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The life and troubled times of George Bent

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By Rob Witwer

When you gaze up at the familiar view west of Denver, it’s humbling to think that those mountains have looked almost exactly the same for hundreds of generations. Long before the first French Canadian and American trappers crossed the plains and chronicled the stunning and surprising “Shining Mountains,” this scenery was familiar to the Cheyennes, Utes, Arapahos and Kiowas, who occupied what is now the Denver metro area.

This backdrop was also familiar to one of Colorado’s most interesting figures, George Bent. The son of trader William Bent (of Bent’s Fort fame), Bent’s life coincided with the greatest period of social transformation in the region’s history. Yet he was not just an observer of this change, he was part of it — for although his father came from a wealthy St. Louis family, his mother was Cheyenne.

Bent’s life is the subject of a fascinating biography called “Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent,” by David Fridtjof Halaas and Andrew E. Masich. Although it is the history of one man, it’s really the story of how Colorado changed from what it was to what it is now.

William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain, founded the first Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in 1833. The fort was uniquely situated at the crossroads of several commercial empires: the powerful Sioux nation to the north, the Utes to the west, Mexico to the south and the expanding reach of American settlements to the east.

Recognizing the strategic importance of the fort’s centrality to several trade routes (among them the Santa Fe Trail), Bent formed alliances with the Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne tribes, who hunted buffalo between the Republican River and the Arkansas. He traded imported items — knives, beads, cloth, rifles, ammunition, etc. — for buffalo robes and beaver pelts. In the process, he became wealthy and well regarded by whites and Indians alike.

But Bent’s alliances with the Indians, particularly the Cheyenne, ran deeper than commercial interest. After establishing the fort, he married Owl Woman, daughter of Cheyenne holy man White Thunder. White Thunder was the keeper of the four Sacred Arrows, which were of powerful significance to the Cheyenne.

And so when George Bent was born in 1843, he was born into the highest level of both white and Cheyenne societies — a unique vantage from which to watch and participate in the turmoil that would erupt between those worlds in the coming decades.

George was educated in St. Louis and fought briefly for the Confederates in the Civil War, until he was captured. A condition of his release was that he never re-enlist, which gave him an opportunity to do what he really wanted to do — return to the plains.

Eschewing the white world, George lived with the Southern Cheyenne and was at Sand Creek on the day Col. John Chivington led his infamous massacre there. Bent, angry at the loss of several friends, joined the Cheyenne warrior society known as the “Dog Soldiers” as they exacted revenge by raiding white settlements throughout the frontier.

From this time forward, Bent was pulled back and forth between his white and Cheyenne roots. While he could live in both worlds, he never felt truly at home in either. Before his death in Oklahoma in 1918, he worked various jobs for the federal government, battled alcoholism, and had a troubled family life. Yet his letters and interviews with historians provide the most complete glimpse of Cheyenne life we have, told from the perspective of one who lived it.

George Bent’s eyes saw the end of one way of life and the beginning of another. But just as fascinating is the fact that his eyes also saw the same thing we can see even today as we look west from Denver, up toward those beautiful mountains. As the Lakota saying goes, we are all connected.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.