FORT STANTON

Between Lincoln and Capitan, there is a turn off to Fort Stanton, Hwy 220. This route continues through to Alto, outside of Ruidoso. On the way to Fort Stanton from Lincoln, the road passes the turn off to Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area. The conservation area was established in 2009 to protect, conserve, and enhance the unique and nationally important historic, cultural, scientific, archaeological, natural, and educational subterranean resources of the Fort Stanton - Snowy River Cave system. Fort Stanton Cave, at over 31 miles, it is the second longest cave in New Mexico, the 14th longest cave in the US, the 62th longest in the world, and the largest cave managed by the BLM. The Snowy River cave is a branch of the Fort Stanton Cave, named based on the white calcite stream bed that lines the cave floor. More on that after wading through the history of Fort Stanton.

 

The entrance to Fort Stanton is less than a mile from the turnoff to the Snowy Rivers Conservation Area. Established in 1855 as a military post to control the Mescalero Apache Indians, Fort Stanton 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 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.

 

Although the use of many military forts established during the western expansion diminished by the turn of the century, Fort Stanton continued to serve New Mexico and the nation well into the 21st century. The Fort’s complex history is detailed in the Fort Stanton Museum. Visitors can wander the grounds, explore the accompanying cemetery, or hike one of the many trails that make up Fort Stanton State Monument.

 

THE MILITARY YEARS (1855 - 1898)

 

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 additional 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 Lincoln County, encountering frequent conflict with the Apache. To protect themselves from the inevitable Apache raids, the settlers built “torreones,” two-story defensive towers, like the one seen in Lincoln. Settlers and citizen militia were no match for the Apache. There is a reason it wasn't successfully developed prior to the 1800s. To curtail the escalating violence, the United States Army established numerous forts to protect supply routes and settlers in the newly seized territory.

 

The fort was named after Captain Henry W. Stanton, killed while fighting the Apache 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. Numerous military campaigns against the Mescalero Apache were launched from Fort Stanton 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, yet there were only a few hundred intrepid Anglo and Hispanic settlers. The fort provided protection for farmers and ranchers along the Bonito, Hondo and Tularosa Rivers. The fort was the center of most of the region’s commerce and early social life. The first permanent settlements in southeastern New Mexico developed in close proximity.

 

From inception until the end of 1880s, and the capture of Geronimo, Fort Stanton played a critical role in the Apache Wars. Using the fort as a regional base of operations and supply depot, US troops succeeded in subduing the Mescalero Apache. Most of them 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 of them fled back to their homelands in 1865, unwilling to share the reservation with the Navajo. They were rounded up again and Fort Stanton was utilized as a reservation for them 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 the Apache, intervened in turf wars, and interceded in the Lincoln County War. The fort not only provided defense for settlers, it also 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 later.

 

Confederacy, Kit Carson & Concentration Camps

 

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 conflict with the Mescaleros. 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.

 

In 1861, Fort Stanton was seized by Confederate forces in the early stages of the American Civil War. During the month-long occupation, three Rebels were killed by Kiowa Indians while on patrol 50 miles north. In the meantime, the Mescalero Apache fled the fort and resumed raiding central New Mexico. After the Confederates moved all of the supplies to Mesilla, they abandoned the fort. The retreating forces tried to burn the fort, but a rainstorm extinguished the fire. The fort stood empty for a year. Only the stone walls survived the blaze.

 

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 the fort was reclaimed for the Union, it was the site of a famous shootout between Capt. Paddy Graydon and Army doctor, John Whitlock. With the Civil War receding from the Southwest, Paddy Graydon led his company on a bloody attack against a band of Mescalero Apache at Gallinas Springs, personally killing the chief, “Manuelito.” Accused of a massacre, with concerns about an official investigation, Graydon vigorously disputed the accounts of fellow officers who had witnessed the carnage. He got into a violent altercation with Dr. John Marmaduke Whitlock, the post physician at Fort Stanton, who evidently called Graydon a “murderer and a thief.” Graydon was offended. A gunfight ensued on the parade grounds, on the morning of November 5, 1862. During the exchange of fire, Graydon was struck in the chest. Whitlock was shot in the hand and one side. As Graydon was carried from the field, his men attacked Whitlock, shooting him 128 times. Graydon died of his wounds 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 400 Mescaleros at Bosque Redondo. In 1864, they escorted 8000 Navajo 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. Once again, troops stationed at Fort Stanton were sent to round them up, including the newly arrived 9th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers. By 1871, most of the Mescalero Apache were recaptured. Rather than sending them back to Bosque Redondo, Fort Stanton became the Indian Agency for the Mescalero Apache. They were held until 1873, though the Apache Wars continued for several more years. In total the Apache Wars lasted 30 years, ending with the capture of Geronimo’s band on September 4, 1886.

 

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, Pershing was assigned to Troop L of the 6th U.S. Cavalry stationed 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, in 1917-1918, he served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) on the Western Front in World War I. Pershing is the only American to be promoted in his own lifetime to General of the Armies rank, the highest possible rank in the United States Army.

 

Buffalo Soldiers

 

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. Army enlisted recently freed black men to help facilitate western expansion. Many of these men enlisted due to the economic hardship faced by former slaves following the Civil war. There were few opportunities available for African-Americans back east. These soldiers made up the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalries, with the Ninth Cavalry stationed at Fort Stanton. These troops played a pivotal role in the Apache Wars and other regional conflicts, including the Lincoln County War.

 

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. That last bit may seem peculiar, but keep in mind that scalping was common. As heinous as it may seem, taking trophies after battles wasn’t unusual, with many U.S. military personnel and vigilantes adopting the practice.

 

In total, nearly 4,000 Buffalo Soldiers served at 11 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, of course, Fort Stanton. By 1875, 11% of the troops at Fort Stanton were Buffalo Soldiers. 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 Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched to quell regional conflicts, acting as law enforcement in the absence of lawmen. They were sent to intercede 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. The third was the 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 had partnered with Alexander McSween to open a mercantile in Lincoln. Prior to their arrival, James Dolan had operated a dry goods and banking monopoly. 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. The Dolan faction, aka “The House,” was backed by Sheriff Brady with the support of the Jesse Evans Gang. The Tunstall-McSween faction was backed by the town Constable, Richard Brewer and Deputy US Marshal Robert A. Widenmann, with the backing of an armed posse, known as the Regulators.

 

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. The Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched 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 War came when Colonel Nathan Dudley marched a small squad of troops, 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 beforehand). As the house burned, they shot everyone that tried to escape, 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 he spent time at the Fort Stanton guard house while waiting on a hanging that never happened due to another of his infamous escapes.

 

MORE ABOUT BILLY THE KID

MORE ABOUT THE LINCOLN COUNTY WAR

 

Efforts continued against the Apache, with troops pursuing Victorio and Geronimo’s band into the 1880s. By 1890, the war with the Apache was over. A skeleton staff of 15 soldiers remained at Fort Stanton until the post was abandoned in 1893. In August of 1896, the post was officially decommissioned.

 

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 calvary soldier would have had on hand.

Contact Information

Mailing Address

P.O. Box 1

104 Kit Carson Rd

Fort Stanton, NM 88323

info@fortstanton.org

Website

Fort Stanton Historic Site

Phone

(575) 354-0341

Directions

Fort Stanton is located just off the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway (Hwy 380) on Hwy 220 at the Bonito River. The turnoff to Hwy 220 is 4 miles southeast of Capitan on the Byway or 10 miles west of Lincoln, NM. The monument is open to visitors year round, every day. The Museum and Store are open on weekends with extended hours during the summer.

Fees

No admission fee. Donations are appreciated.

Season/Hours

The grounds are open 8 am - 5 pm.

The Museum and Visitor Center are open daily 10 am - 4 pm.

Closed New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.

Living history events on the third Saturday of every month other than July. Fort Stanton Live is in July.

Related

LINCOLN COUNTY WAR

A conflict between cattle barons hoping to secure monopolies in the nation's largest county in the 1870s erupted into conflict, catapulting Billy the Kid into the history books as New Mexico's most well known outlaw.

BILLY THE KID SCENIC BYWAY

This 84 mile route explores the history of the Mogollon, the Apache and the old west by following the adventures of Billy the Kid and the conflict in Lincoln that made him infamous.

THREE RIVERS PETROGLYPHS

The basaltic ridge rising above the Three Rivers Valley contains over 21,000 petroglyphs left by the Jornada Mogollon, including masks, sunbursts, wildlife, handprints, and geometric designs.

THE HOSPITAL YEARS (1898 - 1953)

 

After closure as an Army post in 1896, Fort Stanton remained unoccupied until it was acquired by the U.S. Public Health Service 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. New buildings were constructed, 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 theatre. The name of the campus was changed to Public Health Service Hospital in 1912.

 

New Mexico’s dry, arid environment was considered ideal for tuberculosis patients. There weren’t many treatment options available. Fresh air and sunshine were the only known cures. Patients lived in specially constructed tents. Between 1898-1953, the hospital at Fort Stanton served approximately 5000 Merchant Marines, 1500 of whom are buried in the Maritime Cemetery on a hill overlooking the fort. The cemetery includes an additional 500 graves, including veterans of other services and a few German POWs.

 

During the Great Depression, Fort Stanton was home to a CCC work camp, which was used as a detention center for German and Japanese POWs during WWII. In 1939, a German luxury liner, the SS Columbus, floundered off the coast of Virginia. German high command scuttled the ship to prevent the British from capturing it. U.S. ships were sent to rescue the crew. Though the United States hadn’t entered the war and wanted to maintain the illusion of neutrality, our British allies didn’t want experienced German naval personnel returned to Germany during the war. German nationals rescued from the luxury liner were officially recorded as “distressed seamen paroled from the German Embassy.” 410 German sailors were sent to Fort Stanton to sit out the duration of WWII in New Mexico. They made the most of their stay, building 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.

 

On December 8, 1941 the United States declared war on Japan in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Three days later, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. By 1942, German and Japanese POWs arrived at the camp. 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 were never given an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Evidence wasn’t required. Due process was denied.

 

On March 10, 1945, 48 POWs were transferred to Fort Stanton. Due to racial bias, the 31 German American “troublemakers” were kept separate from the 17 Japanese American “troublemakers.” Within a few months of arrival, the Japanese Americans were deported to Japan.

 

As the tuberculosis epidemic subsided, the need for the facility diminished. In 1953, Fort Stanton and 27,000 acres were transferred to the State of New Mexico. The hospital continued to treat tuberculosis patients until 1966 when it was re-purposed to serve as a branch of the Los Lunas Hospital and Training School for the mentally handicapped, operating under the New Mexico Department of Health. From 1966 until 1995, the facility served as the State Hospital for the Developmentally Handicapped.

 

In 1996, the fort was turned over to the State Corrections Facility. 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. A non-profit, Fort Stanton, Inc., was created 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 88 buildings on this historic site, 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 features an introductory video and an excellent exhibit that bring the rich history and heritage of the fort to life. The museum is located in a recently restored soldier’s barracks that was built in 1855. The building was converted to serve as an Administration Building for the Public Health Service during the hospital era. The fort also hosts occasional reenactments and live entertainment. Check their website for upcoming events.

 

Museum Hours are 10 am – 4 pm daily. There is no admission fee, though donations are appreciated and applied to maintenance and preservation. (575) 354-0341.

 

FORT STANTON SNOWY RIVER NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA

 

There are 12 known caves on the grounds of Fort Stanton State Monument. In 2009 Congress designated the Fort Stanton Cave and 25,080 acres surrounding it as a National Cave Conservation Area to protect the Fort Stanton cave complex. The land and caves beneath are protected from any activity on the surface, such as drilling, except for existing mineral claims. The property is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Portions of the cave systems are open on a limited basis to the public. Exploring the caves requires a permit from the BLM Roswell Field Office. It is a good idea to call and check the status of the caves ahead of time. They are frequently closed to protect the resident bat population from White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

 

Fort Stanton Cave is an extensive limestone cave located on the land previously used as the Fort Stanton Reservation. At over 31 miles long, it is the longest cave in the park and the third longest cave in the state, which makes it one of the longest caverns in the U.S. Based on cane torches and other evidence found within the cave, it appears that the Jornada Mogollon and Apache explored the cave long before Europeans arrived.

 

With the establishment of Fort Stanton, soldiers discovered the cave. A patrol of the 1st Dragoons explored the cave in 1855, equipped with .44 caliber pistols and musketoons. They descended into the cave on ropes, carrying canteens and bulky haversacks of supplies, using whale oil lamps to navigate the dark passageways. Soldiers from Fort Stanton returned several times, using the cave for military drills. They were training to patrol the dark, cramped caverns, because there was a rumor that the Apache had a sacred cave somewhere in the Guadalupe-Sacramento-Capitan mountains. They wanted to find and destroy that cave to demoralize the Apache. In 1871, the Army launched an official exploratory expedition, sending a small contingent of soldiers deep into the cave, approximately 8 miles based on their estimation. They took a boat with them to cross an underground lake inside the cave. The lake no longer exists due to the lower water table.

 

The most famous feature of Fort Stanton Cave is the Snowy River, a mostly level passage with a bright white crystal calcite formation covering the bottom, like a river of snow. Cavers had suspected that there was another large passage somewhere near the Fort Stanton Cave, but it took three decades of searching and a 45-foot vertical shaft to access it. In 2001, a team of experienced cavers descended deep into the Fort Stanton cave. They followed a small flow of air, hand digging a narrow passage through a dirt wall. When they burrowed through the narrow opening, they discovered the crystalline cavern. Slow moving, limestone rich ground water had recrystallized the limestone into a white form of calcite. The formation filled the passageway for miles, like a crystal trail. The discovery of the new section of the cave precipitated a name change for the Conservation area, which is now rthe Fort Stanton-Snowy River National Conservation Area.

 

Exploring Snowy River hasn’t been easy. In some areas the cave ceiling is so low that explorers have to wriggle through tight crevices until the passage opens up. In other areas the passage is 100 feet tall and 40-50 feet wide. Cave scientists have identified more than 50 microbes in the passage, including new species. In 2007 a group of cavers exploring the cavern discovered that Snowy River occasionally has clear water flowing through the passage, its maximum depth defined by the edge of the pure white calcite formation on the mud floor and limestone walls. The calcite on the cave floor is delicate, varying from fractions of an inch to four inches thick. Explorers have gone to great lengths to minimize damage and to keep the formation clean. Due to the scientific importance of the Snowy River passage, and the extremely fragile formations, the cave is not open to the public.

 

Most of the exploration and research at Fort Stanton-Snowy River NCA has been conducted by the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting exploration, public education, scientific research, and environmentally sound management of the caves within and surrounding the Conservation Area. Over 100 volunteers have donated time, effort and expertise over the last 55 years to study and protect the geologic treasures within the caves. They were the ones that discovered Snowy River in 2001 and they have been sending teams of experienced cavers multiple times each year to conduct research and to continue mapping, which includes naming the features encountered along the way. One room, where stalactites vibrate and hum back to cavers at a certain tone, is called “Harmony Hall.” A passage involving a particularly tight squeeze is called the “Crawl from Hell.” An area with blood-red calcite portion was dubbed the “Velvet Underground.”

 

Snowy River is considered the largest calcite formation in the U.S., although there is no definitive way to measure it. Mapping of the Snowy River passage currently extends beyond the conservation area, snaking toward the Sierra Blanca Mountains. Based on what has been mapped thus far, Snowy River may be the longest cave formations in the world. Together with Fort Stanton, the cave complex, at 31.5 miles, is longer than Carlsbad Caverns. It is worth noting that neither of these cave systems have been fully explored and both continue to yield new discoveries. It may be premature to declare either the longest, biggest, and/or most impressive.

 

RESOURCES

 

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

New Mexico History
Buffalo Soldiers in New Mexico
New Mexico History
The History of Fort Stanton

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With the Organ Mountains on the horizon, Las Cruces has a wealth of outdoor recreation in close proximity and an abundance of fantastic food.

The white, gypsum dunes in the Tularosa basin is a geologic and historic treasure trove, as well as a fantastic place for year round dune sledding.

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New Mexico Nomad

Between Lincoln and Capitan, there is a turn off to Fort Stanton, Hwy 220. This route continues through to Alto, outside of Ruidoso. On the way to Fort Stanton from Lincoln, the road passes the turn off to Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area. The conservation area was established in 2009 to protect, conserve, and enhance the unique and nationally important historic, cultural, scientific, archaeological, natural, and educational subterranean resources of the Fort Stanton - Snowy River Cave system. Fort Stanton Cave, at over 31 miles, it is the second longest cave in New Mexico, the 14th longest cave in the US, the 62th longest in the world, and the largest cave managed by the BLM. The Snowy River cave is a branch of the Fort Stanton Cave, named based on the white calcite stream bed that lines the cave floor. More on that after wading through the history of Fort Stanton.

 

The entrance to Fort Stanton is less than a mile from the turnoff to the Snowy Rivers Conservation Area. Established in 1855 as a military post to control the Mescalero Apache Indians, Fort Stanton 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 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.

 

Although the use of many military forts established during the western expansion diminished by the turn of the century, Fort Stanton continued to serve New Mexico and the nation well into the 21st century. The Fort’s complex history is detailed in the Fort Stanton Museum. Visitors can wander the grounds, explore the accompanying cemetery, or hike one of the many trails that make up Fort Stanton State Monument.

 

THE MILITARY YEARS (1855 - 1898)

 

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 additional 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 Lincoln County, encountering frequent conflict with the Apache. To protect themselves from the inevitable Apache raids, the settlers built “torreones,” two-story defensive towers, like the one seen in Lincoln. Settlers and citizen militia were no match for the Apache. There is a reason it wasn't successfully developed prior to the 1800s. To curtail the escalating violence, the United States Army established numerous forts to protect supply routes and settlers in the newly seized territory.

 

The fort was named after Captain Henry W. Stanton, killed while fighting the Apache 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. Numerous military campaigns against the Mescalero Apache were launched from Fort Stanton 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, yet there were only a few hundred intrepid Anglo and Hispanic settlers. The fort provided protection for farmers and ranchers along the Bonito, Hondo and Tularosa Rivers. The fort was the center of most of the region’s commerce and early social life. The first permanent settlements in southeastern New Mexico developed in close proximity.

 

From inception until the end of 1880s, and the capture of Geronimo, Fort Stanton played a critical role in the Apache Wars. Using the fort as a regional base of operations and supply depot, US troops succeeded in subduing the Mescalero Apache. Most of them 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 of them fled back to their homelands in 1865, unwilling to share the reservation with the Navajo. They were rounded up again and Fort Stanton was utilized as a reservation for them 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 the Apache, intervened in turf wars, and interceded in the Lincoln County War. The fort not only provided defense for settlers, it also 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 later.

 

Confederacy, Kit Carson & Concentration Camps

 

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 conflict with the Mescaleros. 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.

 

In 1861, Fort Stanton was seized by Confederate forces in the early stages of the American Civil War. During the month-long occupation, three Rebels were killed by Kiowa Indians while on patrol 50 miles north. In the meantime, the Mescalero Apache fled the fort and resumed raiding central New Mexico. After the Confederates moved all of the supplies to Mesilla, they abandoned the fort. The retreating forces tried to burn the fort, but a rainstorm extinguished the fire. The fort stood empty for a year. Only the stone walls survived the blaze.

 

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 the fort was reclaimed for the Union, it was the site of a famous shootout between Capt. Paddy Graydon and Army doctor, John Whitlock. With the Civil War receding from the Southwest, Paddy Graydon led his company on a bloody attack against a band of Mescalero Apache at Gallinas Springs, personally killing the chief, “Manuelito.” Accused of a massacre, with concerns about an official investigation, Graydon vigorously disputed the accounts of fellow officers who had witnessed the carnage. He got into a violent altercation with Dr. John Marmaduke Whitlock, the post physician at Fort Stanton, who evidently called Graydon a “murderer and a thief.” Graydon was offended. A gunfight ensued on the parade grounds, on the morning of November 5, 1862. During the exchange of fire, Graydon was struck in the chest. Whitlock was shot in the hand and one side. As Graydon was carried from the field, his men attacked Whitlock, shooting him 128 times. Graydon died of his wounds 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 400 Mescaleros at Bosque Redondo. In 1864, they escorted 8000 Navajo 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. Once again, troops stationed at Fort Stanton were sent to round them up, including the newly arrived 9th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers. By 1871, most of the Mescalero Apache were recaptured. Rather than sending them back to Bosque Redondo, Fort Stanton became the Indian Agency for the Mescalero Apache. They were held until 1873, though the Apache Wars continued for several more years. In total the Apache Wars lasted 30 years, ending with the capture of Geronimo’s band on September 4, 1886.

 

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, Pershing was assigned to Troop L of the 6th U.S. Cavalry stationed 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, in 1917-1918, he served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) on the Western Front in World War I. Pershing is the only American to be promoted in his own lifetime to General of the Armies rank, the highest possible rank in the United States Army.

Buffalo Soldiers

 

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. Army enlisted recently freed black men to help facilitate western expansion. Many of these men enlisted due to the economic hardship faced by former slaves following the Civil war. There were few opportunities available for African-Americans back east. These soldiers made up the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalries, with the Ninth Cavalry stationed at Fort Stanton. These troops played a pivotal role in the Apache Wars and other regional conflicts, including the Lincoln County War.

 

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. That last bit may seem peculiar, but keep in mind that scalping was common. As heinous as it may seem, taking trophies after battles wasn’t unusual, with many U.S. military personnel and vigilantes adopting the practice.

 

In total, nearly 4,000 Buffalo Soldiers served at 11 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, of course, Fort Stanton. By 1875, 11% of the troops at Fort Stanton were Buffalo Soldiers. 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 Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched to quell regional conflicts, acting as law enforcement in the absence of lawmen. They were sent to intercede 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. The third was the 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 had partnered with Alexander McSween to open a mercantile in Lincoln. Prior to their arrival, James Dolan had operated a dry goods and banking monopoly. 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. The Dolan faction, aka “The House,” was backed by Sheriff Brady with the support of the Jesse Evans Gang. The Tunstall-McSween faction was backed by the town Constable, Richard Brewer and Deputy US Marshal Robert A. Widenmann, with the backing of an armed posse, known as the Regulators.

 

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. The Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched 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 War came when Colonel Nathan Dudley marched a small squad of troops, 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 beforehand). As the house burned, they shot everyone that tried to escape, 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 he spent time at the Fort Stanton guard house while waiting on a hanging that never happened due to another of his infamous escapes.

 

MORE ABOUT BILLY THE KID

MORE ABOUT THE LINCOLN COUNTY WAR

 

Efforts continued against the Apache, with troops pursuing Victorio and Geronimo’s band into the 1880s. By 1890, the war with the Apache was over. A skeleton staff of 15 soldiers remained at Fort Stanton until the post was abandoned in 1893. In August of 1896, the post was officially decommissioned.

 

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 calvary soldier would have had on hand.

THE HOSPITAL YEARS (1898 - 1953)

 

After closure as an Army post in 1896, Fort Stanton remained unoccupied until it was acquired by the U.S. Public Health Service 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. New buildings were constructed, 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 theatre. The name of the campus was changed to Public Health Service Hospital in 1912.

 

New Mexico’s dry, arid environment was considered ideal for tuberculosis patients. There weren’t many treatment options available. Fresh air and sunshine were the only known cures. Patients lived in specially constructed tents. Between 1898-1953, the hospital at Fort Stanton served approximately 5000 Merchant Marines, 1500 of whom are buried in the Maritime Cemetery on a hill overlooking the fort. The cemetery includes an additional 500 graves, including veterans of other services and a few German POWs.

 

During the Great Depression, Fort Stanton was home to a CCC work camp, which was used as a detention center for German and Japanese POWs during WWII. In 1939, a German luxury liner, the SS Columbus, floundered off the coast of Virginia. German high command scuttled the ship to prevent the British from capturing it. U.S. ships were sent to rescue the crew. Though the United States hadn’t entered the war and wanted to maintain the illusion of neutrality, our British allies didn’t want experienced German naval personnel returned to Germany during the war. German nationals rescued from the luxury liner were officially recorded as “distressed seamen paroled from the German Embassy.” 410 German sailors were sent to Fort Stanton to sit out the duration of WWII in New Mexico. They made the most of their stay, building 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.

 

On December 8, 1941 the United States declared war on Japan in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Three days later, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. By 1942, German and Japanese POWs arrived at the camp. 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 were never given an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Evidence wasn’t required. Due process was denied.

 

On March 10, 1945, 48 POWs were transferred to Fort Stanton. Due to racial bias, the 31 German American “troublemakers” were kept separate from the 17 Japanese American “troublemakers.” Within a few months of arrival, the Japanese Americans were deported to Japan.

 

As the tuberculosis epidemic subsided, the need for the facility diminished. In 1953, Fort Stanton and 27,000 acres were transferred to the State of New Mexico. The hospital continued to treat tuberculosis patients until 1966 when it was re-purposed to serve as a branch of the Los Lunas Hospital and Training School for the mentally handicapped, operating under the New Mexico Department of Health. From 1966 until 1995, the facility served as the State Hospital for the Developmentally Handicapped.

 

In 1996, the fort was turned over to the State Corrections Facility. 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. A non-profit, Fort Stanton, Inc., was created 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 88 buildings on this historic site, 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 features an introductory video and an excellent exhibit that bring the rich history and heritage of the fort to life. The museum is located in a recently restored soldier’s barracks that was built in 1855. The building was converted to serve as an Administration Building for the Public Health Service during the hospital era. The fort also hosts occasional reenactments and live entertainment. Check their website for upcoming events.

 

Museum Hours are 10 am – 4 pm daily. There is no admission fee, though donations are appreciated and applied to maintenance and preservation. (575) 354-0341.

FORT STANTON SNOWY RIVER NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA

 

There are 12 known caves on the grounds of Fort Stanton State Monument. In 2009 Congress designated the Fort Stanton Cave and 25,080 acres surrounding it as a National Cave Conservation Area to protect the Fort Stanton cave complex. The land and caves beneath are protected from any activity on the surface, such as drilling, except for existing mineral claims. The property is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Portions of the cave systems are open on a limited basis to the public. Exploring the caves requires a permit from the BLM Roswell Field Office. It is a good idea to call and check the status of the caves ahead of time. They are frequently closed to protect the resident bat population from White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

 

Fort Stanton Cave is an extensive limestone cave located on the land previously used as the Fort Stanton Reservation. At over 31 miles long, it is the longest cave in the park and the third longest cave in the state, which makes it one of the longest caverns in the U.S. Based on cane torches and other evidence found within the cave, it appears that the Jornada Mogollon and Apache explored the cave long before Europeans arrived.

 

With the establishment of Fort Stanton, soldiers discovered the cave. A patrol of the 1st Dragoons explored the cave in 1855, equipped with .44 caliber pistols and musketoons. They descended into the cave on ropes, carrying canteens and bulky haversacks of supplies, using whale oil lamps to navigate the dark passageways. Soldiers from Fort Stanton returned several times, using the cave for military drills. They were training to patrol the dark, cramped caverns, because there was a rumor that the Apache had a sacred cave somewhere in the Guadalupe-Sacramento-Capitan mountains. They wanted to find and destroy that cave to demoralize the Apache. In 1871, the Army launched an official exploratory expedition, sending a small contingent of soldiers deep into the cave, approximately 8 miles based on their estimation. They took a boat with them to cross an underground lake inside the cave. The lake no longer exists due to the lower water table.

 

The most famous feature of Fort Stanton Cave is the Snowy River, a mostly level passage with a bright white crystal calcite formation covering the bottom, like a river of snow. Cavers had suspected that there was another large passage somewhere near the Fort Stanton Cave, but it took three decades of searching and a 45-foot vertical shaft to access it. In 2001, a team of experienced cavers descended deep into the Fort Stanton cave. They followed a small flow of air, hand digging a narrow passage through a dirt wall. When they burrowed through the narrow opening, they discovered the crystalline cavern. Slow moving, limestone rich ground water had recrystallized the limestone into a white form of calcite. The formation filled the passageway for miles, like a crystal trail. The discovery of the new section of the cave precipitated a name change for the Conservation area, which is now rthe Fort Stanton-Snowy River National Conservation Area.

 

Exploring Snowy River hasn’t been easy. In some areas the cave ceiling is so low that explorers have to wriggle through tight crevices until the passage opens up. In other areas the passage is 100 feet tall and 40-50 feet wide. Cave scientists have identified more than 50 microbes in the passage, including new species. In 2007 a group of cavers exploring the cavern discovered that Snowy River occasionally has clear water flowing through the passage, its maximum depth defined by the edge of the pure white calcite formation on the mud floor and limestone walls. The calcite on the cave floor is delicate, varying from fractions of an inch to four inches thick. Explorers have gone to great lengths to minimize damage and to keep the formation clean. Due to the scientific importance of the Snowy River passage, and the extremely fragile formations, the cave is not open to the public.

 

Most of the exploration and research at Fort Stanton-Snowy River NCA has been conducted by the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting exploration, public education, scientific research, and environmentally sound management of the caves within and surrounding the Conservation Area. Over 100 volunteers have donated time, effort and expertise over the last 55 years to study and protect the geologic treasures within the caves. They were the ones that discovered Snowy River in 2001 and they have been sending teams of experienced cavers multiple times each year to conduct research and to continue mapping, which includes naming the features encountered along the way. One room, where stalactites vibrate and hum back to cavers at a certain tone, is called “Harmony Hall.” A passage involving a particularly tight squeeze is called the “Crawl from Hell.” An area with blood-red calcite portion was dubbed the “Velvet Underground.”

 

Snowy River is considered the largest calcite formation in the U.S., although there is no definitive way to measure it. Mapping of the Snowy River passage currently extends beyond the conservation area, snaking toward the Sierra Blanca Mountains. Based on what has been mapped thus far, Snowy River may be the longest cave formations in the world. Together with Fort Stanton, the cave complex, at 31.5 miles, is longer than Carlsbad Caverns. It is worth noting that neither of these cave systems have been fully explored and both continue to yield new discoveries. It may be premature to declare either the longest, biggest, and/or most impressive.

 

RESOURCES

 

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

FORT STANTON

New Mexico Nomad