Fort Stanton Historic Site


Fort Stanton was built in 1855 by soldiers of the 1st Dragoon and the 3rd and 8th Infantry Regiments to serve as a base of operations against the Mescalero Apache Indians. It served as a military fortification through 1896. Built of local stone, the sturdy 1855 buildings have lasted to this day. The Fort was named for Captain Henry W. Stanton, killed fighting the Apaches in 1855 near present day Mayhill. Troops marched out from the Fort to search for and fight the Mescalero Indians during numerous campaigns from 1855 until the 1880’s.

The Fort was seized by Confederate forces in 1861. During the occupation, three Rebels were killed by Kiowa Indians while on patrol 50 miles north. After all supplies were moved to Mesilla, the Confederates abandoned the Fort, burning it as they left. The Fort stood empty for a year, but the stone walls survived and in 1862, New Mexican Volunteer forces under the great frontiersman Kit Carson (now a US Colonel) reoccupied the Fort. It was the site, in 1862, of a famous shootout between Capt. Paddy Graydon and Army doctor, John Whitlock, over accusations that Graydon had massacred peaceful Indians at Gallinas Springs. Both men died as a result, Whitlock shot 128 times by Graydon’s rioting troops.

Using the Fort as an operating base, US troops succeeded in pacifying the Mescaleros. Most of the Natives were then collected at the Fort before making the “Long Walk” to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Later, it served as the Reservation for the returning Mescaleros until 1873.

The first permanent settlements in southeastern New Mexico developed around the Fort. The isolated region, named Lincoln County, was larger than the State of South Carolina, yet held only a few hundred Anglo and Hispano settlers. Supplying the Fort offered the only markets for farmers and ranchers. It also afforded protection from hostile Indians for the first settlers along the Bonita, Hondo and Tularosa Rivers and was the center of much of the region’s early social life. After 1875, the soldiers at the Fort sometimes included Black Buffalo Soldiers (11% of the total) of the 9th Cavalry and also provided the only effective local law enforcement. Three times in the 1870’s the Fort’s garrison marched out to put down local disturbances that threatened to explode into civil war and in the process the Army determined their outcomes. The first two (the Horrell War and the Tularosa Ditch War) were racial conflicts between Anglo ranchers and Hispano farmers, and the third was the famous Lincoln County War.

The Lincoln County War, which cost 30-60 lives, was between competing groups trying to monopolize trade with the Fort and therefore Lincoln County’s economy. Each employed gangs of gunmen and behind each group lurked larger interests (the Santa Fe Ring which backed the Murphy-Dolan faction, and John Chisum who supported the Tunstall-McSween group) who helped bankroll the War. The decisive moment of the War came in July, 1878, when Col. N. A. M. Dudley marched six miles from the Fort into Lincoln with his soldiers to support the Murphy-Dolan faction in a battle for the control of Lincoln. Using a howitzer and Gatling gun to terrorize and run off most of the “Regulators” (Tunstall-McSween faction), Dudley surrounded the town, creating a barrier between most of the “Regulators” and a small remnant trapped in the McSween house. Dudley then stood by as the Murphy-Dolan forces set the McSween house on fire and shot down those trying to escape, including McSween. Billy the Kid successfully shot his way out in one of his historic escapes. Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur) stayed at Fort Stanton during his ultimately successful effort to bring peace to Lincoln County.

The Fort underwent several phases of rebuilding in the 1860’s, 1870’s and 1880’s.  Activity increased in the 1880’s during the Chiricahua (Victoria and Geronimo) campaigns. There were also more disturbances among the Mescaleros.  Among those serving at the Fort during this phase of the Indian Wars was Gen John J. (Blackjack) Pershing who was stationed at the Fort twice as a junior officer. His quarters are still standing. Pershing, who eventually commanded the AEF in France during WWI, and became the first five star general, acquired his nickname serving with Black troopers. By the 1890’s, the Apache threats had receded and the Army’s need for the Fort disappeared and it was closed.

In 1896, with the Mescalero Apache settled on the nearby reservation and the surrounding area bustling with new communities, the Fort was abandoned by the Army and closed.   In 1899, however, the US Public Health Service acquired the Fort as a tuberculosis hospital for the Merchant Marine. Selected for its healthful climate, it served some 5,000 sailor patients between 1899 and 1953, 1,500 of whom are buried in the Maritime Cemetery on a hillside overlooking the Fort. The patients lived in specially constructed tents, for fresh air and sunshine were the only known cures for tuberculosis. During this time, many new buildings were constructed including a hospital, stables, new living quarters, and literally hundreds of tent-houses for the patients.  The hospital was fairly self-sufficient, establishing a large farm on the nearby grounds with patients serving in the fields, as well as recreational activities like a golf course for the doctors, baseball fields and a theatre for the resident workers.  The nearby cemetery grew to include veterans of other services as well as Merchant Marines, making it a place for current visitors to the site to engage in contemplative visitation.

During the Great Depression, Fort Stanton was home to a CCC work camp, which later served as the internment site for German merchant seamen from the German luxury liner, S.S. Columbus, which was scuttled outside of New York to prevent its capture by the British.   The German internees built a camp that included such amenities as gardens for fresh produce, a recreation hall, and a swimming pool in which “mini-Olympic” competitions were held with the local population.   After war was declared with Germany and Japan, the Internment camp housed some German prisoners of war as well as a few Japanese internees. It was used during early WWII for several months as a refuge for a group of Japanese-American families threatened by mobs in their hometowns.

In 1953, the Fort was given to the State of New Mexico and used first as a tubercular hospital and then, from the 1960’s until 1995, as the State Hospital for the Developmentally Handicapped. For a short time it was a low security women’s prison and has housed several juvenile, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. When the State moved to dispose of the property, Fort Stanton, Inc., a nonprofit corporation (501-c-3), was created in 1997 to save this national treasure and seek its adaptive reconstruction as a living history center. It succeeded in mobilizing public opinion and convincing the State Legislature to preserve the Fort and appropriate the first funds for its renovation. Fort Stanton Inc., also won sizeable grants to begin reconstruction of the historic buildings.  On August 9, 2007, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish proclaimed the establishment of the Fort Stanton Historic Site.