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From South Fork to Lincoln

Mescalero Apache Indian camp. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

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Its history, present appearance and beautiful location

The following article was in the “Rio Grande Republican” (Las Cruces, New Mexico). It is dated 15 March, 1884, Sat., Pages 1 and 4.

This article gives a close look at the life and times in Ft. Stanton, Ruidoso and Lincoln, in that year. It is wonderful to “take a look back” through someone else’s eyes, at what it was really like during this time.

Ft. Stanton

List of officers, number of troops and treatment of the men

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special correspondent

Leaving the Indian reservation on Friday morning February 29, your tramp reporter started fourth together in a crop of news. We were in good spirits, and rather frisky at the outset, feeling sure from the indications about the use of a large harvest of fun and facts.

Jury hunting

Bidding farewell to the agency, we mounted a dumpling of a pony under cover of a huge Mexican saddle, and started up the canyon towards Ruidoso, with Captain Branigan as escort. The Captain was on the warpath also, only he was hunting men to attend the Grand Jury, while we were simply on a hunt after news and subscribers. By the way, getting a jury in this country is somewhat different from the “Modus Operandi” in the States. There you can trot around in a peek mensuro and get one, while here you circumnavigate a large part of the globe to get your victims.

The scenery

Journeying up the road your “tinderfoot” reporter prepared himself for wild beasts; he got out his six shooter and looking down the barrel saw death and destruction to any wandering grizzly, mountain lion, or buffalo that might tamper with his feelings. But the wild, odd scenery around this soon softened our blood thirsty nature, and had the beasts then fell upon us, the story would have come to a sudden stop. Could anyone ride through such an assortment of natural beauties as we saw, and feel harshly towards a living thing? If they could, they would be as devoid of emotion as a marble statue; as soulless as a wheelbarrow.

On to Ruidoso

Fort Stanton, New Mexico–John J. Pershing 3 men in card game. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Passing through Dark Canyon, and listening to a continual rising and lowering of the murmur of the pines and hemlocks, is far sweeter than Adelina Patti’s high-priced notes, or even Strauss’ waltzes, however bewitchingly played. On nearing Ruidoso, or Dowlin’s Mills, we saw skirting the stream rich spots of land that we verily believe could raise anything from a peanut to a pumpkin. I am certain it would raise a mortgage off the property. Corn, wheat, oats and potatoes grow there profusely. There is occasionally a slight trouble from frosts, but this is scarcely worth mentioning. When we struck the brow of the hill overlooking Dowlin’s Mills we gazed upon a perfect picture of an Adirondack landscape; somewhat similar also to the Michigan pine forest camp.

A humming grist-mill, a sawmill, and a few log houses made up the village, lying in a small basin and guarded by mountains covered with trees. Far beyond, and visible from many points, we saw the famous Sierra Blanca or White Mountain, wearing her usual nightcap, which she never changes, for it always looks clean and spotless. The old lady is very top lofty, proud, and high toned, and looks as though she felt herself fully equal of her twin sister in New Hampshire.

Prairie dogs

After taking dinner, and one of Mr. Dowlin‘s primo Havanas, we started on towards San Patricio and Lincoln. On the way your wandering attaché saw many prairie dogs barking at us, and scampering back into their holes if we got too close.

Florencio Gonzales’ Ranch

Slowly cantering on a few miles further, your scribe wondering in the meantime why saddles were made so hard, and whether he would not that evening take his supper off the mantle piece, we came to the summit of a hill that looked down upon the most splendid panorama in New Mexico. It was the ranch of Honorable Florencio Gonzalez, a tract of land under thorough cultivation.


Casting many a “longing lingering look behind,” we pushed on to Lincoln, the county seat, and there met the amiable Colonel Cronin, B.H. Ellis, and Jimmy Dolan, who keeps a tip top store, and is well known all over Southern New Mexico. We noticed a strange, round stone tower there, which was used by the first settlers as a house of refuge. We also saw some scattered dirt mounds that were once part and parcel of the McSween mansion, where, during the Lincoln County War, were entrenched about 20 desperado men, among whom was the notorious Billy the Kid. It was “war to the knife” that terrible night, when the Murphy party charged and fired the house, and shot down the fleeing victims. Billy the Kid escaped, but McSween and six others were killed, and peace and tranquility were purchased at that terrible cost.

Fort Stanton

Again mounting our festive and fiery steed, we throw the miles behind us, and soon dashed into the parade ground of Fort Stanton, where we obtained accommodations for the night.

I was soon under the quilts, dreaming of black bears taking me up into the highest tree tops and then letting me fall to the ground. It is strange how many times we fell without getting hurt when we struck the ground; it was going through the air that troubled us.

Its history

On the morrow we learned that purely official and accurate detailed information concerning Fort Stanton‘s history from its foundation was not to be obtained. Many of its records were destroyed in 1861, when the fort was burned and abandoned; but all available information was freely and kindly rendered us by Major Van Horn and his officers and also by some of the old settlers in the neighborhood.

Ft. Stanton soldiers at attention. Photo dated 1885, one year after reporter’s visit. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

In 1855, a small handful of troops came up from Texas and established a third-class fort at the foot of the plateau, and north east from the spot now occupied by the fort proper. It was named in honor of Captain Stanton of the Mounted Dragoons, and he probably was the first commander of the post. Its object then, as now, was protection to the settlers from Indian depredation, chiefly committed by Apaches, Comanches, and Navajos. No hard fought battle of any magnitude ever took place in its vicinity. Once it was surrounded by Indians, but they kept at a good distance, and did not have the nerve to make an attack.

A few years after, a new commanding officer, with a larger force of troops, moved to the camp up from the banks of the Rio Bonito, built additional housing room, and established the present excellent system of acequias, which run at right angles around the parade ground and supplies the fort with water.

With occasional not very destructive Indian skirmishes, nothing eventful happened until the tocsin of war sounded in the East. Then in 1861, Colonel Roberts burned the buildings and marched west towards Albuquerque. At that time Colonel Canby commended all the New Mexico Union troops, including Kit Carson‘s famous First Calvary. During the war, about a year after Colonel Roberts’ evacuation, some Texas Confederate volunteers under General Sibley re-roofed the buildings and occupied them a while. After their desertion Union troops again took possession, improved and increased the number of buildings, and it stands today one of the finest first class Forts on the frontier.

Discipline of fort

It is encompassed about by everything that Nature’s hand can bestow. Two green mountain chains run east and west apparently ending up against the White mountains, which seem to be two or three miles away, but are really 20. In the valley thus formed, on a plateau of several hundred acres, about 75 feet above the Rio Bonito, along the banks of which are the companies’ private gardens, are the various buildings which compose the fort. They consist of a blacksmith and wheelwright shop, large corral, and sheds for stock, a new hospital (replacing the old one burned down last March,) post trader’s store, and officers’ and privates’ quarters. These buildings completely surround the parade ground, which is also bordered by a row of fine cottonwoods and a stream of running water. There is also a signal service office, presided over by the clever and gentlemanly Dan Farnell, who considerably enlightened us in regards to the system. There are about 500 men in the signal service: and, considering their scholastic and mechanical acquirements, it does seem as though they should be commissioned and not enlisted men, ranking as high as lieutenants at least, and wearing a distinctive uniform from that of the private soldier — that is, as long as they are attached to the army, though we think it would be better to make a distinct department of this service.

Other buildings

There were other inferior buildings scattered about. An express line runs from the fort to San Antonio, 113 miles away, which carries freight for eight cents a pound. On the 1st July next, a money order office will be established. A sabbath school, under the supervision of Mrs. Lieutenant Kavanagh, holds its exercises on Sunday morning; and in the evening a singing school fills the surrounding camp with strains of divine melody. A day school is also conducted during the week.

Under the skillful guidance of Lieutenant Kavanagh, post adjutant, we were engineered in and around the various buildings, popping in and out of harness and carpenter shops, strolling through the long store houses, filled with innumerable bales of clothing and blankets, stocks of agricultural implements, etc. We visited the clean and well kept kitchens, and also the new hospital, which is now being built under the lieutenant’s directions. There is scarcely any need of a hospital, though, in this healthful climate; and at the present time there is but one soldier under treatment. Dr. Atkins, the pleasant and efficient acting assistant surgeon informed us that very few deaths occurred here, and those were mostly from diseases contracted elsewhere.

Troop B’s quarters

Being left to our own resources for a time we thought we would scout around in the enlisted men’s quarters and see if we could nose out any governmental abuses. So, with acute smellers and sharp eyesight, we went into troop B’s quarters, Captain Lawton’s company. Visiting the mess quarters first, we found that they had actual printed bills of fare, and glancing back over some old bills, we saw a very good line of eatables furnished. We tried the roast beef, bread, soup, coffee and raisin cake, and had to admit the quality was good. Of course, occasionally the quality of the beef or flour may be inferior, but the same chances are before us all. Troop B probably fares better than any other, having a fund of $350 in care of the Captain that it has saved by selling part of its rations, the vacancy being supplied by garden products, grown by themselves. Everything was clean and orderly about the mess quarters and barracks, and there was a gymnasium in the backyard. On questioning the men as to their treatment by their officers and the government, we found them unanimous in praise of the valiant Captain Lawton. Even the chronic faultfinders could say nothing but pleasant things of him and Lieutenant Welch. Many line officers care nothing for their men’s good opinions; but it is just as well to court it, as it is only necessary to behave decently to them. Many an unpopular officer has been shot by his own men in an engagement.

Treatment of the soldiers

On their treatment by the government there was not so much unanimity of feeling, though the majority said it was good enough. The minority mentioned several abuses which we are inclined to think should be looked into and corrected. Carrying a 30 pound stick of wood on the shoulder from sunrise to sunset for three successive days is too harsh a sentence for small offenses. Any punishment which impairs a man’s health and is liable to break him down constitutionally, should not be inflicted. It is outrages of this nature which, in our opinion, caused the 3,600 desertions last year. Some men of course are dissatisfied anywhere. One officer said that it was principally dissatisfied men who enlisted in the first place, and they were out of four kinds: one; the young fellow who enlists under age, and whose tastes have been vitiated by dime novel and highly seasoned reading, two; the habitual drunkard, who enlists while drunk; three; the man who has gotten into some scrape, woman or otherwise, and hopes to escape disagreeable consequences; four; the man who really likes soldiering for the relief it gives him from dueling with the question how to make a living. We give these views without comment. Let the soldier ponder over this presentation of the case on his spare evenings, and draw his own conclusions.

Card playing

There was one matter in Troop B’s code of morality that we doubt the wisdom of, i.e., allowing a man to run a game of cards for money on payment of a certain fixed sum into the company fund. The officers maintain, however, that it is best to let one skillful man get all the money, and then the balance can’t get drunk. It is rather a novel view, and may be more convenient to the officers by giving them less trouble; but we believe such a standing example of licensed gambling is pernicious and calculated to use up the soldiers’ small pittance which might be devoted to better uses if such a temptation were not continually before him.

Causes of desertion

We think also the private’s complaints should sometimes receive consideration from the line officers. Instances are known where, upon a slight provocation, a non-commissioned officer seized the gun and broke the stock over a private’s head, knocking out two teeth, and then giving him a month in the guard house; and the noncommissioned officer was not even reprimanded. The noncommissioned officer is frequently Uncle Sam’s own enemy; he actually encourages desertion among the men, and frequently, in hearing of all, tells men again that incur his displeasure that they had better “pack up and get out!” for he will make it “hot for them, as long as they stay there!” Such remarks ought to subject such an officer to a court-martial. Can you expect faithfulness to duty from the private under such irritating circumstances?

Calvary or infantry

Troop I was not faring as well as the other companies, we found; as they lived upon government rations soley, and do not have as good gardening facilities as the others, owing to the fact of being quartered over at the Indian Agency, where their opportunities were not as good. The two infantry companies, C and E, were generally contented and fairing well. Their quarters in line of fare showed up well under private inspection. They are more fortunate in some respects than their cavalry brethren, having less guard duty to perform. The cavalry companies have herd-guard to do, which the infantry escape. Why the enlisted cavalryman does not receive more pay than the infantryman we do not understand; the commissioned officers do. The care of the horses is an additional duty of no small proportion, there being many features attached to it that the public does not think of — such as teaching horses to swim, and practicing the pack drill, which is a drill of itself, and generally performed with mules. These duties entitle the men to a higher grade of pay.

On the whole, we thought the camp was in a very satisfactory shape and the discipline and deportment good. Major Van Horn, the commanding officer, seemed to be popular and liked by both officers and men. The officers, with one exception, treated us with uniform courtesy and kindness. To A.B. Bower, at headquarters and Lieutenant Fletcher, we extend special thanks for favors rendered.

List of officers

The following are the commissioned officers at present stationed there: Major Van Horn; Captains Lawton, Rogers, Pratt, and Wood, Captain Lee being absent on leave; Lieutenants Fletcher, Davies, Welch, Gail, and Smith, the latter being encamped at Indian Agency; Adjutant Kavanagh, A. A. A. M.; Surgeon Hubbard; Dr. Atkins, acting assistant surgeon; and Dr. Ewing, acting assistant surgeon, stationed at Indian Agency, with Lieutenant Smith.

Troop D

Returning to the agency we visited Troop D, which was situated up on a pretty hillside and looking far up the road. Dr. Ewing informed us that peace and quietness were the striking characteristics of the camp, and that his professional abilities were not at all overtaxed. There are about 66 enlisted men there, a rather large company.

Camp and

agency notes

Every man is eagerly scanning the horizon for the paymaster.

Mrs. Captain Lawton has nearly recuperated from her recent illness.

Lieutenant Benson is expected daily to fill the position occupied by Lieutenant Van Dusen.

Lieutenant Fletcher has charge of the target practice. There are many good shots at the fort.

Mrs. Lieutenant Kavanagh is regaining health and strength. She has been an invalid for a few weeks.

Lieutenant Van Dusen has been transferred from calvary to artillery, and gone to California to occupy his new station.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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