I love going to Fort Union for the stark, remote beauty of the area, the herds of pronghorn antelope, the flat and pleasant trail, and a crash course in some of the real history of our beloved state. The fort was actually three forts, constructed sequentially at separate sites, with each taking on the name of its abandoned predecessor.
The first, a small, crude structure, was established in 1851 in the Mora Valley, at the junction of the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail. It served as a military presence responsible for protecting travelers and the highly lucrative trade along the trail from Indian raids. The increasingly frequent raids were in retaliation for the influx of people who had disrupted their way of life and were damaging the environment. In 1861, with the Confederate threat looming, Fort Union was replaced with a massive, earthen, star-shaped iteration constructed nearby. By 1863, when it was clear New Mexico was safe from Confederate troops, work began on the final iteration. One of the largest forts in the American Southwest and made of better materials, it took six years to construct. It housed a military post, quartermaster depot and an arsenal, but had amenities that included a chapel, classrooms, a hospital, stables and warehouses. Soldiers at the fort continued to protect commerce along the Santa Fe Trail, which began to dry up when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1879. They were also involved in supporting U.S. troops, securing supplies and “pacifying” and relocating Native Americans to designated reservations. In 1891, Fort Union was officially abandoned by the U.S. military.
At the fort, which is about an hour and twenty minutes from Santa Fe, the evocative ruins and signage make the nineteenth century come to life. On a guided or self-guided tour, you will learn about the tragic and merciless Indian wars, the lives and livelihoods of Hispanic settlers, the daily grind and demands of military life, and role of the famed African American Buffalo Soldiers, part of the Ninth Cavalry. You’ll be privy to colorful tales of specific soldiers — like one who was jailed for horse-jacking.
Park Ranger Mary Feitz guided my husband, Paul, and me around the vast site that included wagon wheel ruts left on the Santa Fe Trail, the remains of the hospital, jail, latrines, crowded barracks and warehouses. We laughed and said it seemed as though the ruins, under a cerulean blue sky with puffs of clouds and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance, had been perfectly arranged for photographers.
At the officers’ lodgings, we learned that officers and their wives had every comfort, with their needs met by servants, enslaved people (until after the Civil War) and then by male servants from China. Feitz explained that lonely soldiers wooed away all the female servants, so the officers decided to hire men. The soldiers rebelled because they wanted young women they could meet and marry.
If you wonder whether the isolated soldiers could bring wives to the fort, the answer was a conditional yes. Wives could come if they worked as laundresses for the soldiers on “Suds Row.” They had a reputation for being somewhat unruly and unladylike, which, I think, means they had fun. And here’s one more for the women: a freed African American named Cathay Williams changed her name to William Cathay and enlisted as a man. She got away with it until she became ill and the surgeon saw the woman behind the male disguise.
Feitz gave us the inside scoop on the soldiers’ nightlife. After an arduous day of work, many of them traveled five miles to Loma Parda, a wild west town, to gamble, dance, drink and have raucous “sexcapades.” The town still exists — as a ghost town — and you can go there.
For our visit to Fort Union, Paul and I brought delicious picnic food from Tribes Coffeehouse in Santa Fe. Owner Zeinab Benhalim has created a menu inspired by her travels in the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, France and Italy. I began with a Palestinian-style falafel plate with perfectly blended hummus and the smoothest tahini I’ve ever tasted. They were complemented by a vibrant, fresh spinach salad dotted with raisins, apples and feta cheese, and a hearty lentil soup.
We paused to watch a family of graceful pronghorn as they leapt by and then continued eating our lunch: a bowl of flavorful curried chicken, a roast chicken pesto and provolone sandwich, and a mesquite turkey, avocado and Swiss wrap. We sipped iced chai accented with nutmeg, ginger and cloves, and lemonade bursting with chopped fresh mint. For dessert, we savored two Tribe’s favorites: a nostalgic lemon frosted blueberry cake and Benhalim’s spin on an oatmeal-cranberry-almond cookie. We ate half of everything, then packed the rest back in our cooler for dinner. A visit to Fort Union and a delicious lunch: the perfect outing.
Note: The next installment on santafean.com tells about Loma Parda and Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge, two other must-see attractions in the area. Don’t miss them when you visit Fort Union. Plan on a full day.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel and culture journalist, author of three books, speaker and frequent media guest as a travel expert. Her husband, Paul Ross, is an award-winning photojournalist, writer and photographer. Their website is globaladventure.us.