David C. Beyreis has a PhD in history from the University of Oklahoma and teaches history at Ursuline Academy of Dallas. He is the author of Blood in the Borderlands: Conflict, Kinship, and the Bent Family, 1821-1920 (May 2020).
One Lucky Historian
There was nothing particularly intentional about the origins of this project. I just happened to blunder into one of the most fascinating sagas in the history of the American West: the story of the Bent family. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think it’s too far off. I wish I could say I chose the Bents because of an article or book I read in a graduate seminar that got me thinking about an important historiographical intervention I wanted to make but that came much later. The Bents were my third choice for extended research. But my knowledge of Spanish was too basic to do the first project, and I didn’t want to spend time in New Orleans, Galveston, and Corpus Christi doing research for the second—too flat, too humid. If memory serves, once I’d eliminated those ideas, I just wanted to spend time in Santa Fe and Colorado. So I tried to find a topic that would take me to the mountains and might tie into some things I was already interested in. I had only a passing familiarity with the family’s history, so I reread David Lavender’s 1954 classic, Bent’s Fort, and a dissertation sounded doable. That was my first piece of dumb luck. I can’t think of another clan whose experiences overlapped with so many iconic events in Western history—the fur trade, Santa Fe Trail, Manifest Destiny and the U.S.-Mexican War, gold rushes, the Civil War, the horrific violence of the Indian Wars, reservations and assimilationist policies, land grant troubles in Colorado and New Mexico, and the writing of Western history itself. The Bent family experience is a story of remarkably resilient women and men navigating a tumultuous, chaotic world. But, early on, I did everything in my power to make the story less interesting and less complicated than it actually was.
My initial instinct was to tell a simple story about the rise and fall of a borderlands family. That was actually the title I submitted to the press—The Bents: The Rise and Fall of a Borderlands Family. One of the major influences on my thinking was the work of UCLA historian Stephen Aron. His co-authored article “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” and his monograph on the Missouri frontier, American Confluence, shaped my initial perspectives. I anticipated finding a hard break between two eras of Western history. The first era would be one of intercultural cooperation and mutual accommodation in which the Bents found great success, and the second era one of American expansion and domination that swept away all remnants of the former age. The initial narrative followed this trajectory, tracing the family’s history from the 1820s through the traumatic violence of the 1860s, ending in 1869 with the death of William Bent, one of the brothers who’d founded the family business. His passing neatly dovetailed with the military defeat of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, which effectively removed the Southern Cheyenne people from their lands between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, and confined them to a reservation in Indian Territory. An old way of life had been drowned by a tidal wave of American expansion. There was no place left for the Bents—a family that blended Anglo-American, Nuevomexicano, and Native American bloodlines—in this new West. The story was neat, simple, tragic, and final.
But then I had my second piece of great good fortune, although it didn’t seem so at the time. Someone gave me advice I didn’t want to hear—dig deeper and expand the work. They wanted to know what happened after 1869. I wanted to stop. I knew a bit about what happened next, but didn’t think I was interested in federal Indian policy, reservation life, boarding schools, or land grants. I hadn’t started out thinking about these things and, honestly, after being with them for almost a decade, I just wanted to emancipate myself from the Bent family. However, I made a deal with my editor that I’d “dig around a bit,” but that she shouldn’t expect me to find too much that was worthwhile. I thought I’d be drilling dry holes. I was wrong. The stories I didn’t think I cared about and didn’t expect to find changed everything, even the title of the book. This was not simply a “Rise and Fall” narrative of tragedy and cultural loss—although I cannot understate the amount of trauma and violence that took place during this century-long story. The Bents proved remarkably adaptable in the face of long odds. They alternately defied and accommodated the United States government to pursue individual and group interests, continued their practice of intermarriage, preserved their cultural patrimony, and demonstrated their resiliency time and again. These were the stories I never intended to seek out, and I wouldn’t have unless someone had told me to “take another look.” I looked again and the story got a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting. I’m one lucky historian.