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Other military outposts in the region

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Historic Sites – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FORT GARLAND wasn’t the first military outpost in that general area; it was the last. By the time it closed in 1883, the Utes had been removed and the Valley’s residents no longer needed military protection.

The Southern Utes were among the most successful tribes at discouraging outside settlement. Columbus arrived in 1492. Less than 50 years later, in 1540, a Spanish entrada led by Don Francisco Vàsquez de Coronado penetrated the interior as far as present Albuquerque. By 1609, the Spanish had founded Santa Fé, and the empire soon reached Fernandez de Taos, the plaza just outside the Pueblo.


In little more than a century, Spain extended its power for 8,000 miles from Madrid to Taos. Spain had conquered the Incas and the Aztecs. But Spain was never able to penetrate Ute territory enough to matter — the empire effectively stopped at Taos.

Perhaps the main reason is that Spain didn’t try very hard. Santa Fé was already at the far end of a tenuous supply and communication line, hardly fit to be the base for further conquests. Besides that, there was nothing in La Frontera del Norte, today’s Colorado, of much interest to Spain anyway — the silver and gold seemed to be concentrated in Mexico and Peru.

Thus Spanish policy evolved to treat with the Southern Utes as a buffer nation — the Utes, if left in place, would discourage invasions of Spanish territory from the north and east.

Enter the Americans, beginning with Zebulon M. Pike in 1806-7. Pike penetrated the central mountains and the San Luis Valley, where he built a stockade in Spanish territory near present La Jara.

More blue-coated soldiers were likely to follow, even though Spain and the United States had agreed on a boundary with the Transcontinental Treaty in early 1819 — the treaty that set the Arkansas River as the international border.

In the summer of 1819, New Mexico provincial governor Facundo Melgares sent his men north to build a fort along the main approach to the northern zone, Sangre de Cristo Pass, near today’s La Veta Pass.

As Phil Carson explains in his fine book, Across the Northern Frontier, “The structure — the location of which has bedeviled modern historians and anthropologists — arose on an Oak Creek tributary to the Huerfano, the first and only documented Spanish colonial building to rise on Colorado soil. By October, however, Governor Melgares had to write Commander General Conde that ‘a band of one hundred men dressed as Indians’ had massacred a party of Spanish scouts and overrun the fort. Melgares subsequently sent three hundred settlers to bolster the fort’s defense. Sometime not long afterward the exposed fort was abandoned. When it was attacked and by whom is not known…”

That was the first real military fort in the general area — that corridor across the Sangres — and it lasted less than a year.

Spain left this part of the world after Mexico gained its independence in 1821, and Mexico’s military presence seldom extended north of Taos. This meant that when colonists ventured north to settle the land grants that were being handed out, they had no military protection from the Utes, who were understandably displeased about having their territory invaded.

Mexico lost what little control it had after the United States invaded in 1846, and the territory became part of the U.S. with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the treaty, the U.S. promised to honor the Mexican land grants, and by some interpretations, “honoring” meant “sending out some soldiers to protect the colonists on the grants.”

By the end of that decade, several small settlements, populated by colonists from Taos, had sprouted just north of the current state line. But the Utes had always repelled similar efforts in the past, and likely would do it again unless the settlers got some military protection.

In 1851, the U.S. Army established a system for the Department of New Mexico. Headquarters would be at Fort Union, near present Las Vegas, N.M. Union could then support smaller outposts, placed where protection was needed.

That was the same year that the town of San Luis was established in present Colorado, on the Sangre de Cristo land grant. It was populated by agricultural colonists from Taos, and those colonists needed protection from the Utes. So in 1852, Major George H. Blake took his dragoons north from Fort Union to establish a fort.

He didn’t have any money for buying or leasing land from the owners of the Sangre de Cristo Grant, so he had to site the fort on the nearest public land. That was on Ute Creek under Mount Blanca, and it was christened Fort Massachusetts (the site is on private land now). It was a hard day’s ride from the settlers at San Luis, and it was also remote from the trail over Sangre de Cristo Pass. The wooded and hilly terrain around the fort also meant Indians could easily hide and launch attacks against the wooden stockade.

Just why the fort was named Massachusetts seems to be speculation — perhaps it was Maj. Blake’s home state, or the Army was trying to impress a powerful congressman or senator from the Bay State.

At any rate, Fort Massachusetts provided enough protection so that the settlement at San Luis — now Colorado’s oldest town — could take root.

FORT MASSACHUSETTS was also there to succor a rescue party during the Mormon War of 1857-58. Col. Albert Sidney Johnston was dispatched west in 1857 to show Brigham Young that the United States was in charge of Deseret. No shots were ever fired in this “Mormon War,” but Young’s followers did drive off Johnston’s livestock and destroy his supplies.

Thus the Army was stalled in southwestern Wyoming as winter came on, and supplies were running out. On Nov. 27, 1857, Johnston dispatched a relief party under Capt. Randolph Marcy. They very nearly lost their way in the deep snow around Cochetopa Pass, but a vanguard reached Fort Massachusetts in early 1858, and the Army got its provisions.

Fort Massachusetts had a small garrison, only 81 men. They joined one campaign that began at Fort Union in 1855 in response to the Ute massacre at Fort Pueblo on Christmas Day, 1854.

In February, 1855, with Kit Carson as guide, soldiers rode north from Union, got reinforcements from Massachusetts, and battled 150 Utes and Jicarilla Apache on March 19 at the present site of Saguache. That expedition then crossed Poncha Pass and provided the first written notice of the “hot springs sending their fumes to heaven,” an observation recorded by the surgeon who accompanied the soldiers.

Two months later, on April 23, 1855, Fort Massachusetts dispatched soldiers who crossed Poncha Pass on April 28. They encountered about 150 Utes who were holding an all-night party at the present site of Salida. About 40 Utes were killed, as was one soldier.

Those were the big events in the short career of Fort Massachusetts, which closed in 1858 when the garrison moved to Fort Garland.

THERE WAS ANOTHER military post in our part of the world, but it didn’t last as long as either Massachusetts or the obscure Spanish Fort. It was Camp McIntire, set up by the Colorado Militia at the ballpark in Leadville in the fall of 1896. The miners had gone on strike, hoping to get their wage raised from $2.50 a day to $3, and Gov. Albert McIntire declared martial law and sent in the militia.

The strike ended in defeat for the miners’ union on March 9, 1897, and the militia pulled out the next day, 14 years after the Army abandoned Fort Garland, and 45 years before the Army would establish Camp Hale, which was then abandoned in 1962.

The military history of Central Colorado and the San Luis Valley is not an extensive one. It’s not that this area was all that peaceful — it’s more that it was out on the fringe, of central concern only to the Southern Utes, and they didn’t build forts.

–Ed Quillen