No sooner had Colonel Edwin Sumner selected the site of Fort Union, New Mexico in the summer of 1851 than he dispatched Captain James H. Carleton and Company K, 1st Dragoons, to make regular patrols of the trail between the fort and the Arkansas River. Within just two years, an escort system began to be used but the freighters, whose caravans were reaching New Mexico in mounting numbers, felt no need of escorts as they understood the conditions of the trail and organized their own defense, However, this was not the case for the stagecoach drivers of the Independence-Santa Fe Mail, who with one or two light wagons had to make their way across the Indian-infested Cimarron Desert. Whenever company or postal officials sensed danger, they called upon the commanding officer at Fort Union for help.
The escort usually consisted of an officer and 20-40 men, later of a sergeant and 15-20 men, who accompanied the stages to the Arkansas River and returned to Fort Union with the next westbound mail. The soldiers, infantry or dismounted horsemen, rode in wagons. This method was adopted in 1857 by General John Garland because it afforded better defense in the event of attack and because of the scarcity of grass in the Cimarron Desert. Even so, the mules drawing the escort wagons frequently broke down and always had trouble keeping up with the mail coaches. The stage company had relay stations with fresh animals on the Mora and the Arkansas Rivers, but the army mules traveled more than 600 miles, from Fort Union to the Arkansas and back, without relief.
Occasionally the Indians tested the defenses. On December 4, 1859, for example, 20 Kiowa warriors swept down on the mail wagon and its escort at Cold Springs, in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Though driven off after wounding one soldier, they kept the troops pinned down with long-range rifle fire for several hours.
Depredations multiplied in 1860, and from Kansas to New Mexico, traffic on the Santa Fe Trail moved under almost constant danger of Kiowa and Comanche attack. In March 1860 Army headquarters in New York ordered three columns to operate independently in the Kiowa-Comanche country during the summer. One was to come from Fort Riley, Kansas; one from Fort Kearny, Nebraska; and a third from New Mexico. Six companies of the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen rendezvoused at Fort Union in May 1860 and rode out in search of the hostiles.
First under Major Charles F. Ruff, later under Captain Andrew Porter, the Fort Union column marched and countermarched in the plains bordering the Canadian River. The elusive Indians stayed out of reach. While the command was on the Pecos River, far to the south, word came that the Comanche were in the north and preparing to attack Fort Union itself. Reinforcements hastened to strengthen the defenders, but no enemy appeared. While the troops scouted the country east of the Canadian River, however, the Comanche swept down on a temporary supply camp, only to be driven off by the two companies of infantry posted as guard. In July, the Mounted Riflemen stumbled on a hostile village, but the occupants had sensed danger and fled. Finally, in October, the department commander suspended further operations.
For five months the Fort Union column had pressed an arduous search for the Plains marauders, yet the chief result was a collection of broken-down horses suffering from overwork, malnutrition and the ravages of a disease known as “black tongue.” Smarting under the failure, the officers looked forward to another chance. It came in December when Lieutenant Colonel George B. Crittenden, commanding Fort Union, learned that a war party of Kiowa and Comanche was harassing traffic on the Mountain Branch of the trail about 70 miles north of the fort.
With 88 men of the Mounted Rifle Regiment, he marched up the trail. The Indians, however, had moved east and were menacing the Cimarron Branch. The troops followed the trail night and day and, on January 2, 1861, charged a village of 175 lodges on the Cimarron River 10 miles north of Cold Springs, Oklahoma. The Indians were driven from their camp with a loss of ten killed and an unknown number wounded. Crittenden had three men wounded. The soldiers destroyed the village and its contents and returned to Fort Union with 40 captured horses.
Colonel Fauntleroy, now department commander, was elated, and in March reported that the Comanche had withdrawn from the borders of the territory. Some of the chiefs, in fact, came to a conference with military authorities on the Pecos River and promised to give no more trouble.
Fauntleroy next turned to the Mescalero Apache, who had terrorized central and southern New Mexico for many years. He sent Colonel Crittenden south from Fort Union to operate against these Indians. No battles were fought, but Crittenden harried them so relentlessly that by late May, Fauntleroy could reported that “The Mescaleros have sued for peace, [and] seem disposed to refrain from future hostilities against the settlements.”
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, June 2018.
Source: National Park Service