Malachite’s Big Hole
Fort George: (aka Fort Lookout, Fort St. Vrain)
Bent and St. Vrain had always extended their trade to the north through the use of temporary trading camps supplied by wagons and based out of Bent’s Fort. Some of these trading parties are described by Richens L Wootten, and Lewis Garrard (Reference). However, against permanent posts constructed in the north (Fort William in 1834 by William Sublette and Fort Vasquez by Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette in 1835) these small, mobile trading camps simply weren’t competetive. In order to protect their northern trade, the Bent, St. Vrain & Co. would have to construct their own permanent post.
On November 8, 1836, Bent, St. Vrain and company were granted a license for construction of a trading post on the South Platte. On the trading license this post is named Fort Lookout, although it was commonly know as Fort George (after George Bent) by mountain men and travelers of the time. Actual construction of the fort didn't begin until 1837. Two other trading forts were also constructed that year and within a very short distance of Fort George, those being Fort Lancaster and Fort Jackson. This map shows the locations of these forts relative to the Front Range and each other.
There are no contemporary drawings of Fort George. It was constructed of adobe, and was probably modeled in form and function after Bent’s Fort. Just as was done at Bent’s Fort, low cost labor for constructing Fort George was probably obtained out of Mexican Taos or Santa Fe. The exterior of the structure measured 128 feet in the north-south direction and 106 feet in the east-west direction. There were two bastions, one at the southeast corner and one at the northwest corner. The main entrance of the post faced to the east. Rufus Sage (in Rocky Mountain Life) described the fort in 1842 as follows: "Twelve miles below Fort Lancaster we passed Fort George, a large trading post kept up by Bent and St. Vrain. Its size rather exceeds that of Fort Platte [another fort constructed by Lancaster Lupton and operated in opposition to Fort William], previously described; it is built, however, after the same fashion, as, in fact, are all the regular trading posts in the country. At this time, fifteen or twenty men were stationed there, under the command of Mr. Marsalina St. Vrain."
The fort was located on the South Platte River approximately six miles north of Fort Vasquez. Most of the fort’s supplies were obtained by pack train and wagon from Independence Missouri, along the Santa Fe Trail, then across the prairie up from Bent’s Fort, or were obtained directly from Taos or Santa Fe.
There was never sufficient trade in the area to support the presence of four forts along a fifteen mile reach of the South Platte River, and the commercial competition was intense. However, the goals for each of the companies establishing these forts was different, as was the standard by which success was measured. For Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette, as well as Lancaster Lupton, the goal was to carve out a small niche market on the plains and make a profit from the trade therein. For the Bent, St. Vrain & Co and the American Fur Company, the objective was to destroy their competitors, even if it meant taken heavy losses to secure what each considered to be its exclusive trading territory.
Perhaps knowing that neither would be successful at dislodging the other without sustaining crippling financial losses, the American Fur Co. and Bent, St.Vrain & Co negotiated a division of the contested area in 1838. The American Fur Company would not send trading parties south of the South Platte River, while Bent & St. Vrain Company was to stay clear of the North Platte River. On October 6, 1838, the trade inventory and equipment of Fort Jackson were removed to Fort George and Fort Jackson was abandoned and destroyed. This left Bent, St. Vrain & Co with the opposition at Fort Vasquez and Fort Lancaster to deal with.
Although veteran traders, Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette proved to be relatively ineffective managers at Fort Vasquez, or at least William Sublette was less than happy with trade at the fort. In a letter he made the comment that the traders had “made a rather sinking business” of the operation.
In 1840 or 41 they sold the fort and inventory to Locke and Randolph, who after a string of bad luck, in 1842 abandoned the post without paying back their debts.
Lancaster Lupton, however, was a tenacious competitor, but eventually found he could not continue the losses he was sustaining at Fort Lancaster against the Bent, St.Vrain and Co. In 1844 he abandoned Fort Lancaster.
With all of the competition cleared, the Bent, St.Vrain & Co abandoned their Fort George as well, returning to their previous business model, that is operating small, mobile trading camps out of Bent’s Fort. In 1846 when Francis Parkman traveled along this stretch of the river he recorded that the post was abandoned and in a state of ruin. Fort George was refurbished and reopened briefly in about 1850 to serve the large numbers of immigrant settlers and gold seekers traveling along the North Platte River to Oregon and California. Although the fort was too far to the south to divert traffic from the trail, a fair business in trading draft animals was done. Healthy, fresh animals were exchanged for the travelers trail-worn animals. The worn animals were driven down to Fort George, where after a period of rest and recuperation, they were taken back up to the trail where they were in turn exchanged for other trail-worn animals.
In succeeding years, although the fort saw occasional use as a corral for livestock, it continued to decay. In 1951 the site lost much of its historical interest and archeological value when the property owner used a grader to level what remained of the structure.
For more information about Fort George see:
Peterson, Guy L.: Four Forts of the South Platte , 1982, published by the Council on America ’s Military Past.