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Historically Speaking: Fort Stanton and its people

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption on the photo reads, "Fort Stanton, New Mexico — John J. Pershing on horseback" — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

The following story is based on my research from previous articles in the Roswell Daily Record, June 11, 2017, Aug. 19, 2018; and an article clipping we have from the Ruidoso News, June 9, 1950.

Fort Stanton started out as an outlying post to “control” the Mescalero Apaches, but through the years it has filled many different capacities. It is one of the most intact 19th century military forts in the United States.

Some of the people living, working or visiting the fort went on to greatness and almost immortality for what they did while living there. Today, I would like to focus on those people, along with what our beautiful little historic mountain hamlet of Fort Stanton has contributed to this country and the world.

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A who’s who of Fort Stanton’s military history:

Kit Carson

Kit Carson led the New Mexico volunteers, and under him launched many brutal attacks against the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajo.

Sgt. Brent Woods

The fort housed soldiers of the 1st Dragoon and the 3rd and 8th Infantry regiments, who were actually the ones who built the fort. From 1855 to 1880, soldiers were sent out on campaigns against the Mescalero Apaches, to help bring order and to protect the settlers and citizens, both Anglo and Hispanic, who had moved into this region and established farms and ranches.

When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the U.S. Army enlisted the Buffalo Soldiers — African American men who had enlisted to escape the hardships facing them following the Civil War. They were the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalries stationed at Ft. Stanton. They played a huge role in their campaigns here. Among these men — and out of one of these campaigns — came Sgt. Brent Woods who became a recipient of America’s highest military decoration — The Medal of Honor — for his actions in a battle that took place in Gavilan Canyon.

On Aug. 19, 1881, Lt. George W. Smith, and B Troop of the 9th Cavalry were ambushed by chief Nana and his Apache band. After the deaths of six men in his cavalry, including his lieutenant, Woods took command and fought to save the lives of many of his comrades. He lead the charge against the Apaches. Nana and his warriors retreated. Thirteen years later, on July 12, 1894, Woods was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the engagement.

The knowledge of his achievement went largely unnoticed until 1982, when Lorraine Smith of Somerset, Kentucky started a campaign to mark Wood’s grave. His remains were exhumed and he was re-buried with full military honors at Mill Springs National Cemetery in Nancy, Kentucky.

Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing

Fort Stanton has seen many distinguished names during its military time. In addition to Woods, there was Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. He was stationed at the fort twice as a junior officer and as a lieutenant. He used to ride quite often over to Hondo to play blackjack with the cowboys; for this he was nicknamed “Blackjack.” He and his military partners were dubbed “Three Green Peas,” because they were considered each to be inexperienced.

In 1913, Pershing — by then a well-known military figure — returned to New Mexico to inspect the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell.

Pershing went on to become commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the western front in World War I. He went on to be promoted to general of the Army’s rank, the highest possible rank in the United States Army. He was permitted to create his own insignia, choosing four gold stars to distinguish himself from those who held the rank of general, which was signified by four silver stars. After the creation of the five-star general rank during World War II, his rank would have unofficially be considered that of a six-star general, but he died before the proposed insignia could be considered and acted on by Congress.

Governor George Curry

Curry arrived at the fort as a young man, penniless and hungry, and was given work as a post trader by the commanding officer.

During the Spanish American War, he served in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

He served as the 18th governor of New Mexico Territory from 1907 to 1910, and when New Mexico was admitted as a state into the Union in 1912, he was elected as a Republican to the 62nd Congress. Curry County is named after him.

Governor Lew Wallace

Governor Lew Wallace spent time at Fort Stanton while trying to corral Billy the Kid and stop the Lincoln County Wars. According to lore, during his tenure at the Fort, he wrote parts of his famous novel “Ben Hur.” He was also successful in his efforts to bring peace to the region, ending the Lincoln County Wars.

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid did some time in the guard house, only one of many incarceration and escape escapades in Lincoln County and other places in New Mexico.

Gwendolyn Overton

Gwendolyn Overton wrote a book called “The Heritage of Unrest,” published in 1901, while living at the fort with her father, a lieutenant there. The book is considered one of the best of the Apache War novels, showing an awareness and understanding of their situation during these times. Her knowledge and insights are based on her time at the fort.

Dan Kusianovich

Dan Kusianovich served as chief administrative officer at Fort Stanton when it was a tubercular hospital. He moved to New Mexico in the ‘20s and studied with the renowned artists Peter Hurd and his wife Henriette Wyeth as well as Taos artists in the ‘30s. His works have been exhibited at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe and the Albuquerque Museum.

Other interesting stories about Fort Stanton:

Fort Stanton was home to a Civilian Conservation Corps work camp during the Great Depression.

In these days of being shut-in and overcoming the new coronavirus, we think back to the days of tuberculosis and what Fort Stanton meant to tubercular patients for many years.

Fort Stanton was a haven for tubercular seamen, with its sunshine and dry air. Fort Stanton lies 6,325 feet above sea level and the light, dry air from inland New Mexico was very therapeutic in healing many who were sent here to get well.

It also served as an internment camp for Germans from the S.S. Columbus. The German internees built gardens, a swimming pool and a recreation hall. When war was declared with Germany and Japan, it housed some German prisoners of war and it was a place of refuge for Japanese American families who had been threatened by people in their own hometowns.

From the 1960s until 1995, it was a State Hospital for Developmentally Delayed and has also served as a low security women’s prison as well as a juvenile drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

In 2007, it was finally proclaimed and established as a Historic Site, a treasure of New Mexico, especially for us living here in the southeastern part of the state.

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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