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Kinship Ties to Native Americans

William Bent's upbringing was one of gentility. His father, Silas Bent, had been born in Massachusetts where, according to family legend, his father, Silas Bent Sr., had participated in the Boston Tea Party. After studying law in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), Silas Jr. had received an appointment by Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin as principal deputy surveyor for the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Moving to St. Louis in 1806, he was appointed justice of the Court of Common Pleas the next year, and later a Supreme Court judge of the Louisiana Territory. Silas Bent was one of the Americans moving into the power vacuum left after members of the French aristocracy, such as Ceran St. Vrain's father and uncle, were removed from positions of authority in the territory. Silas Bent's new importance in the community led to his acceptance by the old guard businessmen, such as Bernard Pratte and Auguste Choutcau—and, eventually, to his son Charles's friendship with Ceran St. Vrain.

William became involved in the fur trade several years after his older brother, Charles, had entered the business. Even before Charles and Ceran St. Vrain formed their partnership in Taos, William had been occupied in building a trading post on the Arkansas. He was doing this in 1828, although whether in that year he was building one of the temporary, stockades, beginning the massive Bent's Fort, or both, is unclear. In any case, by 1832 the newly formed Bent & St. Vrain Company met with its first great success, the caravan to St. Louis with at least $190,000 worth of silver bullion, mules, and furs. While some of this was profit from the Santa Fe trade, a good percentage of this value was in buffalo robes. The caravan had reached St. Louis safely, due in part to Charles Bent's legendary skill at organizing and managing such an effort, but also in part to safe passage given through the land of the Cheyenne.

More than anyone else, it was William Bent who was responsible for the amiable relationship of the firm with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Photographs of him at the fort show an individual who might be mistaken for a Native American, a determined scowl on a dark complected face with high cheekbones (fig. 20). As the French trappers had found, and as William Bent as a young man in St. Louis had in turn learned from their stories, the maintenance of a successful relationship with the Native Americans involved adopting their customs. Part of this was participation in the calumet ceremony. Bent followed this first, essential act of forging kinship tics with an acknowledgment of the continuing, reciprocal com-


Figure 20.
Photograph of William Bent. (Courtesy Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.)


mitment such a relationship entailed. In fact, William Bent would recognize this throughout his life, acting as an advocate for the Cheyenne and Arapaho until his death.

His allegiance to his new kin was soon tested in several ways. About 1829, a group of Cheyenne came to the trading stockade William Bent had erected. Two of the party stayed on after most had left. A Comanche raiding party appeared on the horizon, and Bent hid the two Cheyenne. The Comanche leader, Bull Hump, saw the tracks of the Cheyenne and demanded to be told where they were. Risking attack by the Comanche, Bent replied that the Cheyenne had left—thereby saving their lives.

Bent was willing to alter his manner of doing business as much as possible to accommodate the traditional behavior of the Cheyenne. This can be seen in his decision to build the large permanent structure that became known as Bent's Old Fort in the general location where the Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hand had indicated the Plains tribes yearly trading rendezvous to have occurred. As mentioned earlier, there is evidence that this general location was also where the Mexicans had been trading with the Cheyenne for furs just a few years before.

Bent was also willing to accept the enemies of the Cheyenne as his own. The incident in 1834 when William Bent joined the Arapaho and Cheyenne in an attack on their bitter enemies, the Shoshoni, illustrates this. The fact that the Shoshoni had been trading with Bent's rival in the fur trade on the Arkansas, John Gantt, and that the attack took place with Gantt looking on and not lending any help, discredited Gantt in the eyes of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.

The most unequivocal evidence of Bent's commitment, from the Cheyenne point of view, would have been his marriage to Owl Woman in 1835 and, when she died many years later, the taking of her sister, Yellow Woman, following Cheyenne tradition. These actions, and the offspring of these unions, transformed fictive kinship relations into actual ones. Other key personnel associated with Bent's Old Fort took Native American wives, also. George Bent, younger brother to William, married a Cheyenne woman named Magpie (although he also seems to have had a Mexican wife). Kit Carson (as a young man) was married to an Arapaho woman who bore him an adored daughter, Adaline.[15] After the Arapaho woman's death, Ceran St. Vrain refused permission for Carson to marry his niece, in part, apparently, because of Carson's half-breed daughter. Carson then married a Mexican woman from a prominent family, who was the sister of Charles Bent's wife.

But it was the continuing ritual exchange with the Cheyenne, repeated


many times over, that may have most affected the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Making it all the more impressive was that it took place at the massive adobe fort, which had the look of a natural feature, rising abruptly from the Plains. The panoptic bastions offered perspective into the Indian camps, as well as into the plaza and the room blocks that surrounded it. The bastions also inspired awe because they were well fortified with a variety of weaponry. The layout of the fort resembled in some ways the medicine lodge or tepee with sacred associations to the Plains Indians, but its axis mundi was the fur press in the middle of the plaza (fig. 17).

If the Cheyenne did not qualify as the company's private army, it was only because the company staff and allied traders and mountain men better qualified for that title. Resistance from the Cheyenne would have undermined the trading operation. With their help, the resistance of other Native American groups was neutralized and their aggression was turned against the Mexicans. It was only with difficulty that William Bent was able to prevent the Cheyenne tribe from traveling to Taos to avenge his

brother Charles's death in 1847.

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