Bent's Fort Road

     George and Robert Bent, younger brothers of Charles and William, set forth from Taos in the summer of 1832 and traveled north over Raton Pass. This itinerary was the precursor to what became known as the Bent's Fort Road.[1] Though in reverse to the young Bents' journey the Bent's Fort Road began at the Arkansas or Cimarron crossing (depending on the period) of the Arkansas River, passed by the Big Timbers, and continued on to Bent's Fort. Crossing the Arkansas six miles to the west, the Road ran in a south-southwesterly orientation along Timpas Creek to Trinidad, over Raton Pass and followed the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to a point east of Taos. There, one could cross over to Taos or continue south to merge with the Cimarron Route at the junction of the Mora River and Sapello Creek.[2]

     The distance to Santa Fe from Independence by way of the Bent's Fort Road was 87 miles farther than that of the Cimarron Route.[3] Though longer than the Cimarron Route, the Road at a later date saw increased traffic because of the lack of water and the chance of Indian depredations along the Cimarron Route.

     While the Road was used sparingly by others than the Bent, St. Vrain Company prior to the Mexican War, some notable examples are worthy of mention. Matthew Field in 1839 joined a small group of merchants and tourists, 18 Mexicans and Americans, at Independence. Taking the customary route of the Santa Fe Road, the little caravan arrived at the Arkansas Crossing. At that point, Field wrote, "There is a well known fording place here conducting to the Semirone Road which cuts off a wide extent of the travel, but only the more daring and adventurous pursue it, as depredations from the Comanches have been frequently suffered in that region. Timorous traders, and parties inferior in numbers, therefore, continue forward up the safer track and cross the Arkansas at Bent's fort about 100 or 150 miles nearer its source."[4] Field's party pressed on to Bent's Fort, Raton Pass, and the headwaters of the Canadian River. There the rest of his party proceeded south to travel the Cimarron Route; but Field and a Captain Branch took a less traveled road to Taos, thence to Santa Fe. After a brief stay in the capital city, Field returned to Missouri with Dr. David Waldo and some Mexican merchants.[5]

     James Josiah Webb in August 1844 joined a caravan at Council Grove captained by Samuel C. Owens. Following the Santa Fe Road to the Arkansas Crossing, Web and three others left the caravan to go on ahead to negotiate with Governor Manuel Armijo with regard to Mexican trade regulations. At that point, Web worte, "So when the train left the river by the Cimarron route, we re-crossed the river and started on our trip by way of Bent's Fort and Taos."[6] From Taos, according to Webb, he took a circuitous route through Las Vegas to Santa Fe. There, he negotiated with the governor as to the duties required on the merchandise delivered by Owens. After staying the winter in the Santa Fe area, Webb and two companions started for the States on March 3, 1845. Returning to Bent's Fort by way of Taos, they proceeded on to Independence, arriving there about 50 days from Santa Fe.[7]

     On a second trip to Santa Fe, Webb formed a parnership with George Doan. In Independence, the partners were outfitted for the expedition and set forth during the middle of June 1845. At Council Grove, they joined with several other trains and proceeded to the Arkansas crossing. There, Webb wrote, "Before arriving at the crossing of [the] Arkansas, we had concluded to take the Bent's Fort route instead of the Cimarron." Proceeding on to Taos, they stayed overnight and pushed on to Santa Fe. There, Webb and Doan disposed of their merchandise, sold their outfits, and Doan departed for Missouri. About October 10, Webb recieved the balance of the money owed for the merchandise, and in the company of four others took the Cimarron Route homeward.[8]

     By 1845, traffic on the Bent's Fort Road was still sparse, but that was changed in 1846 with the advent of the Mexican War. In 1808, George C. Sibley, factor at Fort Osage, foresaw the conflict. In a letter to his brother, he wrote"that if the United States should go to war with England, and if Spain should enter, it is likely this will be a rallying point from whence to attack Santa Fee: we could march there and seize their rich mines in less than twenty days. And I have not doubt if we have a war, but seize them we shall."[9] Sibley, one of three commissioners appointed to oversee the survey of the Santa Fe Road in 1825, arrived with the survey party at Taos Gap on October 19, 1825. There, the party went into camp and Sibley dispatched two of his men to Taos to bring back mules to pack the baggage through the moutains to Taos. Sibley claimed that such action was necessary due to the fatigued condition of the party's horses. Also, Sibley had personal business to conduct with his partner Paul Baillio in Taos.[10] A third reason, not explicit, but conjectured by some, was that he did not take the direct route to Santa Fe because he was trying to locate a road which would have a military advantage for the invasion of New Mexico and the capture of Santa Fe. Sounds somewhat reminiscent of his 1808 letter to his brother.

     Sibley's prophecy did come to pass, not war with England or Spain, but with Mexico. On May 13, 1846, with the slightest of provocation, President James K. Polk declared that a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico. On the subsequent day, Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny was placed in command of the Army of the West, a 1500-member detachmet to be organized at Fort Leavenworth, comprised of the 1st U. S. Dragoons and volunteer troops from Missouri.[11] Immediately, plans were put into motion to supply the troops' march to Santa Fe. To borrow the title of Jack Rittenhouse's fine little book, the trail of commerce was soon to be a trail of conquest.[12] On June 16, Private John Taylor Hughes reported nearly 100 provision wagons had been dispatched from Fort Leavenworth to Bent's Fort and that a great number of beef cattle would be driven along with the Army.[13] In mid-June a fatigue party was sent from Fort Leavenworth to prepare a road leading to the Kansas River and on to strike the Santa Fe Road at the Narrows.[14]

     The first of Kearny's command, Companies A and D of Alexander Doniphan's Regiment, marched out of Fort Leavenworth on June 22.[15] Other troops followed at regular intervals until the total complement of 1500 men were en route. Also assigned to Kearny's command was a small party of topographical engineers, comprised of 2d Lieutenants James W. Abert and William G. Peck plus some civilian employees. The squad departed the post on June 27.[16] Additionally, the Mormon Battalion recruited in Iowa, 500 strong, arrived at Fort Leavenworth on August 10 and departed in two separate groups on August 13.[17]

     Following in the rear of the military trains, Samuel Magoffin's trade caravan proceeded on to Pawnee Fork where he joined three other traders, Manuel K. Harmony, Cornelius Davey, and Edward Glasgow. Leaving Pawnee Fork, the traders accompanied by two companies of soldiers took the Dry Route southwest while Kearny's troops pursued the Wet Route. The traders struck the Arkansas River at the Cashes on July 18.[18]

     West of the Cashes at the Arkansas crossing, the Morman Battalion separated in mid-September. One group crossed the river to follow the Cimarron Route to Santa Fe. The other group continued up the north bank of the Arkansas to Bent's Fort, the route previously taken by Kearny's men and the trade caravans.[19] Beyond Bent's Fort, the Battalion continued on to Pueblo where they went into winter camp.

     At Bent's Fort, Kearny prepared for the invasion of Mexican Territory which lay just south of the Arkansas River. On August 1, two companies of the Missouri Volunteers entered New Mexico, and on the following day, Cooke's detachment, a small party of spies, and the balance of Kearny's troops crossed the Arkansas to complete the invasion of the Republic of Mexico by the United States of America.[20]

     The march was not without difficulty, especially with regard to Raton Pass. Susan Magoffin's diary entry of August 15 reads, "Worse and worse the road! They are ever taking the mules from the carriages this P. M. and a half a dozen men by bodily exertions are pulling them down the hills. And then it takes a dozen men to steady a wagon with all its wheels locked - and for one who is some distance off to hear the crack of it makes over the stones , is truly alarming. Till I rode ahead and understood the business, I supposed that every wagon had fallen over a precipice. We came to camp about half an hour after dusk, having accomplished the great travel of six or eight hundred yards during the day."[21]

     Beyond Raton Pass, Kearny led his command to Las Vegas and then to Santa Fe, arriving at the ancient capital on August 18. So ended his march on the Bent's Fort Road.[22]

     Louise Barry had carefully compiled a list of those parties which traveled the Bent's Fort Road subsequent to Kearny's invasion through the end of the Mexican War in 1848. Those parties for the remainder of 1846 were as follows: a Ceran St. Vrain train departing Wesport on September 15; the Francis Parkman party returning to Wesport of September 26; a small party of Mormans returning east which arrived at Independence on September 30; and Capt. A. W. Enos's party leaving Fort Leavenworth for Bent's Fort on October 11.[23]

     Barry's list continues for 1847: the Kit Carson/Edward Beale/Theodore Talbot courier expedition from California which reached Missouri by mid-May; Lt. Col. William Gilpin's march from Fort Mann to Bent's Fort in October; and Brig. Gen. Sterling Price's trip from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe by way of Bent's Fort in November.[24]

     Barry's list for 1848 is even more impressive: Lewis Tharp's pack train which arrived at the town of Kansas on March 20; the trade caravans of Elliot Lee, Charles Towne, and others who were attacked by Apaches near the Raton Mountains in June; the John C. Fremont party which veered southwest from the Smoky Hill route to the Bent's Fort Road at the Big Timbers; and Lt. Edward Beale's courier expedition from Washington, D. C. to California which departed Fort Leavenworth in mid-November.[25]

     The next surge of traffic on the Bent's Fort Road came with the 1857 discovery of gold in the far western end of Kansas Territory. As early as 1858, two guidebooks to the gold fields were published; and by 1859, no less than 17 such books had come off the press. Allow one citation by William Parsons to speak to the Bent's Fort Road. "To the point where the Santa Fe Trail crosses the river is twenty-seven miles - the ruins of Fort Atkinson being near the road. At this point we leave the Santa Fe Trail, keeping upon the north side of the river. The distance thence to Bent's Fort one hundred and fifty miles, the road being of the character already mentioned. Bent's Fort is situated at Big Timbers. . . . From Bent's Fort to Bent's Old Fort is a distance of thirty-five miles."[26]

     From Bent's Old Fort, the gold seekers pursued the Arkansas River to Pueblo, then north along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains to the gold diggings at Cherry Creek.

     Parson's guidebook was one of many which piloted thousands of Argonauts across the plains. Jack Rittenhouse reported that, by 1859, 500 wagons a day were using the Bent's Fort Road.[27] Capitalizing on the gold rush was Joe Doyle, a former owner of Barclay's Fort and subsequently a freighter transporting goods from Kansas City to Santa Fe. his enterprise is but one example of men with an entrepreneurial flair who made a fortune, not by mining but by outfitting the miners. In June 1859 alone, he transported goods by way of the Bent's Fort Road to Denver in the amount of $30,000. His firm, J. B. Doyle and Company, "became the largest in the territory, doing half a million dollars worth of business a year."[28]

     Because, in part, of the post office established at Fort Wise in 1860, the Post Office Department ordered the mails to be delivered on the Bent's Fort Road rather than the Cimarron Route. With that change, the Missouri Stage Company initiated regular service on the Road, but freight shipments were not forthcoming due to the hazards of Raton Pass.[29]

     In the following year, Confederate forces captured Santa Fe and volunteer troops from Colorado were organized to meet their advance. Marching down the Bent's Fort Road they reached Fort Union on March 22, 1862. Subsequently, the Colorado troops met the Confederates in two successive battles at Apache Canyon and Glorieta Pass. Victoriously, the Colorado troops returned to Fort Union and the Confederates retreated to Texas.[30]

     Perhaps the most dramatic turn of events in regard to the Bent's Fort Road was the construction of the toll road over Raton Pass. By an act of the Colorado Territorial Legislature, Richard Wootton incorporated the Trinidad and Ratoon Mountain Wagon Road Company in the summer of 1865. Hiring a crew of laborers, he built a 27-mile road across the pass.[31] For the first time since George and Robert Bent scaled Raton Pass in 1832, freight wagons were able to negotiate the mountain road with little difficulty. Consequently, freight shipments began to flow southward from Bent's Old Fort, their primary destination being Fort Union, the supply depot for other posts in the Southwest.

     In the meantime, the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, laying tracks across Kansas reached the end-of-the-tracks town named Phil Sheridan in June 1868. While freight was dispatched from the railhead on a new 120-mile road to Fort Lyon on the Bent's Fort Road, the mail company moved its headquarters to the old Butterfield Overland Despatch station one mile west of Fort Wallace. From there, mail was transported to Fort Lyon. By 1870, the tracks of the railroad (name changed to Kansas Pacific in 1869) arrived at Kit Carson, Colorado Territory. From that railhead, a stage line ran due south to Fort Lyon. Additionally, a freight road ran southwest to strike the Bent's Fort Road at Bent's Old Fort. In 1873, the Kansas Pacific constructed a spur line from Kit Carson to West Las Animas, Colorado Territory, also on the Bent's Fort Road. Concomitant to the arrival of the Kansas Pacific at Las Animas, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached the end-of-the-tracks town of Granada in southeast Colorado Territory, and by 1875 its tracks too had reached west to Las Animas. The little town just west of Fort Lyon became a hub of freighting activity serving as the railhead for both railroads and the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. New Mexican freighters plied the Bent's Fort Road in large numbers transporting freight to West Las Animas, mostly wool. In a single week of July 1874, 182,863 pounds of wool were shipped from Las Animas; and on average, weekly shipments of hides totaled 87,000 pounds.[32] In turn, the same freighters transported merchandise to many destinations in New Mexico, distributed from the huge commission houses which had come to dominate the Santa Fe trade.

     Beyond West Las Animas, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe established railheads at La Junta in 1875 and Trinidad in 1878. While freight shipments were dispatched out of La Junta, Barlow and Sanderson eschewed La Junta to establish headquarters at Trinidad, which became the northern terminus of the Bent's Fort Road. Soon after, freight was shipped from the Trinidad railhead.

     South of Trinidad, the railroad deviated from the path of the Bent's Fort Road continuing on through Otero, Las Vegas, and Lamy, New Mexico Territory. So ends the tenure of what historically was known as Bent's Fort Road. Janet Lecompte wrote, "The Bent's Fort branch is now called the Mountain Branch." But "neither Santa Fe Trail" or "Mountain Branch" were terms in common use until the 1860s, although almost every historian of the Santa Fe assumes that they were. Elsewhere, Lecompte declared, "Travelers on the two branches of the trail before the 1850s generally called them the 'road to Santa Fe' or 'Bent's Fort Road.'"[33] Lecompte is correct. Almost every standard text on the Santa Fe Trail has an index with an entry titled Mountain Branch; and the popular Santa Fe Trail guide books all make reference not to the historic Bent's Fort Road but to the Mountain Branch. (Editor's note: the SFT and NPS promote use of "Mountain Route" instead of "Mountain Branch.") Finally, the Colorado and New Mexico Daughters of the American Revolution inscribed their gray granite markers between Bent's Old Fort and Fort Union with "Bent's Fort Road." The good ladies of Colorado and New Mexico are to be congratulated for this. However, one could wish that the markers from the Kansas/Colorado line west were similarly inscribed. Those are incised "Santa Fe Trail."

     Hats off to George and Robert Bent for opening the Bent's Fort Road. Hats off to Janet Lecompte for identifying the historic designation of the road. hats off to the history buff and modern traveler who traverse the old road by printed word, cyberspace, and 21st-century roadways.


  1. Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West (Albuquerque:University of New Mexico Press,1971), 8.

  2. Janet Lecompte, "The Mountain Branch: Raton Pass and Sangre de Crisco Pass," The Santa Fe Trail: New Perspectives (Denver: The Colorado Historical Society, 1987), 56; Leo E. Oliva, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), 18-19.

  3. Taylor, First Mail West, 77.

  4. John E. Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Pres, 1995), xx, xxiii, 71-72.

  5. Ibid, xxxiii - xviv.

  6. James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 46-58.

  7. Ibid, 58-123.

  8. Ibid, 127-141.

  9. Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlain Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 1.

  10. Ibid, 104-106.

  11. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 585-586.

  12. Jack D. Rittenhouse, Trail of Commerce and Conquest: A Brief History of the Road to Santa Fe (Santa Fe Trail Council, 1971).

  13. Barry, Beginning of the West, 597.

  14. Ibid, 598. This route between Fort Leavenworth and the Narrows had been used by Col. Kearny and his dragoons at the end of their 2,200-mile march to Fort Laramie and Bent's Fort before returning by way of the Bent's Fort Road in 1845. Ibid, 545-547, 558-559.

  15. Ibid, 617.

  16. Ibid, 619.

  17. Ibid, 632-633.

  18. Susan Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, ed, Stella M. Drumm (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 50-51.

  19. Barry, Beginning of the West, 644.

  20. Oliva, Soldiers, 76.

  21. Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail, 80.

  22. Oliva, Soldiers, 76.

  23. Barry, Beginning of the West, 645, 646, 647, 650.

  24. Ibid, 682-683, 720, 724.

  25. Ibid, 740-756, 784, 786-787.

  26. LeRoy R. Hafen, ed., Pike's Peak Gold Rush Handbooks of 1859 (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974), 44-45, 84-85, 177-178.

  27. Rittenhouse, Trail of Commerce, 26.

  28. Janet Lecompte, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, and Greenhorn (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), 255-256.

  29. Taylor, First Mail West, 77.

  30. Oliva, Soldiers, 131-138.

  31. Taylor, First Mail West, 108.

  32. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Wallace/Kit Carson-Fort Lyon Roads," Wagon Tracks, 8 (Feb. 1994), 161-162.

  33. Lecompte, "Mountain Branch," 63.
    Used With Permission of the Author
    David Clapsaddle

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