Fort Lupton: Early trading post on the South Platte

This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise.

Along the quiet banks of the South Platte in 1837 Colorado, a pelt trader named Lancaster Lupton and his Mexican crew built an adobe fort and began operating a trading post. Lancaster Lupton was an unlikely character for this scene. From a prominent New York family, he was not the sort of fellow you’d expect to put on a fringe coat and haggle over buffalo robes. After graduating from West Point in 1829 he embarked upon an illustrious military career that took him to Missouri, Louisiana, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), New Mexico, and Kansas. In 1835, he travelled on a western expedition with Col. Henry Dodge and 37 dragoons. They documented the wild territories and counciled with tribes, including the Omahas, Pawnees, Arickarees, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and Gros Ventres.

During this trip, Lupton became enamored with the wild frontier. Facing some heat for making an ill-advised remark about President Andrew Jackson, he resigned his hard-earned commission and headed out west again, where he founded Fort Lupton. His fort became one in a series of four forts along the South Platte. The others were Fort St. Vrain run by the Bent brothers and Ceran St. Vrain; Fort Vasquez, run by Colorado pioneers Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette; and Fort Jackson, run by the American Fur Company.

These forts, located within a 15 mile stretch along the South Platte river, all appeared within a year or two and competed fiercely in the fur trade. Unfortunately, the trade wasn’t abundant enough to support them all and this flurry of activity was short-lived. Fort Jackson was abandoned by 1838 and Fort Vasquez closed in 1842.  Fort St. Vrain and Fort Lupton lasted until the mid-1840s.

When the fur trade failed to thrive, Lupton also raised livestock and farmed the land. He married a Cheyenne woman named Tomas and together they had eight children, two of whom died. Later, after living near Pueblo for a few years, they joined the California gold rush and ended up in Humboldt County in Northern California.

Unlike Fort St. Vrain, which is remembered only with a marker, Fort Lupton now enjoys a renewed life due to the impressive work of the South Platte Valley Historical Society.  For several years, history-loving volunteers, including students from Fort Lupton High School, have been reconstructing the old fort. Work began in 2005 and by 2008 the log and stucco fort’s exterior was complete.

The beautifully reconstructed fort is now part of the Fort Lupton Historic Park, which includes an old school house and a homestead from the gold rush era.  The Society sponsors several events, such as the Frozen Toes Rendezvous at the end of February, the Lancaster Restoration Rendezvous in May, the Trapper Days and Hunter’s Widow’s Rendezvous in September.

I attended the Frozen Toes Rendezvous some years ago and I seem to recall freezing more than my toes. It’s a frontier-style winter campout populated by tents, lodges, and folks in costume. Plenty more information is available on the historical society’s excellent website.

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