The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”

The Archive of Voices

A mature forest absorbs sound. The bark, the leaves, the duff, the moss, the needles … don’t bounce sound waves along — they consume them. The hush of a dense forest can be thick with centuries of voices left by passersby. Walking along a trail near Santiam Pass, you might not hear those ancient voices but you can sense they’re there; the laughter of native children, the singing of shepherds, the newsy gossip of women picking huckleberries …

Whoa. Hold up there. It wasn’t all that warm and fuzzy.

For all their deep green beauty, I sensed a minor chord in these woods cloaking the Cascade crest. This section of old Indian trail made me uneasy. At first, I chocked it up to my “pronghorn” personality — I like wide open spaces. But maybe I was sensing some dark aspect of the human history of this route?

When I got home, I researched the Indian trails in this part of Oregon. No surprise that these paths were used for commerce. Everyone wanted to trade for something they didn’t have. During the 1800s, the Pacific Northwest offered everything from salmon to buffalo hides, obsidian to trade beads, horses to slaves.

Wait. Slaves?

Yes. As it turns out, the native people of this region practiced slavery among themselves long before Lewis and Clark showed up. The Corp of Discovery passed through the “greatest emporium of the Columbia” between Celilo Falls and The Dalles where slaves were a high ticket item. Other slave trading centers existed at Willamette Falls and the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

The trail I followed near Santiam Pass fed into a network of tracks the Klamath people used to bring slaves to the Willamette or lower Columbia markets from the south. Once the Klamath people acquired horses, they were a holy terror when it came to raiding Northern California’s Pit River and Shasta area tribes and carrying off their women and children.

Since slaves often try to escape if they think they can make it back home, the Klamath marketed their excess captives as far away as possible. Who knows where you’d end up if you were “sold down river” on the Columbia? Back then, you might as well have been shipped off to another continent. How many people trod north with little hope of returning?

Next time I walk that trail high in the Cascade range, I’ll understand better where the melancholy notes come from, now that I’ve roamed deeper into the archive of voices.