Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
During the critical summer of 1865 troops from this temporary camp, in Comanche and Kiowa country at the very western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, escorted wagon trains across the dangerous and desolate Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. Since the previous year the Kiowas and Comanches had sporadically raided the cutoff. Fearing a full-scale Plains war, Gen. James H. Carleton, commanding the Department of New Mexico, ordered Col. "Kit" Carson to establish a camp about halfway between Fort Union, N. Mex., and the Cimarron Crossing of the Arkansas and provide escorts for wagon trains.
Carson and three companies of New Mexico and California Volunteers founded the camp in June on a low ridge. Breastworks of stone and earth enclosed the camp, about 200 feet square. Other defenses consisted of mountain howitzers at the corners. Inside and outside the fortifications were tents, stone dugouts with dirt roofs supported by logs, and other stone buildings. The post was continually on the alert, and every night mounted pickets supplemented the sentries.
Carson never had a chance to accomplish his second assignment of attempting negotiations with the Kiowas and Comanches. After only 2 weeks he was called to Santa Fe to testify before a joint Congressional committee investigating Indian affairs, and he never returned. But his second-in-command carried on with the escort program. Trains from New Mexico assembled at the camp and were escorted by 50-man detachments to the Arkansas River. This system was a major improvement over the one used the previous summer, when small bands of troops, dispatched along the cutoff, served as roving escorts. Under the new system, troops had orders to stay with corralled trains under attack rather than to pursue war parties. In the event of a major Indian assault, the fortified camp was to be a rallying point for troops and wagon trains. But by September the southern Plains tribes had decreased their raids, and the Army inactivated Camp Nichols.
The lonely ruins of the camp, remains of the only manmade structures ever built on the Cimarron Cutoff during its active years, are situated on a high point of land between two ravines cut by the two forks of South Carrizozo Creek. The broken and wild setting, on private ranchland, is almost completely free of modern intrusions. Few sites evoke for the modern visitor such a feeling of trail territory, such a feeling of walking in the past. Low stone walls, 2 to 3 feet high, outline the breastworks and foundations and walls of the officers' quarters, commissary, and hospital. In the center of the enclosure is a flagstone area about 20 feet wide by 100 feet long, where the tie rack for the horseherd was located. One-quarter mile west of the ruins, along the left fork of South Carrizozo Creek, is Cedar Spring, whose poo1s stretch along the creek for 200 to 300 yards. These furnished water to the camp and passing wagon trains. The route of the Santa Fe Trail passes about half a mile south of the camp. Trail remains in the area, unusually good in both directions for miles, are among the most impressive along the entire trail.
NHL Designation: 05/23/63
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005