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Join a Covered Wagon on the Santa Fe Trail near Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site

Walking the Santa Fe Trail

You can walk part of the Santa Fe Trail with a Conestoga wagon near Bent's Old Fort on May 8. NPS photo.

Tales from Santa Fe Trail have fired the imagination of generations of Americans, but what was life really like on the Trail? You can get some glimpses into the past on May 8 near Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site during a three-mile hike down part of the trail behind an ox-driven covered wagon. Interpreters will demonstrate trail life in the 1840s during the trip, which is just one of several great living history events scheduled at the park in the next several months.

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site is located in southeastern Colorado, and the history of the Santa Fe Trail is a key part of the area's story. This park is a great example of the often undiscovered gems in smaller units of the National Park System. Who was Bent and why did he have a fort? A park publication offers a capsule history:

William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain, built the original fort on this site in 1833 to trade with plains Indians and trappers. The adobe fort quickly became the center of the Bent, St.Vrain Company's expanding trade empire that included Fort St.Vrain to the north and Fort Adobe to the south, along with company stores in Mexico at Taos and Santa Fe. The primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians for buffalo robes.

For much of its 16-year history, the fort was the only major permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements. The fort provided explorers, adventurers, and the U.S. Army a place to get needed supplies, wagon repairs, livestock, good food, water and company, rest and protection in this vast "Great American Desert."

During the war with Mexico in 1846, the fort became a staging area for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny's "Army of the West." Disasters and disease caused the fort's abandonment in 1849. Archeological excavations and original sketches, paintings and diaries were used in the fort's reconstruction in 1976.

Life on the trail in the mid-1800s was a bit different than the Hollywood version, and the event on Saturday, May 8 will provide just a brief sample of the real thing. The activity is being presented in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Comanche National Grasslands, and will

feature the fort`s large freight wagon being pulled by oxen along a 3-mile stretch of the trail between Sierra Vista Overlook and Timpas Picnic Area, southwest of La Junta. Living history interpreters in historic clothing will accompany the wagon on foot and horseback. The public is invited to join the caravan as it makes its way along the original Santa Fe Trail.

The caravan will depart the Sierra Vista Overlook at 10:00 a.m. and should arrive at the Timpas Picnic Area shortly after 12:00 p.m. A special program will be presented at Timpas about the Santa Fe Trail. Free shuttle service will be available between the caravan starting point at the Sierra Vista Overlook and the Timpas Picnic Area so that program attendees will not have to walk both ways.

The program`s starting point will be the Sierra Vista Overlook located on Colorado Highway 71, nine miles south of Rocky Ford and one-half mile north of Highway 71's intersection with U.S. Highway 350. The Timpas Picnic Area is located just off U.S. Highway 350, 16 miles southwest of La Junta or 59 miles northwest of Trinidad.

Program attendees are asked to dress appropriately for the weather and to bring plenty of water, and wear appropriate footwear for traversing uneven ground with scattered cactus. A restroom is available at Timpas.

The shuttle service will begin around 9:30 for those wishing to park at Timpas and shuttle back to the beginning of the route at Sierra Vista. Those wanting to walk along with the caravan should be ready to depart from Sierra Vista at 10:00 a.m.

Please note that the location for this event is about 20 miles from the park itself. You'll find driving directions to Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site and other details to help you plan a visit on the park's website.

The Santa Fe Trail program isn't the only special activity coming up at the park. Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a NPS unit this year, and an impressive schedule of activities is planned to celebrate the anniversary on June 4 and 5, 2010.

Special programs at the park don’t end with the anniversary celebration. On July 10, 2010, children ages seven to eleven are invited to “step back in time” and experience the life of a trapper, trader, laborer, craftsman, Indian or soldier during the park's "Kid's Quarters" program. "Participants will learn and practice 19th century skills and experience living history for themselves. This is a hands-on program, so pre-registration is required. Applications will be available on May 3 on the park website.

Other events during the year include a Hispanic Heritage Celebration on September 18, 2010, a Fur Trade Encampment October 9, and the Traditional Holiday Celebration December 3 - 4. You'll find additional information about those activities at this link.


One might add, that William Bent was married with Owl Woman, the daughter of an influential Cheyenne medicine man. They had four children, and when she died Bent married her sister and had another child with her. The Bent brothers won a lot of respect from the Native Americans way beyond the Cheyennes. Bent's Fort became a "neutral" spot and the place for many powwows with all the tribes of the Front Range country and beyond.

Are you sure? Conestoga wagons were used primarily in the east. Rarely west of the Mississippi. They were too heavy for the primitive trails and river crossings and required 4-6 horses to pull them. I would have thought that Bent's Old Fort would have seen the use of ordinary farm wagons (covered wgons).

How COOL is this?? I wish I could go. I truly envy those who will get to view this glimpse in to our frontier beginning, whether it's historically accurate or not.

Rangertoo -

Good question! The initial press release from the NPS about this event specifically mentioned a Conestoga wagon, but more detailed information from the park describes the wagon to be used as "the fort's large freight wagon." Although the term "Conestoga" is often used rather generically to describe almost any covered wagon, that's not really correct - and you may very well be right. I'll try to get clarification from the park, but in the meantime will revise the description in the story.

If you get the chance to go to the fort, do it. I have attended several of the christmas programs there and I have really enjoyed my self. Not only is the program historically accurate on how christmas was back then, but just the peace and serenity of the area is great. I loved looking for the Yule log and taking part in the nighttime program, where they actually tell of what went on at the fort, ie the sutlers store, the cook house, guest accomendations. Also the spanish version of Christmas, were Jose and Maria signing at each door looking for a room for the night. I have not been there during the summer, to hot in lajunta that time of year for me, also my innate fear of rattlesnakes keeps me away. It is a gem in the park service that seems to be overlooked as a whole, but for a western history buff, it is a wonderful place.

Historian Mark Gardner did a comprehensive study of wagons used on the Santa Fe Trail. Conestoga wagons were definitely used on the trail. Wagon makers in Missouri started making large freight wagons that, like a Conestoga, could carry around 5-6000 lbs of goods. Mark's book is a must for anyone who wants information on wagons on the Santa Fe Trail.

Horses were not used to pull wagons on the Santa Fe Trail. Either oxen or mules were used. A wagon might have10 or 12 oxen. After all, they were loaded with a lot of weight.

The huge wagons were introduced on Santa Fe Trail after Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo introduced a flat tax of 500 USD per wagon in 1839. The traders obviously reacted by building bigger wagons. Official Nuevo Mexico was deeply concerned about their economy after the border was opened for trade after the constitution of the independent Mexican state in 1823.

Nuevo Mexico was only loosely connected to Mexico by one road, little traveled. Mostly they were on their own. Now the Americans brought in many goods that were much better and cheaper than transports from Mexico or even from Spain. The governor tried to divert at least some of the money into the state's pockets by raising duties and taxes. In 1843 over 250 huge wagons came to Santa Fe with goods at a value of about 450.000 Dollars. This flooded and almost killed the local economy. Even the years before money had become scarce, because coins (in real gold and silver) flowed out to the USA, this year the problems became too big and and Armijo closed the border again.

The conflict about Texas since 1836 and heated since 1841 did it's own and the result was the Mexican-American War of 1846/48 that ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, where the US gained all of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

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