Motorists traveling along State Highway 104 north of Tucumcari, New Mexico, may notice a sign indicating the location of Fort Bascom. The post itself is long gone, its adobe walls washed away. In 1863, the United States, fearing a second Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory from Texas, built Fort Bascom. Until 1874, the troops stationed at this site on the Eroded Plains along the Canadian River defended Hispanic and Anglo-American settlements in eastern New Mexico and far western Texas against Comanches and other Southern Plains Indians.
In Fort Bascom, James Bailey Blackshear presents the definitive history of this critical outpost in the American Southwest, along with a detailed view of army life on the late-nineteenth-century western frontier. Located in the middle of what General William T. Sherman called “an awful country,” Fort Bascom’s hardships went beyond the army’s efforts to control the Comanches and Kiowas. Blackshear shows the difficulties of maintaining a post in a harsh environment where scarce water and forage, long supply lines, poorly constructed facilities, and monotonous duty tested soldiers’ endurance.
Fort Bascom also describes the social aspects of a frontier assignment and the impact of the Comanchero trade on military personnel and objectives, showing just how difficult it was for the army to subdue the Southern Plains Indians. Crucial to this enterprise were logistics, including procurement from civilian contractors of everything from beef to hay. Blackshear examines the strong links between New Mexican Comancheros and Comanches, detailing how the lure of illegal profits drew former military personnel into this black-market economy and revealing the influence of the Comanchero trade on Southwestern history.
This first full account of the unique challenges soldiers faced on the Texas frontier during and after the Civil War restores Fort Bascom to its rightful place in the history of the U.S. military and of U.S.-Indian relations in the American Southwest.
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Soldiers, Comancheros, and Indians in the Canadian River Valley
By James Bailey Blackshear
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
An Awful Country
In the summer of 1870, a variety of civilian contractors swarmed over Fort Bascom in New Mexico Territory, replacing many of its roofs; repairing its adobe walls, the officers' quarters, and the guardhouse; and finalizing plans for a standalone granary. Such activities indicated this frontier post was in for a very busy future. Yet by early September 1870, Forts Arbuckle, Gibson, Smith, and Bascom were all notified that they would no longer function as full-time forts. Brig. Gen. John Pope, the new commander of the Department of the Missouri, issued the closures, believing that the soldiers stationed at these garrisons could be re-allocated to larger bases for the winter and then sent back to the abandoned posts each summer on an as-needed basis.
Once northeastern New Mexicans got word of Pope's plan, they began a campaign to force him to change his mind. Trinidad Romero, the probate judge of San Miguel County, and J. Francisco Cháves, then one of New Mexico's leading political figures, immediately called local citizens to action, creating and then submitting a petition to Secretary of War W. W. Belknap that implored him to countermand the order. Above the signatures of 301 concerned New Mexicans on the petition, Romero wrote: "Fort Bascom at present is the only Military Post in the eastern frontier of the Territory. ... We respectfully claim that under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo we are entitled to the fullest protection at the hands of the Government, both for our lives and for our property." Romero told Belknap that the United States was obligated to uphold the "spirit and intention of the document," as well as reminding him that many of the people who were about to go unprotected "rendered their services to the government during the late Rebellion." The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) had stipulated that the U.S. Army must protect its new citizens from Indian attacks. Twenty-two years later, many Hispano New Mexicans still took such warranties seriously. Only a few months earlier, Teodosio Griego, one of Romero's sheepherders, had been "killed and scalped," by a band of Cheyenne and Kiowa Indians. Even before news of the closure reached Romero, the concerned probate judge had written Territorial Governor W. A. Pile about increased violence in San Miguel County: "Our military commander [at Fort Bascom] with a very small and inadequate force under his command is unable to protect us against the outrage of the numerous tribes of barbarians who surround our Territory." Certainly the army could make the case that it had expended much blood and treasure doing just that over the last quarter century. Yet New Mexican veterans, politicians, businessmen, and local ranchers now reminded Belknap that the army's mission was not completed. The government could expect more deaths and violent incidents once this post closed. In addition, such raids would destroy a thriving sheep and cattle industry. While leading political figures such as Eugenio Romero (Judge Trinidad Romero's brother) and merchants Charles Ilfeld and Adolph Letcher signed their names to the petition, the majority of signatures were from local ranchers and farmers of Hispanic origin whose main concern was their families' continued protection.
John S. Watts, the man who leased the land for Fort Bascom to the army, also got involved. A former territorial delegate to Congress and recent chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, Watts was back in Santa Fe practicing law when he heard about Pope's order. First, he contacted U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. Watts wrote Meigs that, according to his lease agreement, if Fort Bascom was abandoned before its twenty-year lease expired, every building on the military reservation reverted back to him. Meigs responded by communicating this information to General-in-Chief William Tecumseh Sherman.
Watts next wrote a more detailed letter to Secretary Belknap. He began by repeating what he had told Meigs about the lease, then made a claim that many of Fort Bascom's soldiers might have disagreed with: "Fort Bascom is in a manner new — now built — in good repair, and suitable for the comfortable accommodations of two companies of United States troops [—] and cost the United States fifty thousand dollars." Once he had established its value, Watts admitted that while acquiring the fort's buildings would benefit him personally, with the "evacuation of Fort Bascom [nearby citizens] will be left to the mercy and foreberance [sic] of twenty thousand Kiowa, Arappahoes [sic], and Comanche Indians, whose history for the last fifty years has been a dark and bloody record of theft, plunder, and murder." For that reason, he preferred the post remain fully operational so it could continue to protect New Mexico's citizens. Watts was sure that once Secretary Belknap reviewed all the issues, he would come to the same conclusion. Instead, Belknap replied that he had "received assurances that ample provisions have been made by the proper authorities for the continued protection of the people of New Mexico."
Those assurances came from Brigadier General Pope. By then, Col. George W. Getty, commander of the District of New Mexico, had sent "all available transportation" from Fort Union to the Canadian River Valley post to remove its supplies (with the exception of three months' rations, some medical supplies, and arms for eight men). Meanwhile, Pope had received a copy of the petition from San Miguel County residents. Adjutant General of the United States E. D. Townsend also sent him a copy of the letter that Quartermaster General Meigs had sent to General Sherman regarding the quartermaster's own letter from John Watts. Townsend also forwarded Pope a copy of the letter Watts sent to Secretary Belknap. By 26 October 1870 government wagons full of Fort Bascom supplies were on their way back to Fort Union. In Pope's response to General Townsend, he made clear his confidence that his decision to close Fort Bascom would not put local citizens in more danger, emphasizing that it was an unnecessary post; yet in the next sentence, which the general underlined, he noted, "It was not and never had been my purpose to abandon Bascom or any of the other posts named, in the sense of relinquishing possession of the buildings nor has Fort Bascom been thus vacated." He explained that soldiers would return "early in the spring near Fort Bascom to cover that section of the country during the summer and autumn, when danger exists, if there be any now." He informed Townsend that the post would continue to be used as a base of operations, which in his mind should keep the army's assets out of John Watts's possession. He admitted that he was unsurprised by the protests and was prepared to hear "misrepresentations of all kinds" regarding why the post should not be closed. Watts's attempt to circumvent Pope's plans by going over his head certainly angered the general, as was evident in his closing, somewhat caustic remarks to Townsend: "It is perhaps not presumptuous to say that my opinion about the location of the military posts is as valuable as that of Mr. Watts ["Mr. Watts" is underlined], and that my devotion to the public interests may possibly compare favorably with his."
General Belknap also forwarded the San Miguel County petition and his own correspondence with Watts to General-in-Chief Sherman. Sherman responded: "I have never been to Fort Bascom, but I have been to the head of the Red and Pecos Rivers of New Mexico, not far from Bascom. It is an awful country from which to draw men before death. ... Fort Bascom is on the Red River to the east, between New Mexico and the wild comanches [sic] of the Llano Estacado." Sherman's misidentification of the Canadian as the Red River was not unusual for the period. Many officers, soldiers, and merchants who lived in the region had made similar mistakes. Just as many people had also characterized this section of New Mexico Territory to be "an awful country," or something close to it. It is unknown how many soldiers associated this isolated post with death, but the correlation reveals what top military men in the nation's capital thought about the region. Army personnel considered the Eroded Plains, situated between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Llano Estacado, to be a confusing no-man's-land of scant water and hard duty. Positioned along the Canadian River amidst Comanche and Comanchero trails, Fort Bascom was not far from Comanchería. Its importance to military operations continued long after Pope ordered it closed. This book seeks to explain why so many New Mexicans signed the petition to keep the post open.
Fort Bascom was built in 1863, strategically positioned about sixty miles west of the Texas border. Its construction was prompted by Union fears of a second Confederate invasion from Texas and a desire to check incursions by Southern Plains Indians. Placed about eleven miles north of present-day Tucumcari, New Mexico, the fort was a day's ride from the western edge of the Llano Estacado. Fort Bascom operated as a permanent post from 1863 to 1870. From late 1870 through most of 1874, it functioned as an outpost of Fort Union, and it was used as a base of operations for patrols in New Mexico and expeditions into Texas. Soldiers stationed at this Canadian River garrison were positioned on the point of the spear, within the northern edges of the Comanches' homeland, during the height of the U.S. Army's war against the Southern Plains Indians.
Comanchería encompassed the eastern face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Llano Estacado, and much of Central Texas, extending as far south as the southern rim of the Edwards Plateau. Within this region, an area larger than many European countries, various Comanche communities refused to defer to American expansion and violently resisted attempts to relocate them. Despite its location within what almost could be considered a foreign country at war with the United States, Fort Bascom has garnered little attention. Examples of this oversight are found within the works of two of the region's best historians. In 1964 Ernest Wallace detailed the efforts of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie to defeat the Comanches in the Texas Panhandle. Regarding an expedition that occurred in the fall of 1871, Wallace wrote, "Mackenzie and his Fourth Cavalry had penetrated the very heart of the hostile Indian country, even venturing into the abysmal Llano Estacado in an area hitherto unexplored by the United States military." Ten years later, esteemed scholar Frederick J. Rathjen wrote of an 1872 Mackenzie expedition: "One wonders, in fact, whether the colonel realized the historic significance or personal distinction of having led the first United States military force across the Staked Plains!" (The exclamation is Rathjen's.) Yet seven years before Mackenzie's first journey into the Texas Panhandle, Fort Bascom patrols had already penetrated the region while participating in routine scouts and more extensive military expeditions. Such information does not detract from Mackenzie's accomplishments, nor from Wallace's or Rathjen's contributions to frontier military history. However, if the military's first forays into this "unexplored" territory are so historically significant, then this post's contributions are worth a second look.
Only two long works on Fort Bascom have been written, both very dated. In 1961 Father Stanley Louis Crocchiola, a historian and Franciscan priest who practiced his faith in New Mexico for fifty years, used the pseudonym F. Stanley to publish Fort Bascom: Comanche-Kiowa Barrier. It was based on anecdotal, first-generation recollections as well as archival sources, yet he did not footnote his material. Earlier, in 1955, scholar James M. Foster wrote his master's thesis on the fort. The work was footnoted and more detailed but narrow in focus. Moreover, the triumphalist themes both Stanley and Foster incorporated into their histories have long needed updating in order to place the history of this frontier outpost within the emerging historiographies that have re-created Southwestern history in the last twenty years.
In the past two decades many new histories of the Southwest have revealed a world of cultural and economic vitality. Scholars now argue that Southern Plains Indians were shapers of Southwestern history, not mere participants. If this is true, then we must consider the role played by Fort Bascom, situated fifteen miles from the Llano Estacado, where many of the Indians lived. The fort's location within this cultural shatter zone provides useful perspectives on existing and evolving relationships during an important era in the expansion of the United States. Spanish explorers, American merchants, and the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers left historians the first written descriptions of this region and its inhabitants. New Mexicans from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Navajos from the Bosque Redondo, Comanches from the Llano Estacado, African Americans from Kentucky, Anglo-Americans from Illinois, and European transplants all crossed paths along roads that radiated from this post.
After the Civil War, the cultural gulf between American soldiers and the Southern Plains Indians widened. Many of the volunteers who manned the frontier forts at the beginning of the war were locals, or at least lived somewhere within the region, and were familiar with the topography and people who inhabited it. They served in the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry and Cavalry. Volunteers from Colorado and California also filled the Union ranks in New Mexico Territory. After these westerners mustered out in 1866, army regulars raised east of the Mississippi River or in Europe were left to gain control of the Southwest. Soldiers' familiarity with both the people and the landscape of the region was paramount to success, yet the newcomers often had a difficult time distinguishing Navajos from Puebloans, Comanches from Utes, and honest Hispano ranchers from Comancheros. The Comancheros, composed of both Puebloans and local New Mexican mountain people, traded with the Comanches, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally. American soldiers posted to Fort Bascom and charged with breaking up this trade were inserted into this "fluid borderland world."
While these soldiers' subjugation of the Comanches may appear in retrospect to have been inevitable, in the 1860s the future was not so certain along the edge of the Llano Estacado. American dominance fed by claims of racial superiority, the acquisition of ancient land grants, and the elimination of hunting ranges created a recipe for dissent among a variety of people impacted by the army in general and Fort Bascom soldiers in particular. Although many Hispanos fought for the Union during the Civil War, thus allying themselves with the frontier army, others remained loyal to their lifelong trading partners, the Comanches. This loyalty ensured that Fort Bascom's areas of operation involved more than just chasing Indians. Troopers were charged with interrupting a transnational, black market economy that funneled manufactured goods and weapons south and east in exchange for Texas cattle and horses, the illegal contraband of the American Southwest during the 1860s. Wealthy New Mexicans and Anglo ranchers from Kansas and elsewhere were interested in cheap cattle and were hardly concerned with where the Comancheros had acquired them, although they certainly knew. This book will illustrate how this shadow economy worked and what Fort Bascom soldiers did to help bring it to a halt.
Texans were certainly just as concerned about Indian attacks as citizens living in San Miguel County. The archival evidence supports the argument that New Mexico Territory's Fort Bascom was Texas's northernmost frontier fort. Its men were closer to the Comanche homeland than any Texas post of the period. In the 1860s and 1870s, its commanders repeatedly sent patrols into the Texas Panhandle to break up the black market trade that plagued Texas ranchers and settlers. Three major expeditions sent large columns from Fort Bascom on missions to eliminate the Comanches and Kiowas who prevailed in the region. These columns, as well as regular scouts from the post, were instrumental in finally gaining control of the region.
Excerpted from Fort Bascom by James Bailey Blackshear. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. An Awful Country,
2. In the Shadow of Mesa Rica,
3. A Neat Little Post,
4. This Bean-Bellied Army,
5. Hundreds of Days and Hundreds of Miles,
6. Between Comancheros and Comanchería,
7. Texas's Northernmost Frontier Fort,
8. More Than a Sign,
Appendix: Regimental and Company Histories,