The US Army operated Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley for twenty-five years, from 1858 to 1883. The fort was built to protect early settlers from Native American raids in the years before treaties, reservations, and removal made that mission obsolete. After decades of neglect, the fort was restored in the mid-twentieth century and now operates as one of History Colorado’s regional museums.
Fort Garland stands in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, which was long perched on the border between different and antagonistic cultures. Essentially a high-elevation desert guarded on most sides by mountain ranges, the valley was inhabited primarily by Southern Ute tribes before the 1600s, with Apache living just over the mountains to the east. Starting in the seventeenth century and accelerating in the eighteenth century, two expanding cultures began to extend their reach toward the valley: the Spanish moved up the Rio Grande through what is now New Mexico, and the Comanche dominated the high plains east of the Rocky Mountains. The San Luis Valley sat on the edge of both growing cultures as a dangerous frontier.
Yet another culture began to encroach on the valley in the early nineteenth century. After the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Zebulon Montgomery Pike was dispatched to explore the upper Red and Arkansas Rivers, where the precise boundaries of the Purchase were disputed. In January 1807 his expedition crossed Medano Pass into the San Luis Valley. Pike’s men passed near the future site of Fort Garland, descended to the Conejos River, and built a crude log shelter, now known as Pike’s Stockade, to help them survive the bitterly cold high-desert winter. The Spanish eventually arrested Pike on suspicion of spying and shipped him back to the United States by way of Chihuahua.
In 1821 the San Luis Valley passed to Mexico after that country won its independence from Spain. At about the same time, regular commerce began on the Santa Fé Trail linking Missouri and New Mexico. The trail followed the Arkansas River west into what is now Colorado, with one route going over Sangre de Cristo Pass into the San Luis Valley before heading south to Taos. Webs of commerce were beginning to bind the valley to the cultures just beyond its borders.
The San Luis Valley became part of the United States as a result of the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American War of 1846–48. Charles Beaubien acquired the land grant that encompassed much of the valley. In the early 1850s Beaubien encouraged Hispano families from the Taos Valley in New Mexico to move north and establish colonies in the valley along Rio Culebra. Founded in 1851, the town of San Luis de Culebra is the oldest continuous settlement in Colorado. The San Luis Valley was starting to be incorporated into the American political and social order.
Fort Massachusetts and Fort Garland
In the spring and summer of 1852, about a year after the founding of San Luis de Culebra, the US Army built its first fort in the San Luis Valley to protect settlers and establish its authority. The fort, called Fort Massachusetts, lay in the foothills about a day’s ride north of town. It had several problems. Its location made it vulnerable to attack from higher ground, and the building failed to provide adequate protection from the valley’s brutal winters. This became clear during the winter of 1855–56, when scurvy and subzero temperatures made the troops sick and miserable.
On July 17, 1856, the army secured a lease on a new plot of land on the floor of the San Luis Valley. Under the terms of the deal, the army agreed to pay Charles Beaubien rent of one dollar per year for twenty-five years. The army quickly picked a valley location right on the trails coming over Sangre de Cristo Pass and La Veta Pass, with clear views in all directions, and built a new fort, called Fort Garland. The fort consisted of a rectangle of single-story buildings with adobe walls three feet thick to help protect soldiers from the cold San Luis Valley winters. The troops at Fort Massachusetts lowered their flag on June 24, 1858, and marched a few miles south to take up residence at Fort Garland.
During the Civil War, Fort Garland served as an important enlistment site and rendezvous point for companies of Colorado Volunteers heading south to stop Confederate attempts to take New Mexico in 1861–62. These volunteers helped win the Battle of Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, in late March 1862. This battle, which has been called the Gettysburg of the West, effectively ended the Civil War in the western territories.
After the Civil War, Fort Garland’s primary business for the next twenty years was to secure and enforce treaties with local Native Americans, primarily Southern Utes, for the purpose of making the San Luis Valley safe for settlement. The 1863 Treaty of Conejos attempted to impose limits on Ute territory, but few Utes abided by the terms of the agreement, which was signed by only one band of Utes.
Fort Garland’s most famous and perhaps most successful commander during these years was the legendary mountain man and army officer Kit Carson (1809–68). Carson arrived in May 1866 with four companies of New Mexico Volunteers. He helped arrange an agreement by which Ute chiefs would give up their claims in much of central Colorado, including the San Luis Valley, and move to the southwest quadrant of the state in exchange for a payment of $60,000 per year for thirty years.
Carson left Fort Garland in October 1867, but the peace he forged lasted until 1879, at least in the San Luis Valley. In southwestern Colorado, however, prospectors in the La Plata and San Juan Mountains soon came into conflict with the Utes who had moved there. In the 1870s soldiers from Fort Garland were sent to help secure peace between the Utes and the encroaching miners.
In one of history’s many ironies, the soldiers stationed at Fort Garland and tasked with securing Colorado for primarily white Anglo settlement in these years were a diverse lot. The army tended to send its foreign-born recruits, many of whom could not speak English, to remote posts like Fort Garland. Companies of largely Hispano New Mexico Volunteers were stationed at the fort in 1862–63 and again with Kit Carson in 1866–67. From 1876 to 1879 the fort was home to the black Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry, who got their name because Plains Indians thought their curly black hair looked like the matted fur between a buffalo’s horns. Even during periods of relative peace, they still had to fight the biting cold of winter in the high desert, which claimed the lives of many men.
Any semblance of peace between whites and Utes in Colorado ended on September 29, 1879, when Utes clashed with the army at Milk Creek and killed Indian Agent Nathan Meeker and ten others at the White River Agency. Fort Garland had become a somewhat sleepy post, assumed to have no real strategic value, but after the Meeker Incident it suddenly bustled with activity. Fifteen companies were temporarily stationed at the fort, most of them forced by lack of space to live in tents throughout the bone-chilling winter. In 1880 the troops at Fort Garland helped escort the Utes out of the Rocky Mountains to new reservations in Utah and in far southwestern Colorado near the New Mexico border.
Railroad Arrival and Fort Decommission
Fort Garland was originally meant to secure the San Luis Valley for settlers. When the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad crossed Sangre de Cristo Pass into the valley in 1877, that purpose came to an end. The railroad served as a symbol that the valley was being fully incorporated into American society and would not remain a frontier of empire much longer.
When the army signed its original lease for the land around Fort Garland, it had agreed to pay $1 per month for twenty-five years. That lease ran out at the end of June 1882. By that time a group of investors, including William Gilpin, who served as the first governor of Colorado Territory in the early 1860s, had acquired title to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. Gilpin began to charge the army $100 per month for its lease. Within months, General William Tecumseh Sherman advised the secretary of war that Fort Garland was “obsolete and ought to be abandoned.” At the end of November 1883, the fort was decommissioned and its remaining troops moved to Fort Lewis, near Durango. The army paid for the bodies of all soldiers buried at Fort Garland (except those with strong family ties to the area) to be exhumed and reburied at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
After the army left, the fort and its land reverted to the Trinchera Estate, which had acquired the title from Gilpin. The fort’s property fell into disuse and passed through many hands over the next four decades. The Trinchera Timber Company rented the fort’s buildings in 1912–15, before William H. Meyer bought the fort and began to live in the old commander’s quarters. The fort passed through several more hands in the 1920s, until at last one owner planned to raze the remaining buildings and sell them for parts.
Preservation and Restoration
The prospect of demolition and sale spurred locals in Costilla and Conejos Counties to form the Fort Garland Historical Fair Association in May 1928. The purpose of the association was to preserve what remained of the fort, with the idea that the site might serve as a county fairground in the future. The association tried to get support from the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) and the National Park Service to purchase the site but failed to generate sufficient interest. Undeterred, the association went around the San Luis Valley selling $5 shares to ranchers, farmers, and businesspeople. This fundraising effort enabled the association to buy Fort Garland in 1929. Just then, however, the Great Depression hit, and the association struggled simply to pay taxes on the property throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.
In 1945 the Colorado Historical Society acquired the site. By that time all but five of the original twenty-two buildings had been demolished or had deteriorated beyond repair. The five remaining buildings were restored, with new roofs, adobe bricks, and interior fittings, and the restored Fort Garland opened as a museum in 1950. In 1966 the Colorado Historical Society completely rebuilt a sixth building, the company quarters, on its original foundation, though the reconstruction was performed prior to any archaeological work at the site and used concrete blocks and stucco rather than adobe bricks.
Fort Garland continues to operate as a regional museum devoted to the history of the San Luis Valley. Starting in the 1990s and continuing into the twenty-first century, the Colorado Historical Society has conducted a thorough archaeological investigation at the site. Under the direction of Anne Bond, the investigation has explored the foundations of the fort’s original buildings and excavated old trash deposits to try to find out more about life at the fort in the nineteenth century.