Fort Wingate was one of the best-preserved frontier military posts in the Southwest until the late 1950s. The 22-acre installation is located between Zuni land and Navajo land, tucked in the foothills of the Zuni Mountains east of Gallup. The fort is readily visible from I-40, accessible from Route 66.
The fort sits on land considered ancestral homeland to both Zuni Pueblo and the Navajo Nation. Over 200 Navajo ruins have been documented on the property, as well as hundreds of Zuni sites, and over 200 ruins credited to the Ancestral Puebloans.
Fort Wingate and the Long Walk
The installation outside of Gallup was the third incarnation of Fort Wingate. The fort was established during the conflict between the U.S. Army and the Navajo in the 1800s. The original fort was located in Seboyeta, New Mexico (1849–1862) and, then, in San Rafael (1862–1868).
The commander of the U.S. Army in the New Mexico territory believed that imprisoning Native Americans on reservations was the best way to control and subdue the bands of Navajo and Apache living in the New Mexico Territory. Troops based at Fort Wingate destroyed crops, and killed livestock and wildlife to starve the Navajo families living in NW New Mexico and NE Arizona. In 1864, the U.S. Army forced the Navajo to walk 400-miles from Fort Wingate to a reservation at Bosque Redondo, a historic trauma remembered as “The Long Walk.” Approximately 200 Navajos died of starvation and exposure to the elements.
Life was horrific at Bosque Redondo. Not enough food, with crowding creating a breeding ground for disease. After four years of living in inhumane conditions, Navajo leaders negotiated a treaty with the U.S. government in 1868. The treaty established a new reservation located on a portion of the Navajo homeland in New Mexico and Arizona.
The Apache Wars
When the Navajo returned to their homeland, the Army relocated Fort Wingate to its second site. It was located nearer the new Navajo Reservation, administered by the Fort Defiance Indian Agency. The site had previously been occupied by Fort Fauntleroy, aka Fort Lyon (1860-61. The prior fort was also focused on controlling the Navajo raiding parties, but it was evacuated before the Confederate troops from Texas invaded New Mexico during the Civil War.
After the U.S. Army subdued the Navajo, they turned their attention to the Apache in southern New Mexico. Their former enemies became critical allies. The U.S. army enlisted hundreds of Navajo Scouts during the Apache Wars. Additionally, the U.S. Army used the fort to incarcerate Apache prisoners.
Fort Wingate become part of the reservation, operating as a police force for the Navajo reservation and the surrounding area. Additionally, soldiers from Fort Wingate protected the construction of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.
Fort Wingate in the Modern Era
As conflict with the native population waned, the U.S. Army decommissioned Fort Wingate in 1912. The fort was briefly reopened from 1914-1915 as an internment camp for refugees during the Mexican Revolution. By 1918, the focus was global, with World War 1 looming. The United States Ordnance Department reactivated the fort as the Wingate Ordnance Depot. The depot was responsible for storing and destroying ammunition. However, they decided to move the depot closer to the train tracks and a Navajo school took over the buildings in 1925.
Route 66 became an important artery for military logistics during World War. The earthen, igloo-like munition storage buildings are still visible from the highway. The fort remained a major weapons depot from World War II until it was shuttered in 1993. In fact, during the Manhattan Project, Fort Wingate supplied 100 tons of Composition B high explosives for the bomb. However, the Navajo code talkers who trained at Fort Wingate were the fort’s most notable contribution during World War II. The code talkers are credited with shifting the tides of the war in the Pacific by creating a code based on the Navajo language that stymied the Japanese.
Fort Wingate Today
The National Park Service listed the Fort Wingate Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The U.S. Government is returning the land to the Navajo and Zuni, with ongoing litigation regarding ownership and potential development.
The fort’s parade grounds are intact, as well as several historic structures, including an 1883 adobe clubhouse, one barracks, and a row of c.1900 officers’ quarters. A fire in 1896 destroyed many of the original buildings; however, the military rebuilt with locally sourced red sandstone around the turn of the century. Though the Fort Wingate cemetery still exists, most military burials were moved to the Santa Fe National Cemetery in 1915. The Bureau of Indian Affairs demolished many of the fort’s historic buildings in the late 1950s to build the Wingate Elementary School. The first school’s barn and silos, power house, and maintenance building remain.