For this latest post, I will follow the "Mountain Branch" of the Santa Fe Trail which started where the two routes divided at La Junta (now Watrous,) New Mexico. Again, if you were traveling northeast, away from Santa Fe. If you were heading towards Santa Fe from Missouri, the routes divided in Kansas, a little bit west of Dodge. The Cimarron Cutoff Branch was shorter but dryer and more prone to Indian attacks. The Mountain Branch took longer but it was considered safer with much more reliable water. As I said, my book "Into the Shadowlands" takes place along this branch of the trail and there are many scenes (past and present) set at most of the sites Fancy and I visited this spring.
The first major stop, after leaving La Junta (Watrous,) would have been Fort Union. Established in 1851, in part to help protect travelers of the trail from Indian attacks, it actually had three incarnations. The first fort (1851-61) consisted of a few log buildings, nestled up against a bluff to the west of the current ruins. Later, that site became the Ordinance Depot and those ruins are still visible. The second Fort Union (1861-62) consisted of a massive star-shaped earthworks. It was built to help defend the Santa Fe Trail against the Confederate invasion, which never came. (The Confederate Army was thwarted at the Glorieta Pass, approx 100 miles southwest of Fort Union.) Construction of the third and final Fort Union was started in 1863. I just LOVE this place. Most of it was built of adobe and stone and the ruins of this fort are quite extensive, even today. Fort Union is only 8 miles from where I live (in Watrous) and I love to visit it at least once a year, preferably in the off-season when I can have the place to myself, and wander the grounds. I had no trouble writing nostalgic scenes set in this place in my book as I always get an intense feeling of nostalgia when I visit it. I am not the only one. Marian Russell met her husband at Fort Union and had many fond, first-hand memories of it. She married her true love in its military chapel and she and her husband, Richard, lived next door to Colonel Carson (Kit Carson) on its grounds for a while. In her beautiful memoir "Land Of Enchantment" Marian recounts visiting the ruins of Fort Union when she was an elderly lady.
"At Fort Union I found crumbling walls and tottering chimneys. Here and there a tottering adobe wall where once a might howitzer stood. Great rooms stood roofless, their whitewashed walls open to the sky. Wild gourd vines grew inside the Officers' quarters. Rabbits scurried before my questing feet. The little guard house alone stood intact, mute witness of the punishment inflicted there. The Stars and Stripes was gone. Among a heap of rubble I found the ruins of the little chapel where I had stood - a demure, little bride in a velvet cape - and heard a preacher say, "That which God hath joined together let no man put asunder." I found the ruins of my little home where Colonel Carson once had stood beneath a hanging lamp. I heard or seemed to hear again his kindly voice, "Little Maid Marian, you cannot go. I promised your mother to take good care of you." The wind moaned among the crumbling ruins and brought with it the sound of marching feet. I saw with eyes that love to look backward, a wagon train coming along the old trail. I saw a child in a blue pinafore. It was little Maid Marian on the seat of an old covered wagon."
There are many references to Fort Union in countless memoirs, letters, diaries and documents from the 1800s. Too many to reference here. Needless to say, I love reading about it, in its prime. In the book "I married a Soldier" by Lydia Spencer Lane, she and her husband spent time in the very first Fort Union and later in the 'newer' version.
"The Lieutenant was ordered to remain at Fort Union, and all we had in the way of furniture, etc., was soon settled in the quarters assigned us. They were built of logs, and old, but cosy and homelike, and, with our good cook and nurse, we enjoyed housekeeping after our weeks and weeks of travel. "
A later quote:
"We had not been particularly comfortable at Fort Union, but we were sorry to leave. We liked the old log quarters, up towards the hills, much better than the new adobe houses, planted right down on the plain, which was swept by the winds all summer long. How they did howl! About ten o'clock every morning they woke up, and whistled and moaned, and rose to wild shrieks, doing everything wind ever does in the way of making a noise."
Lydia was not the only resident of the new Fort Union to lament the wind. I thoroughly enjoyed a book called "Frontier Cavalry Trooper" which comprises the letters of Private Eddie Matthews who was posted to Fort Union between the years 1869 and 1874. In it there is a treasure trove of information about the daily life of a soldier at the fort.
"The only objection I can find here is the miserable wind. Talk of March wind in the States, why it is not a comparison to this place. Wind, wind, and sand all the time. This Post is built on a plain. There is nothing to break the wind, therefore giving it full sway."
Fancy and I look out at the ruins of Fort Union.
A photograph of the Mechanic's Corral at Fort Union.
Officer's Quarters at Fort Union.
A photo of the ruins of the fort's hospital that I took while wandering the ruins during a snow storm. A key scene (both past and present) happens here in my book "Into the Shadowlands." I have included a quote from my book on the photo.
" And now I have little news to tell which occured at Louma Padra (Loma Parda,) a Mexican town seven miles from here. There are several drinking saloons and two dance halls in the town and plenty of Mexican Women in the town to dance. The third Cavalry had two or three men Killed over there by Mexicans. Few nights ago a couple of Mexicans beat a Bugler of D Company. He came over to Camp and reported it to the men."
Private Eddie Matthews, "Frontier Cavalry Trooper."
The village of Loma Parda is little more than ruins now. In its day, it was a thriving town along the Mora River just a few miles southwest of Fort Union. To many historians it is referred to as "Sodom on the Mora" due to its reputation for violence and vice. It boasted many brothels and 'dance halls.' Even though it was off-limits to the soldiers of Fort Union, it was too much of a temptation for those lads and many of them lost more than their shirts at the gambling tables and 'cribs' that thrived in the village. Of course I have a scene set here in my book!
Fancy and I outside the ruins of what was once Baca's Dance Hall in Loma Parda.
Fancy and I ride by what was once the Livery Stables in Loma Parda.
Heading northwest out of Fort Union along the main branch of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail (actually there are numerous routes travelers could take out of the fort. Some go to Loma Parda, others go towards Las Vegas (by-passing La Junta) and others to the town of Mora via the La Cueva Mill,) the next major landmark would be the village of Ocate with its towering crater. I have another critical scene set here in my book. The trail passed by here on its way to Rayado and Cimarron. Susan Shelby Magoffin camped here (heading south towards Santa Fe) with her husband Samuel Magoffin's ("Mi Alma" - my soul) trade wagon train in 1846. She makes reference to it in the diary she kept, "Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico."
"Sunday 23rd. Ocate Creek. Camp No. 17. We are getting in among the hills, pigmy Mountains, again. Our camp last night was at the foot of one, which I ascended. At the top I found a thicket of pine trees, and fearing lest a hungry bruen might be lurking in them, or a tiger cat - rather the worst of the two when one comes to fighting with them, for while Mr. Bruen will squeeze you gently till all breath has left you, the other will scratch and bite and tear with his long talons till death comes to relieve the sufferer. I did not dare venture farther, but returned to camp.
This morning I have rode some on horse back - the road has been rough and I found it rather more agreeable than the carriage. Mi alma drives today, getting into settlements has inspired one of our drivers - Sandevel - with new love for his padre, madre y mujer (father, mother, and wife); so last night he petitioned to go ahead to see them, and will meet us at the road, the junta (junction), a place where this and the Cimerrone road joins and the waters of some two or three arollas (arroyos - streams)."
The "Junction" (Junta) Susan refers to is none other than Watrous! Where, as she says, the Cimerrone road (Cimarron Cutoff) and the Mountain Branch meet.
The scenery around Ocate, New Mexico.
Fancy and I standing in front of Ocate Crater. This photo does not do it justice. It towers above the plain and can be seen for many many miles. I can clearly see it from my living room window in Watrous! In this photo (taken in the spring) you can see that Fancy and I are being subjected to those howling winds that both Eddie Matthews and Lydia Spencer Lane referred to!
STAY TUNED FOR MORE OF FANCY AND I'S TRAVELS NORTH ALONG THE MOUNTAIN BRANCH OF THE SANTA FE TRAIL!