William Bent — Fur Trade Legend and Friend to the Cheyenne

May 23, 1809–May 19, 1869

William Bent was a fur trader, merchant, and frontiersman who rose to prominence during the Fur Trade Era. He is most well-known for building Bent’s Fort and his close ties to the Cheyenne.

William Bent, Fur Trader, Portrait

William Bent. Image Source: History Colorado.

Who was William Bent?

William Bent was a fur trader, merchant, and frontiersman who rose to prominence during the Fur Trade Era. Bent’s family moved from Western Virginia to St. Louis in 1806, where he was born in 1809. In 1827, He explored the Missouri River with his older brother, Charles. Two years later, Charles turned his attention to Santa Fe, and William followed as part of a successful expedition that led to the formation of Bent, St. Vrain and Company. In 1830, the company built Bent’s Fort, which was a major trading center and meeting place. Bent had a significant connection with the Native American Indians, especially the Cheyenne. His first wife, Owl Woman, was a Cheyenne. Bent spent time working as an Indian Agent, trying to broker peace between the Plains Indians and the U.S. Government. Despite his efforts, horrific attacks like the Sand Creek Massacre took place. Bent died in Kansas City in 1869, while visiting his daughter.

William Bent Facts

  • Born: William Bent was born on May 23, 1809, in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Parents: Bent’s parents were Judge Silas Bent and Martha Kerr.
  • Married: He was married to three Cheyenne women; Owl Woman, Yellow Woman, and Island. His last wife was Adaline Harvey.
  • Died: Bent died on May 19, 1869, at his ranch in Las Animas, Colorado.
  • Fun Fact: His Cheyenne wives were sisters. Bent married Owl Woman first, and later took her sisters as wives, per the Cheyenne custom.

The Life and Career of William Bent

William W. Bent, a notable figure in American frontier history, was born on May 23, 1809, in St. Louis. He was the younger brother of Charles Bent and gained a reputation as a frontiersman. His family valued education, which helped set him apart from his contemporaries.

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.

Missouri Fur Company

William Bent’s participation in the Fur Trade started around 1827 when he joined a trapping expedition with his brother, Charles, who was a partner in the Missouri Fur Company. 

They traveled west along the Missouri River, ultimately reaching the Green River, which is a tributary of the Colorado River. The Green River Basin covers a wide area, including parts of present-day Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. 

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, William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. Afterward, stories of riches in Santa Fe spread through the community of traders and trappers.

William Becknell, Painting, Cooper
This illustration depicts William Becknell, Father of the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1829, Charles led a trading expedition to Santa Fe, and William went with him. During the trip, they 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. They returned with roughly $250,000 worth of furs, specie, and mules.

Bent, St. Vrain and Company

In 1830, Charles 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 and the Cheyenne

William continued to spend his time trapping along the frontier. He spent a winter on the Upper Arkansas River, where he saved two Cheyennes from some Comanches. This event created a bond between him and the Cheyennes that would carry on through the rest of his life. The relationship would eventually extend to other Plains Indians Tribes.

William Bent, Little Raven, Fort Dodge, c 1865, Soule
This photo by William S. Soule, circa 1865, shows Little Raven, an Arapaho Chief (far left), sitting with William Bent. Image Source: Plains Indian Raiders by Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, 1968, Archive.org.

Bent’s Fort and Expanding Influence

In 1833, William 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 his career — and in America’s Westward Expansion. 

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.

Bent's Fort, Wagon Train Entering, Illustration
This illustration depicts a Wagon Train entering Bent’s Fort. Image Source: University of Utah Digital Library.

Influence with the Plains Indians and the Fur Trade

In 1835, a peace council among southern Plains Tribes took place at Bent’s Fort, solidifying its status as a prominent trade center. 

Bent’s interactions with the Cheyenne led to his marriage to Owl Woman in 1837, further strengthening his ties with them. Together, Bent and Owl Woman had four children — Robert, Mary, George, and Julia.

As more Americans moved into the region in hopes of engaging in the lucrative Fur Trade, the Plains Indians fought with each other for control of their side of the business. The Cheyenne fought with various Plains Tribes, including the Kiowa, Comanche, Crow, Pawnee, Shawnee, and Ute.

Bent’s influence extended to the Comanches following a successful peace council in 1840, establishing connections into New Mexico. 

Bent himself is considered by some to have been the most powerful and influential American living on the frontier at the time. In fact, some of the most prominent explorers and Mountain Men of the Fur Trade Era worked for him, including Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Kit Carson, and James Beckwourth.

Birth of George Bent

In 1843, George Bent was born. When Owl Woman died in 1846, William married her sister, Yellow Woman, which was according to Cheyenne customs. George grew up living among the Cheyenne, and his stepmother taught him the language and customs of their people. In 1866, Bent married Magpie, who was raised by Black Kettle, the influential Cheyenne Peace Chief.

George Bent, with Magpie, 1867, NPS
George Bent and his wife, Magpie. Image Source: National Park Service.

Mexican-American War and the Death of Charles Bent

During the Mexican-American War, Bent’s Fort was used as a military base by General Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West. This eventually led to the American occupation of New Mexico in 1846. Kearny appointed Charles Bent as the first U.S. Territorial Governor in August. However, Charles was killed by insurgents in 1847, during the Taos Revolt.

The Decline of Bent’s Fort and the California Gold Rush

Following the death of his brother and the use of Bent’s Fort as a military base, its popularity as a trading center dramatically declined. 

After President James K. Polk announced that gold was found in California in 1848, Americans started moving westward in large numbers. Settlers from the East Coast and Midwest also carried diseases with them, like cholera. A cholera epidemic followed, further adding to the decline of Bent’s Fort.

Bent tried to sell the fort to the U.S. Army, but he believed the offer he received was insufficient. Instead of abandoning it, he set fire to it and burned it to the ground, making it unusable for anyone.

California Gold Rush, Gold Miners, El Dorado
Gold miners in California. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Bent’s New Fort

After burning Bent’s Fort, Bent moved 35 miles to the east. In 1853, he built a new fort — called Bent’s New Fort — at Big Timbers. The new fort overlooked the Arkansas River.

By then the Fur Trade was dying out and Bent became an Indian Agent for the Upper Arkansas Indian Agency. Stationed at Bent’s New Fort, he worked on behalf of the Cheyenne and other Plains Tribes with the Federal Government.

Bent Sends His Children to Missouri

In 1853, Bent decided to send George and his other children to Missouri to live with Colonel Albert G. Boone. He was the grandson of the legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone

In Missouri, George and his siblings attended a boarding school in Westport. Although they received their education, they were also exposed to teachers who looked down on the Cheyenne and others who were considered to be non-Christian.

In 1857, after finishing his primary education, George went to St. Louis to live with Robert Campbell, another prominent businessman of the Fur Trade Era, where he attended Webster College.

Bent’s Farm in Missouri

In 1858, Bent bought a farm in Kansas City. He lived there while he worked as an Indian Agent, and continued to operate his trading business.

Pike’s Peak Gold Rush

The Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 — also known as the Colorado Gold Rush — was a turning point in Bent’s career because it further strained relations and conflicts among settlers, Mexicans, and Indians. 

As Americans moved into the region in search of gold, the government and U.S. Army increased their presence and worked to move the Plains Tribes to reservations.

Bent, however, profited from the influx of settlers and prospectors, who bought goods from his mercantile operation.

Bent and the Treaty of Fort Wise and the Colorado Territory

As the nation prepared for the possible outbreak of the civil war, the Buchanan Administration took measures to secure safe access to the gold fields in Colorado and the roads and trails that led to them. 

The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie granted safe passage through the lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, but it did not give Americans permission to settle in the territory or mine gold.

A negotiator, Alfred Burton “A.B.” Greenwood, was sent to Bent’s New Fort — also known as Fort Wise — to meet with the chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. A treaty was hammered out and signed on February 15, 1861. 

The provisions of the treaty reduced the territory of the tribes and created an Indian Reservation on the Upper Arkansas River for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The tribes also agreed to give up their nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life and turn to traditional agriculture.

However, most of the Cheyenne and Arapaho continued their way of life and did not move to the reservation. The refusal to follow the treaty was followed by violence, as Plains Indians clashed with American settlers.

On February 28, 1861, less than two weeks after the Treaty of Fort Wise was signed, the Colorado Territory was established.

George Bent Joins the Cheyenne

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, tensions were high on the frontier. In May, Union troops were marching Confederate prisoners along a street in St. Louis when someone fired a shot. The Union troops responded by firing into the crown.

The incident was witnessed by George Bent and many of his classmates at Webster College. Upset over what they had seen, many of them volunteered to join the Confederacy, including George.

After fighting for roughly a year, he was captured and sent to St. Louis, where he was released to his father’s custody. George went to live with the Cheyenne, where he joined Cheyenne warriors in conducting raids against American settlers and Wagon Trains.

The Battle of Westport is Fought on Bent’s Farm

On October 23, 1864, the Civil War engulfed Bent’s farm. Union forces led by General Samuel R. Curtis engaged Confederate forces under General Sterling K. Price at the Battle of Westport. Curtis defeated Price, allowing the Union to maintain control over Missouri for the remained of the war. It was the largest battle of the Western Theater of the Civil War and is often referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.”

The Sand Creek Massacre and the Bent Family

As hostilities increased between Americans and Plains Indians in the Colorado Territory, the Cheyenne band George was living with, led by Chief Black Kettle, sought refuge at Sand Creek, near present-day Eads, Colorado. By that time, his younger brother, Charley, had also joined him.

On the morning of November 2, 1864, the Colorado Cavalry, under the command of John M. Chivington, attacked the village — even though the American Flag flew over it — killing at least 230 people

Among the survivors were Black Kettle and the Bent brothers. Afterward, hostilities escalated in the Colorado Territory. 

Black Kettle, Illustration
This illustration depicts Black Kettle, the Cheyenne Peace Chief. Image Source: Custer, Black Kettle, and the Fight on the Washita, Charles J. Brill, 2002, Archive.org.

The Little Arkansas Treaty

Unfortunately, the Bent family was involved on both ends of the Sand Creek Massacre. Chivington ordered Robert Bent, who was working at Fort Lyon, to lead his force to the camp.

After accounts of the massacre spread through the media, the government ordered an investigation, which was conducted by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Robert Bent testified, and said, “When we came in sight of the camp I saw the American flag waving and heard Black Kettle tell the Indians to stand round the flag, and there they were huddled — men, women, and children. This was when we were within fifty yards of the Indians. I also saw a white flag raised. These flags were in so conspicuous a position that they must have been seen.” Despite the committee’s recommendations, no charges were filed against Chivington or others. 

However, the government sent a commission to meet with the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs who survived the attack. The commission included Colonel Henry Leavenworth, Kit Carson, and Bent.

Over the course of three days, a new peace treaty was negotiated. It established peace between the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the United States, and also set aside land in Indian Territory as a reservation for them to live on. The treaty also provided reparations to many of the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre.

However, the government failed to follow through on the provisions of the treaty, and hostilities continued.

Death of William Bent

In 1867, Bent married Adalina Harvey, a half-blood Blackfeet, and settled in Westport. Two years later, he was on a business trip when he stopped to visit his daughter Mary in Kansas City. While he was there, he contracted pneumonia. After returning to his ranch in present-day Las Animas, Colorado, he died on May 19, 1869.

Significance of William Bent

William Bent is important to United States history for the role his role in the Fur Trade and his associations with Native American Indian Tribes, especially the Cheyenne. Bent worked to broker peace between the Plains Indians Tribes and the United States for much of the time following the Mexican-American War. He also built Bent’s Fort and Bent’s New Fort, two significant trading centers on the Great Plains that contributed to America’s Westward Expansion.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title William Bent — Fur Trade Legend and Friend to the Cheyenne
  • Date May 23, 1809–May 19, 1869
  • Author
  • Keywords William Bent, St. Vrain and Company, Bent's Fort, Santa Fe Trail, Bent's New Fort
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 30, 2024