While we were visiting my cousin and his family in Capitan, New Mexico, he took us to visit the historical site, Fort Stanton, which is about a 20 minute drive from his house. He was a docent at the site for a while, until his worsening hearing loss made it problematical for him to continue. (It’s hard to answer visitor’s questions if you can’t hear them well enough to understand what they’re saying.) In his boots, jeans, western shirt and cowboy hat, my cousin would have made a perfect docent, especially as he was well up on the subject.
The original fort was built in 1855 to protect settlements along the Rio Bonito during the Apache Wars, and was originally part of the Mescalero Apache reservation until the reservation was moved 30 miles to the southwest to it’s current location.
The buildings are built from the local stone, which is very abundant in the Capitan Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. I took the picture at right to give an idea of the thickness of the walls. The long black object is the screen door leading into the museum area. They had a lovely little museum in the building pictured above, which was one of the original fort buildings built in about 1858, and was originally a barracks.
Kit Carson, John “Black Jack” Pershing, and Billy the Kid, all lived there at one time or another, and the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry were stationed here. There was a typical cavalry soldier’s outfit, including hat, uniform jacket, saddle and gear on display in the museum (see below), and another of the buildings was set up as a cavalry barracks with furniture, equipment, and clothing on display.
As I mentioned, another of the buildings had been set up as a cavalry barracks with racks for rifles. This building had a vestibule where hats and coats were hung, and then inside the door, in the barracks room proper, was this rifle rack. There was no sign saying what kind of rifles these were but I think they might be Springfield Model 1861 rifles which were muzzle loading muskets that used Minié balls. Springfield Model 1861’s were the most widely used US Army rifles during the American Civil War.
There was supposed to be some kind of US Cavalry reenactor event held at the Fort on July 11th, and over 5000 people were expected to attend. Cavalry reenactors are, like most historical reenactors, quite serious about it, and typically have not only uniforms, but horses, tack, and all the gear. One of the lawyers in the law firm my mother used to work for was a cavalry reenactor.
General John Pershing began his military career in 1886 and served with the 6th Cavalry in New Mexico. He was briefly stationed at Fort Stanton. Although many people think that his nickname, “Black Jack,” was given as a tribute, it was actually a put-down. Pershing had served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the famous 10th Cavalry unit, which was comprised of segregated African-American soldiers. He was derided for having “ridden with the blacks,” and so was nicknamed Black Jack. He had taught African-American children as a young man, and he remained sympathetic to Black Americans his whole life.
In 1899, President William McKinley transferred the Fort Stanton property from the War Department to the Marine Hospital Service, converting the military reservation to America’s first federal tuberculosis sanatorium. Merchant seamen were at high risk of developing tuberculosus as they often slept in close quarters and had poor nutrition. The vast majority of the graves in this cemetery outside the Fort are of the merchant seamen who succumbed to tuberculosis. In the lower left hand corner of the picture, you can make out a grey metal object, which is a ship’s anchor.
The bacillus causing tuberculosis was identified on 24 March 1882 by Robert Koch who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1905 for this discovery. Many people caught tuberculosis from infected milk. In the early 20th century, Milton Joseph Rosenau established the standards for the pasteurization of milk while a member of the United States Marine Hospital Service. Before the advent of streptomycin in 1946, there was no effective treatment for the disease.
During World War II, German and Japanese prisoners of war were interned at Fort Stanton, including 411 German nationals taken from the luxury liner Columbus in 1939. Caught at sea by the outbreak of WWII, the Columbus put her passengers ashore at Havana, Cuba, and was attempting to comply with orders to return home to Germany when she was intercepted by the British destroyer HMS Hyperion. Also in the area was the neutral American heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa. Rather than allow themselves to be captured by the British, the Germans scuttled their vessel and her 576 crew members, including boys, stevedores and nurses, were taken aboard the Tuscaloosa as rescued seamen, not as prisoners of war as they would have been had the British picked them up. While at Fort Stanton, the German internees constructed their own swimming pool. The above model ship was constructed by one of the German internees.
In 2008, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson announced plans to establish Fort Stanton as a living history venue, Fort Stanton State Monument, and allocate funds to renovate headquarters, officers quarters, and stables.
In 2009, the 25,000 acres around Fort Stanton and Fort Stanton Cave were designated by the U.S. Congress as a National Conservation Area (NCA), in order to protect a unique cave resource, Snowy River Passage in Fort Stanton Cave National Natural Landmark. Snowy River was discovered in 2001 by members of the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project. The new NCA, called Fort Stanton – Snowy River Cave, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The NCA has over 90 miles of multi-use trails for horseback riding, mountain bike riding and hiking. It is the venue of an annual endurance riding event that has grown to be 6 days long. The NCA is joined on its south and northeast boundaries by the Smokey Bear Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest.
Although many of the old military and hospital buildings are still derelict and awaiting restoration, what was once housing for hospital employees and support staff is still in use as housing for New Mexico state law enforcement personnel and their families, so much of the area around the historic Fort is cordoned off as private residences.