After the Mexican American war, the United States established numerous forts across the newly acquired territory. They constructed Fort Stanton in 1855 to control the Mescalero Apaches. It is one of the most intact 19th century military forts in the United States. It was home to many who made their mark in American military history including, in different eras, the Cavalry Regiments of Buffalo Soldiers, Kit Carson and John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. Billy the Kid did a stint in the guard house, one of many incarceration and escape escapades in Lincoln County.
Though the use of forts subsided by the turn of the century, Fort Stanton continued to serve New Mexico, and the nation, into the present. The Fort Stanton Museum provides details about the fort’s complicated and convoluted history. Visitors can wander the grounds, explore the accompanying cemetery, or hike one of the many trails that make up Fort Stanton State Monument.
From the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors through Mexican Independence, the Apache successfully preserved and protected their homeland. After the Mexican-American war, Anglo pioneers and prospectors flooded into the region, provoking tension in an already fraught cultural landscape. The Rio Bonito region was rich with game, grazing land, and fertile soil. By the early 1850s, Hispanic farmers and sheepherders were establishing small villages along the river valleys in what is now Lincoln County, which is the Mescalero Apache homeland.
Settlers built “torreones,” two-story defensive towers, to protect themselves from the inevitable Apache raids, like the one seen in Lincoln. Settlers and citizen militia were no match for the Apache. The Apache are the reason the region wasn’t settled prior to the 1800s. The United States Army established numerous forts to protect supply routes and settlers in the newly seized territory.
The Military Years (1855 – 1898)
The U.S. Army named the fort after Captain Henry W. Stanton. He died in a battle with Apache warriors in 1855, near present day Mayhill. Soldiers of the 1st Dragoon and the 3rd and 8th Infantry Regiments constructed the fort. It became operational on May 4, 1855. Originally the fort consisted of two blockhouses surrounded by an adobe wall. Soldiers launched military campaigns against the Mescalero Apache from the fort from 1855 through the early 1880s.
Fort Stanton’s primary mission was to protect the settlements along the Rio Bonito from Mescalero Apache raids. The isolated region, named Lincoln County, was larger than the State of South Carolina, with a few hundred Anglo and Hispanic settlers sprawled across miles. The fort provided protection for farmers and ranchers along the Bonito, Hondo and Tularosa Rivers. It became the center of the region’s commerce and early social life. The first permanent settlements in southeastern New Mexico developed close to forts.
Mescalero Apache Reservation
Fort Stanton played a critical role in the Apache Wars from inception until Geronimo’s surrender at the end of the 1880s. US troops succeeded in subduing the Mescalero Apache, using the fort as a regional base of operations and supply depot.
Most of the Mescalero Apache were rounded up and held at the fort before being forced on the “Long Walk” to the Bosque Redondo Reservation near Fort Sumner in the early 1860s. Many escaped and returned to their homelands in 1865, unwilling to share the reservation with the Navajo. The Americans rounded them up again, using Fort Stanton as a reservation for the Mescalero Apache until 1873.
In an unruly region, with little in the way of law and order, the soldiers stationed at Fort Stanton intervened in domestic disputes as well. They fought Apaches, intervened in turf wars, and interceded in the Lincoln County War. The fort not only provided defense for settlers, it provided income. Fort Stanton was the largest consumer of goods and services in the county. The competition for the contract to supply Fort Stanton with beef was one of the financial motivations leading up to the Lincoln County War. More on that in a moment.
The Fort underwent several phases of rebuilding in the 1860’s, 1870’s and 1880’s. Troops stationed at Fort Stanton during the 1880’s provided military support for the Chiricahua campaigns (Victoria and Geronimo). There was also ongoing conflict with the Mescalero Apaches. Among those serving at the fort during this phase of the Indian Wars was Gen John J. ”Blackjack” Pershing. Pershing was stationed at the fort twice as a junior officer. His quarters are still standing. Pershing eventually became the first five star general.
The Confederate forces seized Fort Stanton in 1861, in the early stages of the American Civil War. They occupied the fort for a month. Kiowa Indians killed three Rebels on patrol 50 miles north of the fort and the Mescalero Apache took advantage of the chaos and fled the reservation. The Confederates moved all of the supplies to Mesilla and abandoned the fort. The retreating forces set it on fire. Only the stone walls survived the blaze. The fort stood empty for a year.
Shootout at Fort Stanton
In October, 1862, New Mexican Volunteer forces under the command of the legendary frontiersman Kit Carson reoccupied the fort. Kit Carson was a U.S. Colonel at the time. About a month after he reclaimed the fort on behalf of the Union, the fort was the site of what became a famous shootout between Capt. Paddy Graydon and Army doctor, John Whitlock.
A lot of civil war veterans drifted west after the war, but they took the war with them. Paddy Graydon led his company on a bloody attack against a band of Mescalero Apache at Gallinas Springs, personally killing the chief, “Manuelito.” Fellow officer, who had witnessed the carnage, accused him of leading a massacre. He disputed the allegations and got into a violent altercation with Dr. John Marmaduke Whitlock, the post physician at Fort Stanton. Dr. Whitlock called Graydon a “murderer and a thief” and a gunfight ensued on the parade grounds on the morning of November 5, 1862. Graydon was shot in the chest during the exchange of fire and Whitlock was shot in the hand and one side. However, as Graydon was carried from the field, his men shot Whitlock 128 times. That didn’t save Graydon though. He died from his injuries three days later.
From 1862-1864, Kit Carson’s New Mexico Volunteers launched a series of brutal campaigns against the Mescalero Apache and the Navajo, burning their fields, orchards, houses, and livestock and rounding up the vast majority of the Mescalero Apache and Navajo. Congress authorized the establishment of Fort Sumner to guard Apache and Navajo held at Bosque Redondo.
Between 1862-1863 Carson’s Volunteers placed four hundred Mescaleros at Bosque Redondo. In 1864, they escorted eight thousand Navajos to the reservation. This tragic event is the Navajo’s Trail of Tears, referred to as The Long Walk. However, the Mescalero Apache resented the arrival of the Navajo. In 1865, many of the Mescaleros fled back to their homelands around Sierra Blanca. Troops stationed at Fort Stanton chased them down, including the newly arrived 9th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers. Most of the Mescalero Apache were recaptured by 1871. Rather than sending them back to Bosque Redondo, Fort Stanton became the Indian Agency for the Mescalero Apache. The incarcerated the Apache on a reservation until 1873, though the Apache Wars continued for several more years. In total, the Apache Wars lasted thirty years, ending with the capture of Geronimo’s band on September 4, 1886.
John J. “Black Jack” Pershing
General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing (September 13, 1860 – July 15, 1948) served two tours of duty at Fort Stanton in the 1880s. After graduating from West Point in 1886, The U.S. Army assigned Pershing to Troop L of the 6th U.S. Cavalry after he graduated from West Point and stationed him at Fort Bayard in the New Mexico Territory. While serving in the 6th Cavalry, he participated in several campaigns and was cited for bravery for actions against the Apache. Later in life, he served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) on the Western Front in World War in 1917-1918. Pershing is the only American to be promoted to General of the Armies rank in his lifetime, the highest possible rank in the United States Army.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. Army enlisted black men to help facilitate western expansion. These men enlisted due to the economic hardship faced by former slaves following the Civil war, because there were few opportunities available for African-Americans. These troops played a pivotal role in the American West. They made up the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalries, with the Ninth Cavalry stationed at Fort Stanton.
Clad in blue uniforms and riding on horseback, these formidable soldiers gained fame and respect. They were deemed “Buffalo Soldiers” by their Native American adversaries as a sign of respect for their fighting prowess and a reference to the texture of their hair. In total, nearly four thousand Buffalo Soldiers served at eleven posts in New Mexico, protecting settlers and supplies. Many of these soldiers were stationed in south-central New Mexico at Fort McRae, near Elephant Butte Lake, Fort Selden, just north of Las Cruces, and Fort Stanton. 11% of the troops at Fort Stanton were Buffalo Soldiers by 1875. Once they successfully captured the Mescalero, they participated in the pursuit of the Apache bands led by Victorio and Geronimo during the 1880s.
In addition to their campaigns against the Apache, the fort dispatched the Buffalo Soldiers to intercede in regional conflicts, forcing them to act as law enforcement in the absence of lawmen. They were sent to intervene in local conflicts three times during the 1870s, with the U.S. Army effectively determining the outcome of regional conflicts. The Horrell War and the Tularosa Ditch war were racially motivated land and resource disputes between Anglo ranchers and Hispanic farmers and the third war was the infamous Lincoln County War.
The last Buffalo soldier lived to see the 21st century, passing away in 2005.
Lincoln County War (1878 – 1881)
The Lincoln County War was a battle between competing business interests, with two factions competing to monopolize trade with Fort Stanton. As the largest customer in Lincoln County, the fort’s business gave the winning faction control over Lincoln County’s economy. As the largest county in the country, that power was the equivalent of being the Duke of a very large fiefdom. Law favored those who paid for it.
Each faction employed gunfighters and thugs, with wealthy, powerful interests pulling the strings and providing money behind the scenes. The Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators, backed the Murphy-Dolan faction, and John Chisum, a wealthy cattle baron, supported the Tunstall-McSween group.
Conflict had been brewing between the two groups for a couple of years. John Tunstall partnered with Alexander McSween to open a mercantile in Lincoln. James Dolan had a dry goods and banking monopoly and wanted to keep it that way. Tunstall undercut Dolan’s prices, luring customers like John Chisum to his business, and going after the coveted Fort Stanton contracts.
Both sides rallied support, divvying up the loyalty of the area’s lawmen, businessmen, ranch hands and thugs. Sheriff Brady and the Jesse Evans Gang backed The Dolan faction, aka “The House.” On the other side, the town Constable, Richard Brewer, Deputy US Marshal Robert A. Widenmann, and an armed posse known as the Regulators backed the Tunstall-McSween faction.
Regulators Seek Revenge
The feud escalated dramatically on February 18, 1878, when Sheriff Brady and members of the Evans gang murdered John Tunstall. That triggered a string of revenge killings. Fort Stanton dispatched Buffalo Soldiers to Lincoln several times in the early months of 1878, presumably to aid law enforcement officers on both sides of the dispute.
The feud climaxed in July, 1878 during the Battle of Lincoln, a 5-day gunfight that left Alexander McSween dead and scattered the remaining Regulators, with troops from Fort Stanton playing a pivotal role. The decisive moment of the came when Colonel Nathan Dudley marched a small squad of troops, including eleven Buffalo Soldiers, a howitzer, and a Gatling gun to Lincoln. They surrounded the town, creating a barrier between most of the Regulators and people trapped in Alexander McSween’s house.
The Murphy-Dolan forces set the house on fire (allowing McSween’s wife and daughter to leave). They shot everyone that tried to escape as the house burned, including Alexander McSween. Colonel Dudley provided artillery support, using the howitzer and Gatling gun to disperse the Regulators. Billy the Kid managed to shoot his way out, one of his many epic escapes. Later, Billy the Kid spent some time at the Fort Stanton guard house while waiting on a hanging that didn’t happen.
Decommissioned in 1896
Efforts continued against the Apache, with troops pursuing Victorio and Geronimo’s band into the 1880s. The war with the Apache was over by 1890. Fifteen soldiers remained at Fort Stanton until the post was abandoned in 1893. The U.S. Army officially decommissioned the post August of 1896, .
Several of the old buildings remain on the fort grounds. Many are open for self-guided tours, including an authentic bunk room, with beds and the everyday items a cavalry soldier would have had on hand.
The Hospital Years (1898 – 1953)
Fort Stanton remained unoccupied until the U.S. Public Health Service acquired it in 1898. In 1899, President William McKinley transferred Fort Stanton from the War Department to the Marine Hospital Service, converting the military reservation to America’s first federal tuberculosis sanatorium. They constructed new buildings, including a hospital, stables, new living quarters, and a sprawling city of tent houses for patients. The facility was largely self-sufficient, with patients working the fields of a large farm on the grounds nearby. There were recreational activities available for the doctors and resident staff, including a golf course, baseball fields, and a theater. They changed the name of the campus to Public Health Service Hospital in 1912.
New Mexico’s dry, arid environment was ideal for tuberculosis patients. There weren’t many treatment options available other than fresh air and sunshine. The hospital housed patients in specially constructed tents. The hospital treated approximately five thousand Merchant Marines between 1898-1953. Unfortunately, they buried fifteen hundred of their patients in the Maritime Cemetery, which is on a hill overlooking the fort. The cemetery includes an additional five hundred graves, mostly veterans of other services and a few German POWs.
Fort Stanton was home to a CCC work camp during the Great Depression. Later, they repurposed the work camp for use as a detention center for German and Japanese POWs during WWII. A German luxury liner, the SS Columbus, floundered off the coast of Virginia in 1939. German high command scuttled the ship to prevent the British from capturing it. The U.S. Navy dispatched ships to rescue the crew. Though the United States hadn’t entered the war at that point, and wanted to maintain the illusion of neutrality, our British allies didn’t want experienced German naval personnel returned to Germany during the war.
The U.S. Navy listed German nationals rescued from the luxury liner as “distressed seamen paroled from the German Embassy.” In total, four hundred and ten German sailors were sent to Fort Stanton for the duration of WWII. The prisoners built amenities like gardens for fresh produce, a recreation hall for the ship’s orchestra, and a swimming pool, which they used to challenge the locals to “mini-Olympic” competitions.
POW Detention Center
The United States declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941 in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States three days later. German and Japanese POWs arrived at the camp by 1942. Most of them were immigrant residents of the U.S. who were classified as “enemy aliens,” detained based on suspicions rather than on crimes committed. Most of the prisoners never saw their day in court. Due process was denied during a time of war.
On March 10, 1945, the U.S. transferred forty-eight POWs to Fort Stanton. Thirty-one German American “troublemakers” were kept separate from the seventeen Japanese American “troublemakers.” They deported the Japanese Americans to Japan a few months later.
The need for the facility diminished as the tuberculosis epidemic waned. The military transferred Fort Stanton, and 27,000 acres, to the State of New Mexico in 1953. The hospital treated tuberculosis patients until 1966 when the Department of Health re-purposed it to serve as a branch of the Los Lunas Hospital and Training School for the mentally handicapped. They operated the facility as the State Hospital for the Developmentally Handicapped from 1966-1995.
The Dept. of Health turned the fort over to the State Corrections Facility in 1996,. It was utilized as a low security women’s prison until 1999. During that time several inmates painted murals on the walls of the hospital. Many have been preserved. In 1999, the fort was leased to Amity, International. They operated a drug rehabilitation center for state prisoners recovering from substance abuse. They hosted several juvenile drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
By 1997 the State was trying to figure out what to do with the property. Locals created a non-profit, Fort Stanton, Inc., to save the property and to secure funding to resurrect it as a living history center. They succeeded in mobilizing public opinion, convincing the State Legislature to preserve the Fort, and securing funds for renovation. They won sizeable grants to begin reconstruction on the historic buildings and convinced the State Legislature to allocate funds for the renovation effort. On August 9, 2007, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish proclaimed the establishment of the Fort Stanton State Monument.
State Historic Site
Fort Stanton is situated on 240 acres, surrounded by 1,300 acres of undeveloped BLM land. There are eighty-eight buildings, some dating back to 1855. Built of local stone, the sturdy buildings have weathered the last 150 years remarkably well, but most are in need of preservation. 53 buildings are an ongoing project of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.
The fort features officer’s quarters and barracks, a hospital and morgue, nurse’s quarters, a guardhouse, a dining hall, a chapel, a power plant and laundry, a gymnasium and pool, a fire station, horse stables and a (functioning) U.S. post office. The only fully renovated building at the fort is used as the Fort Stanton museum and administrative office. The Merchant Marine Cemetery at Fort Stanton, with rows of white crosses and a taller monument, is located on a hillside overlooking the fort.
Though the history of the fort is certainly the main draw, the surrounding area is beautiful, with ample outdoor recreation options. Visitors are invited to enjoy the nearly 100 miles of trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding, including the 2-mile Rio Bonito Petroglyph National Recreation Trail. Rob Jaggers camping area is nearby, with camping and RV sites.
The Fort Stanton Museum
The Fort Stanton Museum features an introductory video and an excellent exhibit that bring the rich history and heritage of the fort to life. They moved the museum to a recently restored soldier’s barracks, originally built in 1855. The building was converted to serve as an Administration Building for the Public Health Service during the hospital era. Additionally, the fort hosts occasional reenactments and live entertainment. Check their website for upcoming events.
Museum Hours are 10 am – 4 pm daily. They do no charge an admission fee, though donations are appreciated and applied to maintenance and preservation. (575) 354-0341.
- Lengthy history of Fort Stanton
- History of Fort Stanton
- Fort Stanton | Rounding up the Apache
- Fort Stanton | Challenge & Conflict on the American Frontier
- Snowy River Cave
- Fort Stanton Cave Study Project