A Fort Union Romance

Marion Sloan Russell and husband Richard Russell
Marion Sloan Russell with her husband Richard.
Marion Sloan's mother liked to travel. The family set off from their home in the Midwest for California in 1852. This was seven-year-old Marion's first journey along the Santa Fe Trail. After a stop at the then-new Army outpost of Fort Union, the family continued on to Santa Fe, where disaster struck. Mother Eliza's savings were stolen, aborting the family's journey to California.

Ever resourceful, the family settled in Santa Fe, where Eliza ran a boarding house. Marion and her brother attended Catholic schools (even though they were Protestants) and they were among the very few Anglo children at the time in the exotic city of Santa Fe. While there, young Marion was befriended by famed mountain man Kit Carson, who nicknamed her Little Maid Marion. They would remain life-long friends.

After several years, mother Eliza moved the family to Fort Union, where she cooked for Army officers. While at the post, Marion met and fell in love with Lieutenant Richard Russell. The couple were married at the fort in 1865 (with Kit Carson in attendance). The Russells honeymooned at Camp Nichols, a remote and lonely Army outpost in what is now the Oklahoma panhandle. The garrison at Camp Nichols was to protect wagon traffic on the Santa Fe Trail from raiding warriors of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes.

After Richard resigned from the Army, the couple ran a trading post in the hamlet of Tecolote, about 35 miles southwest of Fort Union. Several years later, they moved to southern Colorado, where they homesteaded in the picturesque river valley of Stonewall, Colorado. During the rancorous and violent land wars of the post-Civil War era, 49-year-old Richard was murdered in 1888.

Marion made her last of five trips along the Santa Fe Trail in the 1930s (by car), stopping at the ruins of Fort Union to re-visit the site of her youthful romance. She later dictated her memoirs to her niece. Published as The Land of Enchantment, they are still a popular book about life in 19th-century New Mexico. Describing her final visit to Fort Union, Marion observed, "At Fort Union I found crumbling walls and tottering chimneys. Here and there a tottering adobe wall where once a mighty howitzer had stood. Great rooms stood roofless, their whitewashed walls open to the sky. ...Among the heap of rubble I found the ruins of the little chapel where I had stood a demure, little bride in a velvet cape, and heard a preacher say, 'That which God hath joined together let no man put asunder'."

Little Maid Marion died in 1936 at age 91. She is buried beside her husband in Stonewall, Colorado.

Last updated: January 9, 2021

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