“Bill” Bent: Hero Of The Old Santa Fé Trail

What one of the plainsmen did not know “Bill” Bent; “Bill,” the fellow who had battled so often with the Comanches, Kiowas, and other Indians that they called him “The Red Panther:” “Bill,” who had killed innumerable braves in open conflict; and “Bill” who had often just escaped the scalping-knife by a mere hair’s breadth? The old fellow was a true plains’ hero, and after you have heard some of the stories about his escapades with the redskins I’ll warrant that you will agree that he was a marvellously lucky scout.

In 1829 the brother of this fellow—Charles Bent—was upon an expedition to the mountains near Santa Fé, New Mexico. With him were numerous others, well armed and well mounted. It was lucky that this was the case, for every day a cloud of Comanches and Kiowas hung upon the flanks of the moving line of trappers and kept up a continuous and rapid fire. Every night the trappers slept upon their arms, certain that an assault would come before the dawn. Bill Bent was several miles away—at a little frontier post—and, hearing of the peril of his brother and his friends, determined to ride to the rescue.

Old Bill rode a large black mule with split ears, which showed that he had once been owned by a Comanche brave. The Comanches soon sighted him, and about fifty of them made after him at full tilt. Arrows and bullets whistled about the head of the gallant scout, but he paid no more attention to these missiles than if they were flies. Occasionally he would turn in his saddle and drop some too eager buck whose zeal had outstripped discretion, and who had galloped within easy range of Bill’s deadly Hawken rifle.

“Here he comes, boys!” shouted one of the band of plainsmen. “A brave fellow is after us, sure.”

Bent came dashing up and reached two plainsmen called Coates and Waldo, who fired at the pursuing redskins, bringing down three of the foremost. Seeing this, the other Comanches retreated and left the little band to plod on alone. A force of one hundred and twenty Mexicans joined the party shortly afterwards, in order to be protected by them against the overwhelming numbers of the redskins.

The frontiersmen kept on their way across the lava dust and sage brush, but the Indians—although drawing off at a distance—still pursued. A famous scout called Ewing Young was travelling about twenty miles off, and from a fleeing Mexican heard that his brother trappers were sorely pressed. This particular scout was one of the bravest and most generous of men. As a trapper, hunter, and Indian fighter, he had few superiors. He had learned from a friendly redskin that the mountain canyon towards which the scouts were journeying was occupied by two thousand warriors, who lay in ambush waiting to entrap and annihilate the whites. Gathering forty trusty men-of-the-plains around him he rode to warn the fleeing plainsmen of their danger.

“By George, boys, there they are!”

One of the advance trappers spoke thus, as—from a summit of a high hill—he saw below him the vast horde of redskins surrounding and following the retreating scouts with whom Bill Bent was associated. The redskins set up a wild whooping as soon as they viewed the oncoming whites. “Crack! crack!” the rifles began to spit and spatter at the advancing plainsmen.

The scouts were courageous, but the odds were too great even for such valor as theirs. Swarms of Indians enveloped them, shouting:

“Ki yi! ki yi! The palefaces will soon all be dead!”

At this juncture young Kit Carson first showed the material that he was made of. Riding out in front, he swung himself under his horse,—and shooting at a redskin from below its neck, brought him to the ground.

“Bully for you, Kit!” shouted Scout Young. “But these infernal redskins are too thick for me. I must break loose and retreat to Tavo.”

This the plainsman speedily did, and, although pursued for some distance, finally got safely away. At Tavo a crowd of trappers were assembled for their yearly rendezvous. Ninety-five of them joined Young, crying: “To the rescue of Bill Bent! To the fore! We’ll clean up all the Comanches in the state!”

“Hurrah, boys!” shouted Young. “That’s the kind of talk I like to hear. We’ll get right after them.”

The Indians, meanwhile, still pursued Bill Bent and his party.

The trappers under Young were not long in riding to the rescue of their comrades. As they came in sight the redskins gave whoops of disgust, for they saw that they were outnumbered and outclassed.

“Back to the woods!” shouted young Kit Carson, as he galloped his steed in the direction of the braves. “Back to the plains, for we’ll get you now!”

As the party came on, Bill Bent’s followers set up a wild whooping. “We’re saved!” cried several. “Old Scout Young, we knew, would not let us be annihilated.”

The Indians now became dispirited. Seeing the reinforcements coming up in battle array they quickly retired, chanting a death song, for they had lost fully fifty men in killed and wounded.

Bill Bent’s followers were now free, and Bill, himself, was overjoyed to have saved his scalp. But he soon came near losing it again.

In the winter of 1830-1831, the tried and seasoned trapper, together with Robert Isaacs and a comrade whose name is unknown, made his way to Arizona, on a trapping expedition. For a time they met with fair success and saw nothing of the redskins. But one day they were surrounded by a body of Mescalero Apaches, who were the fiercest of the savage tribes upon the frontier. The Indians were one hundred and fifty strong. There were but three trappers. What chance had they, you ask. They had no hope of freedom, but, as Bill Bent expressed it: “We will sell our lives as dearly as possible and we will make as many redskins go under as we can before we, ourselves, will give up!”

The trappers threw up a rude stone breastwork when first surrounded. They were working hard on this, when, with terrific whoops, the Apaches were after them on the charge.

“Go easy, boys!” shouted Bill Bent. “Make every shot count!”

Two of the trappers fired as he spoke and two of the chiefs fell to the sod. Before they could get out of range the third man shot off his rifle, and another one of the braves dropped to the ground. The Apaches were not disconcerted and again returned to the charge, but they were met by the deadly fire of the reloaded rifles and the pistols of the trappers, also.

“Ugh! Ugh!” said they, “we’ve had enough! We must go back!”

Conducting the siege now at long range, the Apaches kept up a desultory fire for two days. Then they retired in disgust, for they could not dislodge the trappers.

“Hurrah!” cried Bill Bent, as he saw them going away. “Boys, we can now get some water!”

The scouts, in fact, were nearly dead with thirst, but they soon found a spring and refreshed themselves. Leaving Arizona soon afterwards, they avoided any further trouble with the terrible Apaches, who, remembering the drubbing which they had received, were glad to allow them to retreat unmolested.

The old Santa Fé trail in New Mexico was much used by emigrants at this time and was well watched by the redskins. Should a train be slightly guarded it would be unsafe for men, women and children, for the Indians would make short work of them. This deterred all except the boldest spirits from venturing where was certain peril and probable death. But among the heroes who were still willing to encounter the fearful odds of Indian combat were to be found Bill Bent, his brother Charles, the Waldos, and a few others whom no danger ever daunted, and who saw a splendid field for trade in this country. In 1839 a party of these men applied to Andrew Jackson, who had just taken his seat as President. They asked for a military escort to accompany them to the Arkansas River, which—at that time—formed the boundary between Mexico and the United States.

This request was speedily granted, and Major Bennett Riley was detailed, with two hundred men, to meet the emigrants at Fort Leavenworth and to accompany them to the Arkansas River. The traders met at Round Grove, Missouri, where Charles Bent was chosen Captain and where Bill Bent also joined. With thirty-six wagons, fully freighted with valuable goods, they set out for Santa Fé, New Mexico.

In due time they reached the Arkansas River at Chateau’s Island, and here the traders bade farewell to the gallant Major and his brave soldiers. Plunging into the shallow waters of the stream they were soon on Mexican soil. But their troubles now commenced. The dry sand engulfed their wagon wheels almost to the hubs, stalling the teams, and utterly preventing an orderly march.

“Close up! Close up!” Bill Bent kept shouting.

But in spite of these orders, the wagons were soon strung over a half a mile of road. Advance and rear detachments had been thrown out to guard against surprise, but either through the negligence of the videttes, or from the completeness with which the Indians had concealed themselves, they had only gone nine miles when the savages seemed to spring out of the very bowels of the earth. Their rifles spat a deadly fire.

“My stars, look at the redskins!” cried Bill Bent. “They’re after us, for sure, this time!”

The surprise had been complete, but Charles Bent—mounted upon a large, black horse—with his long, dark hair floating upon the wind, dashed up and down the line, forming his men. Every ravine swarmed with the redskins, and, although they yelled fiercely, above their loud calls could be heard the voice of Charles Bent.

“Close up, men! Close up!” he kept shouting. “It’s our only chance! And keep cool! Keep cool!”

Two of the men had been lagging in the rear of the train, and, at the first fire, one fell dead, while the other—with fifty Indians in pursuit—dashed for the wagons. Escape seemed to be impossible, but Bent saw the situation at a glance and charged towards the advancing savages with twenty scouts. The Indians drew off at this show of force, and the fleeing trapper was thus able to join his comrades.

Crash! Crash! sounded the rifles, and the battle continued to rage with fury. Nothing but Bent’s coolness and the desperate bravery of his men prevented a charge by the red men, who numbered at least a thousand. Luckily a small, brass cannon was in the train—the first that ever crossed the Arkansas—and, as it spat its fire, the Comanches withdrew.

The trappers now dug rifle-pits, but Bent soon saw that without water his men would be unable to hold their own.

“Who will creep through the hostile redskins and go after Major Riley and his men?” he asked. “Unless we get his aid we will have to give in to these frightfully bloodthirsty savages!”

“I will go! I will go!” came from the throats of many. In fact all seemed to wish to undertake the hazardous journey.

Captain Bent could not help laughing. Nine were finally selected for the trip. They knew that their only salvation lay in their rifles, for their mules were so worn down by fatigue that flight was out of the question.

They rode out expecting to have a tough time of it, but the redskins allowed them to pass through their lines without firing a single shot at them. Spurring on their broken-down beasts they hastened towards the Arkansas River, where they still hoped to find Major Riley with his troops.

The Major was surely there. He saw them coming away off on the plains, and, striking his tents, was all prepared to meet them when they arrived.

“Gentlemen,” said he, when he heard their story, “it is a breach of national etiquette for me to cross the boundary line into Mexico—a friendly power—but blood is thicker than water, and I cannot see my countrymen suffer. I will be with you as soon as my troops can pack up.”

The soldiers were soon on their way. So rapid and silent was the approach of the force that they even penetrated between the pickets of the traders and their camp before they were discovered. Cheer after cheer welled from the throats of the beleaguered plainsmen, as they approached. The savages heard them, and, seeing that they now would have to assume the defensive, quietly slipped away.

“Ow! Ow!” said one brave. “We get those palefaces yet.”

Much overjoyed, Bent and his traders again started on their journey, turning their course from Santa Fé, which point they at first intended to reach, to Taos, some eighty miles further to the North. By this détour they not only avoided many canyons, in which were sure to be lurking savages, but were also able to obtain a military escort of Mexicans. A General Viscarro—with a goodly number of Mexican rancheros—accompanied them. But there was still to be trouble.

They reached the rippling courses of the river Cimarron. There a party of savages approached the Mexicans, who rode on in front. One of them bore an arrow tied transversely across a spear, it being the symbol of the cross. Viscarro was a Catholic, and, honoring this novel flag with true devotion, he was spoken to by one of the braves.

“If the Americans will move aside to some distance,” said he, “we will lay down our arms and will surrender.”

Viscarro smiled.

“Certainly, red brother,” said he.

The Americans retired beyond a ridge, and no sooner were they out of the way than the treacherous savages poured a destructive fire into the Mexican ranks. Many men and officers were wounded. But luckily the two Bents heard the firing, and suspecting treachery, gathered a number of mounted soldiers and went to the relief of the men who lived south of the Rio Grande.

Now was a desperate affair. Bent and his men burst upon the savages with fierce cries and delivered a deadly volley right in their faces. Their rifles were then discarded, and, having next emptied their pistols, they followed up the attack with tomahawks and clubbed rifles. Soon the Comanches were in full flight and the field was strewn thickly with their dead and wounded.

A gallant action was performed by a Pueblo (or Village) Indian. He was near the Mexican General, Viscarro, and understanding the language of the hostiles, heard one of the latter exclaim in his native tongue: “Now for the General!” As he spoke he aimed a bullet at the body of the Mexican commander. The Indian threw himself in front of him—at this juncture—and fell to the ground; as noble a hero as the lists of chivalry tell of. Viscarro was much affected by this show of devotion.

Thanks to Bill Bent and his brother Charles, the caravan had been saved from the hostiles. It was well. From this time on nothing exciting occurred and the Americans and Mexicans reached their respective homes in safety, meeting with no more serious annoyance than the nightly serenade of coyotes. The disheartened Comanches had given up their attempt to crush out the travel along the Arkansas trail, and fortunately for the white traders entered into no more military combinations,—preferring the safer and more natural warfare of the small, predatory bands. They could then move quickly and could cut off small unguarded bodies of men.

Bill Bent had done well. Now he did even better, for a fort was named after him. This was situated on the Arkansas River; was first called Fort William, and was the property of Lieutenant Vrain and himself. Built in 1833, here the celebrated Kit Carson was the post hunter from 1834 to 1842. Could the walls of the old fort speak, they would tell many tales of thrilling battles with the red men.

On one occasion it was besieged by many thousands of plains Indians. All of the tribes had determined to lay aside their mutual dislike for one another for once, and to league together for the extermination of the “palefaces.” They saw that the white traders would soon have all of this country and they did not like the idea. Bill Bent was approaching the fort with a wagon-train about this time. Knowing that two or three hundred raw recruits of the United States garrison formed its only defense, he hastened rapidly to its relief. On his way he met several deserters, who (in the night) had scaled the walls of what they regarded to be a place of doom, and stealing cautiously through the savage lines, had fled with all speed towards the rising sun,—for they knew that help was there.

Bill Bent was somewhat alarmed at this. When he arrived in sight of the fort he saw that it was menaced by a great and awful danger. There were thousands of hostile Indians dancing their war and scalp dances around it, and endeavoring to work themselves up to the proper frenzy in order to make the attack. Bent’s blood began to boil.

“Here!” he cried to one of his best men, “you take charge of the train! I have to move forward!”

His hat came off as he rode on, but he galloped straight at the fort. His long hair—meanwhile—trailed out behind like a banner from its staff. It was a trophy which any of the savages would have been very proud to wear in his belt.

The Indians were too surprised to fire at him. As he dashed along, he uttered a fierce war-whoop, and fired his revolver at a savage who was unwise enough to approach. Behind him came thundering his friend and ally,—Yellow Bear. He was a great Apache chief, but a friend of the whites and their staunch supporter. Strung out in the rear were a few Apache braves, who would have cheerfully sacrificed their lives for either Bent or Yellow Bear.

Bill Bent reached the fort in safety. So did Yellow Bear and his braves. The wagon-train came steadily on, its men marching alongside, fully armed. It, too, reached the doorway of the fort without a mishap. Here the pioneers found Bent getting everything in proper shape to give a warm reception to the braves, who from their actions were apparently ready for the assault. They were met with a hot reception.

Now an unforeseen event occurred.

Upon the morning after Bent’s arrival the lookout beheld a slight cloud of dust far to the Eastward. After a while, a few black specks could be seen. They came nearer and were seen to be Indian videttes with their ponies on a dead run.

The videttes dashed into the Indian encampment, said a few hasty words to some of the chiefs, and then consternation seemed to take possession of the redskins. The squaws began at once to take down the lodges. The travois poles were slung with the tents and equipment. Soon the entire Indian camp was in full retreat. Amidst the yelping of the dogs, squalling of the babies, the rattle of pots and kettles piled up on the travois, and the insulting yells of the warriors, the savage host of besiegers crossed the Arkansas River and disappeared from view.

“Why, now,” said Bill Bent. “Boys! Seems they’re afraid of us!”

But the mystery was soon explained. Late on the evening of the next day those in the fort beheld the approach of a regiment of United States cavalry, which had been sent to its relief. The redskins had an admirable picket system. By means of this their pony express had told them of the approach of the cavalry, and, fearing that vengeance might be taken upon them for their hostile attitude and war-like threats, they prudently decamped.

Bill Bent had many another adventure upon the plains which was as thrilling as this. He was known for his courage and was never badly wounded, although he took a thousand chances. Sad to relate, he married a Cheyenne wife, and his children—suffering from this taint of redskin blood—never attained the prominence upon the plains which their fond parent had held. At last the good old fellow passed to the Happy Hunting Grounds. He had indeed seen the wild and woolly West in its palmiest days. Good-by to old Bill, hardy frontiersman and scout, whose reputation was spotless! Good-by and good luck, Bill Bent!


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