The adobe post protected settlers and had a role in the Civil War.
The Fort Garland Museum centers on the lively frontier history of the surrounding San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Young mountain man Christopher “Kit” Carson became acquainted with the valley while fur trapping in the Rockies in the 1830s. In the early 1840s Carson successfully guided the first three of John C. Frémont’s Western expeditions. But when Frémont crossed the valley to ascend the San Juan Mountains in the harsh winter of 1848 on his fourth expedition, Carson wasn’t with him, and the “Pathfinder” found disaster—losing first his sense of direction, and then 10 men and all his equipment. Ten years after Frémont’s fiasco the U.S. Army established Fort Garland to protect the early settlers in the valley, and in 1866 Carson was back, too, as commander of that post.
At 7,500 feet, the San Luis Valley is an enormous intermountain basin (about 75 miles east to west and 120 miles north to south) that extends into New Mexico. The San Juan Mountains are to the west, Blanca Peak (14,345 feet) to the east and the Sangre de Cristo range to the northeast. Spain still controlled the valley after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and four years later Spanish authorities arrested U.S. Army Captain Zebulon Pike’s military expedition near the future site of Fort Garland. Nevertheless, Pike’s reports helped popularize the valley, and it drew more trappers and then settlers.
On June 22, 1852, in the wake of the Mexican War, U.S. authorities established Fort Massachusetts in the San Luis Valley to protect settlers and travelers from Indian attack. Because of the swampy location, the Army authorized construction of a new adobe post some six miles to the south. Frontiersman Charles Autobee launched the project but was wounded in a stabbing. His stepbrother, famed scout Tom Tobin, saw the job to completion in 1858. Named for Brevet Brig. Gen. John Garland, commander of the Military District of New Mexico, Fort Garland housed some 100 men in adobe buildings with 3-foot-thick walls. When the Civil War broke out, Fort Garland served as an enlistment site, and in early 1862 volunteers under Major John Chivington marched into New Mexico Territory and thwarted the Texan Confederate advance toward Colorado Territory at Glorieta Pass. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel F. Tappan, who served with Chivington, became commander of Fort Garland in July 1863. That summer Tappan’s soldiers shot it out with outlaws Felipe and José Espinosa. The brothers got away, but Tobin later tracked and killed them, returning to the fort with the Espinosas’ heads in a burlap bag.
Following the war, Ute raids intensified in the San Luis Valley. “I need not say that Carson is the best man in the country to control these Indians,” wrote Maj. Gen. John Pope to superiors in early 1866. In May, Carson became commander of Fort Garland. That September he convinced Chief Ouray to bring his Ute band to the fort to negotiate a peace. Kit, wife Josefa and their seven children lived in the commandant’s quarters until November 22, 1867, when an ailing Carson was mustered out of service. While stationed at Fort Garland from 1876 to 1879, 9th Cavalry buffalo soldiers were instrumental in mediating disputes between Utes and settlers. In November 1883, with the Utes on reservations, the Army closed Fort Garland.
The Colorado Historical Society bought the property in 1945 and, after extensive restoration, opened it to the public as a museum in 1950. Today five of the original 22 buildings house the museum. Visitors can tour buildings and walk the parade ground, which includes the original 1858 flagpole.
Among the artifacts on display are military wagons, including an early Army ambulance, and an 1873 Barlow & Sanderson passenger stagecoach. The commandant’s quarters holds several period items, including an 1847 rifle that be longed to Carson, while the enlisted men’s barracks showcase soldiers’ personal items. Rounding out the highlights are dioramas (including one on the Battle of Glorieta Pass), an exhibit devoted to the buffalo soldiers and items unearthed by archaeological surveys. For more information visit www.historycolorado.org or call 719-379-3512.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.