Our interest in the Santa Fe Trail was piqued by our stay in the “City Different” so as we headed out of New Mexico on I-25 we decided to stop at two related sites along the way. Our first stop was just twenty-five miles east of Santa Fe at Pecos National Historical Park while our second stop was at Fort Union National Monument. Their locations along the Santa Fe Trail, which followed old Native American paths, means that their histories are intertwined.
The stories share a common thread, that of the exchange of goods and ideas. We’ll start first with the story that had the longest timeline, that of the people who built Pecos Pueblo. They had first moved into the Pecos River Valley around 800 AD, living in small, scattered villages. Sometime in the late 1300s the residents of the area joined together and began building a large five-story pueblo on a mesilla. It soon became the largest pueblo of the time with well over 2,000 residents and a fighting force of 500 warriors.
The key to the success of Pecos was, as they say in real estate, location, location, location. The pueblo was just east of Glorieta Pass, a break in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. To the west were the rest of the Puebloan people and the agriculturally rich Rio Grande Valley while to the east roamed the tribes of the Great Plains. Both groups had resources of great value to offer each other and Pecos Pueblo with its strategic location controlled the trade.
Much of the pueblo’s story from the mid-1500s on is well-known for not only did the Spanish explorers and other passersby write about the city but there were extensive archaeological excavations and (this last part just blows my mind) there are still living descendants from Pecos Pueblo. The last residents of Pecos did not leave until 1838!
During the pueblo’s 400 year history it witnessed the arrival of the Spanish, starting with gold-thirsty Coronado in 1540. Probably the best description of Pecos comes from a member of Coronado’s party who in 1541 wrote:
…is a pueblo containing about 500 warriors and is feared throughout that land. In plan, it is square, perched on a rock. In the center is a vast patio, or plaza, with its kivas… The houses are all alike, four stories high… The people pride themselves in the fact that no one has been able to subjugate them, while they dominate any pueblo they wish.
Though Spaniards were scarce during the next fifty years their influence was still acutely felt. For the newcomers had not only introduced horses to the native tribes of the Americas but they also brought along their European diseases, like smallpox. These factors potentially had more to do with the pueblo’s eventual demise than the return of the Spanish. In 1598 Don Juan de Oñate’s job was to open the northern edge of New Spain to settlement and civilize the natives. To that end the Spanish tried a two-pronged approach, both secular and religious. By 1625 an immense 6,000 square foot church had been completed immediately south of the Pecos pueblo and the residents were tending livestock like goats, sheep, and cattle as well as growing apples and pears.
It was all new to the people of Pecos and not all the changes were welcomed. By the late 1700s the population of Pecos numbered merely 152 souls—the result of disease and warfare waged by the now horse-equipped Comanche. In 1821, the year Mexico finally won its independence from Spain and William Becknell passed by on the first trip along the Santa Fe Trail, fewer than one hundred people were left at Pecos. Finally in 1838 the last seventeen residents packed up and joined their linguistic brethren at Jemez pueblo.
As travel along the Santa Fe Trail increased so did the flow of goods and money between the U.S. and Mexico. The traders and freighters not only faced nature’s many obstacles but they also had to deal with the possibility of Indian attacks. Soon troops from Fort Leavenworth were ordered by the government to accompany the wagon trains to the border of Mexico. In recognition of the importance of the trade route, Mexican soldiers then provided protection from their border into Santa Fe. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 all of the Santa Fe Trail lay within the U.S. and it became necessary to establish outposts along the way.
Construction on the first Fort Union in the Wolf Creek Valley began in 1851 near where the Cimarron Cutoff and Raton Route of the Santa Fe Trail rejoined. The previous headquarters for the military in that area had been Santa Fe but Lt. Colonel Edwin V. Sumner decided to move further east, away from “that sink of vice and extravagance.” As the importance of the Santa Fe Trail grew so did that of Fort Union. By the 1860s the complex included a Quartermaster Depot, an Arsenal Depot, and a post trader, whose enterprises included a store, a hotel, a bowling alley, and a saloon.
As we wandered the grounds of the old fort we were surprised to learn that the Quartermaster Depot far surpassed the military post in size. But then it was an important place since it was responsible for supplying the forty to fifty forts within New Mexico Territory. In the 1860s the Depot received close to 3,000 wagons loaded with arms, clothing, ammunition, tools, and building materials every year!
During the fort’s first decade the main threat along the Trail was the same one that the people of Pecos had faced, attacks by natives of the High Plains, most notably the Comanches. But with the outbreak of the Civil War, the largest fort in the Southwest faced a new threat. On May 13, 1861 the commander of the post, Major Henry H. Sibley resigned and left to join the Confederate army. Sibley, who obviously had crucial information about the Union’s holdings in the Southwest, presented a plan for conquest to Jefferson Davis.
If Sibley’s strategy had worked, Fort Union and its vast stores would have fallen to the Rebels, which would have left the gold fields of Colorado vulnerable. From there Sibley would’ve taken Fort Laramie, an equally well-stocked outpost up in Wyoming. These stockpiles of munitions and gold would have gone a long way in assuring Confederate victory. Thankfully, Sibley wasn’t successful in his endeavor though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
In February 1862 Sibley, as brigadier general, led a force of Texans up the Rio Grande Valley, meeting little resistance from the poorly manned outposts (most troops had been recalled to the East). Albuquerque and Santa Fe both fell without a fight. Fort Union was next. Fort Union troops augmented with New Mexico Volunteers and a group from Colorado known as Pikes Peakers marched toward Glorieta Pass to make their stand.
The Union forces made Kozlowski’s Ranch, a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail, their headquarters. Within view of Pecos Pueblo the Glorieta Pass Battlefield included a skirmish at Apache Canyon on March 26 and a fight at Pigeon’s Ranch two days later. Technically, the Rebels won the battles. Unfortunately for them though, the New Mexican Volunteers knew the land better and were able to skirt the Rebel defenses and destroy their eighty-wagon supply train.
Without supplies Sibley and his Texans were forced to retreat back to Texas. One of the Texans wrote, “If it had not been for those devils from Pike’s Peak this country would have been ours.” Which was not completely accurate as Sibley himself would later note, “My dear sir, we beat the enemy where we encountered them. The famished country beat us.” Considering how the outcome of the war could have been affected by a different result at Glorieta Pass, the battle soon earned the name “Gettysburg of the West.”
Travel along the Santa Fe Trail resumed and continued to grow up until the railroad arrived in the territory. What took three months or longer along the trail took only two days by rail. In 1883 the Depot at Fort Union was closed and in 1891 the fort was abandoned. Soon the grand old fort was subjected to the same indignities as the pueblo at Pecos; the adobe walls were melted by storms, timbers and other useable parts were stripped away by nearby residents, and other pieces were taken as mementos by early tourists. Both of these important places were in danger of being destroyed and lost forever.
Thankfully, concerned New Mexicans and others stepped in and fought for the protection of these historically valuable places. In 1935 Pecos Pueblo became a state monument. Thirty years later it was designated a national monument. In 1990, actress Greer Garson’s Forked Lightning Ranch, a 5,500 acre spread was added and Pecos was elevated to a historical park. The Park now encompasses several sections of the Santa Fe Trail (with visible wagon ruts) and parts of the Glorieta Pass Battlefield in addition to the pueblo. Fort Union’s road to preservation was much more contentious and took far longer as it wasn’t established until 1954.
The section of I-25 from Santa Fe into Colorado follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail (often times right on top of it). As we drove through the wide open spaces it felt like we were traveling through history…
Photos: View our photographs from Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico.
Dates: We visited Pecos National Historical Park on 06/27/10 and 06/27/10, and Fort Union National Monument on 07/03/10.