FORT UNION
Historic Resource Study
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CHAPTER ONE:
BEFORE FORT UNION

     The American Southwest [1] officially became part of the United States at the close of the Mexican War in 1848, although the infiltration of Anglo-American people and culture had begun more than a generation earlier with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail between New Mexico and Missouri. Political organization of the Mexican Cession was part of the famous Compromise of 1850 when California was admitted to the Union as a free state, New Mexico and Utah territories were established with the right of popular sovereignty regarding the institution of black slavery, and the boundary controversy between the State of Texas and New Mexico Territory was settled.

     American military history in the region began with the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico in 1846, and the United States Army would continue to be a major factor in political, social, cultural, and economic, as well as military developments in New Mexico Territory for nearly half a century. For a time New Mexico Territory included all of the present states of New Mexico and Arizona and portions of the present states of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. [2] The primary mission of the army in the region for four decades was to protect travelers and settlers (including the Pueblo Indians, Hispanic population, and Anglo residents) from hostile activities of some Indians. During the Civil War that responsibility was expanded to include Confederate troops who invaded the territory. The significance of the army in the region, however, extended far beyond protection, and the military establishment affected almost every institution and individual in New Mexico. Fort Union was one part of that vast system, and it was established at a time of extensive changes in the New Mexican political, social, economic, cultural, and military structure.

     In 1851 Fort Union was established almost 100 miles from Santa Fe near the Santa Fe Trail and served briefly as command headquarters for the several other forts in the territory and longer as protector of the vicinity from Indians who resented the loss of their lands, power, and traditional ways of life. Most military engagements between soldiers and Indians, however, occurred beyond the immediate jurisdiction of Fort Union. Even so, troops stationed at Union were frequently sent to participate in campaigns in the Southwest and on the plains. The post was always closely associated with the Santa Fe Trail, the economic lifeline that tied New Mexico to the eastern States. An important part of the mission of troops stationed at Fort Union was to protect that route from Indian raids and warfare, to keep open the shipping lane to the Southwest.

     Perhaps more important than fighting Indians over the years was Fort Union's role as the department (later district) quartermaster depot for military posts throughout the territory, 1851-1853 and 1861-1879 (it was a subdepot from 1853-1861), when much of the food, clothing, transportation, and shelter for the army was distributed from Fort Union store houses. This made Fort Union the hub of military freighting in the Southwest, an activity which also employed many civilians and has until recently been overlooked in evaluating the military history of the region. [3] In addition, from 1851 to 1883, the department ordnance depot (known as the arsenal after the Civil War) was operated at Fort Union. Such logistical assignments at Fort Union were not as romantic in the public eye as fighting Indians, but they made the other military bases, field campaigns, and police actions possible. New Mexico was a large territory, it must be remembered, and Fort Union was not involved in everything going on there. One must be careful not to claim too much importance for Fort Union, just as one must be careful not to claim too much importance for the army in the region. It was just one part of a complex and changing society.

     The Anglo-American troops and civilian employees of the army who came from the eastern states to the Southwest, including those at Fort Union, helped to modify and destroy the traditional ways of life of Indians and Hispanos in the Southwest, a process that has since been called the "Americanization" of the region. Marion Sloan Russell (1845-1936) first visited Fort Union in 1852 and was there on many other occasions. She met her husband, Lieutenant Richard D. Russell, and was married at the post. A few years before her death she dictated her memoirs, including fond recollections of Fort Union. "That fort," she proclaimed, "became the base for United States troops during the long period required to Americanize the territory of New Mexico." [4]

map
Territory of New Mexico 1850-1861. Source: Warren A. Beck and Ynez O. Haase, Historical Atlas of New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), 29.

     That "Americanization," in part, was the result of the intrusion of Anglo institutions and values, including Protestantism, democratic ideals, political structures, public education, and a market economy into the combination of Indian and Hispanic cultures that had developed during previous centuries. It was a also the result of Anglo-American domination of the economy and government, which slowly affected the social structure and culture in the Southwest. This was not always a conscious goal or effort, but it resulted from circumstances in which Anglo power was enforced by the military (which also included some Hispanic soldiers and native New Mexican employees).

     The army thus performed primary and secondary functions in that process of change over the years. The overall effect appeared far-reaching and dramatic because the histories, traditions, and cultures of the Indians and Hispanos of the Southwest were markedly different from those of the Anglo conquerors. As historian Marc Simmons proclaimed, "the entire history of New Mexico from 1850 to the present is interwoven with attempts by the Indian and Hispano populations to come to terms with an alien Anglo society." [5] The history of Fort Union must be set into that perspective of cultural change to see it as more than just another frontier military post established to fight Indians.

     The officers and men of the American army had to adapt to the peoples and cultures already in the Southwest, and they had to learn to survive and live productively in a geographical environment foreign to their earlier experiences but to which the native New Mexicans had already learned to accommodate their lives, ideas, and institutions. Because of Anglo beliefs in the superiority of their people and institutions over those of the Hispanics and Indians, army personnel often failed to assimilate native practices in dealing with the environment and misunderstood what was possible in the region. Americans from the United States were as determined to dominate the land as they were the people of the Southwest. The history of Fort Union is also part of that story. [6]

     Fort Union was established in the heart of a vast region of plains (where there were few trees) and mountains, embracing portions of the present states of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Utah. This included the western plains, ranging from the flat grasslands of the Llano Estacado of western Texas and eastern New Mexico to the eroded prairies bordering eastward-flowing streams running out of the Rocky Mountains toward the Mississippi River, the volcanic mesas and isolated peaks of northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado, and the foothills and mountains of the southern Rockies. [7]

     Fort Union was located in 1851 in the transition zone between the plains and the mountains, an area rich in several grasses which were excellent for grazing livestock and cutting for hay. The predominate grass was grama, and there were also found buffalo grass, switch grass, bluestem, antelope grass, and others. The military post was located west of the Turkey Mountains and east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Turkey Mountains comprise a circular group of timbered hills, formed by volcanic eruptions and igneous uplift, which were set aside as the Fort Union timber reservation. The Sangre de Cristos form the southernmost branch of the Rocky Mountain province. West of the Sangre de Cristos lies the Rio Grande, the fifth longest river in North America, the lifestream of New Mexico from early Indian occupation to the present. [8]

     One of the military officers stationed in New Mexico in the late 1850s, Lieutenant William Woods Averell, Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, later wrote in his memoirs that "the principal topographical feature of New Mexico is the Rio Grande which enters it from Colorado on the north and running along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, like a half-developed spinal cord in embryo, leaves it at El Paso on the south." Averell clearly understood the primacy of the Rio Grande to the territory. "As the Nile to lower Egypt, so is the Rio Grande to the habitable portion of New Mexico," he wrote. "Agriculture waits upon its waters which are drained away by unnumbered acequias to irrigate its fertile but thirsty soil." In addition, "the Mexicans, for protection and defense against twenty thousand savages, lived in towns from Taos to El Paso." [9]

     The Sangre de Cristo range was an obstacle to travel between the plains where buffalo were plentiful and the agricultural settlements in the Rio Grande valley. There were several passes through the mountains, three of which were most important to plains Indians who visited the Pueblos and other New Mexican settlements and to the Pueblos and New Mexicans who ventured onto the plains to hunt buffalo and trade with the plains tribes. The Pueblos located at those three connections enjoyed a favored position in trade between the plains and the valley and prospered from the commerce. As points where different cultures met, they also faced special problems. [10]

     The northern pass, perhaps the most difficult of the three, connected with Taos, northernmost Pueblo in New Mexico, via either Rayado Creek or the Cimarron River of New Mexico on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo range and the Taos Valley on the west. The southern pass, the least difficult route of the three, connected Pecos Pueblo in the Pecos River valley with the river Pueblos and Santa Fe, after it was founded in 1610, via Glorieta Pass. It was the route followed by the Santa Fe Trail in the nineteenth century. The middle pass followed up the Mora River valley from the plains and connected with Picuris Pueblo on the Rio Grande side. Fort Union was established at the eastern end of that middle pass to Picuris. Each of those three routes, it should be noted, followed reliable water sources.

map
Fort Union Region
(click on image for an enlargement)

    Transportation routes and settlements in the Southwest were located on or near flowing streams because of the general paucity of annual precipitation and its sporadic nature during any given year. All of the streams headed in the mountains and defined the patterns for permanent settlements. The Rio Grande was the largest and most important river in New Mexico, but a number of rivers and their tributary creeks were vital in the area surrounding Fort Union. [11] None of these streams was navigable.

    The Arkansas River flowing eastward from the Colorado Rockies and across present Kansas had served as the international boundary (west of the 100th meridian, present Dodge City, Kansas) between the United States and Mexico, 1819-1848. Its valley was an important avenue for Anglo westward migration. The Santa Fe Trail, the major overland connection between New Mexico and the Missouri River valley and the primary route of supply for Fort Union and the army in the Southwest, followed a stretch of the Arkansas (the original route, later known as the Cimarron Route, from present Ellinwood, Kansas, to a point near present Cimarron, Ingalls, or Lakin, Kansas, and the later Mountain Route from Ellinwood to present La Junta, Colorado). Several Indian tribes lived and hunted along the Arkansas, and Bent's Fort was established on that stream by Bent, St. Vrain & Co. (Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain) in 1833, in part, to trade with some of them. Troops from Fort Union were sometimes sent to protect routes of transportation along the Arkansas, especially during the 1850s and the Civil War years.

wagon training fording river
Wagon train fording the Arkansas River, from Harper's Monthly, Sept. 1862, courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society.

     There are two Cimarron rivers in Fort Union country. One, a tributary of the Arkansas River, is formed by the joining of the Dry Cimarron (which begins in the Raton Mountains about 30 miles east of Raton Pass in New Mexico), Carrizozo Creek (heading in New Mexico), and Carrizo Creek (heading in Colorado) in the northwestern corner of the Oklahoma panhandle. Thus the main stream of this Cimarron is known as the Dry Cimarron in New Mexico (to distinguish it from the other Cimarron in New Mexico) and as the Cimarron River from Oklahoma eastward. The Dry Cimarron was also an appropriate name for the river because, in most years, its surface flow was only sporadic. Water could usually be found, however, by digging in the sandy bed. This Cimarron flows (when water is evident) eastward in present Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas, and back into Oklahoma where it joins the Arkansas west of present Tulsa. The Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail followed this Cimarron River from Lower Spring south of present Ulysses, Kansas, to Willow Bar northeast of present Boise City, Oklahoma. The other Cimarron River flows eastward from the Sangre de Cristo range in New Mexico and joins the Canadian River just north of the famous Rock Crossing of the Canadian where the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail crossed on a streambed of solid stone. The Canadian River was also crossed farther upstream by the Bent's Fort or Raton Route (later known as the Mountain Route) of the Santa Fe Trail southwest of Raton Pass, and the Mountain Route crossed this Cimarron River at the present town of Cimarron, New Mexico, and other places. The Canadian, which flows through a deep canyon from a point a short distance south of the Rock Crossing until it reaches eastern New Mexico, was with few exceptions an obstacle to wagon travel to the east and northeast of Fort Union. The Canadian River was often called the Red River during the nineteenth century, which sometimes creates confusion because there are so many other Red rivers. The presence of two Cimarron rivers, plus the Dry Cimarron, also provides potential for a mix-up.

     Ute or Utah Creek flows south into the Canadian River, joining that stream near the eastern boundary of New Mexico. The Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail crossed Ute Creek, and Fort Bascom was later located near its mouth on the Canadian. Two small streams, Rayado and Ocate creeks, head in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Rayado is an affluent of the New Mexico Cimarron River and was crossed by the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. The Ocate flows to the Canadian River and was crossed by both major branches of the Santa Fe Trail. Both creeks were closely related to Fort Union. Troops were stationed at the Rayado before Union was established, and detachments from Fort Union were sent there briefly afterward. The Fort Union farm was located on the Ocate.

     The Pecos River flows south out of the Sangre de Cristos through New Mexico and Texas to the Rio Grande, and it drew settlers from all cultures which came into the area. Rio Gallinas, a tributary of the Pecos, runs through present Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Mora River and its tributary, Sapello River, which joins at present Watrous, New Mexico, drains eastward from the Sangre de Cristos to join the Canadian. Like the Pecos, the Mora valley drew settlers prior to the Anglo infiltration. It was a valley of rich soil which, with irrigation, produced fine crops of wheat, corn, other small grains, vegetables, and fruits. Fort Union was established on a tributary of the Mora, Wolf Creek (also known as Coyote Creek and occasionally as Dog Creek). [12]

     The importance of these streams in the region cannot be exaggerated. The overwhelming factor throughout the entire area is aridity; the limited supply of water has been critical regardless of the terrain and other geographical features. "Aridity," William deBuys succinctly declared, "more than any other single factor, shapes this stark world." All human activity, from procuring basic necessities to traveling through the region, always has been constrained by the scarcity of a reliable source of water. Annual precipitation in the region averages below twenty inches per year, but "the capricious timing of it" according to deBuys, "makes the Southwestern environment particularly difficult." [13] Much of the precipitation occurs during the summer months, most of it the result of "local high-intensity storms of relatively short duration." These thunderstorms are frequently accompanied by hail. From records kept at Fort Union during a period of ten years, the following monthly mean temperatures (degrees F.) and mean precipitation (inches) were derived: [14]

Table 1
Temperature and Precipitation at Fort Union

MonthTemp.Precip.
January31°0.33
February36°0.43
March43°0.49
April49°0.57
May51°1.81
June67°1.29
July70°3.89
August68°4.59
September61°4.25
October51°0.93
November39°0.70
December34°0.40
Average51°17.68

     The record was clear that most precipitation occurred in July, August, and September, a period known in New Mexico as the "monsoon season" or "rainy season." Eveline M. Alexander, wife of Captain Andrew Jonathan Alexander, Third Cavalry, wrote in her diary in August 1866, following their trip from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Fort Union: "We arrived here in the rainy season, . . . and every day we are treated to a shower of rain. However, you can see it coming so long before it reaches you that it is not much annoyance." [15] A newcomer to the area, Mrs. Alexander had not yet felt the force of the violent thunderstorms with high winds and hail which were an annoyance according to the testimony of numerous residents in the territory.

     The region also experiences an abundance of wind. Complaints about the wind and the dust it whipped through the post were common at Fort Union. Some residents referred to it as "Fort Windy." The soils were easily blown about most seasons of the year because of the shortage of moisture. One of the first residents of the post, Catherine Cary (Mrs. Isaac) Bowen, commonly known as Katie, wrote that "in this territory nearly all the time we have high winds and the soil becomes so dry and powdered that the air is filled with clouds of the most disagreeable kind of dust." [16] Later she commented about "one or two days of high winds which nearly buried us in dust." Her explanation was that "the grass in this country forms no sod, consequently the ground is much like an ash heap on the surface." [17]

     On another occasion, Mrs. Bowen gave a more vivid description of the gales at Fort Union:

     "I like this climate, it is so dry, but the winds are horrible sometimes. They generally commence in the north and blow a hurricane for two or three nights and days, carrying dust, stones, straw and everything out of doors. Then we will have a week as mild as summer. At the end of a week a south wind springs up and carries all the dirt back again, drifting in some places like snow and penetrating every unprotected crevice. My bedroom carpet was so covered that the colors could not be distinguished, but we shovel out occasionally and find our houses pleasant and comfortable as any I ever lived in." [18]

     Another officer's wife, Lydia Spencer (Mrs. William B.) Lane, who lived at Fort Union before and after the Civil War, complained about how the third post "was swept by the winds all summer long" in 1867. Her views of the wind and descriptive talents were comparable to those of Mrs. Bowen fifteen years earlier. Of the omnipresent winds, Mrs. Lane wrote:

     "How they do howl! About ten o'clock every morning they woke up, and whistled and moaned, and rose to wild shrieks, doing everything wind ever does in the way of making a noise. The fine, impalpable dust worked its way into every crack and crevice, lodging round the windows and doors in little yellow mounds, so that we could sweep up a good-sized dustpan full after the wind lulled, which it usually did at sun-down. Sometimes it blew all night, beginning with fresh vigor at the usual time next morning. Another unpleasant trick the breezes had of darting playfully down the chimney, sending the fire and ashes half-way across the room, so that we had to be on guard to prevent a conflagration." [19]

     Soon after Private William Edward (Eddie) Matthews, Company L, Eighth Cavalry, arrived for duty at Fort Union in 1870, he reported to his family at Westminster, Maryland, about his new assignment: "The only objection I can find here is the miserable wind. Talk of March wind in the States, why it is not a comparison to this place. Wind, wind, and sand all the time. This Post is built on a plain, there is nothing to break the wind, therefore giving it full sway." [20]

     A couple of weeks later Matthews noted that, during the sand storms, almost everyone who had to be outside wore goggles to protect their eyes. [21] In March 1874, with his talent for humorous exaggeration, Matthews again described the wind at Fort Union:

     "We are having regular March weather here now. So windy at times that it is almost impossible to keep on one's feet. In fact it blows a perfect hurricane all the time. Every now and then you are struck on the back of the head with a stone about the size of your fist. One naturally looks around to see who threw the brick and finds that Mr. Wind done it." [22]

     The persistent gales and resulting dust and sand storms at the third Fort Union were explained by yet another officer's wife, Frances A. (Mrs. Orsemus B.) Boyd, who resided at the post in 1872. Fort Union, she declared, "has always been noted for severe dust-storms. Situated on a barren plain, the nearest mountains, and those not very high, three miles distant, it has the most exposed position of any military fort in New Mexico." Mrs. Boyd also discerned that the fine soil and sand drifted like driven snow, especially against the buildings at the fort. "The sand-banks," she explained, "were famous playgrounds for the children." She believed that neither trees nor grass would grow at Fort Union because the abrasive dust either prevented plants from taking root or uprooted and scattered the plants. Despite the wind and dust, however, Mrs. Boyd considered Fort Union a place of much beauty, especially the surrounding area "where trees and green grass were to be found in abundance." [23]

     Most Anglo-Americans, who came to New Mexico from other regions, held strong opinions about the land and climate, some favorable and some not. Ovando J. Hollister, a Colorado Volunteer in the Civil War, gave his favorable impression of the area, expressing well an attitude hinted at by many others.

     "The country around Fort Union is pretty—by far the nicest in the Territory. The streams have formed deep narrow canons, the borders of which are rocky and timbered. The prairie is swelling, smooth, and covered with excellent grass. Small mountains and wooded points give variety, and it only wants seasonable rains to vie with any place in the world for beauty and salubrity." [24]

     Lydia Lane enjoyed New Mexico and wrote of one of her several trips between Fort Union and Santa Fe, in 1867, as follows: "The road generally was excellent, the scenery beautiful, and at times grand. The breeze, filled with the odor of pine-trees, was exhilarating and delicious,—you seemed to take in health with every breath of the pure air." Years later she also held fond memories of "the sights, sounds, and odors of the little Mexican towns!" She remembered, while passing through the communities, that "the barking of every dog in the village, bleating of terrified sheep and goats, and the unearthly bray of the ill-used burro (donkey) made a tremendous racket." Most of all she remembered "the smells! The smoke from the fires of cedar wood would have been as sweet as a perfume if it had reached us it its purity; but, mixed with heavy odors from sheep and goat corrals, it was indescribable." It was an impression that stayed with her. "I never get a whiff of burning cedar . . . that the whole panorama does not rise up before me, and it is with a thrill of pleasure I recall the past, scents and all." [25]

     Another point of view was provided by Lieutenant Henry B. Judd, Third Artillery, following his arrival for duty in New Mexico late in 1848:

     "Having reached that region which lies far west of the setting sun, the Siberia of America, the Texas of Texas the Gomorrah of the modern world, where friends seem consigned to oblivion, horses to starvation and public morals to the Qr. Master's department, my thoughts at times peep through the dense fog of vice composing the atmosphere of this Heaven forsaken spot, and revest those I've left behind."

     Judd found nothing pretty, describing the "Country" as "the most dreary & desolate that ever caused the eye to ache by gazing upon." [26]

     Eddie Matthews expressed similar opinions and was never fond of New Mexico Territory nor its inhabitants. In his bigoted judgment, somewhat typical of Anglo-Americans from the eastern United States, the land was not fit for civilized people, and the Indians and Hispanos were not civilized. He noted that the "wind which blows in all seasons" kept the "sand in motion nearly all the time."

     "You might go to bed one night with a large sand bank at your front door, and wake up the next morning to find the whole pile moved around to the opposite side of the house. And then again before the day had passed find the same pile of sand placed back again to the first point. It has ever been this since my arrival in the country, and I suppose will remain so, until the good Lord sees fit to order it otherwise, and this I am very much afraid will never come to pass, as the inhabitants of the Territory are not a God fearing people, and in no way deserving of a change for the better, in fact it is my opinion that any white man in the Territory who was free to leave it and would not ought to be smothered in one of these sand banks, and a board placed at his head with this epitaph: "I remained in this God forsaken country when I was free to leave it." [27]

     Many Anglo-Americans could not condone aridity, believing that to be a sign of a forsaken land. The Southwest experiences periodic droughts which affect all human cultures. Historian Charles L. Kenner concluded that drought has been "the Southwest's most persistent opponent of tranquility." [28] Archaeologist J. Charles Kelley has conjectured that peace and war between the Pueblos and Indians of the plains was directly related to precipitation. When rainfall was adequate for agricultural surpluses in the Pueblos and an abundance of buffalo meat and robes on the plains, peaceful trade was predominant in their relations. During droughts, when neither culture had a surplus to trade, raiding and warfare predominated. [29]

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