Following the Santa Fe Trail: Fort Union National Monument

Santa Fe Trail ruts near Fort Union

On this 111th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, at a time when the law and the national monuments it made possible are under threat, I’m proud to be part of today’s Monumental Day of Blogging, an initiative started by Scott Jones at justgetoutmore.com. Learn more at MonumentsForAll, and please make your voices heard.

Here’s the thing about the Santa Fe Trail. Like many Americans, I’d heard of it, way back in a boring memorize-names-and-dates American history class. I had a fuzzy sense it was important in the history of the Southwest. But that was the sum total of my knowledge, if you can call it that.

I’d wager most folks know a lot more about the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which traces the expedition’s three-year journey along Indian and fur trade routes to the Pacific Ocean and back to St. Louis. In contrast, the Santa Fe Trail was in heavy use for nearly 60 years, and wagon wheel ruts are still visible in places. It was clearly time to correct my lack of knowledge, and I’m a sucker for trail ruts, so I set out to retrace the end of the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Union National Monument, about 100 miles east of the trail’s terminus in Santa Fe.

Most of the trail lies under the asphalt of today’s Interstate 25. You know how this works: game trail turns into Indian trail turns into emigrant trail turns into wagon road turns into road turns into interstate. All along I-25 there are markers telling drivers they’re on the Santa Fe Trail. At 75-plus mph, though, it’s hard to get a sense of what it might have been like to travel the trail on horseback or afoot.

On the other hand, it’s easy to get a sense of the landscape changing. From Santa Fe, I drove over Glorieta Pass through the forested Sangre de Cristo Mountains into high grasslands, the kind of country that screams “put a wagon road here.”

Grasslands of eastern New Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail
At 75 mph, the grasslands of eastern New Mexico zip past. (Lauren Danner photo)

Turning off the interstate toward Fort Union, I encountered the first trail ruts. Classic National Park Service interpretive signs hunkered down in a gravel pulloff next to a low ridge. Climbing out of the car, the stiff wind reminded me that trail travelers did not have the benefit of a windproof steel enclosure. A strong gust slammed the car door shut behind me.

Santa Fe Trail ruts near Fort Union
The long horizontal lines along the side of the ridge are Santa Fe Trail wagon wheel ruts near Fort Union. The pronghorn antelope, barely visible in profile on the horizon at the top right, were an unexpected bonus. (Lauren Danner photo)

Well, there they were. Physical evidence of the trail, carved by wheels and feet and hooves over 60 years of use. Cool, but it was still hard to imagine what it was really like. Hopefully Fort Union would shed more light.

A few miles down the road, I could make out the remains of the old fort. There were actually three Fort Unions. The first was built in 1851, after New Mexico became part of the United States. The commander in charge of the new territory wanted the fort built near the junction of two branches of the Santa Fe Trail and away from Santa Fe, which he termed “that sink of vice and extravagance.” The grassy, windy Mora Valley east of the mountains was a good spot.


Fort Union National Monument
The remnants of the third and final Fort Union. (Lauren Danner photo)

The problem was, the military built the fort too close to the nearby bluffs, making it vulnerable to Indian threats. It only lasted a decade.

Union commander Lt. Col. Edward R.S. Canby ordered the second fort’s construction as defense against Confederate aggression in the Southwest. (Canby got around. Before his death in the Modoc Indian War in California in 1873, he was in charge of the Pacific Northwest department of the Army. Fort Canby State Park, now Cape Disappointment State Park, was named in his honor. It’s where Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean. Small world, the American West.) The second Fort Union was situated further from the bluffs, an earthenwork structure shaped like an eight-point star designed to defend the Santa Fe Trail from Confederate aggression. It was so poorly constructed that troops stationed there during the Civil War, mostly volunteer regiments, refused to live inside the dank, smelly, dirty fort, preferring to take their chances and camp outside. When troops under Canby’s command defeated the Confederates in the Southwest in 1862, the fort was abandoned. Visitors can see mounds and shallow ditches, parts of the remains of this fort, along the southwestern edge of the third and final Fort Union.

The third and final Fort Union was more sturdily built and located three miles away from the bluffs. Indeed, the Santa Fe Trail skirted the edge of the fort, which served as both a military post and quartermaster depot. It is huge. Simply following the interpretive trail around and through the fort takes a solid 90 minutes, and standing at one edge, the other side feels very far away.

Fort Union National Monument
This photo was taken from one side of the third Fort Union and gives a sense of the enormous footprint of the fort. (Lauren Danner photo)

This final Fort Union proved the longest-lived, too, in active use from 1863 to 1891. While it looks like one gigantic fort, people who lived and worked there experienced it as two separate communities, one military and one commercial. Soldiers assigned to the Post of Fort Union patrolled the Santa Fe Trail, protecting travelers and watching for Indian attacks. Both soldiers and civilians worked in the Fort Union Quartermaster Depot, the largest supply and distribution center in New Mexico Territory. The remains of warehouses, shops, foundries, offices, residences, ice houses, laundries, stables, and corrals still stand, testament to the fort’s importance during its heyday.

Fort Union National Monument
Interpretive signs show what the buildings would have looked like when the fort still operated. These old chimneys were part of the officers’ quarters in the military post. (Lauren Danner photo)
Fort Union National Monument
View of part of the quartermaster depot at Fort Union. (Lauren Danner photo)
Fort Union National Monument
The Park Service maintains what’s left of the fort’s buildings, carefully restoring adobe and brick that the wind and weather destroy. (Lauren Danner photo)

On the eastern edge of the fort, close to the visitor center (don’t skip the excellent orientation film), the hospital provided free care to soldiers and their families. Area residents and trail travelers paid about 50 cents per day for room and board.

Nearby is another sign: “Santa Fe Trail.” I walked out a gravel path to an overlook, and could just make out the depression in the earth where the trail came past the fort. Turning around, I realized the Fort Union National Monument visitor center had been built directly on top of the trail. The slight groove in the earth ran right into the outside wall of the visitor center.

When I asked the ranger on duty about it, he could only shrug and say, “Yes, well…” I paused to reflect on how thinking about historic preservation has evolved since the monument’s creation in 1954. Then I asked about following the Santa Fe Trail further, thinking that while I’d learned a lot about Fort Union, I still didn’t have a clear picture of the trail’s history.

I could retrace the route back to Santa Fe, he said, stopping in Las Vegas, NM, and a few other places. “But since you’ve got all day,” he grinned, “I’d go north to Cimarrón and through the canyon there. It’s a beautiful drive into the mountains and you can follow the northern branch of the trail, then drop back down to Mora and Las Vegas before heading back to Santa Fe.”

While I considered this much longer but intriguing option, the ranger reminded me that Fort Union changed the economic structure of New Mexico Territory. Because goods came to the fort before moving on to one of dozens of military outposts further away, local farmers became critical suppliers of grain, food, and livestock. “A lot of people got rich growing things that were sent to feed troops all across the Southwest,” he noted. The traditional subsistence economy transformed into a market-driven system of supply and demand. The Santa Fe Trail played a vital role in this commerce.

With that context, it is easier to envision the fort as a living place. Bustling with hundreds of people doing dozens of jobs, the fort thrived for about 30 years. Many women, accompanying husbands assigned to the depot, disliked the neverending wind and dust. Others found beauty in the stark plains. When the Santa Fe Railroad was completed in 1879, the need for the fort evaporated. Twelve years later, the Army closed the fort for good.

While I felt like I had gained a good sense of Fort Union’s place in history, I also recognized that it was just one stop on the 900-mile Santa Fe Trail, which ran from Missouri to Santa Fe. I decided to take the ranger’s advice and head north to Cimarrón. I’d follow that branch of the trail, cut south into the Mora Valley to Las Vegas, then head back to Santa Fe and its trail sites. I had plenty of time.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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