The Quickest Fort in the West

In late July 1851 Fort Union, New Mexico came into being very quickly. There had been nothing at the location at the beginning of the month, but after Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner reached Santa Fe on July 19, it was only a matter of time, and not very much of that.

The search for a new U.S. Army quartermaster depot site east of Santa Fe had already been. The Army needed a convenient point for receiving supplies in bulk from Fort Leavenworth and then distributing them to posts throughout New Mexico.

When Colonel Sumner saw the location chosen for the depot, he realized it was also an excellent spot for a new military post and Department headquarters. Known as Los Pozos (“the pits” or “the potholes”) the site had several spring-fed pools of water, something of a rarity on the plains east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

July 29 illustration.Fort Union Plan.1853.Oliva 72

Not only would the new Fort be supplied with water in an otherwise arid land, but the location was near the junction of the Santa Fe Trail Cimarron and Mountain routes, near the trail through Mora to the Rio Grande valley, and also near settlements such as Rayado and Las Vegas, which were being threatened by the Jicarilla Apaches.

Once Sumner made the decision, things moved quickly. By the end of July, the number of civilians employed by the quartermaster department in Santa Fe was reduced to three clerks and one carpenter and moved to the new site along with the soldiers who had been stationed in Santa Fe and in Las Vegas. New Mexico’s Fort Union was born.

Sources: Ruben Cobos, A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: a history of New Mexico’s Cimarron country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Leo Olivas, Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest, Division of History, National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, 1993; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

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The Battle of Glorieta Pass

On Saturday, March 22, 1862, Colorado Militia Colonel John Potts Slough led his troops out of Fort Union to meet the Texan Confederate army that had seized Santa Fe twelve days earlier—the same day Slough and his Colorado Militia, or Pike’s Peakers, had arrived at Fort Union. The irascible and rather arrogant Slough, who’d virtually seized command of the Fort when he arrived, had about 1500 men at his disposal, a combination of Pike’s Peakers, New Mexico Militia, and Army infantry and cavalry.

On Sunday, Slough’s Union forces camped overnight at Las Vegas, then on Monday swung west  toward Santa Fe. Tuesday was another day of slowly moving forward and into the mountains. Santa Fe must have seemed a long way away, especially to the Colorado militiamen, who’d already trekked over 300 miles from Denver to Fort Union.

But then on Wednesday, Union scouts clashed with a small Confederate force in Apache Canyon, at the west end of Glorieta Pass and less than twenty miles from Santa Fe.

Both sides pulled back. The Confederates—about 200 men under Major Charles L. Pyron—headed to Johnson’s Ranch at Canoncito, where they were joined by the main Confederate force, which had just arrived via a trail through the mountains north east of Albuquerque.

march 26 illustration

The Union men moved to Kozlowski’s ranch, at the eastern end of the Pass. When the rest of Slough’s forces joined them on Friday morning, everything went into high gear.

Most of Slough’s men headed on into the Pass. But Colonel Manuel Antonio Chaves, of the New Mexico First Infantry, led Major John M. Chivington and 530 men (New Mexico Militia, two Pike’s Peakers infantry columns, and a detachment of Third U.S. Cavalry) into the mountains south of the Pass. Their goal was to circle south and west around the Confederates and hit them from behind while the main body met the Texans head on.

And the Union and Confederate troops did meet head on, at Pigeon’s Ranch, a trail hostelry in the middle of the Pass owned by Frenchman Alexander Valle. It was a hard-fought, all-day battle between evenly-matched combatants. When the fighting ground to a halt late in the day, the two sides agreed to a truce so they could tend their wounded and dying. But both sides saw the break in fighting as temporary. They were confident they’d ultimately win the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Until that evening, when news arrived from the western end of the Pass.

Instead of Confederate troops, Colonel Chavez and Major Chivington had found a weakly-defended supply train. Chivington ordered his men down from the bluffs above the camp and set them to attacking, pillaging, and then burning the Texan wagons and everything they contained: food, clothing, equipment, ammunition, and medical supplies.

The Confederates had stationed the majority of their horses and mules with the train—as many of 500 animals. Chivington ordered his men to destroy them, as well. It’s not clear what actually happened to all the animals in question, though. At least some were driven off into the mountains and presumably into the hands of citizens for whom they were more useful alive than dead.

Wherever the Confederate livestock ended up, they certainly weren’t going to help the Texans. With their supplies, wagons, and animals gone, Sibley’s men forfeited the Battle of Glorieta Pass and beat a retreat for Santa Fe and, ultimately, Texas.

Most of the Coloradans headed home, too, although at least one of them returned a few years later. In 1865, John Potts Slough was named chief justice of the New Mexico Territorial Court.

Although Slough was an able judge—he would announce the 1867 legal decision that declared Pueblo Indians to be United States citizens—Slough was still as thin-skinned and greedy for honor and position as he’d been five years before. His furious response to New Mexico legislative political intrigues and Capt. William L. Rynerson’s role in them culminated in a December 1867 shootout in what is now Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel. Slough died as a result.

At the ensuing trial, Rynerson was found to have drawn his gun in self-defense.

It’s likely Slough would have insisted on a different opinion.

 

Sources: Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West, Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishing, 1988; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 2014; Jacqueline D. Meketa, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1982; David Grant Noble, Pueblos, Villages, Forts & Trails: A guide to New Mexico’s past. Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1994; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia¸ Albuquerque: UNM Press, 2015; Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. II. Cedar Rapid: Torch Press, 1912; https://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=125 Accessed 1/10/19

Pike’s Peakers Arrive At Fort Union!!

Tuesday, March 10, 1862 was a momentous day for New Mexico. That morning, Confederate troops from Texas seized control of Santa Fe. Led by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, the Texans had moved steadily north through New Mexico since the previous July, receiving little opposition and clashing with Union forces in only one major battle, which they’d won.

By this time, the Texans must have been feeling pretty confident about making it to Denver and its gold fields. The idea was to seize those resources and use them to restore the Confederacy’s fortunes (literally). Then Sibley and his men would press on to California and the Pacific, opening its ports to Confederate shipping and sidestepping the Union blockades on the Eastern seaboard.

But late on March 10, Colonel John Potts Slough and his 950-man First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers (aka the Pike’s Peakers)  arrived at New Mexico’s Fort Union, more than doubling the number of men available in New Mexico to face down the Confederates.

Slough abruptly assumed command of the Fort. Although the Denver attorney had been in the military for only six months, he’d been a Colonel longer than twenty-seven-year veteran Colonel G.B.  Paul, who was in charge before the Pike’s Peakers arrived. But Slough, ever concerned about his rights and privileges, pulled rank, and Paul conceded his position as Commander, albeit unwillingly. Then Slough got busy outfitting his Pike’s Peakers with clothing, arms, and ammunition from the Fort Union supply depot.

march 10 illustration.john slough

Meanwhile in Santa Fe, Sibley’s Confederates  were also looking to their supplies. Their lines had been stretched thin on the march north and the Union supplies in Santa Fe had either been moved west to Las Vegas with the Governor’s baggage or skillfully hidden.

The Confederates’ stores were dangerously low. Although getting to Santa Fe had been quite an accomplishment, they badly needed Fort Union’s supplies if they were going to make it all the way to Denver.

But on March 10, they didn’t have a lot more time to worry about their situation. In less than two weeks, the thin-skinned and arrogant Slough would begin moving his men south out of Fort Union, then west toward Santa Fe. What would become known as the Battle of Glorieta or, more dramatically, the Gettysburg of the West, was about to begin.

Sources: Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West, Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishing, 1988; Jacqueline D. Meketa, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1982; David Grant Noble, Pueblos, Villages, Forts & Trails: A guide to New Mexico’s past. Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1994; Leo E. Oliva, Fort Union and the Frontier Army of the Southwest, Santa Fe: Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No. 41, Division of History, National Park Service, 1993; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia¸ Albuquerque: UNM Press, 2015.

Spoiled Meat Nearly Starts Indian War

In mid November, 1875, the Utes and Apaches gathered at New Mexico’s Cimarron Indian agency for their treaty-mandated weekly distribution of food, and their patience ran out.

Both tribes had been complaining for several years that the flour doled out to them was hardly fit for anything and that the distributed meat was from worn-out Santa Fe Trail oxen too tough to eat. But the meat they were offered in mid November 1875 was worse than anything they’d seen yet. It was rotten.

This was the last straw. The Apaches, at least, had had enough, and shots rang out. The agency employees retreated into the agency office, in what is now Cimarron’s Old Mill Museum.

With Indians firing into the mill, and agency staff firing outside, several people, including Indian agent Alexander G. Irvine, were injured.

Nov 23 llustration.Aztec mill.j.s. pierce collection
Aztec Grist Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico. J.S. Pierce Collection

Eventually, the Apaches withdrew. In spite of his wounds, Irvine headed to the telegraph office and wired Fort Union for reinforcements, which arrived the next day. The troop officer went to the Apache camp and talked them into a meeting in Cimarron. But the gathering wasn’t a productive one. Irvine was interested only in who’d fired a gun, not the quality of the food he’d been distributing. He issued an ultimatum: If the Apaches didn’t hand over Juan Barilla, Juan Julian, and a man named Chico, he’d stop distributions entirely.

The Apaches refused this proposal and headed back to camp. But somewhere along the way, Juan Barilla was unlucky enough to get himself arrested and thrown into the Cimarron jail. On Tuesday, November 23, he attempted to break out and was killed in the ensuing scuffle.

The Apaches were furious. They wanted someone to pay for what they viewed as Barilla’s murder.

Irvine just wanted out. He resigned his position and suggested that the Army take over. The authorities at Fort Union not only agreed to this proposition but wired General Nelson A. Miles in Kansas for help.

As a well-known Indian fighter, General Miles could have been expected to move immediately into action against the Apaches in the Cimarron area. Instead, he took the time to do a little investigating and concluded that the government had failed miserably in its responsibilities toward the Native Americans assigned to the Agency. He put a military man in charge at the Mill, established new procedures, and left town satisfied that he’d averted serious hostilities.

Whether Juan Barilla’s friends and families were satisfied is another question entirely. But at least they had better food distributed to them after his death.

Source:  Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont, a history of New Mexic’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1972.

Kit Carson and Friends invest in Coyote Creek Copper Mine

On this day, Sunday, January 21, 1866, Kit Carson and nine other men filed a Kit Carson Mining Company claim for El Coyote Copper Mine near the town of Coyote on Coyote Creek, Mora County.  Carson’s partners were Colfax County sheriff Andrew J. Calhoun, H.J. Farnsworth, Charles McClure, J.C. Collier, Vicente Romero, George W. Ashenfelter, M. Calhoun, E.A. DeBreuils, and T.J. Donahue. The paperwork was witnessed by a John Gibbs and a John Moore, who may have been the sutler at Fort Union.

Carson had just turned 57 and was in poor health. The El Coyote mining claim may have been part of an attempt to provide for his family after his inevitable demise. The copper claim wasn’t his first venture into mining. He and Ceran St. Vrain had also invested in Arroyo Hondo mining claims near Taos as part of the 100 or more claims registered there by 1865.

Carson.Simmons.3 Wives

Source: Kit Carson and his three wives, Marc Simmons 2003

Unfortunately, the Arroyo Honda ore was low grade and unevenly distributed and that mining boom seems to have gone bust fairly quickly. It’s unknown whether any ore was ever actually extracted from the El Coyote Copper Mine, so Carson’s investment there may have been even less successful than those  in Arroyo Hondo and therefore of little benefit to his family. At any rate, he likely didn’t see much benefit from any of his mining ventures: he was dead by the end of May 1868.

Sources: Source: July 9, 2015 email from Mitch Barker, NPS archivist for Ft. Union; Harriett Frieberger, Lucien Maxwell: Villain or Visionary, Sunstone Press, 1999; J. Rush Pierce, Red River City: A history of Northern New Mexico 1800-2000, JRP Publications, 2008; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, UNM Press, 2015.

Troops Save Gold Miner From Etown Mob

On Thursday, April 9, 1868, gold prospector William “Wall” W. Henderson killed a man in Humbug Gulch east of Elizabethtown, New Mexico Territory. Being a law-abiding man, Henderson went to Etown to turn himself into the authorities. The authorities seem to have been fairly weak at the time, because a mob of about eighty men threatened to take matters into their own hands. Fortunately, a messenger was able to reach the Fort Union cavalry troops stationed thirty miles away at Maxwell’s Ranch (today’s Cimarron) in time to request assistance.

April 9 illustration.Humbug Gulch Map
Source: 1889 Sectional map of Colfax & Mora Counties, New Mexico Territory

A sergeant and ten men travelled up Cimarron canyon overnight to reach Elizabethtown early the next morning and disperse the mob. They took Henderson back to Maxwell’s, out of harm’s way, and the miners went back to work. In fact, things calmed so much that Henderson returned to Elizabethtown and went back to mining. He was still there the following year, when he served as a member of the petit jury during the Colfax County District Court’s 1869 Spring session. And he did well financially. By the summer of 1870, Henderson had amassed $5,000 in real estate.

That year, he also stood security for Charles Kennedy’s bond to appear before the Fall Court response to embezzlement and assault charges. Ironically, Kennedy himself would be lynched by an Etown mob later that fall, following accusations that he’d killed and robbed a series of men at his cabin about ten miles south of Humbug Gulch.

Sources: Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest, Leo E. Oliva, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, National Park Service, 1993; 1870 Colfax County Census, Etown precinct; New Mexico Territory District 1 Court Records, 1869 through 1870.

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