Fort Union National Monument: A Writer’s Journey

Fort Union National Monument stands as a reminder of the cultural clashes that occurred during the westward expansion of the United States. 5 minute read. Kid friendly.

A visit to the Monument invites entry into an important part of the history of the Santa Fe Trail. I’m eager to visit as I do research for the Sid Johnson’s trip to California, a trip that begins on a farm in Southern Illinois in 1856. I only have him as far as Council Grove, Kansas in Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer. I have to stay ahead of him. 

The View From Fort Union National Monument

The red sandstone ruins of Fort Union National Monument stand on  windswept prairie in northern New Mexico. The ruins offer a view toward the Turkey Mountains, sacred to the Jicarilla Apache Nation, whose homeland it displaced. Technically, the ruins of the monument are from the third Fort Union. The first fort—the one I wanted to see—was built in 1851. Time has almost completely erased the evidence that it was ever there.

When you stand looking out on the prairie it is easy to see and feel how vulnerable wagon trains were. The silence is vast. The air smells as fresh and clear as it looks. Swales—the long trough-like depressions left from erosion of wagon tracks—mark where wagons passed over a hundred years ago. I can imagine the Johnson family wagon appearing over the hills by the Turkey Mountains, their eyes searching for the fort. For pioneers on their way to California by the southern route, it was a welcome sight. Fort Union offered a place where they could safely stop, exchange information, take time to do a big laundry, repair wagons, and consult with the army doctor at the hospital.

The First Fort Union

Trade had flourished on the Santa Fe Trail long before Westerners ever extended its reach to Missouri. By 1851, wagon trains loaded with goods for trade traveled continuously between Missouri and Santa Fe. Wagons traveling to Santa Fe were loaded with calico and other textiles, china dishes, household items, and all kinds of goods that were not produced in the Southwest. Those heading toward Missouri had Spanish silver dollars, gold and silver bullion, furs, and such items in great demand in the East. The Santa Fe Trail could claim to be the nation’s first superhighway. But trade was threatened by bandits eager to profit from someone else’s hard work and by native people who recognized the threat to their homeland and way of life.

After the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army presence remained in the Southwest. Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner, whose command included New Mexico Territory, was charged with revising army defenses.  Sumner decided to relocate his headquarters and the army supply depot to a site 200 miles from Santa Fe near the place where the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail came together. Sumner deployed troops to build the fort rather than hiring builders. Apparently, the result was not entirely satisfactory. The old fort looked more like a village with scattered houses than a military post.

The assistant surgeon commented that the beams used to support buildings were a haven for bed bugs, so much so that when they could, soldiers slept outdoors. The hospital was not better off. “The building at present used as a hospital, having a dirt roof, has not a room which remained dry during the rain in the latter part of September last.”

The purpose of the fort was to house soldiers and deploy supplies and troops. It was not designed to withstand a military siege—the assistant surgeon would probably add, “or a bedbug siege”. It never saw significant action. But supplies and troops stationed at the fort were deployed throughout the region. It was always seen as important to keeping the Santa Fe Trail safe from American Indian raids and protecting “the economic lifeline that tied New Mexico to the eastern States.” 

Fort Union's Legacy

Through a ruined doorway in the third fort one sees the site of the first fort over a mile away.
The site of the first fort as seen through a ruined doorway.

As I looked out to where the original fort had stood, my disappointment at not being able to visit its ruins was more than compensated by Ranger Greg, who took my two companions and me on a comprehensive tour of the monument site and its development. He spoke of the Jicarilla Apache Nation who hunted the lands and revered the Turkey Mountains, the early expeditions along what became the Santa Fe Trail trade route, Fort Union and its three iterations.

The fort might have been abandoned entirely, except for the threat of civil war. As tensions between North and South heated up, the government saw Fort Union as key to securing the Southwest. War broke out. Fort Union was even more necessary. It stood between Colorado gold fields and the Confederates. The first fort was entirely unsuitable—even without bedbugs—and stood in a position that made it too vulnerable.

The new fort was relocated to a position that was easier to defend, about a mile from the original site. It was built in less than a year by soldiers working day and night. By the time it was finished in 1862, Confederates were already moving north up the Rio Grande Valley. They took Santa Fe in their campaign to secure the American West for the Confederacy. While the massive earthen fort was ready to withstand a siege, the siege never came. The Confederate Army was defeated at Glorietta Pass. Fort Union was no longer necessary. 

Saying Goodbye to the Fort Union National Monument

After forty years, Fort Union was abandoned in 1865. Its tin roofing and brick decoration were repurposed by those who helped themselves to the remains. The people who occupied the fort may have imagined they were bringing civilization to New Mexico Territory. But just as the Spanish had been absorbed by Mexican and Indian cultures, those who occupied the fort may have displaced and disrupted older cultures, but thankfully, never replaced them. A trip down the Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico today invites exploration of the many rich cultures that have influenced its development in the past and continue to influence its development today.

Fort Union’s legacy is undoubtedly more than my fictional Sid Johnson and those he represents could have imagined when they first glimpsed the scattered buildings of the first fort. My visit to the fort was invaluable to me in imagining Sid and an experience to remember for its own sake.

Note to Teachers and Homeschoolers: Historian Leo Oliva’s commissioned work on Fort Union is a valuable resource. If you haven’t discovered the National Parks website, you’ll be glad when you do. You can also find more about the trail on my website. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

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