Malachite’s Big Hole
Fort Lancaster (aka Fort Lupton):
Fort Lancaster was constructed in 1837 at a location that would be the southern-most of four fur trading posts within a fifteen mile reach of the South Platte River. It is not certain if Fort Lancaster was the second or third of these posts constructed and it is quite possible that the period of construction for Fort Lancaster overlapped with that of three of the other forts.
Fort Lancaster was built by Lancaster Lupton (Lupton Fur Company). Lupton was a novice in the fur trade, having had no prior experience himself, nor was any of his family involved in the trade. Lancaster Lupton was a West Point graduate, and all of his experience and training was with the military. He did travel through the plains region of what is today central and eastern Colorado with an expedition commanded by Colonel Henry Dodge. This expedition left Fort Leavenworth on May 29, 1835 , and traveled to the South Platte River region with the purpose of promoting peace amongst the Indian tribes living in the area. During this time, Lupton became familiar with the geography, peoples, rivers and resources. The expedition did travel south to the Arkansas River where Lupton would have had an opportunity to observe Bent’s Fort and some of its operations.
Sometime after returning to Fort Leavenworth, Lieutenant Lupton was reported to have made less then complimentary remarks either about a superior officer or the president. There are different versions of this story and Lupton may possibly have been set-up by jealous fellow officers. Here is what Rufus Sage reports (Reference), probably as he heard it from Lancaster Lupton. "Such unbounded popularity at length excited the jealousy of his brother officers, and gave birth to a combination against him, which nothing could appease short of his removal from the army. Aware of his ardent temperament and strong party notions as a politician, and equally violent upon the opposite side, they managed to inveigle him into a discussion of the measures and plans of the then administration of national affairs. Arguing in the excitement of feeling, he made use of an unguarded expression, denouncing the Chief Magistrate. This was immediately noted down, and charges were promptly preferred against him, for "abuse of a superior officer!" The whole affair was then referred to a Court Martial, composed exclusively of political opponents. The evidence was so strong he had little to expect from their hands, and consequently threw up his commission, to avert the disgrace of being cashiered, since which he has been engaged in his present business."
Lupton resigned his commission with the Army in March 1836. Having left military service Lupton now had few other occupational skills to start a new career. Probably based on his experience and observations along the South Platte River region in 1835, he, perhaps with a beginners naivety, determined to enter the intensely competitive and complex fur trade. Lancaster Lupton’s company was known as the Lupton Fur Company. He would have spent the remainder of 1836 obtaining the necessary trading license, financial backing, and trade goods.
Probably in early spring of 1837 he returned to a site along the South Platte River where he established Fort Lancaster. The fort was constructed of adobe and as was done for other forts in the area, and he probably used low cost Mexican labor out of either Taos or Santa Fe. Follow this link to for wages paid to Mexican laborers at Fort Lancaster in 1842. The fort which was known as Fort Lancaster, would later also be known as Fort Lupton.
The South Platte River, because it was very shallow, was not suitable for transportation of trade goods and supplies upriver, nor furs and robes downriver. Goods were supplied to the fort overland by wagon and pack animals from Independence, Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s Fort and then overland up along the Front Range. Some bulk foods such as flour and alcohol may have been obtained in Mexican Taos and Santa Fe and sent directly north to the post.
In order to reduce expenses, Lancaster Lupton did everything possible to make the fort self-sufficient in terms of food-stuffs. Hogs, cattle and poultry were raised at the fort, and gardening provided vegetables. When John C Fremont passed by the fort in 1844 he reported that it had the appearance of a comfortable farm. Lupton’s supply situation eased somewhat in 1840, when goods could be brought up along the North Platte River to Fort Platte and thence packed overland down to Fort Lancaster.
Fort Lancaster was situated between Fort Laramie (Fort William), owned by the successors to the American Fur Company to the north, and Bent’s Fort, operated by the Bent & St. Vrain Company to the south. This map shows the locations of forts active in this area at this time. It was a strategic location designed to intercept all of the trade moving in a north-south direction along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. However, both of these powerful fur trading companies were already acting to protect their interests in the area from small competitors such as Lupton, and Vasquez & Sublette, as well as challenging each other for dominance.
Whereas before 1837 there was only Fort Vasquez along the South Platte River, by the end of 1837 there would be a total of four forts along a fifteen mile reach of the river, including Fort Lancaster, Fort Vasquez, Fort Jackson (American Fur Co.), and Fort George (Bent, St.Vrain & Company).
The American Fur Company soon came to terms with the Bent, St.Vrain & Co to divide the country between them. By the end of 1838, Fort Jackson was abandoned, its goods and supplies added to the inventories at Fort George. Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette gave up in 1841, and by 1842 even their successors had abandoned Fort Vasquez. Lancaster Lupton managed to hold out until 1844 before he was unable to sustain the business and abandoned the post. It is a testament to Lupton’s managerial skills, energy and tenacity, that even with no prior experience in the fur trade, he was able to hold out for three years longer than the veteran traders such as Vasquez and Sublette.
After the post was abandoned by Lupton, it was used as for temporary shelter by travelers passing through the region. As the area became settled, the fort would serve as the headquarters for a ranch. Without maintenance the structure fell further into ruin and eventually it was used as a coral for livestock.
In 1991 fifteen archeological test trenches were dug at what was believed to be the site of the fort, but failed to delineate the outline of the fort, or even to conclusively demonstrate that the fort had been located at the presumed site (Carrillo 1992). Test trenches revealed only tiny remnants of adobe walls and wooden floor planks which could have as easily belonged to early ranch and farm buildings known to have been present at the site. None of the artifacts expected to be present at an 1830’s-1840’s era fur trade fort, such as beads, gun flints, lead balls, clay pipe fragments, Indian lithic tools, etc, were recovered during the excavations. During the 1970’s the site had been extensively disturbed to depths of one meter or more by heavy industrial operations further complicating efforts to interpret the site.
Starting in 2003, the South Platte Valley Historical Society began reconstructing Fort Lancaster at a location several hundred feet south of the presumed original structure. The outer walls and inner rooms were largely completed by September 2011. The reconstruction is by necessity largely conjectural, based on rather vague contemporary descriptions rather than on solid archeological evidence.
For more information see also:
Peterson, Guy L.: The Four Forts of the South Platte , 1982. Published by the Council on America’s Military Past.
Carrillo, Richard F and Steven F. Mehls.: A Search for the Remains of a Fur Trade Post of the 1830’s: Historical Archaeology at the Site of Fort Lupton (5WL 1823), Weld County,Colorado. Published by the South Platte Valley Historical Society.