Historic Site Conversations: 

Deep History and the Boundless Future of Fort Stanton

Aerial view of the Fort Stanton parade ground with the Visitor Center/ Museum on the left and the Barracks/Dining Hall on the right in the foreground. Both structures, which were originally barracks, and the parade ground date to 1855. The Sierra Blanca Mountains can be seen in the distance and are a part of the Mescalero Reservation. Photo by Tira Howard. Aerial view of the Fort Stanton parade ground with the Visitor Center/ Museum on the left and the Barracks/Dining Hall on the right in the foreground. Both structures, which were originally barracks, and the parade ground date to 1855. The Sierra Blanca Mountains can be seen in the distance and are a part of the Mescalero Reservation. Photo by Tira Howard.

New Mexico Historic Sites hired Dr. Oliver Horn as the new regional site manager to oversee the operations of Fort Stanton and Lincoln Historic Sites. Recently, Olivers at down with Historic Sites’ historic preservation and interpretation specialist, Dr. C. L. Kieffer, for a conversation about their shared passion for history, preservation, and interpretation at Fort Stanton—the largest historic site in the state.

C. L. Kieffer: You come to Historic Sites with a strong background and passion for history. For those who are unfamiliar with Fort Stanton, how would you describe it?

Oliver Horn: It’s one of the most profound historic sites in New Mexico. This begins with the landscape—a stunningly beautiful valley that spans the Capitán and Sierra Blanca mountains, and it’s part of the ancestral homeland of the Ndé (Mescalero Apache). 

What’s so amazing about the fort is that it’s the most intact Territorial-era military fort in the Southwest. It maintains the original parade ground and many of the structures from Fort Stanton’s establishment in 1855. The fort subsequently evolved over different periods and different conflicts. It was deeply engrossed in the Civil War, Lincoln County War, and Apache Wars. The U.S. Army decommissioned Fort Stanton in 1896, but the U.S. Marine Hospital Service later acquired the fort and transformed it into the first federal sanatorium. Fort Stanton Hospital played a notable role in early twentieth-century efforts to fight infectious disease, most notably in treating tuberculosis. During World War II, Fort Stanton also became the site of the first German internment camp in the United States. 

Long story short, the site has an incredible layered history, and the structures and their architecture reflect this history from 1855 to the mid-twentieth century. There’s no other site that better reflects the broader development of New Mexico following U.S. annexation in 1848. 

Kieffer: Why is Fort Stanton important in New Mexico history, and why should New Mexicans care about its preservation?

Oliver: It draws on so many different people from around the state. These include Ndé, diverse groups of white, Hispanic, and Black soldiers, tuberculosis patients, doctors, nurses, and German internees, among many others. It tells the story of New Mexico. To elaborate on it from personal experience—growing up in Albuquerque, we’d go on school field trips to El Rancho de las Golondrinas. On these trips, we would learn about Spanish- and Mexican-era history and culture. I feel like Fort Stanton has the potential to serve a similar purpose but for the Territorial and early statehood periods in New Mexico.

Kieffer: At New Mexico Historic Sites, we have been transitioning away from telling only the stories of those who wrote the history. For the forts, the military history is the obvious go-to story. What untold stories do you and your staff hope to highlight at Fort Stanton in the future?

Oliver: First and foremost, the story of the Ndé. They are an incredibly dynamic people who are generally not part of the main narrative of New Mexico history. But they have helped shape the development of New Mexico since at least the sixteenth century. 

For example, the Ndé played an influential role in the outcome of the Civil War. When Union forces abandoned Fort Stanton in 1861, they unilaterally abrogated the treaty with the Ndé by failing to provide them with rations. To survive, the Ndé attempted to reestablish their old hunting range. This brought them into conflict with the Confederate forces who occupied Fort Stanton in the fall of 1861. Ndé warriors ambushed Confederate patrols and then drove them out of the area after the battle in La Placita (later renamed Lincoln).

Afterward, the Ndé began attacking Confederate supply lines in southern New Mexico and west Texas. To protect against these raids, Confederate commanders deployed a significant number of troops. The net result was that the Confederate force that invaded Northern New Mexico in early 1862 was smaller than it might otherwise have been. The Battle of Glorieta Pass—which resulted in a Confederate defeat—might have gone differently without the actions of the Ndé.

The tragedy is that the federal government subsequently punished the Ndé. General James Carleton blamed the Ndé for breaking the treaty and dispatched the New Mexico Volunteers under Colonel Kit Carson to punish them. Carson and his troops reoccupied Fort Stanton and forced the Ndé to relocate to Bosque Redondo (1862-65), where they endured unspeakable treatment. The story of the Ndé deserves wider recognition and, for better or worse, Fort Stanton is crucial to telling it.

Kieffer: Who else’s story do you think we should highlight in the coming years?

Oliver: The story of Black soldiers and their families is deeply intertwined with Fort Stanton. From 1866-67, the site was home to Black soldiers of the 125th Colored Infantry from Kentucky, one of the last units mustered into service during the Civil War. Most of its members were former enslaved people who joined to escape slavery and fight the Confederacy. Contrary to their expectations, they were dispatched to New Mexico. For them, this was the dark side of the moon, and they were terrified of traversing the Great Plains and alien high desert landscape along the Santa Fe Trail. Some tried to mutiny in St. Louis. Despite their misgivings, they—along with some of their wives—made the journey and played a notable role in rebuilding Fort Stanton and other forts. Several of the soldiers adapted to New Mexico so well that they later returned in the 1870s as Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry. 

Kieffer: I feel like a lot of people do not realize the extent to which Buffalo Soldiers were stationed here in New Mexico. I know they were stationed at Fort Stanton, Fort Selden, Fort Craig, and Fort Union, and they were stationed here for more than just the Civil War. Can you elaborate on some of the other locations where they were stationed and the activities they were engaged in?

Oliver: The Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry were the backbone of the U.S. military forces stationed in New Mexico during the 1870s and early 1880s. Their commander, Colonel Edward Hatch, oversaw the entire Military District of New Mexico. Elements of the 9th Cavalry were deployed to Fort Stanton during this period. We’re still learning about the individual soldiers, but many non-commissioned officers were accompanied by their wives and children. Fort Stanton was a Black community during this period.

The Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Stanton were embroiled in both the Apache and Lincoln County Wars. From 1879 to 1883, they pursued Victorio and his dissident group of Chiricahua and Ndé across southern New Mexico and northern Mexico. The conflict centered on horses. Victorio recognized that the horses of the 9th Cavalry were of lower quality than those of the Ndé. He intentionally led the Buffalo Soldiers on long treks to force their mounts to go lame, which led to an acute shortage of serviceable military horses. 

Despite little evidence, Hatch suspected that the Ndé were clandestinely supplying the rebel Chiricahua with weapons and horses. In 1880, he dispatched the Black troops at Fort Stanton on an incursion into the Mescalero Reservation to disarm its inhabitants and seize livestock, which resulted in the deaths of fourteen Ndé.

The Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Stanton were also important actors in the Lincoln County War (1878-81). They helped local law enforcement execute warrants of arrest for the Regulators, whose members included Billy the Kid. The troops also intervened during the Five-Day Battle—in which factions of competing businessmen (Murphy/Dolan and Tunstall/McSween) laid siege to one another in Lincoln—to evacuate civilians caught in the middle of the crossfire. After members of the Tunstall-McSween faction allegedly shot at one of the soldiers, the Buffalo Soldiers aimed their artillery at them. Many regulators fled, which allowed members of the Murphy-Dolan faction to ultimately kill Alexander McSween. The Buffalo Soldiers’ actions became a scandal. Their commander, Colonel Nathaniel Dudley, was subsequently court-martialed (and ultimately acquitted). These events also had broader national ramifications. Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prevented the use of federal troops for domestic law enforcement.

Kieffer:  What’s notable about the fort after it became a federal sanatorium?

Oliver: In 1899, the federal government transferred Fort Stanton to the U.S. Merchant Marine, which was the precursor to the U.S. Public Health Service. Over the next fifty years, Fort Stanton became a tuberculosis treatment center of national significance. The disease was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. at the time, and Fort Stanton pioneered treating patients by exposing them to the supposedly salubrious high desert climate of New Mexico. Fort Stanton Hospital laid the basis for the sanatorium industry in the Southwest, which reshaped New Mexico. Within a few decades, there were sixty-eight sanatoriums in the region, and around ten percent of the state’s population were health-seeking migrants. 

Kieffer: Let’s have a little fun. If you could go back to any period of Fort Stanton’s utilization, what time period would you choose and why?

Oliver: I would want to go back to the beginning. I would love to see what the surrounding landscape looked like before cattle and other large livestock altered it. I would have loved to have seen the Llano Estacado on the other side of the Capitán Mountains in its full glory, all the grasslands intact and everything.

Kieffer: Currently you only get kind of a hint of what it might have been like when you drive from Capitán to Fort Stanton. There’s one patch—I believe it was roughly where Smokey Bear was picked up when he was a cub—where it’s kind of grassland, and you’re surrounded by hills, cliffs, and landscape. But the grand scale of what was nearby is truncated there because the horizon stops abruptly, because it’s not true plains.

The Fort Stanton Officer’s Quarters, located on the northeast corner of the parade ground. The building dates to 1855. Photo by Tira Howard.
The Fort Stanton Officer’s Quarters, located on the northeast corner of the parade ground. The building dates to 1855. Photo by Tira Howard.

Oliver: Yeah. Have you ever been where Capitán is, and cut north instead of going to Carrizozo? The road that goes around to the north end of the Capitán Mountains through a town called Encinoso? If so, you’ve seen that view of the Llano Estacado. It’s completely mind-blowing. It really helps conceptualize the “sea of grass” that nineteenth-century travelers along the Santa Fe Trail described traversing. They essentially had to cross this grass ocean, which took longer than sailing across the Atlantic at the time. It must have been quite an experience. 

Kieffer: I completely agree. What do you think contributed to the longevity of the site’s utilization?

Oliver: Fort Stanton was the only military fort built in the nineteenth century in current-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado that was not built of adobe. Instead, soldiers used what we think is sandstone that was quarried nearby. This choice of building materials shaped the site because it gave it resilience that all these other adobe forts lacked. Whereas the other forts melted away, Fort Stanton survived multiple attempts during the Civil War to burn it down. The stone kept it intact and allowed it to be repurposed into a medical facility.

Kieffer: If you had enough money to save one building, which would you save and why?

Oliver: The senior officers’ quarters. It dates to the 1850s and played a notable role in every phase of the Fort’s history. The structure is also the most beautiful on the parade ground. Obviously, that’s subjective. It’s also an ideal space to serve as the main museum at the site. 

Kieffer: I totally agree with your choice. I do think it is a beautiful building, but I’m a little more partial to the guardhouse, also known as the adjunct’s office or library. I love the detail of the banisters on the second floor by those tiny windows. Partly because I helped put a bunch of those in many years ago.

Oliver: Interesting. We’re working on rehabilitating that structure right now.

Kieffer: I’m excited we will be working together with such an amazing team on rehabilitating the interior of many of these structures in the coming years and making them more accessible to the public. Thank you for sharing your passion for the site with me and El Palacio readers.

Oliver: You’re welcome. Thanks for the wonderful conversation. 

Dr. Oliver Horn is the regional manager for Fort Stanton Historic Site and Lincoln Historic Site. Prior to being hired, Horn and his wife, Dr. Robynne Mellor, worked as consultants with the state’s Historic Preservation Division and helped HPD draft its ten-year preservation plan. Horn also worked on the team that developed the 950-page Fort Stanton Historic Site Cultural Landscape Report, which serves as a roadmap for the site’s preservation. 

Dr. C.L. Kieffer is the historic preservation and interpretation specialist for New Mexico Historic Sites. In her role, Kieffer develops preservation plans, helps shape exhibitions, supports research and archaeological needs, and connects Historic Sites with the public.