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Fort Union National Monument

PO Box 127
Watrous, New Mexico 87753

Visitor Information
(505) 425-8025

Fort Union was established in 1851 as the guardian of the Santa Fe Trail. During its forty-year history, three different forts were constructed close together. The third Fort Union was the largest in the American Southwest, and functioned as a military garrison, territorial arsenal, and military supply depot for the southwest. The largest visible network of Santa Fe Trail ruts can be seen here.

Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail was a link in Indian trade networks ancient before the Spaniards arrived. It would serve the Spaniards of New Mexico as a route of exploration, frontier defense, and trade with the Plains Indians. In the 1700's, despite Spanish rules against it, a small trade began with Frenchmen from the Mississippi Valley. Later, Americans exploring the Louisiana Purchase visited New Mexico and recognized an isolated province starved for manufactured goods and eager for mercantile exchange. With Mexican Independence from Spain in 1821, the gates of trade opened wide.


From Albuquerque (156 miles), Santa Fe (94 miles) or Las Vegas, NM (28 miles) take I-25 north, exit 366 at Watrous, 8 miles on NM 161.

From Denver (313 miles), Colorado Springs (243 miles) or Raton (95 miles) take I-25 south, exit 366 at Watrous, 8 miles on NM 161.

Defender of the Southwest

When New Mexico became United States territory after the U.S.- Mexican War, the army established garrisons in towns scattered along the Rio Grande to protect the area's inhabitants and travel routes. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory for a number of reason, and in April 1851, Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner, commanding Military Department No. 9 (which included New Mexico Territory), was ordered "to revise the whole system of defense" for the entire territory. 

Among his first acts was to break up the scattered garrisons and relocate them in posts closer to the Indians. He also moved his headquarters and supply depot from Santa Fe, "that sink of vice and extravagance," to a site near the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail, where he established Fort Union.

Cultural Encounters

New Mexican and American traders joined in two-way enterprises that carried fabrics, cutlery and other manufactured goods west from Missouri; bullion, furs, and mules east from Santa Fe. This commerce across the plains welded Missouri and New Mexico together through economic interdependence, trading and financial partnerships. 

By the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) New Mexico was already strongly attached to the United States by commercial and familiarities. In large measure, the military conquest and subsequent Mexican Cession, formalized an already established union.

Fort Union commanded the intersection of the Mountain and Cimarron Branches of the Santa Fe Trail. In a larger sense the fort served as symbol and substance of national power in a vast new acquisition far removed from the eastern heartland. In this context the Santa Fe Trail changed from route of commerce to military lifeline.

Founded in 1851, Fort Union served both military and logistical functions. During the first few years, Fort Union's mounted troops patrolled the trail. Later, the fort provided escorts for mail stages. Until the Civil War period, wagon trains usually provided their own defense. Then the combination of Indian uprisings and raids by Texas-based Confederates forced a new regime of patrols, escorts, and subposts to protect all travelers and keep open the critical link between the Southwest and the States.

The start of the Civil War had brought a serious military threat to the trail and to Fort Union itself with a brigade size Confederate invasion that aimed to capture the western portions of the trail and the Colorado gold fields.

The Fort Union Depot came under command of the District Quartermaster. It was a separate and distinct operation from the military post. Its job was to supply the network of southwestern forts and encampments strung along travel routes or located at reservations and trouble-spots.

Goods (subsistence, hardware, ammunition, etc.) came in two basic modes: stock inventories stored in the depot's warehouses for later, on-order distribution to the outposts; bulk consignments for direct shipment to the individual posts. 

Contract freighters guided the huge ox-drawn wagons from Leavenworth, Kansas to Fort Union, where some of the goods were unpacked for storage and later consignment to the field. The bulk post consignments were regrouped into military wagon trains that might drop supplies at several posts along the route of travel.

As the railroad's moved westward the supply line grew more flexible, with drop-offs and shorter hauls directly to nearby posts from the current railhead. In 1879 the rail road bypassed Fort Union. Its supply operations gradually phased out and the depot closed down in 1883.

The quartermaster operation lacked the flair of the cavalry charge, the heroics of the besieged infantry platoon. But without the men who processed supply orders, counted stock, cared for animals and wagons, packed freight, and then hauled it to the far posts, there would have been neither posts nor battles.

Did You Know?
Caroline Lockhart Owned the Ranch from 1926 through 1955. Starting with 160 acres, she added land through purchase, homesteading and leases until she controlled over 6,034.75 acres. The Lockhart Ranch is the best preserved historic homestead available for public viewing in the Bighorn Basin.

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