Charles Bent — Fur Trade Legend and First Governor of the New Mexico Territory

November 11, 1799

Charles Bent was a fur trader, merchant, and politician who rose to prominence during the Fur Trade Era and became the first Governor of the New Mexico Territory. He is most well-known for his trade ties to Santa Fe and his death during the Taos Revolt.

Charles Bent, Governor of New Mexico, Illustration

Charles Bent. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Who was Charles Bent?

Charles Bent was a fur trader, merchant, and politician who rose to prominence during the Fur Trade Era and became the first Governor of the New Mexico Territory. Born in present-day Charleston, West Virginia, he moved to St. Louis with his family in 1806. He entered the Fur Trade in 1822 with the Missouri Fur Company, working in the Upper Missouri River area, before shifting his focus to Santa Fe in 1829 with his brother, William. In 1830, he founded Bent, St. Vrain and Company with Ceran St. Vrain and they built Bent’s Fort to control trade between the Great Plains and Santa Fe. By the 1840s, Bent was involved in regional politics due to his relationship with Manuel Armijo, the Governor of New Mexico. During the Mexican-American War, Bent was appointed as the first civilian Governor of the New Mexico Territory. However, he was killed in January 1847, during the Taos Revolt, an insurrection against U.S. occupation.

Charles Bent Facts

  • Born: Charles Bent was born on November 11, 1799, in Charleston, Virginia (present-day West Virginia).
  • Parents: Bent’s parents were Judge Silas Bent and Martha Kerr.
  • Married: He married Maria Ignacia Jaramillo in 1835.
  • Died: Bent died on January 19, 1847, when he was killed during the Taos Revolt, in Taos, New Mexico Territory.
  • Fun Fact: His wife’s sister, Josefa Jaramillo, married Kit Carson, the legendary scout and Mountain Man.

The Life and Career of Charles Bent

Charles Bent, a notable figure in American frontier history, was born on November 11, 1799, in Charleston, which would later become part of West Virginia. He played a significant role in the opening of the Southwest to American settlement through his willingness to explore and his ability to forge trading partnerships.

Judge Silas Bent Home, 1865, MHS
This picture of Judge Silas Bent’s home in Missouri was taken by Thomas M. Easterly in 1865. Image Source: Missouri Historical Society.

Early Life and Education

Bent was the eldest son of Silas and Martha (Kerr) Bent. In 1806, the Bent family moved to St. Louis, where Charles received a comparatively decent education, setting him apart from the traditional image of a frontiersman. His education would prove to be an asset in his future endeavors.

Missouri Fur Company

Bent’s involvement in the Fur Trade started in 1822 when he joined the Missouri Fur Company, which was owned by Joshua Pilcher at the time. Bent was part of an expedition led by Robert Jones, which traded with the Blackfeet but was later attacked by the same group.

The company was reorganized in 1825, and Bent was a partner. However, the company struggled due to the dominance of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which was owned by William Henry Ashley.

John Jacob Astor, Portrait, Jarvis
John Jacob Astor. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Exploration and Transition to Santa Fe Trade

Bent continued to work in the Upper Missouri Region for the next few years, joined by William, his younger brother. At some point, they tried, but failed, to go into business with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Afterward, they shifted their focus to Santa Fe in the Southwest.

After Zebulon Pike explored portions of the American Southwest, another frontiersman, William Becknell, blazed the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. Afterward, stories of riches in Santa Fe spread through the community of traders and trappers.

In 1829, Bent led a trading expedition to Santa Fe. During the trip, he used oxen to pull the wagons, which was innovative for the time. On the return trip, the expedition was attacked by a party of Kiowa Warriors but escaped. Bent returned with roughly $250,000 worth of furs, specie, and mules.

Zebulon Pike, Santa Fe, Painting, Remington
This painting by Frederic Remington depicts Zebulon Pike in Santa Fe. Image Source: Fine Art America.

Bent, St. Vrain and Company

In 1830, Bent joined with Ceran St. Vrain and formed Bent, St. Vrain and Company, a mercantile firm. The company would become a dominant force in the Southwest’s trade landscape with operations extending to Taos and Santa Fe.

Bent’s Fort and Expanding Influence

In 1833, William Bent built “Fort William,” an adobe fort. It was located on the north bank of the Arkansas River, about 12 miles west of the mouth of the Purgatoire River, near present-day La Junta, Colorado. Over time, the fort became known as Bent’s Fort and served as the headquarters for Bent, St. Vrain and Company.

The establishment of the fort was a significant moment in Charles Bent’s career — and in America’s Westward Expansion. 

Bent's Old Fort, Interior, Reconstruction, NPS
Interior of the reconstructed Bent’s Fort. Image Source: National Park Service.

The fort was one of the first structures built on the Great Plains and became a stopping point for nearly anyone crossing through the region, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho. From Bent’s Fort, the company traded a wide variety of goods, including Mexican blankets and buffalo robes, and its network stretched from Texas to Wyoming.

Charles also showed himself to be a savvy businessman. In 1841, a trapper named Stephen Lee tried to sell him 380 pounds of beaver pelts. Bent bought pelts by the pound, so he had the pelts dried and beaten, which reduced the weight to 360 pounds.

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Integration into New Mexico Society

By 1832, Bent had firmly integrated himself into the social fabric of New Mexico. He married Maria Ignacia Jaramillo, a Spanish-American widow, and immersed himself in local affairs. His special standing with Governor Manuel Armijo and other leaders helped solidify his position.

Territorial Governor of New Mexico

In August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, U.S. forces led by Stephen Watts Kearney won the Battle of Sante Fe and took control of New Mexico.

Before Kearney marched to California, he left Colonel Sterling Price in command of the military forces and appointed Bent as the first Territorial Governor.

General Stephen Watts Kearny, US, Mexican American War
General Stephen Watts Kearny. Image Source: Missouri Historical Society.

Taos Revolt and the Death of Charles Bent

Over the course of 1846, people living in New Mexico, who resented the U.S. occupation and Bent’s role as governor, planned an insurrection. Bent and Price uncovered the plot and arrested most of the leaders, but some escaped.

Another revolt was planned for January 19, 1847. That morning, insurrectionists barged into Bent’s home. They shot Bent with arrows, scalped him — in front of his family — and quickly left. 

Despite his injuries, Bent survived the initial attack. As his family fled from their home, with Bent, he was attacked for a second time and killed.

Following the Toas Revolt, Price and Ceran St. Vrain organized a force that eventually defeated the insurgents. In the trials that followed, both St. Vrain and Charles’ brother, George Bent, served as judges.

Charles Bent House, Taos, Photograph, 1936
This photograph of the house where Bent was attacked in Taos was taken in 1936. Image Source: University of New Mexico.

Significance of Charles Bent

Charles Bent is important to United States history for his role in the Fur Trade in the Upper Missouri Region and the American Southwest, along with the construction of Bent’s Fort. He also served as the first Territorial Governor of New Mexico, for a brief time during the Mexican-American War. Unfortunately, he was killed during the Taos Revolt. However, the trade connections he built with Native American Indian Tribes and Mexico helped set the stage for America’s Westward Expansion.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Charles Bent — Fur Trade Legend and First Governor of the New Mexico Territory
  • Date November 11, 1799
  • Author
  • Keywords Charles Bent, St. Vrain and Company, Bent's Fort, Santa Fe Trail, Governor of New Mexico Territory
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 28, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 11, 2023

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