Cantonment Burgwin, 1852-1860

Fort Burgwin The spirit of religion, the sense of layered history, the enormous beauty of the landscape under the blue and white sky and the starry darkness, a land of many-cultured richness lived in for at least a millennium and yet still sparsely peopled -- these are some of the essences that northern New Mexico holds for me and which I find nowhere else on earth.

-Lawrence Clark Powell
Southwest Review

The year 1845 saw many changes in the United States. The election of James K. Polk as the 11th President of the United States instigated a chain of events that forever changed the demographic of American politics, economics, and ideology. The last of the Jacksonian Democrats, Polk embraced the expansionist idea of manifest destiny, the belief that the United States should expand westward to encompass the unoccupied and fertile territories of Texas, Oregon, California, and the Southwest.

Polk's expansionist agenda led to disputes with Mexico over the Southwest, ultimately resulting in the US-Mexican War (1846-1848). By the Fall of 1846, American General Stephen Watts Kearny of the First Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth formed the Army of the West, which occupied and held Santa Fe.  When the United States proved victorious in 1848, the US-Mexican peace treaty added over a million square miles of territory to the United States, including areas of the Southwest and Far West, including California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State.

It was during the United States' involvement with Mexico that the territory of New Mexico became contested. Regretting that little had been done to try to stop the American territorial advance in New Mexico, New Mexicans began to organize.

Shortly following the occupation, a plot was devised by the New Mexican dissenters that called for a Christmas uprising. Ultimately discovered by the American authorities, the planned uprising was merely postponed, despite Governor Bent's January 5, 1847 plea for domestic tranquility. Two weeks later, in Don Fernando de Taos (present-day Taos, New Mexico), Governor Bent and several other government officials were murdered. "It appeared," wrote Colonel Sterling Price, "to be the object of the insurrectionists to put to death every...[m]an who had accepted office under the American government."

The Americans moved quickly to quash the burgeoning rebellion. At Mora, a force led by Captain Israel Hendley was successful in dealing a lethal hand to the insurrectionists while Colonel Price led his troops into battle at La Cañada, Embudo Pass, and Pueblo de Taos.

At the Pueblo de Taos, the rebels crowded into the old Spanish mission church, a large building constructed of thick adobe bricks. There, they were determined to make a stand. During the two-day battle which followed, heavy casualties were incurred on both sides of the battlefield.

After the 1847 uprising was quelled, peace was maintained in New Mexico for the remainder of the US-Mexican War. Designated a US Territory by the end of the dispute, the protection of the New Mexican frontier fell to the newly created Army of the West, stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The New Mexico base of operations was Fort Marcy, in Santa Fe, built by the US Army under General Kearny in 1846. In 1851, then-Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, the new commander of the 9th Military Department covering the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, moved department headquarters from Fort Marcy to Fort Union, northeast of Las Vegas.

To better protect the territory, Sumner closed several garrisons in towns and villages across the region, simultaneously adding and/or altering installations in different areas. Cantonment Burgwin was one such addition.

Named for Captain John Burgwin who died in the 1847 Taos Revolt, the post at the confluence of the Rito de la Olla (Pot Creek), and the Rio Grande del Rancho (called the Little Rio Grande), was designated August 14, 1852 in Sumner's General Orders No. 33.

Sumner himself selected the precise location for the new post. Aware that soldiers had stayed in the Taos area after suppressing the 1847 uprising, it was generally thought that the Taos area had little need for a garrison's presence. As part of his reorganization plan, Sumner himself had closed the Taos installation two months before, in June, 1852. Its garrison had gone north to found Fort Massachusetts on the northeastern edge of the barren San Luis Valley in southern Colorado (later Fort Garland). Sumner renewed consideration of the region's strategic importance, however, after visiting the Taos area in August of 1852.

In keeping with his desire to locate soldiers away from population centers, he directed 1850 West Point graduate Lieutenant Robert Ransom, Jr--newly appointed commander of Cantonment Burgwin--to station his company ten miles southeast of Taos. Several factors favored this site. It stood along the main wagon road from Santa Fe to Taos and north into Colorado, the protection of which was a major military objective. Moreover, the nearest settlement was Talpa, about three miles to the west; two miles further was the village of Ranchos de Taos, which boasted the closest bar. A long ride was needed to reach the larger town of Don Fernando de Taos. Since no one lived in the immediate vicinity, the need to purchase land or declare a military reservation was not required. Government livestock could graze freely on the rich grass covering the valley floor. Water was plentiful. But such relative remoteness also had its drawbacks, especially for the soldiers. "Surrounded by mountains," wrote Private James A. Bennett of Ransom's company, it looked "as though we were shut out of the world."

Sumner also specified the design and suggested the immediate mission of the new cantonment. Eight privates were to begin cutting hay immediately, while the remaining three dozen men started erecting barracks and stables. Apparently Sumner feared imminent trouble in the area, for he also authorized Lieutenant Ransom to use his own discretion in deciding whether to aid local officials. Leaving the young officer and his company to begin work, Sumner returned to Fort Union.

Thus, in September of 1852, Ransom and Company I of the First Dragoons began construction on the buildings that would become Cantonment Burgwin. Built for defense and not comfort, there was but one gate and no windows in the outer fort wall. No hostile Indians could hope to overrun such a classically designed fortification. During the critical era of the 1850s, expeditions from the post forced raiding Indians further into the mountains and freed the settlers around Taos from the fear of depredations. The military contingent at Cantonment Burgwin also assured against the danger of another uprising similar to the Taos Revolt in February of 1847.

Construction activities proceeded rapidly on quarters, stables, storehouses, and other buildings; by early November, work was complete. The finished complex followed a pattern repeated in forts throughout the West. As Private Bennett, who served in several different locations, noted, it showed "what a fort is like in this country." Logs standing next to each other created an impregnable, windowless facade measuring 120 feet north to south by 220 feet east to west. Eight-inch thick clay roofs covered the inside rooms, whose adobe chimneys gave the false impression of parapets. Inside were two plazas separated by a row of rooms and connected by a passageway. The low-ceilinged rooms facing onto the larger, northernmost court contained quarters, mess hall, kitchen, and offices. The second, slightly smaller compound originally stabled the unit's horses, but it may later have provided barracks as well. Outside, several smaller buildings (perhaps added later) contained officers quarters, a small dispensary, the guard house, and laundresses' rooms. A sutler opened his store just across Pot Creek.

The hardships of life in northern New Mexico increased with the arrival of winter. "The wind whistles loudly by us," Bennett wrote in his diary the first day of 1853. "Snow beats against the windows...the mountain which overhangs us and towers almost to the skies is clothed in its garb of white snow and dark evergreen foliage. The drooping branches of these trees cast a somber hue upon the rocky clefts upon which the trees are rooted. The long dismal howl of wolves is heard." Such difficult conditions only accentuated the morale problems common to all Western forts. Several men deserted almost as soon as the troops arrived, and others followed regularly.

The first of what became a long series of Indian campaigns operating at least in part from Fort Burgwin began late in February of 1854 when a party of Utes raided the settlement at Culebra north of Taos and stole thirty horses. No sooner did Major [George A. H.] Blake learn of the attack than he ordered sixty dragoons under Brevet Major Thompson and Lieutenant John W. Davidson in pursuit. Accompanying them were surgeon David Magruder, Ute and Apache agent Kit Carson, and about twenty Taos volunteers. The party headed north through the San Luis Valley and into the mountains. They spotted tracks and other signs, but failed to locate any Utes. Deep snow and extreme cold finally forced them to abandon the march. By mid-March all troops had returned to Burgwin. Little resulted from the expedition.

When the Ute expedition proved of slight value, the soldiers' next encounter with the Indians was disastrous. Hearing that a large band of Jicarilla Apaches had camped near Picuris Pueblo, Carson arranged to meet them at Cantonment Burgwin on March 25. The Indians seemed friendly and "well disposed, toward all citizens." Their demeanor changed very rapidly, however. For reasons which were not entirely clear, two days after the conclave, Blake ordered Lieutenant Davidson and sixty men in pursuit of the Jicarillas. The morning of March 30 Davidson located their camp near Cienguilla Creek in the Moreno Valley east of Taos. The Indians caught the troops in a vulnerable position and commenced fighting which continued for more than three hours. In what became almost a complete rout, twenty-two soldiers were killed, another twenty-three wounded, and forty-five horses lost. Finally Davidson, who received slight wounds, led his retreating men back to Taos.

Encouraged by their victory, the Indians pursued the fleeing soldiers back toward Cantonment Burgwin. By the time Kit Carson, who heard of the attack while en route to Santa Fe, reached the cantonment, he found that the Indians had approached close enough to steal a number of horses. The livestock was recovered, but an attempt to capture the raiders by surrounding the village of Ranchos de Taos yielded only ten Apaches. Still the nearby mountains echoed with the cries of Indian war whoops; many observers feared an imminent attack on Fort Burgwin or even the town of Taos.

As word of the Cienguilla disaster spread, Burgwin became the headquarters for a major retaliatory campaign against the Jicarillas. To command the expedition, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke hurried across the mountains from Fort Union. Other units of the First Dragoons and Second Artillery rushed into the area from the south. In addition, the military adopted the common practice of recruiting local volunteers (largely New Mexicans and Pueblo Indians) as spies and trackers. James H. Quinn, a well-known Taos merchant, commanded them. With Carson as chief guide and Blake detailing most of the Burgwin garrison, the expedition totaled about two hundred men.

Departing Taos on April 3, the army crossed the Rio Grande and after four difficult marches located the Indian trail. Cooke followed it through extremely rugged country and deep snow until he found the Apaches camped in a rocky canyon near Agua Caliente. After a hard fight, the Jicarillas fled into the mountains, abandoning a number of women and children in the chilling cold. Cooke burned the enemy camp, destroyed huge quantities of food and other supplies, then pursued the Indians across a high mesa overlooking the Chama River. Eventually the trackers concluded that additional pursuit was useless, and the campaign was abandoned. Everyone returned to Taos.

Even though Major Blake left Burgwin in early May to reoccupy Fort Massachusetts for the summer, active pursuit of the Apaches continued from Burgwin. Major William T. H. Brooks, formerly commander of Fort Defiance (Arizona), assumed command of the cantonment later that month, headed a force of dragoons, infantry, and volunteers who searched unsuccessfully for Apaches as far north as the Conejos River. Late in May Major James H. Carleton, who had been stationed in Albuquerque, led yet another expedition north through the San Luis Valley and east into the Raton Mountains. They followed an Indian trail high into the mountains before reaching a camp of twenty-two lodges. At least one Jicarilla was killed in the main assault, and more fell in smaller fights that followed. Pursuing the scattered bands of fleeing Indians proved futile, however. After reaching the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as far south as Moreno Pass, the soldiers returned to Taos in mid-June. "I have never had the good fortune to travel with a finer command of officers and troops," Carson commented afterward, "nor ever have I seen better marching."

Unfortunately, all these military efforts did little to stem Apache depredations. Almost the same day that General Garland over-optimistically reported that the Jicarillas had been "most thouroughly humbled," Judge Charles Beaubien reported from Taos that the same Indians were constantly raiding settlements throughout northeastern New Mexico. Cattle had recently been stolen from remote ranches; wagons carrying goods from the east were being attacked. When unfounded rumors circulated that rancher Lucien Maxwell's settlement along the Rayado had been attacked and its residents massacred, soldiers rushed across the mountains from Burgwin to provide some protection. Meanwhile, Quinn and Carson kept constantly on the move in efforts to subdue the Indians.

By 1860, little need was seen for Cantonment Burgwin to continue operations. All soldiers stationed at Burgwin were relocated to either Fort Union or Fort Garland, with most of the contingent eventually resigning their posts to serve in the Civil War.

A century later, archaeologists would begin to uncover the remnants of Cantonment Burgwin, which would ultimately be resurrected, reconstructed, and devoted to the pursuit of education. Cantonment Burgwin, a small piece of the history of the West, would become Fort Burgwin Research Center, eventually SMU-IN-TAOS at Fort Burgwin. As paraphrased above, Cantonment Burgwin exemplifies the layered history witnessed elsewhere in New Mexico.

Sections of this history taken from Lawrence R. Murphy, Arizona and the West (15:1, 1973).