from the Interactive
Santa Fe Trail
In 1876 Apache raiding in southern New Mexico and Arizona intensified. The 9th Cavalry moved from Texas to New Mexico, and several companies of the regiment were stationed at Fort Union. The 9th was one of four army regiments (the others being the 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantries) made up entirely of black enlisted men. In response to the frequent Apache flare-ups, the Fort Union-based companies moved in and out of the post. The *Victorio War* of 1880 ended with Victorio's death and the companies of the 9th at Fort Union were re-stationed at New Mexico posts in the immediate vicinity of the Apache reservations. Troopers of the 9th Cavalry won nine medals of honor for gallantry in New Mexico engagements. When not campaigning against Apaches, these black soldiers often found themselves involved in quelling the civil disturbances and violence of the *Colfax County War* that raged just north of Fort Union during those turbulent late 1870s.
Though Fort Union saw its share of excitement during this period, the principal activity continued to be the operation of the Quartermaster's Depot. By the mid-1860s as many as three thousand wagonloads of military supplies arrived annually over the Santa Fe Trail, to be stored and redistributed. The Fort Union Depot serviced all the garrisons in New Mexico as well as several as far away as Colorado and Arizona.
To receipt, inventory, unload, stock, care for, recrate, invoice, and ship the enormous amount of quartermaster, subsistence, and ordnance stores that passed through the depot took a very large staff. Three sets of offices processed a blizzard of bills of lading, receipts, vouchers, requisitions, abstracts, and other paperwork. Laborers packed and unpacked arriving and departing wagon trains. Transportation officers supervised wagon parks, mule corrals, and up to 200 wagonmasters and teamsters. Blacksmiths, wheelwrights, farriers, painters, tinsmiths, carpenters, and plasterers kept buildings, wagons, and draught animals in repair. The vast majority of depot personnel were civilians, many of them local Hispanics who found government employment advantageous. The depot and the army logistic system in the Southwest, in fact, had a dramatic impact on the New Mexico economy in both direct and indirect ways. Where possible, quartermaster and subsistence needs were procured by local contract. Forage for animals, beef cattle, heating fuel, flour, lumber, and vegetables were all procured locally, providing federal dollars for everyone from the small grower to the large contractor. Government trains and troops stopped at dozens of contractor-run forage agencies along main travel routes for meals and rest. Though not the stuff of Hollywood westerns, the day-in-day-out operation of supplying the military had a far greater impact on the territory than any Indian battle. Even the Wheeler Expedition, one of the *Great Surveys* of the 1860s and 70s, was supplied from Fort Union Depot while it worked the surrounding area.
The Santa Fe Trail, of course, was one of the main reasons for Fort Union's existence. Though some users traveled the Mountain route during its early years, the *main* route was always the shorter Cimarron route, from the Trail's acknowledged start in 1821 up into the 1860s. The Cimarron route passed the site of Fort Union only five miles to the east, converging with the Mountain Branch in the Mora Valley at La Junta de los Rios Sapello y Mora (present day Watrous), with cutoffs to Fort Union both north and south of the Turkey Mountains. Here Samuel B. Watrous arrived in 1849 and established a store and trading post little more than a mile from the competing operation of Alexander Barclay. This area witnessed the passage of practically all Santa Fe Trail traffic, both east and west bound, up to Fort Unionžs establishment in 1851. It served as a campground and gathering point for east-bound trains as it was one of the last areas that offered wood, water, and grass in abundance before crossing the dry Cimarron route.
Colonel Stephen W. Kearny's Army of the West had used the Mountain Branch as they invaded New Mexico in 1846. The several elements of his command camped at a series of pools located next to Wolf Creek near the Fort Union site. In Kearny's wake came his baggage and supply trains; slow-moving and unreliable. The inefficiency of these army-operated trains, along with the acquisition of the Southwest and resultant need for eastern-manufactured goods, changed forever the nature of the Santa Fe Trail. With the war over in 1848 and the territory now a part of the U.S., gone were the days of itinerant American and Mexican merchants involved in an international commerce. The "Americanos" came to stay, and they brought with them a need for a resupply system they themselves were incapable of handling. Both the merchants and the Army turned to the use of professional freighting firms, thus ushering in the second phase of Santa Fe Trail operation.
Great Plains freighting quickly became big business, and the firms thus engaged quickly found that New Mexico-bound goods increased in volume many times over what had been before the war with Mexico. The firms that won the huge army contracts soon found themselves hard-pressed, and they invested heavily in the purchase of equipment and teams to meet the delivery requirements. One of the giants of the trade, Russell, Majors, and Waddell, actually over-extended themselves as they monopolized army freighting in the late 1850s, bankrupting the firm by the end of the decade. Others were there, however, to take their place. Outfits like Irwin, Jackman, and Company continued to ply the Trail into the 1860s.
The nature of the Santa Fe Trail began to change again about 1865. Several factors caused the shift. First among these was the Southern Plains wars that swept the area and threatened to halt traffic on the Cimarron Cutoff, a situation that greatly discouraged travel on that route. Secondly was the improvements made to the road through Raton Pass by Richard L. Wooton, which removed the Mountain Branch's most objectionable feature. And third was the post-Civil War railroad construction frenzy that ultimately replaced the Santa Fe Trail. All of these factors combined to almost eliminate the Cimarron route from use by 1869.
The Kansas Pacific Railroad built rapidly west, reaching Hays, Kansas by 1867. Each rail laid marked a new eastern terminus for wagon traffic. By 1869, Kit Carson, Colorado, was the point at which rail freight was loaded into wagons for the remainder of the trip to New Mexico. From Kit Carson the wagons headed southwest over the eastern Colorado plains, in the process blazing a new branch of the Santa Fe Trail. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad entered Colorado in 1873, and the railhead towns of Granada and West Las Animas became the shipping points, and the wagons still struck south on what was known as the Fort Union ž Granada Road. This route, generally ignored by Trail historians, was the Santa Fe Trail for a number of years, carrying massive amounts of freight, both civilian and military.
The railhead shipping points also spelled the end for the overland freight firms. The reduced distances into New Mexico no longer produced a profit. In their stead came *forwarding and commission houses,* an operation that resembled what would happen today if UPS branched off into the hardware and grocery wholesale business. Many such firms appeared, setting up their mobile warehouses wherever the end-of-track happened to be. Chick, Browne & Company and Otero, Sellars, & Company were the giants among them.
With regard to military shipments, the Quartermasteržs Department continued to contract the shipping out to civilians. The contractors then subcontracted with the forwarding and commission houses, who, in turn, further hired out the actual transportation, first to the railroad and then to small freighters and even individuals. Far and away the majority of the teamsters and freighters were Hispanic New Mexicans, who had always been heavily represented on the Santa Fe Trail, but, for its final decade, had nearly total domination of the Trailžs actual operation.
The proximity of the rails after 1873 also caused a decline in the magnitude of the Fort Union Depot operation. The army found it cheaper and less complicated to send supplies directly from the railhead to the posts for which they were bound. The transportation contract for the 1876-77 Fiscal Year reverted to routing all military shipments through the Fort Union Depot, but this proved to be the last gasp of glory for the operation. Use of the depot dropped dramatically thereafter.
From West Las Animas, Colorado the railhead moved to La Junta and Pueblo in 1876 and El Moro (near Trinidad) in 1877. The Mountain route then carried virtually all wagon traffic to and from the railroad. Though the eastern-most seven hundred miles of the Santa Fe Trail lay abandoned across Missouri, Kansas, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico, the two hundred mile stretch still in use was as active as ever. Rushing the railroad over Raton Pass prolonged the Trailžs life, but when the rails reached the New Mexico plains at Raton in 1879, the end came rapidly. On July 4th, the first regularly scheduled passenger train steamed into Las Vegas, and in February, 1880 reached Lamy, near Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Trail was no more.
Slowly the Fort Union depot operation was dismantled, and in 1883 ceased operations altogether, along with the Arsenal. The garrison at Fort Union stood alone. The post spread its elbows and assimilated the former depot structures.
Virtually every historian has dated Fort Union's death warrant as 1879, the year the railroad passed by at Watrous, yet the post remained active for an additional eleven years. What happened during that voided decade that contains 25% of Fort Union's history? One of the current museum exhibits claims the post was "reduced to caretaker status." The official National Park Service handbook marks the era with the brief statement "Fort Union had outlived its usefulness."
In actuality, Fort Union remained active until 1891 because it had not "outlived its usefulness." To be sure, the strategic and logistical considerations that had thrust importance upon it were gone. Indian raiding was a thing of the past on the Great Plains. Wagons no longer plied the old overland routes. What Fort Union did offer, however, was an established point near the railroad at which to house and garrison troops. With the complete implementation of the reservation system, the army's frontier mission became one of *watch and wait,* maintaining troops in the region in anticipation of just the sort of outbreaks that occurred in southwestern New Mexico and Arizona in the mid-1880s. The policy was only part of the reason so many posts like Fort Union survived the decade, though. Simple economics dictated that they remain in use. The army desired the consolidation of the small, former frontier garrisons into larger ones that would be strategically positioned around the big reservations and convenient to rapid rail transportation. The dollars, however, simply werenžt there. Only toward the end of the century did the army successfully obtain funding for construction of the designated permanent posts. When that became reality posts like Fort Union had truly "outlived" their usefulness.
The sprawling physical complex at Fort Union offered housing and facilities for six full companies. Though most of 1881 saw one lone company of the 15th Infantry as the entire garrison, the arrival of the field staff, band, and four companies of the 23rd Infantry in October swelled the complement to over 200 troops. By 1886 five companies of the 10th Infantry and one of the 6th Cavalry brought the military population to over 300, and qualified Fort Union again as one of the larger posts in the trans-Mississippi west. Not until 1888 did the strength begin to shrink. When notified of abandonment plans late in 1890, Fort Union still maintained three companies, and all three would probably have marched away together but for the hurried departure of Troop G, 6th Cavalry on December 1st, 1890, to the Pine Ridge country of South Dakota, there to participate in the final drama of the Sioux ghost dance crisis.
The 1880s gave the army a chance to pause and implement some badly needed reforms. Schools of instruction for the professional development of officers and sergeants were begun. Individual marksmanship became something of a craze. Practice marches and tactical exercises were initiated. Such activities were common sights at Fort Union throughout the 1880s. The post also served as something of a *holding area* for a large number of Apaches thought to be of the *hard-core* brand. Under the direct observation of the military, they camped in the Wolf Creek Valley below the post, lending color, if not a sense of purpose, at a time when Indian wars were still considered a distinct possibility. These Indians would travel with Companies C & H, 10th Infantry, when they departed Fort Union forever in February, 1891, for their new station at Fort Wingate.
Just 2 1/2 months short of forty years service, Fort Union breathed its last on May 15th, 1891, as Lieutenant John H. Schollenberger and his twenty-man detail lowered the colors for the last time and marched away.
In 1893 the former military reservation reverted to control of the legal owner, the Union Land and Grazing Company. Benjamin Butler, the owner, died that same year, passing the operation to his heirs. The company, over the years, took no particular interest in the physical remains of Fort Union, and locals stripped the structures of useable building materials. The resultant exposure of the adobe walls to the whims of Northern New Mexico weather soon had its effects. By the time the first effort was made in 1930 to provide protection for the fort, little remained. The following quarter of a century saw further deterioration, much of it intentional.
Sixty-three years of neglect ended in 1954 with the establishment of Fort Union National Monument. The main 640 acre section includes the site of the Second Fort (earthworks), with perimeter ditches still visible, and over sixty-five adobe buildings of the Third Fort. An 80-acre detached section a mile to the west encompasses the site of the First Fort (including foundations) and ruins of the Arsenal.
Numerous Santa Fe Trail ruts abound throughout the Monument. In 1987 the trail received increased attention and status when Public Law 100-35 designated the Santa Fe Trail as the newest component of the National Historic Trail System.
Fort Union and the Santa Fe Trail is a story of Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Navajos, and Ute Indians. Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Hispanics. Indians. Blacks. Anglos. Economics. War and Peace. The Railroad. The Civil War. Politics. Women. Land grants. Land wars.
The ruins of the third Fort Union (1863-91) constitute the largest number of surviving remains. Over sixty-five structures from the post, quartermaster depot, and hospital provide the visual impact of the scene. Exposed to wind, rain, and other erosional elements, these structures have weathered to mere representations of their former stature. Except for the hospital, the most imposing structures are within the quartermaster depot where they inspire significant feelings of space, size, and architectural validity. Some of the walls rise more than 12 feet and carry original brick copings, which uniquely characterize the territorial architectural style.
Susceptible to early erosional activity, however, was the second Fort Union, an earthworks fort (1861-1862). The earthworks once consisted of partially underground, unventilated rooms of unpeeled pine logs and unsodded parapets. Heavy rains quickly turned the roofs and dirt floors to mud. The soldiers moved into tents, and the second fort eroded to its present configuration, which can be recognized as an eight-pointed star from aerial photos or aircraft.
Across the valley on the detached unit of the monument are the structures associated with the third fort's arsenal (ordnance depot) constructed between 1866 and 1882. The structures, although protected through the enabling legislation, have only limited accessibility and visitation.
Largely within the grounds of the arsenal lie the foundations and chimney ruins of first fort structures (1851-1861). Unmarked and difficult to discern, the unstabilized remains continue to erode and wear away. The foundations for the commanding officer's quarters and office, the quartermaster corrals and shops, and other structures fall outside the monument boundaries. These structures, especially the commanding officer's quarters and office, were some of the most significant structures of the first fort.