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Chapter III:

The Beginnings of the First Fort. The year was 1851. New Mexico had been a United States Territory for a year. Herman Melville had just published Moby Dick; and Nathaniel Hawthorne had just completed The House of Seven Gables. In New York, the New York Daily Times, which later became the New York Times, was founded. The nation's first pictorial magazine, Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion appeared in the parlors of better homes. American textile mills were switching to steam power. In New Orleans, a group of Spanish refugees and American southerners were planning an expedition to Cuba in hopes of starting an uprising against Spain. It was during this year that Lt. Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner of the 1st Dragoons established Fort Union, New Mexico, on July 26.

When the Army moved in to the area of Fort Union in 1851, the first order of business was construction of temporary shelters while the more permanent ones were under construction. Also, the army considered its position in terms of subsistence because of the numbers of animals it supported. A report prepared in August, 1851, summarized the resources of the area. Corn and hay were available for purchase, and the grazing around the post was considered very good during the summer and fall. The report noted:

There is sufficient building materials near the post for all purposes, consisting of a very fine white sand stone, clay for bricks and adobes and pitch and spruce pine in the mountains from 9 to 30 miles of the Post. All other articles required for building would have to come from the East, as they are not produced in this Department . . . The greatest objection to this point as a military post is the want of running water for stock . . . The only possible mode of transportation in this section of the country is by land . . . The usual and only transportation used here are wagons, carts and pack mules. [1]

The new soldiers and families at Fort Union arrived during the late summer. With fall and winter fast approaching, construction of quarters was the first order of business. Captain Isaac Bowen and his wife Katherine were among the early arrivals to Fort Union. Katie and Isaac wrote home frequently to her family, and her letters provided a very graphic picture of life in the early days of Fort Union. The new occupants lived in army tents while the buildings were under construction. Katie Bowen noted that the location of Fort Union was well suited to farming operations, had an ample water supply, and was surrounded by hills covered with pine trees with a supply of wood so good that it would "not fail in thousands of years." At the time she wrote that statement, she also noted that the hospital, company quarters and the commander's quarters were nearly completed, that Major Sibley's quarters were started, and theirs were next. Although houses were built in priority sequence according to rank, the commanding officer of the post had ordered that all the married officers' quarters should be built first. [2]

The Bowens began their life at Fort Union by living in one army tent, but soon they expanded into three attached tents of double thicknesses of duck. They cooked their food outdoors on an open fire, and ate their meals in a "bower" that was wet at times. [3] Charlotte Sibley, the wife of Major Ebenezer Sprote Sibley described her temporary tent quarters when writing home to her family. She wrote: "Our tents are put upon frames and are floored and carpeted. I have arranged them so that the word cozy would more properly apply in description of the interior than any word else." [4] The tents they spoke of most likely were the wall tents discussed in the previous chapter.

In early September, 1851, Major E. S. Sibley wrote to the Quartermaster General in Washington because he was concerned that the new post did not have enough stores of grain to get through the winter. Also, he increased by half an estimate that Colonel Sumner had sent in earlier for building materials. The estimate requested stationary, horse and muleshoe nails, horse equipments, scythe stones, rope, wagon timber, 2 kegs of #10 nails, 1 keg of #12 nails, 1 keg of #20 nails, 2 boxes of 7 x 9-inch window glass, 1 box of 8 x 10-inch window glass, and 15 pounds of putty. For tools, he requested felling axes, axe handles, spades, shovels, stone masons' hammers, stone masons' sledges, bricklayers trowels, and mattock handles. [5] That list of requested materials probably meant: 1) that some of the buildings were not receiving stock windows and some of the windows were being custom-made to fit buildings; 2) that logs used in construction were not hewn (otherwise adzes, too, would have been on the list of tools; 3) that stonework for building construction was common.

A letter to the Quartermaster General the following day stated:

We are progressing rapidly in the erection of buildings at this place & have already raised log cribs for quarters for two companies, one of Infantry & one of Dragoons, for a hospital & quarters for the commanding officer of the post & three staff officers—I have found limestone in our immediate vicinity which having been tested proves of good quality & I have had a kiln made which will be filled & burnt immediately—as soon as the mill which is now being built is in a state of readiness to saw lumber which will be the case I trust tomorrow. We shall commence covering the buildings & laying the floors & if no accident occurs I expect the quarters will be in readiness to receive the troops by the 1st day of November next at furthest. [6]

By mid-September, 1851, the quarters were still under construction. Besides gathering raw building materials from the surrounding landscape, the troops and the handful of civilians at Fort Union were expected to supplement their own rations through subsistence—growing their own vegetables, making butter, and even having a few animals. Because of all of the time devoted to survival on the frontier, building construction took longer than anticipated.

As the late fall and then winter approached in 1851, Katie Bowen was still concerned about the slow construction of the quarters. The fort residents built fires in front of their tents to keep warm. As they stood around those fires warming themselves, they watched the stone chimneys going up on the new rough buildings. Katie Bowen noted that the chimneys on the hospital and company quarters were drawing well and throwing out lots of heat. She approved of the overall quarters design. Also, she noted that their room allotment for that winter would be three rooms for each officer, either 18 x 18 or 18 x 20. [7]

By the beginning of October, 1851, log cribs were completed for quarters for two staff officers, the department commander, and two company captains. The commanding officers quarters had a roof, and the Dragoons' quarters were in the process of getting one. The letter complained that the sawmill was constantly breaking down and the saws kept wearing out. Because of those delays, they were compelled "to cover the officers quarters with earth, the custom of the country." The rough, unpeeled log buildings went up slowly. [8] At that point, the staff thought that the only buildings that would get board roofs during the winter of 1851-1852 were the company quarters and the hospital. The earth coverings were considered temporary, and were meant to hold through the winter until spring, 1852, when the lumber supply would be adequate enough to cover the remaining buildings. [9]

By December, 1851, the quarters were still short of completion, but the availability of boards for roofs and floors had improved. A progress report noted:

The quarters for one company & the hospital are completed except the glazing of the windows, & the hanging of the doors, & I am now busily occupied in sawing the lumber necessary to cover the other set of soldiers quarters. —The officers quarters are all covered and, with a few exceptions, floors are laid in one room of each set and the quarters are occupied by officers & their families. [10]

The quarters were not fully completed, but work on them had gotten to the point where the structures were considered suitable for winter shelter. The hospital, however, did "not exactly answer the purposes for which it was intended, another building will at once be erected & the present one will be converted into store houses to cover the public stores which are now in tents, as they have been since the establishment of this post." [11]

First Fort Occupancy. By April, 1852, Major E.S. Sibley reported to his superiors that with the exception of a few shops and a storehouse, all of the buildings had been erected and were in a relatively habitable condition. He planned to finish them completely and as rapidly as possible using the labor of the enlisted men he had. He also said that "I hope by the close of the ensuing summer to be able to announce to you that everything has been done that was originally contemplated & agreeably to the original design." He boasted that with the exception of a small quantity of lumber, all of the timber was sawn at the post. Also, he was "having both lime & coal burned thus providing the necessary materials with enlisted labor & reducing to some extent the expenses of the Quartermaster Department in this Territory." [12]

One year later, the first Fort Union was operating fairly efficiently in its physical plant. A summary of the fort in September, 1852, described the fort buildings as follows:

Nine sets of officers' quarters (HS-126 through HS-132, and HS-134 and HS-135); each set—with one exception, which is composed of three rooms and a kitchen—eighteen feet long and fifteen feet wide. These quarters have earthen roofs; and five of them have, in addition, board roofs. The other sets of quarters will also be covered with board roofs, as soon as lumber for the purpose can be sawed, and it can be conveniently done.

Two barracks (HS-138 and HS-139)—each one hundred feet long and eighteen feet wide, each two wings fifty feet long and sixteen feet wide; board roofs.

Hospital (HS-140)—forty-eight feet long and eighteen feet wide, with a wing forty-six feet long and sixteen feet wide; board roofs.

Storehouse—(probably HS-136) one hundred feet long and twenty-two feet wide, with a wing forty-five feet long and twenty-two feet wide; board roofs.

Commanding Officer's office and court-martial room—forty-eight feet long and eighteen feet wide; earthen roof.

Offices for assistant quartermaster and commissary of subsistence—thirty-eight feet long and eighteen feet wide, earthen roofs.

Smoke-house (probably HS-163)—one hundred feet long and twenty-two feet wide; board roof.

Guard-house and prison—forty-two feet long and eighteen feet wide; earthen roof.

Blacksmith's and wheelwright's shop—fifty feet long and eighteen feet wide; board roof.

Bakehouse (HS-159)—thirty-one feet long and seventeen feet wide; earthen roof.

Ice-house—twenty feet long and thirty feet wide; earthen roof, covered by a board roof.

Quarters for laundresses (HS-144)—one hundred and fourteen feet long and eighteen feet wide; six rooms; earthen roof.

In addition, yards to five sets of officers' quarters have been enclosed, and two corrals have been made, each one hundred feet square.

The lumber used in the construction of these buildings, with the exception of fourteen thousand eight hundred and seventy-two feet, has been sawed at this post. [13]

Organization and Function: Houses, Yards, and Post. The Bowen letters contained a great deal of information about the organization of the officers' quarters and their yards. The general layout had the typical army regularity and relative symmetry. Katie Bowen noted to her mother that their side of the garrison where the officers were quartered was known as "Aristocrats' Row."

When the Bowen house finally was completed, it contained a central hall that the family used for a dining room flanked by one bedroom and a parlor. They also had a kitchen, a store room, and a servant's sleeping room. [14] The central hall floor was covered with a small carpet. The building originally had a flat dirt roof, but the house had a gable roof of flat boards above the dirt by 1852. [15] Although the Bowens had brought a cook stove with them when they arrived at the fort, they did not have it set up and working in the kitchen until 1852. [16]

Katie Bowen noted that the winds at Fort Union were very strong. According to her, they blew hard for a week from the north, then quieted down, and then they blew hard from the south. She had trouble keeping the dirt out of her new house, and she wrote home that the dirt drifted in like snow into every unprotected crevice. Occasionally she even had to shovel out her house because it was so deep. Despite the ever-present dirt problem, she found her house "pleasant and comfortable as any I ever lived in. The rooms are well arranged and are large and [ceilings] very high." [17] But she also missed the comforts of her childhood home. She wrote to her parents: "How I would like that you could look in and see how primitive we are in our log houses, white-washed logs overhead, chinked and covered with earth to shed snow and rain." [18]

The yards at the officers' quarters contained multiple functions. Because of the necessity of supplementing army rations, the Bowens had cows, three pigs, at least one horse, chickens, and a team of mules. [19] Isaac Bowen built a "cow house," a barn, and chicken houses in their yard. The Bowens had started making their own hay rather than paying the quartermaster $20 a ton—which also meant they needed a place to store it. They had chicken coops in their yard and kept as many as 80 chickens at one time. [20] To conduct water away from the house when it rained, the Bowens dug large trenches around the foundation of their house. [21] They were in the process of making plans for small cellars in their yard for keeping milk, but records do not indicate whether or not any were constructed. [22] Although the post had a large, irrigated public garden for growing vegetables, the Bowens had a small garden plot in their yard for raising herbs for medicinal purposes. [23] Katie Bowen noted that all of the "outdoor work is done by the police party and a man in Isaac's department takes care of the horse, cows, pigs and chickens. The dog oversees the whole and watches at night." [24]

Because army rations on the frontier were inadequate, families and individual soldiers often took it upon themselves to supplement their allotment, as Katie Bowen did. The barter system was a significant part of daily life on the frontier, and families in particular traded and exchanged vegetables, butter, eggs, and herbs. The system was more of a social exchange than a true barter, but the families tried to provide each other with what they needed out of what they had available.

This reliance on supplementing army rations had an impact on the physical experience of the post. The troops often became creative in providing for extra food they needed by growing small garden plots and raising stock. In September, 1859, the post commander issued an order stating that from that time forward hogs were prohibited from running loose through the garrison. [25] The hogs ate anything they found and the troops in turn ate them.

The Army also provided its own grain. In 1861, the fort had an operating mill that crushed corn (location unknown). The quartermaster's office complained that the mill took three men and eight mules to operate it, but that it did grind corn from the ear. The post quartermaster complained that the army could already purchase shelled corn for about the same price, so he did not think it was worth the government's effort to use the mill. [26]

The fort also housed many non-military functions, some of which were of a transient nature, and so the first fort also contained a number of ancillary buildings. By March of 1853, a hot house (HS-164) existed, and Katie Bown noted that it was "a beautiful building, 50 feet long by 20 deep and the whole southern front of glass. A gardener's house (also HS-164) attached and fires kept night and day." The fort had two large ice houses for storing the ice needed during the summer months. [27] Bowen's enthusiasm for the hot house diminished six weeks later when she noted that the building had not been erected following "scientific principles" so it only yielded plants suitable for transplanting rather than full-grown ones. [28]

While Katie Bowen was concerned about the buildings that affected her domestic world, Military Storekeeper William Rawle Shoemaker was busy constructing the buildings he needed for his arsenal. In June, 1852, Shoemaker wrote to Colonel Craig, the chief of ordinance in Washington, ordering lightning rods (stems and conductors) for his buildings (HS-141). He noted that the highest points of his buildings did not exceed 20 feet in height, but that they covered "four sides of a square of 100 feet." He also wanted enough lightning rods for their future needs, since he was planning to extend the buildings. Also, his buildings were constructed in a fairly exposed location and they had no taller objects near them. Shoemaker was concerned about the prevalence of severe lightning storms in the area. He stated that he needed to construct a "larger & substantive" building for a magazine, but that its construction had been deferred until "after the other storehouses &c are completed." [29]

Shoemaker's request for a better magazine was approved, and in December of 1852, he requested permission to have some of the magazine and the wall surrounding it constructed by hired labor. He noted that making adobes and properly building with them could be best accomplished by hired labor since his own force was occupied with so many other duties. In the same letter he requested "fastenings & hinges suitable for a magazine with two doors and two windows . . . As the Magazine will be located at a distance from the other buildings, very secure fastenings will be required." [30]

Also in 1853, M.S.K. Shoemaker reported to the Assistant Adjutant General for the 9th Military District that his detachment consisted of 12 men "in the various grades of mechanics and artificers of ordnance, and in addition there is 1 hired armorer." Shoemaker had six of his detachment on detached service: one working the garden and five taking care of public animals. The remainder were "engaged in construction of shops and depot structures. [31]

Less than one year after the army moved in to Fort Union, other service-related businesses were well established in the vicinity. When the area of the reservation was declared eight square miles in 1852, an order went out to clear the reservation of all of its "shanties and grogeries" and the "keepers put in irons and sent to that town for trial." [32] Some of these "shanties and grogeries" were in caves in the cliffs in a canyon to the southwest of the fort. A high rate of venereal disease among the troops and large amounts of missing goods appearing in the "wastage or stolen report" for the first part of 1852 indicated that a vital subculture thrived in the vicinity. [33] Prostitution and black market trading were transient occupations that required only a modicum of shelter. [34]

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2006