mexico. In 1846 General Stephen Watts Kearny's army from Leavenworth for Santa Fe and California halted here, to refit.

So Bent's Fort prospered. It had the only ice-house on the plains; the pumpkin pies of its negress cook, Charlotte, spread its fame wider; the rank and file of the Indians and the trappers and traders, and the army officers themselves, swore by Bent's Fort.

The Indians called William Bent "Hook-Nose Man" or "Roman Nose." He married a Cheyenne girl. He was the governor of the fort. His brother George helped. Charles Bent was largely at Santa Fe, at Taos, midway, and on the trail, until in 1846 he was appointed first American governor of New Mexico.

The next year the Mexicans and Pueblo Indians revolted against the American government, and killed him at his home in Taos.

Bent's Fort lasted through more than twenty years. Then William Bent offered to sell it to the Government for an army post. He asked $16,000; the Government proposed $12,000. They dickered. Colonel Bent would not yield one penny. He had a short stock of patience in dealing with white men or red men either. So in the summer of 1852 he blew up the fort with powder and marched away, to build another post, for Indian trade, thirty miles down-river.

This became Fort Wise, of the army, but was known to the settlers as "old" Fort Lyon.

Ten years after selling it to the Government, this time at his own price, in 1869 William Bent died, aged sixty, near the ranch that he owned only a few miles from the ruins of his celebrated Bent's Fort.