from the Interactive
Santa Fe Trail
An Administrative History of Fort Union National Monument,
by Liping Zhu
The reason for the existence of Fort Union arises from the Santa Fe Trail, whose ruts radiate north and south of the Forts. Indeed the area has long been an area traversed by people. Perhaps the earliest travellers were Pueblo Indians who travelled east over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and down along the Mora River, out to the plains to hunt buffalo and trade with the plains tribes. A pueblo type structure has been found along the Mora River near Watrous which dates to circa 1200 indicating that at least one Indian dwelling was nearby. The Jicarilla Apache claimed the Fort Union area as their homeland from about 1525. Within fifty years after Columbus landed in the New World, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition to the central plains of the United States. It is probable his expedition on the way out, passed within one hundred miles of Fort Union, and it is generally accepted that on his return to Mexico, he followed close to the future course of the Cimarron branch of the Santa Fe Trail, possibly passing within ten miles of the future site of the fort. Later Spanish expeditions to the plains in 1696 (DeVargas) and 1715 (Hurtado) crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Picuris Pueblo, and headed down the Mora River out onto the plains. In 1739, the first recorded group of Frenchmen, led by Paul and Pierre Mallet encountered the people of New Mexico when they arrived at Picuris Pueblo, after a journey across the great plains from the present-day site of Kansas City. Their arrival at Picuris indicates a journey up the Mora River valley and over the mountains to Picuris.
William Becknell, the American entrepreneur from Franklin, Missouri, who chanced a journey into the unknown in 1821, passed close to the future site of the fort, was discovered by Captain Don Pedro Ignacio Gallego and over 400 militia troops just south of Las Vegas and escorted into San Miguel and Santa Fe, where he was welcomed with *great joy.* Thus the American phase of the Santa Fe Trail was born. The junction of two rivers about seven miles south of the site of the fort was well known to New Mexicans and travellers on the trail. The area had been used by New Mexicans to graze cattle and sheep on the extensive grasslands during the summers. The joining of the Mora and Sapello Rivers and surrounding area became known as La Junta, or the junction. This lush area between the rivers provided both wood and grass for grazing of animals, plentiful water, and a meeting place for caravans heading east on the Trail. Perhaps because of these qualities and the surrounding terrain, it also became the juncture, heading west, of the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail.
As trade between New Mexico and the United States matured, nationalistic tendencies of the United States became more evident. The election of President James K. Polk in 1844 assured the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. Indeed, in May of 1846, war was declared on Mexico and Colonel, soon to be General, Stephen Watts Kearny of the First Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth, was ordered to form the Army of the West and capture New Mexico and California. In August, the Army of the West crossed Raton Pass and marched through New Mexico to the Ocate River crossing about 18 miles north of Fort Union. On the 12th, Kearny and the lead elements of the Army reached a flat table land in the valley of Wolf Creek, where they camped that night. This campsite, called Los Pozos was within a mile of where the first Fort Union would be located.
Although Kearny's occupation of Santa Fe and New Mexico was accomplished without firing a shot, New Mexicans revolted against the occupation in January of 1847, killing Governor Charles Bent and others in Taos and several American traders in Mora. One Officer wrote at the time, that the whole of Northeastern New Mexico was in revolt except for Las Vegas, only because of the military force stationed there. The New Mexican patriots were crushed by the American military forces and an uneasy peace settled over the area with American volunteer forces stationed in Taos, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe among other towns. The attention of the military was then turned to the various tribes of Indians who not only raided New Mexican settlements and their cattle and sheep herds, but also caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. Increasing pressure by westward movement of the United States, in turn, caused dislocation of tribes from their traditional homelands. Hunting grounds and food gathering activities were severely restricted and in order to survive, food was taken from any available sources. Resentment at the loss of their homelands and the long-time practice of capture of Indians for slavery, also added to the motivation of raiding. Active campaigns were conducted against the Ute, Apache, and Navajo Nations without much success. With the end of the Mexican War in 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, New Mexico became an American territory and the Army found that maintaining soldiers in the new territory was expensive.
Fort Union was established in July, 1851, several miles north of the junction of the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail. Several reasons are commonly given for its establishment including a desire on the part of the new district commander, Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, to remove the troops from the *morally degrading* influences of Santa Fe. The most likely reason was economics, however, and Sumner moved numerous New Mexico garrisons out of leased quarters and directed that self-sufficient operations, such as troop-constructed buildings and ■post farms■ be initiated. Problems with Comanche, Ute, and Jicarilla Apache tribesmen along the southern-most reaches of the Trail constituted another reason for a post away from the Sangre de Cristos and out on the Great Plains. From such a point, troops could more readily patrol the area and react to trouble in a more timely manner than had been the case.
The one thing the Americans got with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that they did not want was the Indian problems of the Southwest. Ill-prepared to deal with the tribes either militarily or diplomatically, relations with practically every tribe in the area took a decided downhill turn. The sporadic raiding of New Mexican settlements and herds that had characterized the stormy coexistence of Mexicans and Indians prior to anglo rule swelled to alarming proportions by 1851. Attacks on wagon trains plying the Santa Fe Trail, once considered unusual occurrences, increased as the Southern Plains Tribes grew increasingly resentful. *Outrages* and *depredations* became more frequent. Two of the more famous of these incidents took place within the immediate area of where Fort Union was to be built. The *White Massacre* of 1849 and the *Wagon Mound Massacre* of 1850 underscored the need for some sort of military presence. From their new base of operations, troops stationed or marshalled at Fort Union spent much of the 1850s engaged in active and aggressive campaigning against the Comanche, Jicarilla Apache, Navajo, and Ute people.
But Fort Union, from the beginning, performed another function that would take on increasing importance with time. Sumner had brought with him the district■s chief quartermaster and ordnance officer, and established their respective depots at Fort Union. The massive amount of supplies for the army in the Southwest came from eastern depots at Fort Leavenworth and St. Louis, were shipped across the plains on the Santa Fe Trail by contract, and off-loaded and stored at the Fort Union depot facilities. From this point requisitions for the other posts in the Territory were filled and shipped. Except for a brief period in the mid-1850s, the quartermaster and ordinance supply activities would remain at Fort Union until the railroad thrust deep into New Mexico some thirty years later.
The first Fort Union had been constructed by troop labor with indigenous materials. The results, predictably, proved to be false economy, and the extensive post began to disintegrate as soon as it was completed. Troops took to sleeping on the parade ground during fair weather. Ordnance and Quartermaster officers complained of inadequate shelter for their stores. As 1860 approached, it was clear to everyone that improvements had to be made.
The socio-economic atmosphere of the time, however, soon provided the solution to Fort Union's structural ills. Secession and Civil War reached far west. Regular officers discussed, then debated the political issues; finally breaking into rival factions. Suspicion and mistrust permeated the army, far from the momentous activities then taking place. When Southern sympathizers suggested turning Fort Union, its depot supplies, and troops over to the Confederacy, William R. Shoemaker, Ordnance Depot commander, entrenched his storehouses and prepared charges to blow everything into oblivion, issuing an invitation to the would-be rebels to try something.
When war finally broke out in April, 1861, New Mexico provided no safe haven for the rebels. Though numerous officers resigned their commissions to head south, Fort Union and the rest of the Territory remained in Union hands. By late 1861, however, a brigade of Texas Confederates were preparing the southwest expansion of the rebel nation. Their plans included the occupation of the Colorado gold fields and, possibly, expansion to the west coast.
In preparation for a conventional conflict, Fort Union■s location, not just the condition of its buildings, became instantly obsolete. If enemy artillery could have been placed on the commanding edge of the mesa just west of the post, even the most inadequate gunners would have had a field day. The Fort Union garrison prepared to move about one mile to the east, across Wolf Creek, to a position less vulnerable to rebel artillery.
New Mexico responded well to Lincoln's call for volunteer troops. During the war years, some 3,500 New Mexicans, mostly Hispanic, served in several regiments of infantry and cavalry raised for Federal service. Fort Union acted as a recruit depot and training camp for many of these troops. Native New Mexicans had always been a common sight around Fort Union, but it was at this point they assumed a major role. Despite extreme ethnic and racial prejudice against them, they formed a major part of the Southwest defense operation, enjoying a number of significant military successes. One of their accomplishments was the hurried construction of the second Fort Union.
To defend against a conventional foe, the second fort better fit the dictionary definition of the word. Rather than the typical frontier ■fort■ that consisted of structures distributed around a parade ground, the second fort incorporated earthen walls, gun positions, infantry positions, and bunker-like quarters and storehouses. Built for a force of 600 troops, it was deemed sufficient to stop anything the rebels could throw at it. Its frenzied construction, obviously, was done under conditions rife with suspense and anxiety. The work force consisted largely of New Mexico volunteer troops who worked round the clock in four-hour shifts. By the time the Rebels began advancing up the Rio Grande in January of 1862, the second fort earthwork was largely ready.
Colonel E.R.S. Canby, commanding Federal forces in New Mexico, gathered a force of about 3,800 men from the few regular troops remaining in the territory and the New Mexico Volunteer regiments. Defeated at Valverde in February, 1862, Canby pulled his force into Fort Craig while the Rebels sidestepped him and continued their drive north. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell quickly, the Federal forces and even the Territorial Capital retreating to Fort Union.
The defensive earthwork fort was never used for its anticipated purpose. In March, 1862, a force made up of a regiment of Colorado troops, U.S. Regular infantry and cavalry, departed Fort Union with the intention of meeting the Rebels nearer Santa Fe. A two-day engagement in and around Glorieta Pass resulted in the destruction of the Confederate supply train and forced their abandonment of the campaign. By summer, 1862, Civil War action in New Mexico was over.
Military activity in the Southwest, however, was not over. Almost concurrent with the Rebel defeat came Indian warfare of unprecedented proportions. To the south Apache bands attempted to halt travel on stage and mail routes. To the west, the Navajos aggressively struck at outsider intrusions. And to the north and east the Comanches, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyenne all but halted travel on the Cimarron Route. Military escort or trains consisting of 100 armed men were considered requisites for making the trip, and, for a brief period, regular escort service was instituted by cooperating units from Fort Union and Fort Larned, Kansas. Military activity and military supply grew, and the Fort Union Depot began its zenith years.
The earthwork, with its damp subterranean quarters, proved no better than the first fort. Many troops encamped under canvas outside the earthwork. Several structures were also constructed in the immediate area, and some of the buildings at the original post remained in use. Fort Union's importance within the district called for facilities of a more permanent nature and, in 1863, work began on the design and construction of the third, largest, and final facility. Three separate areas were planned: the garrison of Fort Union, the Fort Union Quartermaster's Depot, and the Fort Union Arsenal. Work began first on the depot as hundreds of civilian laborers descended on the site to quarry stone, haul and cut lumber, and make untold numbers of adobe bricks. Not until 1867 was the last building completed in this massive complex, at a cost of over $1,000,000.
During the construction period the various functions at Fort Union operated at unprecedented levels of activity from makeshift facilities. In 1864 the Southern Plains exploded in savage warfare that continued without let-up until 1869. Major campaigns were mounted by district commander Brigadier General James Carleton and Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson against the Navajo nation to the west and the Comanche/Kiowa coalition to the east. Carson■s 1st New Mexico Cavalry, along with California volunteers then stationed in the territory, fought a pitched battle at Adobe Walls in the Texas panhandle, marched the defeated Navahos to Bosque Redondo, and established Camp Nichols on the Cimarron Cutoff, halfway between Forts Union and Larned. The massacre of the Cheyenne winter camp at Sand Creek, Colorado by Glorieta Pass hero John M. Chivington in November, 1864, only served to intensify the resolve of the Plains tribes.
In the midst of all of this the Confederacy crumbled and the huge Federal armies began the mustering-out process. The remaining 50,000 man Regular Army responded to Congressional priorities and was doled out to reconstruction duty in the South. Not until 1866 did regular troops return to duty in the Southwest. The arrival of the 3rd Cavalry, 37th Infantry, and 57th U.S. Colored Troops in New Mexico in mid-1866 finally permitted the discharge of the New Mexico troops. The regulars picked up where the volunteers left off, and Fort Union's role as a staging and supply area for campaigning troops continued. Fort Union-based units participated in the 1868 winter campaign, attacking a Comanche village at Soldier Spring in present western Oklahoma on Christmas Day. Overshadowed by the better-known Washita battle of George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry a month before, Soldier Spring ended the five-year battle for control of the Southern Plains and forced the tribes onto reservations.
The "peace" that followed was a temporary situation. By the early 1870s the Comanches and Kiowas longed for the old life and began to roam. The inevitable clashes, killings, and raiding occurred, and the army was directed to solve the problem. A five-pronged campaign was organized to enter the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains area of the Texas Panhandle, the favorite haunt of the warring bands. One of these columns originated at Fort Union and consisted of three companies of the 8th Cavalry, commanded by Major William R. Price. Having departed Fort Union in August, 1874, the column campaigned into the early months of 1875 before the troops finally returned. The Southern Plains was finally considered free of *Indian threat,* and Fort Union settled into a period of *reservation watching,* its troops held in readiness for future troubles. Not until 1879 did the area witness its final clash with Native Americans.
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