Historic Structure Report
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Chapter I:

The Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Trail was part of the skeleton of a burgeoning nation. The trail evolved out of Native American trade and Spanish exploration routes across the plains. It became a somewhat tentative connection between two countries—the United States and Mexico—and it developed into a vital trade link, and then a route for settlers and the military. Passage over the trail was fraught with danger, excitement, hard labor, boredom, misery, and sometimes even death. The trail was a catalyst that irreversibly altered cultures and entire countries.

The development of Fort Union was linked to a long series of events, and its history is inseparable from that of the Santa Fe Trail. Although trading among the French in Missouri and the Spanish in Santa Fe and even as far south as Chihuahua had gone on intermittently during the eighteenth century, the trade began in earnest following 1821. During that year, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and established free trade. That same year, William Becknell returned to Franklin, Missouri after a successful trading expedition to Santa Fe and quickly spread the word that trade with Mexico was possible. The following year the large caravans began crossing the plains from the vicinity of Franklin, Missouri southwest to Taos and Santa Fe.

In Kansas, the trail divided into two routes. The Mountain Branch followed the north bank of the Arkansas River and crossed over into New Mexico at Raton Pass. The Cimarron Branch was one hundred miles shorter than the Mountain Branch, but it followed the dry bed of the Cimarron River into the Oklahoma panhandle and came into New Mexico near the present-day town of Clayton, New Mexico. The two routes came back together near Watrous, New Mexico at the junction of the Mora River and Sapello Creek.

The federal government recognized the importance of the Santa Fe Trail, and by 1825 the United States Congress passed a bill to survey the trail. The trade route was essential for the development of both countries, and the push for westward expansion of the United States was on. As early as 1831 tourists began to appear on the trail along with the traders and settlers. By that time, the trading operations had changed so that the normal trade goods (pans, needles, calico, knives) were fairly common in Santa Fe, which meant that profits were not as great as they had been at first. To maintain reasonable profit levels, traders often took specific orders and usually had more than one wagon. When the Mexican government started to levy taxes on the number of wagons, the size of the wagons increased. [1]

The Santa Fe Trail was a topic of national interest, and it was the first road surveyed west of Missouri. The expansion of commerce along the trail also included improvements in transportation, the development of freighting enterprises, and the development of stagecoach and mail lines. As trade expanded along the trail and the wagon trains became targets for Indians, protection of the caravans became necessary. The first military escort for Santa Fe traders accompanied the caravans in 1829. [2] During 1833 President Andrew Jackson organized the Dragoons as the first full-time cavalry branch of the services. Jackson and his military advisors realized that foot soldiers were extremely limited in frontier combat. In 1834, the dragoons escorted a wagon caravan along the Santa Fe Trail. This protective strategy was just the beginning of further military involvement.

By 1840, St. Louis traders discovered that they could make higher profits by freighting their goods to Chihuahua, so half of the trade goods on the trail during that year continued further south to the interior of Mexico. [3] Although the Mexican government tended to view the trail to Santa Fe as a military highway leading straight to its northern border, the traders in both St. Louis and Santa Fe viewed the commerce as highly beneficial, and the trade continued with a vengeance.

The Arrival of the U.S. Army. In 1846, the fears of the Mexican government—that the Santa Fe Trail was a military highway—were realized when Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny peaceably conquered New Mexico and made it United States territory. At that time, New Mexico was designated Military Department Number 9, and the army established a handful of garrisons throughout the newly acquired territory in part to quell anti-U.S. sentiment.

At the close of the Mexican War, the United States Army was divided into the Eastern and Western Divisions and eleven departments. Beginning on August 31, 1848, New Mexico was the Ninth Military Department. From October, 1853, until the eve of the Civil War it was designated the Department of New Mexico and merged into the Western Department. [4]

The need for increased federal involvement in this new territory was of great concern in Washington, D.C. The cost of supplying the army in New Mexico was high, and the federal government sought ways to diminish that expense. On April 1, 1851, Secretary of War Charles M. Conrad wrote to Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner of the First Dragoons, St. Louis, Missouri. As head of the War Department, Conrad believed that definite changes were necessary in his department, and he very much intended to have them implemented. First, Conrad announced in his letter that Sumner was to take command of the Ninth Military Department (New Mexico). In the next sentence, Conrad stated that he wanted to see changes of more efficient protection of the country with a "dimunition of expense."

That letter to Sumner also included other orders. The secretary told Sumner to consider revising the whole system of defense within the Department of New Mexico and to make changes wherever he deemed necessary. Conrad's order went on to say that Sumner could choose new locations for garrisons based on:

1st. The Protection of New Mexico.

2nd. The Defense of the Mexican Territory, which we are bound to protect against the Indians within our borders.

3rd. Economy and facility in supporting the troops, particularly in regard to forage, fuel, and adaptation of the surrounding country to cultivation. [5]

The secretary noted that the War Department was convinced that moving the troops out of the towns, toward the frontier, and closer to the Indians was the best course of action. He also cited the enormous expenditures of the Army in New Mexico, and he encouraged Sumner to keep economy in mind. Conrad gave Sumner a great amount of latitude for implementing the orders because communications were so slow. [6]

These orders were the foundation for Fort Union, New Mexico. The first two items of the orders—protecting and defending the territory—were based on traditional elements of military strategy: presence, defense and, when necessary, offense. At the time, the northern tribes of Apache and Ute Indians were causing problems. The third item of economy and subsistence, however, was a key factor in understanding how and why the buildings of Fort Union were constructed and in understanding how the land area was used.

Sumner arrived in Santa Fe on July 19, 1851, and he assumed command of the department. His first act as commanding officer was to "break up the post at Santa Fe, that sink of vice and extravagance, and to remove the troops and public property to this place [Fort Union]. I left one company of Artillery there . . . These evils are so great that I do not expect to eradicate them entirely until I can bring the troops together in considerable bodies. . . ." [7] Sumner's rag-tag frontier army did not come close to meeting his career military standards, and he believed that removing all of the troops from the town would improve discipline and morale. He also took very seriously the aspects of his orders that dealt with subsistence and economy. [8] Sumner was, after all, a career military man determined to execute his orders with a scrupulous discipline. In later years Sumner stated that he moved department headquarters from Santa Fe because of "the vile conditions there, unfavorable for soldiers—referring to moral life in part." [9] In addition, he keenly resented the townspeople of Santa Fe living in one way or another at government expense through the exorbitant costs they charged the army for goods and services. He was absolutely determined to change that which he saw as a waste of government funds.

The First Fort. Sumner ordered the headquarters of the Ninth Military Department transferred to Rio Mora, and then in June and July, 1851, the two companies of the First Dragoons and two companies of the Third Infantry moved out of Las Vegas to the area of Fort Union. [10] They were under the command of Captain Edmund Alexander. Then another company of the Third Infantry from Fort Marcy in Santa Fe joined the group and made the total command 339 officers and men. [11] The War Department considered the new garrison established on July 26, 1851, the date of the first arrival of the troops. On August 2, 1851, Sumner issued the order designating the place Fort Union". [12]

The army arrived in 1851 and began construction at a strategic location five miles from the Rio Mora on El Arroyo del Coyote near the Turkey (or Gallinas) Mountains. The site was six miles northeast of the confluence of the Cimarron and Mountain routes of the Santa Fe Trail, twenty-six miles from Las Vegas, and eighteen miles from Mora. One army summary stated that "the location was on the line of the great traveled route to Santa Fe, with a view to the protection of passing trains and the isolated settlements from the Apaches who roamed over the wide district of country to the east and south". [13] Because the property was located on the Mora land grant, the United States government was supposed to pay rent on the reservation's land.

Land Problems. Under Special Orders No. 30 of the Ninth Military Department, the military reservation for the post was provisionally declared to cover eight square miles with the Fort as the central point, but no record was filed with the General land Office because the President did not order it. In 1868, the War Department ordered that all posts in the Department of the Missouri that had not been declared by the President be officially surveyed if the Army intended to keep them for military purposes. Thus, the J. Lambert survey of 1868 that covered the 51.5 square miles of the post reservation and 53 square miles of the timber reservation were declared and noted in the records of the General Land Office. [14] At the corners of the post reservation and on main roads through the reservation, the army set wooden posts with signs that read "U.S. Mil. Res." to identify the property. [15] An additional 5,120 acres was set aside for the subsistence farming operation of Fort Union.

The military and timber reservations, however, remained a problem because the secretary of the interior had issued a land patent to the Mora land grant claimants. Although the secretary tried to issue an amendment to the patent so that the improvements belonged to the United States, it turned out that amending the patent was not legally possible. The grantees, however, could not compel the government to abandon the post. [16] So, the government concluded that it owned the buildings and improvements, and could not be forced to leave the post. Thus, the federal government had no land ownership at Fort Union.

Subsistence and Survival. Trying to make the Army rely on subsistence by making it self-sufficient in many areas was an experiment that failed miserably. A General Order (No. 1) issued from the Adjutant General's office on January 8, 1850 explained the plan. In order to promote the health of the troops and to reduce the expense of subsistence, the army instituted a system of kitchen gardens in the permanent posts and stations. The soldiers themselves were supposed to do the work in the gardens. [17] Fort Union also tried field cultivation of grain for human and animal consumption. Not only did the experiment in farming fail, but it created a debt of approximately $14,000. When those costs showed up at the War Department in Washington, the experiment ended. [18]

Although much of the official subsistence efforts ended in 1853, even as late as 1855 two companies of Dragoons were detailed to provide the annual supply of hay that Fort Union needed. The letters of Catherine Bowen, wife of Fort Union's Captain Isaac Bowen, to her family in New York also showed how much families and individual soldiers in the Army needed more than the rations allowed them in order to survive. Barter exchanges in chickens, pigs, herbs, butter, and various staples was common. Letters in army correspondence of the period showed that cash was so scarce in the territory even the commanding officer of Fort Union asked for $100,000 in coin to run his quartermaster department. Other letters of the same decade indicated that there was not only a scarcity of money but also a scarcity of flour, corn, candles, and just about every other commodity. [19]

Colonel Sumner designated Fort Union the principal supply depot for the department, but during the 1850s, the quartermaster depot kept shifting between Fort Union and Albuquerque. The construction of the third fort that started in 1863 changed that situation, and then Fort Union became the chief supply center for the Army in New Mexico until 1879 when the railroad arrived.

The multiple functions at Fort Union—army post, supply depot, and arsenal—led to some animosity between the various units. The quartermaster, the fort, and the arsenal all employed civilian employees. The depot quartermaster often outranked the post commander. The military storekeeper who ran the arsenal reported directly to the chief of ordnance in Washington instead of to the post commander. All of these elements contributed to friction among the officers and men. Although the fort was known as one large unit, it was really three functioning units whose leaders reported to distinctly separate superiors.

The Star Fort. In the fall of 1861, Captain Cuvier Grover ordered the construction of a bastioned earthwork to the east of the original post under the bluffs. [20] The Army anticipated an attack from Texas troops who were advancing to seize and hold New Mexico for the confederacy because Fort Union was the main supply depot for the territory. After the earthwork was constructed, nearly all stores and troops were moved into it.

In March of 1862, the threat turned into stark reality. Confederate troops in search of supplies, materiel, and control of the southwest threatened to invade Fort Union. Union forces repelled the confederate troops at the battle of Glorieta Pass, and the threat to Fort Union was relatively minimal during the remainder of the Civil War. The Battle of Glorieta Pass was the turning point for the Civil War in the far west. The importance of Fort Union during that period of time remained high not only because of its status as the principal supply and munitions depot in the Southwest but also because of the military necessity of keeping the Santa Fe Trail open despite Apache and Navajo uprisings.

The Expansion of Fort Union. In May of 1862, Orders No. 30 from department headquarters in Santa Fe extended the reservation at Fort Union to eight square miles with "the Fort" as its central point. The order also called for posts to be erected at the corners of the reservation and for all citizens to be removed from the reservation. [21] This was the beginning of the fort's expansion.

In July, 1866, the commanding officer of Fort Union saw the need to extend the military reservation to include the Gallinas (or Turkey) Mountains. As General James H. Carleton, commander of the Post at the time, stated in his request for the extension: "The reasons are that those mountains are clad with fine lumber, wood, and grazing, indispensably necessary to the military post, and the various depots at Fort Union." [22] Under directions from the chief quartermaster District of New Mexico, J. Lambert made a survey of the military reservation, ordnance, and timber reservations. Following the completion of his survey, the secretary of war approved the recommended changes to revise the reservation boundaries and establish the timber reserve. [23]

Conditions in the first fort and also in the Star Fort—both of which continued to be occupied—were so bad that construction began in 1863 on the third fort and its huge quartermaster depot. [24] Brigadier General Carleton, the commander of the Department of New Mexico, wrote to the quartermaster general in Washington about the condition of Fort Union in November, 1862. At that time, Carleton noted that the log quarters, storehouses, and corrals built at the first fort were decaying, and that other buildings erected since that time were in a tolerable state of preservation. The problem, according to Carleton, was that there was not sufficient space for the quartermaster depot. Carleton wrote about the new construction proposed but also mentioned that the pools of water (Los Pozos) adjacent to the first fort were disappearing quickly and local springs were drying up. That issue concerned him considerably. [25]

The Arsenal. By August of 1864, Fort Union's strong point was its use as a supply depot for all of the troops in the southwest. At about the same time, a reorganization in the Army resulted in major changes to the ordnance department. On May 8, 1866, a portion of the military reservation one mile long and a half mile wide was set aside by the war department for an arsenal. Captain William Rawle Shoemaker, Military Storekeeper (MSK), began construction of the Fort Union Arsenal (also known as simply "Union Arsenal") on the site of the first fort. As a separate military installation, Shoemaker reported directly to Washington and received his orders from the chief of ordnance.

The arsenal was surrounded by an adobe wall approximately 1000 feet on each side. It contained a number of buildings including quarters, one large storehouse, three small storehouses, and various armorers and blacksmith shops. The arsenal remained an active military depot until 1882 when Captain William Rawle Shoemaker retired. At that time, the war department began shutting down the arsenal operation and transferring the stores to other locations. Shoemaker was granted his request to stay on as caretaker of the arsenal buildings. He remained at his arsenal until his death in 1886.

The Last Days. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, Fort Union had undergone considerable physical and social change. Physical changes were evident in the lowered water table and in the thinning vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the fort. At the time that Mrs. Catherine Bowen lived there in the 1850s, blowing dust was a problem, but the grasslands and woodlands were lush and productive. By the time Mrs. Orsemus Boyd was at Fort Union (1860s), vegetative conditions had changed dramatically. She noted: "The hope of having any trees, or even a grassy parade ground, had been abandoned long before our residence there; for either the grass-seed would be scattered by the wind, or the grass actually uprooted and blown away after it had grown." [26] Although Mrs. Boyd was discussing the third Fort Union, the impact of so many people and so much stock on the sensitive grassland environment was overwhelming. Numerous reports also discussed evaporation of Los Pozos. During the 1850s, the pools of water were ten feet deep in places. By the 1860s, the Fort Union soldiers walked across dry sand beds where the pools had existed.

The physical plant of the fort was deteriorating, too. An 1885 inspection showed Fort Union to be in dilapidated condition. Part of that deterioration was the result of too much delayed maintenance, and part was the result of the ravages of nature. In January of 1883, two years before the inspection report, a severe storm hit Fort Union. The violent wind blew dust and sand into every crack, ripped roofs off buildings, and knocked down fences, walls and chimneys. The force of the wind blew over the flagstaff, and when it fell it punched a hole in one of the quarters. Following that storm, some of the buildings needed to be propped up. [27] A letter of April, 1883 also noted damage to the buildings—doors and roofs blown off, gates damaged, and bricks blown off cornices. [28] Whether this was a separate storm or just cumulative damage from years of deferred maintenance on top of the January storm was immaterial. What mattered was that Fort Union was self-destructing.

Environmental and physical changes were only a part of evolution and demise of Fort Union. Progress that was occurring throughout the west also affected it. By July, 1868, the telegraph arrived at the post which improved communications with the east, and the railroad, too, was steaming its way west. [29] In January, 1878, the Department of the Missouri indicated its intention to abandon the Quartermaster Depot. The Army recognized that the railroad was on its way and that many of the mule-drawn vehicles at Fort Union would be obsolete. [30] The railroad reached the vicinity of Fort Union in 1879. The troubles between native americans, anglos, and hispanics that required military action were decreasing as more and more settlers came west.

The army post had outlived its usefulness. Like Forts Laramie and Yuma, Fort Union was rendered obsolete by the railroads. Indian dangers had subsided, and the railroads took over army and civilian freighting operations. The reasons for the fort's existence were no longer there.

By 1890 the fort was no longer needed for a defensive position, as a military staging area for campaigns, or as an army supply depot. Its chief raison d'etre at that time was as a troop garrison for Indian prisoners. And even the Native Americans did not like it. They much preferred being back at San Carlos where they could work, where they had good crops, horses, and money. By that time, too, the Indians were no longer incarcerated. They camped between the post and the old arsenal. [31]

In early 1891, the War Department ordered the withdrawal of troops from Fort Union. They were to move out no later than May 15 of that year. On October 6, 1891, the secretary of war recommended to the president that the military reservation be transferred and turned over to the secretary of the interior under the Act of Congress, approved July 5, 1884 that provided for the disposal of reservations no longer needed for military purposes. Although some thought was given to making the fort an Indian school run by the department of the interior, no specific action was taken on that recommendation.

On February 12, 1892, the remaining soldiers at Fort Union were given the order to go to Fort Wingate, New Mexico. On May 15, 1891, the last detail and the commanding officer left Fort Union. [32] The fort remained unused. On February 16, 1894, the secretary of war directed the relinquishment of Fort Union Military Reservation. On April 1, 1894, the land and its buildings reverted to the owners of the Mora Grant. [33]

Salvage, then Preservation. Fort Union then reverted to the original claimants of the Mora Grant. As soon as the Army withdrew, the local people—some from as far away as Las Vegas—began salvaging the site for building materials that they could re-use. Some felt, in a way, that the materials belonged to them. They had manufactured them, or their fathers had installed them, or they had hauled them to the site when the buildings were under construction. Many of the people who began removing bits and pieces of Fort Union were the same ones who had constructed parts of it in the first place. Also, materials such as glass, windows and frames, and roofing tin were still at a premium in Las Vegas. The wealth of well-crafted cut stone also proved too good a material to pass up. Hauling it from Fort Union to Las Vegas was still cheaper than quarrying it, cutting it, and then hauling it. So, the dismantling started.

According to one informant, the dismantling followed a logical pattern. A ranch foreman sold lumber or other building materials and allowed them to be removed from the structures. First they were taken from the officers' and company quarters, then the mechanics corral, the warehouses, and finally the hospital. [34]

Despite its use as a cattle ranch after the army abandoned the post, the ruins remained a favorite destination for picnickers from Watrous and, after the advent of the automobile, Las Vegas. Southwestern archeologist Robert Lister had fond memories of Sunday afternoons in the ruins. As a boy growing up down the road in Watrous, he was fascinated by the huge adobe walls and the old army trash piles. He spent hours on hot, dry afternoons playing cowboys-and-Indians and digging through the dirt to see what the army had left behind. [35]

With ranching operations came the responsibility of ensuring the security of the cattle. Because the surrounding landscape offered no shelter for the animals, they tended to congregate around the walls of the fort and arsenal. In search of shade on hot days, or a wind break on cold or stormy days, they huddled around the bases of the walls. After the ranch hands lost cattle to collapsing cisterns and tumbling adobe walls, they decided that bulldozing a few of the most hazardous areas was necessary to protect the ranch's mobile, hoofed investments. In about 1949, bulldozer operator Louis Timm filled in all the cisterns and wells including one in the area of the sutler's store. He also knocked down about 20 chimneys to prevent them from collapsing on cattle. He worked his dozer in both the third fort and arsenal areas. [36] This increased deterioration in parts of the fort and arsenal.

Finally through the efforts of local citizens the area became Fort Union National Monument. Authorized in 1954 and established in 1956, the legislation for the monument called for preservation and protection of the remaining structures at Fort Union. The National Park Service agreed during the congressional hearings that it would undertake no reconstruction of Fort Union. Instead, efforts since 1956 have concentrated on preservation and stabilization of the ruins and features.

Summary. The United States established more military posts than any other nation that possessed the west, and it also had a greater variety than any other nation. Fort Union was the key to successful trade and military operations in the southwest through the 1880s. The army's need to rely in part on subsistence for survival meant considerable reliance on the natural resources the area provided. This included looking toward the local surroundings for building materials that could be easily manufactured with simple technologies: stone, earth, adobe, brick, and timber.

Fort Union was phased out as a military installation for several reasons. The railroad had taken over trade, freight and passenger operations, so the Santa Fe Trail was obsolete. Military activity in the west had calmed down to such an extent that the quartermaster depot, arsenal, and troop presence were no longer required at Fort Union.

The buildings had been deteriorating at the fort and arsenal for a long period of time prior to abandonment by the army. Delayed maintenance and the ravages of nature were the prime culprits. A steady stream of people who salvaged building materials from the structures further contributed to the decay. Bulldozing operations to protect investments on-the-hoof from falling bricks and adobe walls destroyed other remnants of the fort. What began with private preservation efforts in the local community resulted in the establishment of Fort Union National Monument under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2006