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Guardian of the Santa Fe Trail

Yet another enemy summoned the Fort Union garrison to frequent field service. For 30 years the Kiowas and Comanches who roamed the Plains to the east had made travel on the Santa Fe Trail a perilous undertaking. An important and continuing duty of Fort Union was to lessen this danger.

No sooner had Colonel Sumner selected the site of Fort Union in the summer of 1851 than he dispatched Capt. James H. Carleton and Company K, 1st Dragoons, to make regular patrols of the trail between the fort and the Arkansas River. Carleton performed similar duty during the summer and autumn of 1852. Thereafter the escort system was used. The freighters whose caravans were reaching New Mexico in mounting numbers felt no need of escorts. They understood the conditions of the trail and organized their own defense, Not so the stagecoach drivers of the Independence-Santa Fe Mail, who with one or two light wagons had to make their way across the Indian-infested Cimarron Desert. Whenever company or postal officials sensed danger, they called upon the commanding officer at Fort Union for help.

The escort usually consisted of an officer and 20 to 40 men, later of a sergeant and 15 to 20 men, who accompanied the stages to the Arkansas River and returned to Fort Union with the next westbound mail. The soldiers, infantry or dismounted horsemen, rode in wagons. This method was adopted in 1857 by General Garland because it afforded better defense in the event of attack and because of the scarcity of grass in the Cimarron Desert. Even so, the mules drawing the escort wagons frequently broke down and always had trouble keeping up with the mail coaches. The stage company had relay stations with fresh animals on the Mora and the Arkansas, but the army mules traveled more than 600 miles, from Fort Union to the Arkansas and back, without relief.

Occasionally the Indians tested the defenses. On December 4, 1859, for example, 20 Kiowa warriors swept down on the mail wagon and its escort at Cold Springs, in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Though driven off after wounding one soldier, they kept the troops pinned down with long-range rifle fire for several hours.


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