by Edie Flanagin
LA JUNTA-At the encampment along the Arkansas river near La Junta last weekend, a person could engage in a lively conversation with a naturalist sent to the West by President Thomas Jefferson; see a fur trapper and his family; haggle with a couple of traders; marvel at the skill of a laborer driving an ox wagon and visit with a couple of Native Americans in their teepee. All these characters were part of the “Living Historians” group which sponsors the Fur Trade Encampment re-enactment at Bent’s Old Fort, National Historic site in La Junta, Colorado. Inside the fort, visitors could partake of period food cooked over the coals on the hearth, or play stick and hoops with children in the courtyard, or shop in the fort’s well stocked trade room. The fort’s blacksmith had the forge cranked up to make hand made metal parts to repair a wagon and the carpenters were sawing wood in the woodshop. In case these calm domestic scenes fooled anyone, the swivel cannon crew fired a loud round out onto the prairie to warn off any marauding bad guys who might want to invade the well protected fort. The fort was alive with activity.
Bent’s Fort, built in 1833-34, was a welcome sight and a relaxing oasis for weary travelers in the early nineteenth century. William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain formed a trading company that had no rival in the 1840’s far west frontier. The original fort was burned to the ground in 1849, however the meticulous drawings of the fort done by US Army Lt. James Albert in 1846 allowed the US Park Service to rebuild Bent’s Fort using the same materials (wood and adobe) on exactly the same site. Because many visitors wrote daily journals of fort life, Living Historians can recreate the daily activities of the fort including the kind of food cooked there, the games played and the tools manufactured in the wood and blacksmith’s shops. What visitors see today is an accurate representation of the original fort and its inhabitants.
Bent’s Old Fort is located eight miles east of La Junta on Colorado 194. It is open year round: 9-4, September though May and 8-5:30, June through August. Docents at the fort are always dressed in period costumes and give the visitor excellent historical information. Living Historians frequent the fort several times a year. The next re-enactment will be the Holiday Celebration with candlelight evening tours. Contact the fort offices: 719-383-5010 or the web site: www.nps.gov.beol for more information.