Fort Burgwin -
Protecting the Taos Valley
Fort Burgwin (1852-1860) - Also known
as Cantonment Burgwin, this military base was located about six miles
south of Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico.
Though first established in 1852 to protect the Taos Valley from
Indian attacks, the site shows
evidence of prehistoric occupation dating as early as 1000 AD.
The Pot Creek Pueblo, one of the largest
prehistoric sites in the northern Rio Grande Valley, was situated here,
consisting of some 300 ground-floor rooms that are thought to have been
occupied from 1200 to 1350 AD. By the time the first Spanish explorers,
led Lieutenant Hernando de Alvarado of
Coronado's Expedition arrived in 1540, the pueblo was abandoned.
nearby town of Taos, about ten miles north, was settled in 1615. The
long established trading networks at the
Taos Pueblo, its mission, and abundant water, timber, and game,
soon attracted a number of early Spanish settlers to the area.
However, these newcomers also created conflict with the Taos Pueblo due to their
authoritarian ways and forced religion, which eventually resulted in
the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Planned in months of secret meetings centered at the Taos Pueblo, a coordinated attack was
made by several pueblo communities in August, 1680, assaulting several
Spanish settlements. With more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors, the
killed 21 Franciscan friars, more than 400 Spaniards, and drove some
1,000 settlers out of the region. However, New Mexico
was re-conquered by Diego de Vargas in 1692. Afterwards, an uneasy
peace was maintained until 1847, when the local people of Taos once
In 1845 when James K. Polk was elected president, things began to
dramatically change for New Mexico.
Polk, who embraced the expansionist idea of manifest destiny, began to
encourage pioneers to emigrant into the unoccupied and fertile
territories of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona,
Oregon, and California.
This soon led to a number of disputes with Mexico over the Southwest,
ultimately resulting in the
Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. It was during this time that
the local Taos people began to regret that little had been done to try
to stop American emigration into New
and they began to organize against the United States government.
On the morning of January 19, 1847, the insurrectionists began the
revolt in present-day Taos, New Mexico,
led by a Hispanic man named Pablo Montoya, and a Taos
Indian known as Tomasito. In
the revolt, several politicians, including newly appointed Governor
were killed. U.S. troops soon retaliated, killing some
destroying the San Geronimo Mission at the Taos Pueblo, and afterwards,
for their part in the revolt.
Afterwards, the locals settled down and peace
was maintained in New Mexico
for the remainder of the Mexican-American War. However, in the meantime,
the Ute and Jicarilla Apache were busy making raids on
many early settlers in the area. To combat the hostilities, Fort Burgwin,
named for Captain John Burgwin, who was killed in the Taos Revolt of 1847,
was established August 16, 1852. The post was located at the confluence of
the Rito de la Olla (Pot Creek) and the Little Rio Grande River, selected
because it stood along the main wagon road from Santa Fe to Taos and north
as well as fertile grazing land for the livestock.
The post was first commanded by Lieutenant
Robert Ransom, Jr., who directed the building of barracks, stables,
offices, a mess hall, and storehouses. Built for defense rather than
comfort, there was only one gate and no windows in the outer fort wall.
The buildings and fortress wall, measuring 120'x220’ were completed in
early November. The buildings were built of logs with thick clay roofs
surrounded by the almost impregnable, windowless wall. Outside the wall,
other buildings were later built including officers quarters, a small
dispensary, a guard house, and laundresses' rooms. A private citizen also
opened a sutler’s store just across Pot Creek.
The first in a long series of
Indian campaigns began in February,
1854 when a party of Ute
raided the settlement at Culebra north of Taos and stole thirty horses. In
retaliation, Army dragoons, under Brevet Major Thompson and Lieutenant
John W. Davidson soon led troops in pursuit of the
Though the diligent soldiers, which included famed scout and explorer, Kit
Carson, followed the
into the San Luis Valley and mountains of southern
but were soon forced to turn back due to harsh weather.
The troops next major
engagement was at the Battle of Cieneguilla with a Jicarilla Apache on March 30, 1854. The
battle, fought near Cienguilla Creek in the Moreno Valley east of Taos,
found the soldiers vulnerable when the
caught them by surprise. .
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Fighting in the battle continued for more than three hours, in which 22
soldiers were killed, another 23 wounded, and 45 horses lost before the
troops retreated back to Taos. Afterwards, the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette
reported that the action "was one of the severest battles that ever took
place between American troops and
then pursued the troops back to Fort Burgwin, approaching close enough to
steal a number of horses. The livestock was later recovered and as the
troops pursued the Apache,
ten were apprehended. However, hundreds of others were able to escape and
locals feared an imminent attack on Fort Burgwin or even the town of Taos.
Fort Burgwin then became the headquarters for a major retaliatory campaign
against the Jicarilla Apache. Additional troops were
brought in from
Fort Union and locals were hired as spies and trackers. Under the command of
Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, and with Kit Carson as their chief guide,
the First Dragoons and Second Artillery, totaling about 200 men, began to
in April. Pursuing them into a rocky canyon near Agua Caliente, the
battled until the
fled into the mountains, leaving behind a number of women and children.
Indian camp was then burned and the
soldiers continued the pursuit for a time. However, they soon returned to
The soldiers continued to pursue the Jicarilla Apache over the next several months
and in May, Major William T. H. Brooks, the former commander of Fort
assumed command of soldiers. However, despite their best efforts the
Apache attacks continued.
However, by 1860 the
had mostly been placed on reservations and there was little need for Fort
Burgwin’s continued operations. The troops were then transferred to Fort
Union, New Mexico
the fort was abandoned, it quickly deteriorated and for the next century
was all but forgotten. However, in the mid-1950s, the property was
acquired by a businessman and amateur archaeologist named Ralph Rounds. He
soon enlisted the help of archaeologist Fred Wendorf of the Southern
Methodist University’s Department of Anthropology. The pair, along with
the assistance of students, soon located the remnants of the old log fort,
which was excavated and rebuilt.
Today, the reconstructed fort, as well as the a 13th-century Ancient
Puebloan Pot Creek Pueblo are located on the SMU Campus as part of the
college’s Archaeological Field School.
The site is located at 6580 Highway 518 in
Ranchos de Taos,
of America, updated March, 2017.