Santa Fe Trail – Fort Union

1851-1891
The conflict starts when there is migration followed by possession, sometimes there is greed involved. They say a clash of culture or one of ideology is to blame. There are insults and retribution, and invasion or defense, the broken treaties, the promises cast aside and in the end it is all the same, for every war there’s ever been is all about a resource that is diminishing.
The Indian Wars of the American West were a direct result of overcrowding and loss of resources – for the Indians. When they retaliated the U.S. military responded with force – and forts, like Fort Union.


Before Europeans arrived, the Mora Valley on the edge of the Great Plains had been a refuge for Navajo, Apache, Ute, Kiowa and Comanche. For two centuries following the arrival of Spanish intruders the Apache and Navajo raided settlements in the Rio Grande Valley and the Kiowa and Comanche confronted trespassers on the southern plains. The establishment of the Santa Fe Trail as a trade route across the plains and through the Mora Valley had an environmental impact that severely affected the lives of indigenous natives. The ever increasing wagon trains of freight with the hundreds of oxen, mules and horses reduced grazing, particularly at the few sources of water. The herds of buffalo that had convened at these spots congregated elsewhere. Native hunting parties had to travel further afield and then compete with other tribes for the dwindling population of buffalo that were also being hunted by traders along the trail. After the United States forcibly took possession of the area from Mexico in 1848 travel on the trail increased threefold further putting a strain on resources of the Indian tribes.

Two separate instances of Indian retaliation to the encroachment on their land, ‘the White massacre’ where a family was killed and the ‘Wagon Mound massacre’ where 15 were murdered caused the U.S. Army to respond. There were almost 1,300 soldiers (about 10% of the total U.S. military) stationed in eleven scattered outposts throughout the New Mexico territory at the time. In 1851 they were consolidated at one location to be near where the Indian troubles were. A fort was constructed in the middle of the Mora Land Grant in north east New Mexico, on the most western edge of the Great Plains and near to the Santa Fe Trail. The claimants of the Mora Grant immediately challenged the government squatters and took the case to court which then reached congress in the mid-1850s. No decision was made by the federal government at the time.

A Santa Fe trader wrote “Fort Union, a hundred and ten miles from Santa Fe, is situated in the pleasant valley of Moro. It is an open post, without either stockades or breastworks of any kind, and, barring the officers and soldiers who are seen about, it has much more appearance of a quiet frontier village than that of a military station. It is laid out with broad and straight streets crossing each other at right angles. The huts are built of pine logs obtained from the neighboring mountains, and the quarters of both officers and men were a neat and comfortable appearance.” William Davis 1857.

The primary function of troops stationed at Fort Union was to protect and assist traders on the Santa Fe Trail and enforce territorial boundaries. The Indian tribes continued to resist white encroachment from the east as well as continuing their centuries old raids on Hispanic villages. In 1854 Col. Philips St. George enlisted Kit Carson as scout and with 200 dragoons and infantry went after the Apache. The chase led into the mountains where the Apache were able to escape and hide with the southern Colorado Utes. The following year 500 soldiers and the 1st Dragoons were sent out and killed 15 Indians during the Ute War. The Ute settled for peace. The Army then focused on the elusive Kiowa and Comanche of the plains and by 1860-1861 had pushed them from the territory.

With the breakout of the Civil War many of the officers and soldiers at Fort Union resigned to fight for the Southern cause. Soon after, Confederates intent on the Colorado gold fields marched north from Texas and captured Socorro, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Reinforced by a company of Colorado volunteers, troops from Fort Union rushed south and on March 28, 1862 engaged the Confederates at Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fe. It was the decisive battle of the west in the Civil War and the Rebels were defeated returning to Texas on foot having lost horses, wagons and supplies.

Between 1863-1868 Fort Union was enlarged, improved and the land area expanded to encompass 8 square miles. The first fort built of green logs and hastily constructed in 1851 was unsatisfactory. A second fort with better fortifications prepared for the Civil War still did not meet the demands of the growing military presence and was abandoned. This third fort at the site was built in the Territorial style and walls were made of native adobe blocks atop a stone foundation. It contained the post, quarter master depot an ordinance depot and was the largest military facility in the western territories. Tools, nails, windows, finished lumber, tin roofing and thousands of bricks were transported over the Santa Fe Trail for the construction. Despite the Mora Land Grant owners’ dispute still idling in congress, President Andrew Jackson authorized a timber reserve in 1868 that expanded the fort area to 53 square miles.

William A. Bell, an English surveyor visited Fort Union in 1867 “Fort Union is a bustling place; it is the largest military establishment to be found on the plains, and is the supply centre from which the 40 or 50 lesser posts scattered all over the country within a radius of 500 miles or more, are supplied with men, horses, munitions of war, and often with everything for their support….A large sutlers store must not be forgotten, at which the daily sales average 3,000 dollars. Over 1,000 workmen are here kept constantly employed, building and repairing wagons, gathering in and distributing supplies, making harness, putting up buildings, and attending to the long trains of goods and supplies constantly arriving or departing.”

By 1865 the Army was providing regular escorts for the mail coach that ran between Santa Fe and Fort Larned, Kansas. There were also twice a month escorts for all parties crossing the plains. A detachment of soldiers would leave on the 1st and 15th of every month and go with traders returning east and provide protection for wagon trains on the journey west. The cost to the army to replace worn out mules, horses and wagons was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Indian tribes were finding it increasingly more difficult to procure the resources they needed for subsistence. Intent on defending their homeland and attempting to drive out the invaders, war parties stepped up their raids. In September of 1867 a Mescalero Apache war party ran off 150 head of cattle from a ranch in Mora. The 3rd Cavalry responded immediately and rode out. On October 18th they caught up with the Mescalero at Dog Canyon in west Texas and destroyed the winter camp after a three hour battle. It was a hungry time for the Mescalero that winter.

Between 1866 and 1875 the troops at Fort Union persisted in trying to confine the Indians to a designated area and subdue the war parties. The Mescalero Scout of 1867 had been successful in punishing that tribe. Major Gen. Philip Sheridan waged a campaign in the winter of 1868 against the Kiowa and Comanche. That military action broke the Indian resistance and they were relocated to a reservation. In the early 1870s the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne and Arapahoe grew restive and war parties were out on raids in north Texas. The 8th Cavalry of Fort Union defeated the tribes of the southern plains during the Red River War of 1874 and they were never a threat again.

The impact of the Santa Fe trade on the local economy near Fort Union was profound. Hispanic villagers had survived for centuries at subsistence level farming and bartered for needed goods and services. Chickens were traded for wood, goats were traded for home spun cloth, and construction projects were a community affair and so on. The arrival of the Americans with a cash based economy changed all that. Throughout the Mora Valley fields were planted in wheat and a number of mills were built to supply the Army with flour. Cattle production increased to supply meat. Horses, mules, timber and fresh produce were in demand. From the surrounding towns of Loma Parda, Watrous and Mora many found employment in helping to build the fort, as warehouse workers or teamsters. For some it was a profitable arrangement, others found themselves destitute and impoverished. The old ways were gone forever.

The Santa Fe Trail had been used primarily by merchant traders from 1821 to 1846; the trail became flooded with military freight after that. The Army had no choice but to import because New Mexico offered so few of the goods it required. The transportation of military equipment and supplies comprised the greater part of traffic along the trail from the time of the Mexican War until the railroad arrived forty years later.

Imagine 2,000 to 3,000 freight wagons a year being off-loaded into these enormous buildings. In the five warehouses, the U.S. Army stored, inventoried, organized and redistributed thousands of tons of food, equipment and ordinance to support the troops operating in the southwest.

Here you would have seen both civilian storekeepers and enlisted personnel bustling and toting an endless stream of crates, boxes, and barrels of salted meat and fish, hardtack, coffee, tea, sugar, salt, vinegar, hominy, corn meal, onions, potatoes, canned foods, bottled foods, flour, clothing, bedding, tents, cooking gear, paper and ink, heating stoves, furniture, lamps, lanterns, tools and building materials all of which arrived over the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1870 there were 100 civilians employed at Fort Union. About 40 were teamsters driving wagons to deliver supplies from these warehouses to distant outlying posts. The 9th Cavalry – the Buffalo Soldiers, stationed at the fort from 1876-1881 would have accompanied some of these shipments throughout the western territories.

25 years after the fort was first built the owners of the Mora Land Grant were still waiting for a decision from congress so that they may be compensated for the fifty three square miles of land that the Army
occupied. In 1876 the Surveyor General of New Mexico reported to the government that there was “no doubt” that the property was a part of the Mora Land Grant. In a stalling tactic the fort commander countered that since the Army had made considerable improvements and investments they should first be compensated and paid for such. No decision was forthcoming.

Fort Union is an important part of the history of the Santa Fe Trail, the Mora Valley, New Mexico and the U. S. expansion into the Southwest. The victory of the troops at the Battle of Glorieta shaped the outcome of the Civil War. It functioned as an agent of political and cultural change during the 40 years of its existence. The fort was the largest military facility in the west and the largest employer in New Mexico. As a subject of history the fort is important but by the 1880s Fort Union had lost its significance, military purpose and commercial usefulness. The Indian tribes had been subjugated and were no longer a threat. The Santa Fe Trail had become an obsolete anachronism when the Atchison Topeka Railroad reached Las Vegas, NM in 1879. Troop strength was reduced to about 100 and soldiers were assigned to other posts.

On February 21st 1891 the remaining 45 men of the 10th Cavalry marched out of the fort to report for duty elsewhere. Three months later in May the last two soldiers at Fort Union shouldered their gear and followed the old wagon ruts to Watrous where they boarded the train. The Army had abandoned Fort Union leaving only a civilian caretaker at the site, which left within the year. The Army never paid a cent to the Mora Land Grant owners.

The west was tamed? There are countless books that have been written on how the West was tamed. One hundred and twenty one years after Fort Union was abandoned there is little evidence that is so. Buffalo no longer freely roam or Indian camps are here but they are not wiped out they just reside some other place. The old adobe buildings of Fort Union have settled into the earth from which they were built, the ruts of the old wagon road are slowly filling in. The sun, the wind and rain, the prairie grass is just as it has always been.

In this photograph the second Fort Union the ‘Star Fort’ is seen in the lower right corner. On the far left center are the remains of the civilian sutlers store. The enlisted men’s quarters are those directly above the Star Fort and the flag pole in front of that is the parade ground. To the left of the enlisted men’s quarters are the officers’ quarters and on the far left is the quartermaster office and supply. Across the parade ground from the quarters are warehouses, wheelwright, wagon repair, livery and stables.

I had been to Fort Union many times in the past but on this day, a late afternoon in early July I was the only visitor. The temperature was mild; the breeze if that was not enough to lift a flag. There was no smell of men or horse, only that of earth and the dry yellowing grass. I silently walked past the crumbling domain of soldiers long since gone and periodically I would hear a bugles call. At the quartermaster office two men peered out, then turned back to their work without a word. They had a barrow of adobe clay and were smoothing it on the ancient walls with calloused hand.

Peace,  Dohn

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About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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5 Responses to Santa Fe Trail – Fort Union

  1. These orders were the foundation for Fort Union, New Mexico. The first two items were based on traditional military strategy: presence, defense, and when necessary, offence. The third item is key to understanding how and why the buildings of Fort Union were constructed.

  2. winsomebella says:

    When you read of the turmoil and change of a place like this, it makes today’s turbulent times seem less so. I love visiting places that used to be and to feel the spirits of those that occupied the space in prior times. I hope you are writing a book because you tell the story so well 🙂

    • Dohn says:

      As you can tell I like to visit the places that were so significant and vital at the time – but all things fade or move on. Wonder which of todays ‘so significant’ will fade into nothing more than a curiosity. Mahalo my friend.

  3. What a fascinating little nugget of history… can’t help feeling sorry for the Indians and the buffalo, and the people whose land was taken – history is always about winners and losers, alas!

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