Fort Burgwin, New Mexico – Protecting the Taos Valley

Fort Burgwin

Fort Burgwin Reconstructed Main Fort Building. Photo by John Stanton, 2019, courtesy Fort Wiki.

Fort Burgwin, also known as Cantonment Burgwin, was a military base located about six miles south of Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Though first established in 1852 to protect the Taos Valley from Ute and Jicarilla Apache 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.

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

The 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 Indians 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. Afterward, an uneasy peace was maintained until 1847, when the local people of Taos once again rebelled.

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 Mexico and they began to organize against the United States government.

On the morning of January 19, 1847, the insurrectionists began the Taos 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 Charles Bent, were killed. U.S. troops soon retaliated, killing some Indians, destroying the San Geronimo Mission at the Taos Pueblo, and executing 16 Indians for their part in the revolt.

Cantonment Burgwin, New Mexico

Cantonment Burgwin, New Mexico

Afterward, 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 on August 16, 1852. The post was located at the confluence of the Rito de la Olla (Pot Creek) and the Little Rio Grande, selected because it stood along the main wagon road from Santa Fe to Taos and north into Colorado, as well as fertile grazing land for the livestock.

Fort Burgwin Officers Quarters. Photo by John Stanton, 2019.

Fort Burgwin Officers Quarters. Photo by John Stanton, 2019. Courtesy Fort Wiki.

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 an almost impregnable, windowless wall. Outside the wall, other buildings were later built including officers quarters, a small dispensary, a guardhouse, 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 Indians raided the settlement at Culebra north of Taos and stole 30 horses. In retaliation, Army dragoons, under Brevet Major Thompson and Lieutenant John W. Davidson soon led troops in pursuit of the Ute. Though the diligent soldiers, which included famed scout and explorer, Kit Carson, followed the Indians into the San Luis Valley and mountains of southern Colorado 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 Indians caught them by surprise. 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. Afterward, the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette reported that the action “was one of the severest battles that ever took place between American troops and Indians.”

The Indians 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.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

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 track the Indians in April. Pursuing them into a rocky canyon near Agua Caliente, the soldiers and Apache battled until the Indians fled into the mountains, leaving behind a number of women and children. The Indian camp was then burned and the soldiers continued the pursuit for a time. However, they soon returned to the fort.

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 Defiance, Arizona, assumed command of soldiers. However, despite their best efforts, the Apache attacks continued.

However, by 1860 the Indians 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 and Fort Garland, Colorado.

After 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 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, New Mexico.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Also See:

Forts Across New Mexico

Forts Photo Gallery

New Mexico Indian Battles

Taos Revolt