by Nancy Christofferson
FORT GARLAND — On February 25, 1862, or 155 years ago, three settlements in the San Luis Valley got post offices. One of these was Fort Garland.
Just because the fort had no established post office did not mean it didn’t receive mail before that time. It was a government outpost, after all, and needed to be in communication with the outside world beyond just military dispatches.
The San Luis Valley was on one of two major trails connecting the new Denver City in Colorado with old Santa Fe, New Mexico, a distance, by the western route, of about 275 miles. In 1860, the mail was carried once a week from each end for the six-day trip.
In that year, the San Luis Valley was still in Taos County, New Mexico. A U.S. post office was established in Santa Fe October 1, 1849 as the first in that territory. Within a few years, the service area had widened and in 1852, Taos got its own office.
The next year, 1861, Colorado became a territory, and the New Mexico postal facilities changed with the status. Colorado’s first post office was actually opened in 1858 in Nebraska Territory to serve the gold fields.
While New Mexico boasted many military forts, by 1861 Colorado Territory had just three – Garland, Wise (later Lyon), and Camp Weld. All the other “forts” were fortified trading posts, privately owned.
Fort Garland’s predecessor, Fort Massachusetts, the first established in the later state, had flourished from 1852-1858, when it was replaced by the nearby Garland. Fort Massachusetts had several problems. The location, it is said, was swampy and unhealthy. It was also located near enough to some low hills that Indians could hide among them and take potshots into the fort.
After the Christmas Massacre at Fort Pueblo in 1854, the commander of the military district of New Mexico, General John Garland, heard Blanco, the leader of the murderous tribe of Utes, was in the San Luis Valley. He sent Colonel Thomas Fauntleroy with 400 volunteers, which included Kit Carson and Cerán St. Vrain, to find and “punish” the band. At that time Fort Mass had a garrison of just 120 soldiers within a 270 by 320 foot enclosure. Fauntleroy had more or less lost the track of Blanco and his people, so took the volunteers to rest at Fort Mass. It was so restful, in fact, they stayed the entire winter, spring and summer.
From here the troops could make forays against any Indians in the region, and soon the Indians were getting pretty upset about the matter. The upshot was that the Utes were awarded 1,000 square miles of their own, west of the Rio Grande and safely away from most of the settlements and more importantly, away from the soldiers. The agency was headquartered at Conejos, with Lafayette Head the agent.
After gold was discovered in the San Juans, the San Luis Valley route saw a great increase in traffic beginning in 1861. Fort Garland’s sole mission was to keep the peace between the Indians, settlers and prospectors.
Fort Garland was a series of adobe, one-story buildings set around a central parade ground. Outside the compound were the hospital, stables and corrals, shop, commissary, the trading post of John M. Francisco, laundry, and bakery. The location offered ample supplies of water and wood. It was also on leased land belonging to the owners of the Sangre de Cristo land grant. The lease was for 25 years.
With the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, the soldiers of the fort were sent to serve at Fort Union, New Mexico to assist in protecting the territory from marauding Confederate troops and guerillas from Texas. When the concerted effort was made by the Confederates to take over the Territory of New Mexico, Fort Garland’s soldiers helped to defeat them at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862.
While the garrison was off fighting on the plains, Fort Garland was manned by 200 Colorado Volunteers, though these men too soon left for New Mexico. Then, real volunteers were serving the post.
The worst problem the fort faced during the war years was capturing the infamous Espinosa “gang”. While the troopers spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to capture the Espinosas, Tom Tobin saved the day.
After the Civil War ended, and soldiers returned, Kit Carson took command. At the time it was estimated some 800 Ute and 250 Jicarilla warriors were in the vicinity. The post boasted 60 soldiers, along with an unspecified number of volunteers.
That September, Colonel Andrew Alexander was dispatched from Fort Union to find a site to build a new outpost in southeastern Colorado to be named Fort Stevens. His force included parts of the Third Cavalry, two companies of the Fifty-seventh Colored Infantry, and his wife. They marched northward via the toll road over Raton Pass and into Trinidad, noted by Mrs. Alexander as a “small Mexican village”. By the next morning, August 28, 1866, her diary recorded the sight of fresh snow on the Spanish Peaks. They would soon see more, up close.
Alexander’s small army was stopped at camp on the Apishapa River while Carson, other officers and Ceran St. Vrain, owner of the land grant around them, decided where to locate the new fort. The site chosen was a few miles from Francisco’s ranch on the Cucharas River. They arrived at there and made camp.
Meanwhile, Moache Utes had attacked the Trinidad area and Alexander was ordered to return there with his troops. While they scattered the Utes, the force lost several of their black members. Near Francisco’s ranch, or today’s La Veta, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who’d been staying at Fort Garland, was visiting with Mrs. Alexander and considering the proposed building site of Fort Stevens. He decided this would not be the best location, and Alexander took his men on to the San Luis Valley.
Their stay at Fort Garland lasted just two or three weeks before new orders called for their return to Fort Union, which they reached via Taos in a sort of circle tour. If the original intention had been to beef up Fort Garland, General Sherman had scotched it.
In 1868, the name of George Armstrong Custer was put forth as the next commandant of Fort Garland. How might that have changed the history books?
Fort Garland received reinforcement from the Ninth Cavalry, better known as buffalo soldiers, who again faced hostile Utes after the Meeker Massacre in 1879.
Earlier, in 1875, Fort Garland hosted the party of surveyors and explorers known as the Wheeler Survey. One of its members wrote of the premises that they were, “altogether dispiriting in their unmitigated ugliness.” Traveler and writer Helen Hunt Jackson was not much more impressed, noting the fort wasn’t much more than a barracks that would not survive an attack.
In an 1880 guidebook author George A. Crofutt wrote of the fort that it was typical of western military posts in that was “a series of low, cheap, one story buildings”.
The fort had evidently seen its glory days fade away. When the lease on the land was expiring in 1883, the decision was made to abandon it. The garrison was transferred to Fort Lewis on the western slope, and Fort Garland’s adobe structures began their long, slow melt. Had it not been converted into a private residence and then a museum, there might not be a single trace of it today.