Fort Union: silhouettes on the Old Santa Fe Trail

Fort Union National Monument, on the Old Santa Fe Trail, about an hour and a half north or Santa Fe, makes a great day-trip for history buffs.

Sitting on a bench at Fort Union National Monument, except for the occasional gusts of wind, it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. What a difference time makes. One hundred and fifty years ago, in the middle of the Civil War, the fort, on the Santa Fe Trail, was a bustling hive or humans and animals, comings and goings. As a reminder  of the past, there’s periodic  bugling, (through the PA system, now,  as there would have been when the fort was more than an adobe skeleton on the prairie.

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Wagons, photo Steve Collins

The fort, built in 1851, sat at the junction of the Mountain and Cimarron Branches of the Santa Fe Trail. In its heyday, Fort Union was a Territorial-style oasis on the long and dusty trail that started in Missouri and terminated in Santa Fe. Traders brought the every-day needs of settlers in the new territory; food, fabric, pots and pans and other goods not available in New Mexico. Going east, they carried furs, gold bullion and mules. It was also a step to securing access to Pacific ports.

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Weathered adobe at Fort Union, photo Steve Collins

The Fort Union Depot was charged with supplying the forts around the southwest and military encampments along the Santa Fe Trail and near reservations.

Santa Fe trail

Quartermaster Depot, photo Steve Collins

During the Civil War, Fort Union sent out patrols and provided escorts for wagon trains heading south. Confederate troops based in Texas ,wanting access to Colorado gold and to the Pacific, were a real threat.

Santa Fe Trail

Fireplace, photo Steve Collins

Enlisted men weren’t generally allowed to marry, but there was an exception. An army creates a lot of dirty laundry. If their prospective wives were willing to be laundresses, they were granted permission to wed. Enlisted couples were given a single room heated by a fireplace, extremely cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer. Single men lived in communal barracks.

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Wheel ruts, photo Steve Collins

Officers were allowed to marry and bring their wives and children to live in this barren outpost. One of the most poignant photos at the Fort is of a family in their “parlor” with a piano. That piano had to journey from Missouri on a wagon. Things we take for granted were extreme luxuries at Fort Union.

Santa Fe trail

The Sangre de Cristos and Fort Union. photo Steve Collins

With the expansion of the railroads and more peaceful times out west, Fort Union became obsolete. It was closed in 1891, forty years after it opened.

Today, the skeletons of the adobe buildings stand silhouetted against the big sky with the Sangre de Christo Mountains rising to the west and the prairie to the east a silent testament to the wild west and the Santa Fe Trail.

If you go

Fort Union is on State Highway NM 161 eight miles west of I-25 . The site is open daily (except Thanksgiving Christmas and New Year’s Day); admission is free. Winter hours, which run from from Labor Day to Memorial Day are 8am to 4pm and summer hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day are 8am to 5pm.

Have you been to Fort Union or any other historic US Army forts? 

See our Photo of the Week: Windows at Fort Union

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15 Responses to “Fort Union: silhouettes on the Old Santa Fe Trail”

  1. Patti
    November 3, 2013 at 11:52 pm #

    I love history such as this. We’ve been to Ft. Laramie on the Platte River in Wyoming, talk about fascinating!

    • Billie Frank
      November 4, 2013 at 9:55 am #

      Steve’s been there- he used to drive tour busses- he and says I would have enjoyed it- not sure why I never got there. We didn’t live that far. Oh well. Maybe sometime.

  2. Linda ~ Journey Jottings
    November 4, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    Abandoned buildings are so evocative –
    There’s a real feeling in those gorgeous photos of the spirits of the people who lived there blowing in the dry dusty wind 🙂

    • Billie Frank
      November 4, 2013 at 9:57 am #

      These are like no other abandoned buildings I’ve ever been to- they really do hold the energy of the past. We have so many great photos from there it was hard to choose. We loved the one with all the archways so much it’s the cover for our 2014 calendar.

  3. Gaelyn
    November 4, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Was a hard life. It’s interesting to explore historic places.

    • Billie Frank
      November 4, 2013 at 10:02 am #

      It was a hard life. They have photos of the married officers’ quarters (and married enlisted men, too- their wives were the laundresses. The officers’ wives are dressed like they were in a drawing room in a civilized place and some had even brought the pianos across the prairie.

  4. Tom Bartel
    November 5, 2013 at 1:51 am #

    Billie, thanks for the reminder of US history, and the hardships women had to endure to go with their crazy men. Thank god they’re still willing to do it on occasion.

  5. Cathy Sweeney
    November 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Great photos and interesting history, including the tidbit about allowing the soldiers to marry if the woman would do the laundry. I’ve always loved visiting old U.S. forts and have been to quite a few. Looks like I’ve missed Fort Union, though. Another point of interest on the list now ….

  6. Kristin Henning
    November 12, 2013 at 4:28 am #

    Your photos really leave an impression. The carts half-buried in sand and the ‘skeletal’ remains of the fort are really powerful. Thanks for adding this to the History link-up.

    • Billie Frank
      November 12, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Thanks! It’s a powerful place! And our pleasure to join the round-up.

  7. Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque)
    November 23, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    This would have been an interesting place to see during our recent visit to northern New Mexico. I was surprised to lean that Santa Fe was briefly under Confederate control during the Civil War.

    • Billie Frank
      November 24, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      There was actually a decisive battle in Glorietta about 20 minutes southeast of Santa Fe.

  8. Donna Janke
    June 24, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    This looks an interesting place to visit and get a sense of some of the Civil War history. Thanks for sharing.

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