Fort St. Vrain thrived briefly but closed mysteriously

This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise.

Decades before the gold rush brought thousands to Colorado, the only permanent man-made structures in this wild region were several small forts stationed along the South Platte River between present-day Denver and Greeley. In the early 1800s, these forts served as trading posts for beaver pelts brought in by trappers and buffalo hides supplied by Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux.

One early outpost was Fort St. Vrain, built around 1837 and operated by the famous Bent brothers and their partner, a Missouri man descended from French aristocracy, Ceran St. Vrain. The Bent St. Vrain Company’s main operation, Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, was a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail. In 1839 alone, the company traded 15,000 buffalo robes.

Ceran St. Vrain

Fort St. Vrain was a square of thick adobe, with towers at the corners, built on a bluff overlooking the South Platte. Managed by Ceran’s brother, Marcellin, it was a stopping point for famous frontier adventurers such as John Fremont, Kit Carson, and Colorado’s first governor, William Gilpin. Gilpin later told of celebrating Independence Day 1843 at the fort with the Fremont party, where they made ice cream using goat’s milk and snow from Long’s Peak.

Competition was tough and Fort St. Vrain didn’t last long. By 1845, Col. Stephen Kearny came through with his dragoons and found Fort St. Vrain deserted. (This is the army that invaded Mexico and subsequently brought Colorado and much of the west into the U.S.). In 1848, Marcellin reportedly abandoned his Sioux wife and three children and moved back to St. Louis.

One legend, if true, may explain Marcellin’s sudden departure and the fort’s closure. This story was related to Colorado pioneer, Marshall Cook, by an Arapaho Indian chief called Friday. During Cook’s day, Friday used to visit the ruins of the fort with his face painted black, sit alone on its crumbling walls and wail and sing. When asked why, Friday told his terrible story.

One day, a band of Arapaho came to the fort to trade. When they arrived, St. Vrain and his men were gone to St. Louis. The traders and tribes had friendly relations in those days, and St. Vrain left the fort unguarded. Unfortunately, upon entering the fort, the Arapaho found a woman and baby there from an enemy tribe. For unknown reasons – perhaps revenge – the Arapaho killed them. When St. Vrain returned, he was beside himself because “the child was near and dear as likewise the mother to one of the St. Vrain.” St. Vrain kept his feelings to himself, and planned a traditional feast to celebrate the successful journey. He invited the entire band and when they came in, his men turned their cannons on them and killed nearly all. Friday escaped but lost his family. When he returned later with reinforcements, the fort was deserted.

Today, near the town of Platteville, Colorado a lonely monument marks the spot where the old fort once stood.

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