The valley where the tiny town of Watrous, New Mexico, stands today has long been a resting and meeting place, beginning with the indigenous tribes of the area. Located in a valley at the Sapello and Mora Rivers’ conjunction, the Plains Tribes, including the Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, and Ute, often met to trade with the Puebloans. The site, known as La Junta de los Rios Mora y Sapello, meaning “The Juncture of the Mora and Sapello Rivers,” was a perfect gathering place, as it was filled with cottonwoods, good grass, and water from the rivers. It later became a meeting place for sheepherders from Las Vegas, Mora, and other places in the regions. It was a campsite for Comancheros, Native Americans, and Spanish/Mexican settlers.
Under Spanish rule of what is now the southwestern United States, the Spanish banned international trade of all kinds. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexicans lifted these sanctions. Traders in the neighboring United States rejoiced because the western territory contained a wealth of resources and goods produced by Indian Tribes and Mexican artisans. After the Santa Fe Trail opened to trade in 1821, many small towns and trading posts began to spring up along the route as commerce between the United States and Mexico boomed.
Around 1835, an Englishman named James Boney, who was also known as Santiago Bone, and several others first established a town in the area after the Mexican government made them a land grant. At that time, the small settlement was simply called La Junta. Boney, his Mexican wife, and several children lived here until the early 1840s, when he was killed in an Indian attack. By 1846, Boney’s family abandoned the valley, and nothing of this first settlement remains today.
In 1843, another man named John Scolly also received a Mexican land grant and continued to support the small settlement. La Junta was originally unimpressive, architecturally, with simple adobe houses described as small and dirty. However, that would change in the next several years. Sitting at the point where the Mountain and Cimarron Cutoff routes of the Santa Fe Trail joined, the settlement was well established by 1846.
That year, the Army of the West camped in the valley near the Sapello Crossing when it was described as “the first settlement we had seen in 775 miles” by Adjutant General William H. Emory. Though General Stephen Kearny’s soldiers were not overly impressed with the dirty town whose houses resembled brick kilns, they found its cheese, milk, and other produce, including whiskey, a welcome change from the fare of the road.
What began as a small farming community soon became an important rest stop for travelers headed east into the arid plains or west toward the trail’s end in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The sheltered and fertile valley supported the eventual development of several prosperous ranches, stagecoach stations, a Jesuit Mission, and additional support structures for nearby Fort Union. The area was a bustling center of trade and a crucible of cultural interaction between American Indians, Mexican, and American travelers.
In March 1848, well-known traders Alexander Barclay and George S. Simpson traveled down the Mora River from Colorado to La Junta. Thomas Fitzpatrick, a well-known fur trader, had previously told Barclay and Joseph Doyle that the US Government would probably build a fort in the area to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail from marauding Indians. Barclay and Doyle’s plan was to build a fort here and then sell it to the government for a profit. This was also a great location to establish a mercantile for trading with travelers on the Trail because it was just south of the point where the Cimarron Cutoff and the Mountain Branch merged. After seeing the property, Barclay quickly went to Santa Fe and bought a portion of the original Scolly Grant.
On April 23, 1848, the largest caravan ever to cross the Raton Pass left Pueblo, Colorado, and headed south. With 18 armed men, the heavily loaded wagons filled with household goods, food, and supplies, made progress at a rate of about 7-10 miles per day and arrived at the foot of Raton Pass on May 1st. After leaving the women and children in Mora, New Mexico, the men arrived at the La Junta Valley and immediately began the work of establishing a “fort.”
Soon after, Charles Autobees came from Mora to supervise the construction of the adobe Fort Barclay. Before long, two irrigation ditches had been dug to water the 200 acres, and the construction was nearly complete. By September 4, the fort was sufficiently finished that Barclay brought his wife, Teresita Suaso, to her new home. On September 19th, Doyle arrived with a blacksmith, and a few days later, Doyle brought his own wife down from Mora. The large, square enclosure, with high adobe walls and a heavy gate that could be locked, was used as a camping place for pioneers and wagon trains. Called “Barclay’s Fort,” it quickly became a very popular stopping point along the Santa Fe Trail. The fort bustled with trading activity daily, served as a stagecoach station, provided housing for men, shelter for animals, and its stockade furnished protection from Indian raids.
A few years later, New Mexico’s attorney general, W. W. H. Davis, would describe the post:
“It is a large adobe establishment and, like the immense caravansaries of the East, serves as an abode for men and animals. From the outside, it presents a rather formidable as well as neat appearance, being pierced with loop-holes and ornamented with battlements. The rooms within were damp and uncomfortable, and all the surroundings looked so gloomy, the hour being twilight, that it reminded me of some old state prison where the good and great of former times have languished away their lives.”
At about the same time, Samuel B. Watrous and his family settled in La Junta. After purchasing a one-seventh interest in the Scolly Mexican land grant, he built a huge ranch house and store at the Mora and Sapello Rivers’ junction. The structure was described as a “fort-like” adobe with 20 rooms, ringing a large interior patio and courtyard. Over the years, Watrous amassed large herds of cattle and ample grazing land just north of the Mora River. He sold and traded what his ranch produced with local residents, travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, and, later, to troops at nearby Fort Union.
William B. Tipton, who had come to New Mexico in 1846 with General Stephen Kearny’s army, was hired by Watrous to help him claim and settle his portion of the Scolly Grant. William Tipton and his brother, Enoch, settled what would be called Tiptonville on the Mora River, a couple of miles northwest of La Junta.
In 1849 William Tipton married Samuel Watrous’s daughter, Mary, who was only 12 years old. He then became a partner with Samuel Watrous in the firm of Watrous and Tipton. Together they owned 20 freight wagons that hauled merchandise for many years on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico.
By that time, New Mexico had become a territory of the United States. More and more settlers came to the area, taking over the traditional hunting grounds of the Moache Ute, Jicarilla Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche. Due to the increased traffic on the Santa Fe Trail, more and more emigrants and their game being reduced, friction between the Indians and new settlers flared. Troops were soon sent in to protect the citizens of the territory. In 1850, Alexander Barclay tried to sell the fort to the Army, but they wouldn’t buy it. Instead, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin V. Sumner tried to order Barclay off his own land so the Army could build their own fort there.
When Colonel Sumner came in to take command, he found the existing military encampments in deplorable conditions and immediately disbanded these temporary posts, relocating the troops to posts closer to the Indians. In 1851, he would begin establishing Fort Union about nine miles northwest of Watrous on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Located near Alexander Barclay’s land, the Army again tried to order him off his own land, but he took the army to court, which dragged on for several years.
The new fort became the principal depot for supplies for other forts in the region, utilizing the fertile Mora Valley ranchers and farmers, including Samuel Watrous, as suppliers. Because of the numerous military trails that joined at La Junta, hundreds of ox and mule teams, freighters, muleteers, drivers, escorts, and travelers passed yearly by the Watrous Store, which prospered greatly.
In 1853, Alexander Barclay traveled north to trade with the Indians and found they’d moved from where he thought they were. He suffered a large financial loss. When he returned to the fort, he found that operations were out of control and the fort in bad repair. By the end of October, he was living at the fort by himself. He advertised the fort for sale in the Santa Fe newspapers but never had an inquiry. In 1854, the post office closed, and it would be over a decade before another would open in nearby La Junta. Alexander soon grew very ill and died. He was buried at his “fort” in December 1855. Litigation with the army continued with Joseph Doyle, who finally won out. In 1856, he sold the land and the fort to a German immigrant named William Kronig for about $7,000. Kroenig soon collected 94 head of cattle and 200 sheep, which he drove to La Junta. He cemented a familial relationship with Samuel Watrous by marrying his daughter, Louisa. His showpiece ranch was just west of his father-in-law’s and came to be known as the Phoenix Ranch. Here, he created nine artificial lakes and stocked them with fish. Barclay’s Fort was located about two miles north of Watrous. Though the buildings are long gone today, the foundations can still be seen in the historic district.
By the 1850s, traffic along the Santa Fe Trail dramatically increased due to gold seekers, many stopped and traded in the Watrous store. Several new settlers called La Junta home, including William Shoemaker, the ordnance officer at Fort Union.
In the 1860s, descendants of James Boney returned to the Valley and resettled in what is now the West Tiptonville area about 2.5 miles northwest of Watrous. Boney’s son, Santiago Bone Jr., built a simple rock and adobe home that remains today. The Bernardo Salazar House and the Trinidad Lopez House, homes of James Boney’s daughters and their husbands, are also still standing.
In 1862 William Tipton purchased an interest in the Scolly Grant and erected a large galleried ranch house on the Mountain Branch north of Barclay’s Fort. He raised beef for sale to Fort Union. Adjacent to his ranch, Tipton laid out the village of Tiptonville on the north bank of the Mora River in 1870, which became a gathering place for caravans. Today, the area displays visible trail ruts and arroyos fanning out into the rolling hills.
Although Tipton’s house was destroyed by fire, its foundation and the buildings used for his store, post office, and stable have survived. At one time, the town boasted several stores and saloons that served the wagon trains and soldiers from nearby Fort Union, a church, and a school. Ten largely unaltered buildings remain and reflect the adobe brick construction characteristic of the Territorial period.
The Boney family donated land to Jesuit priests to construct a church, rectory, school, and cemetery. Built in 1870, the Sagrado Corazon Mission ministered to a parish extending from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Trinidad, Colorado. The foundations of the mission, rectory, and school are visible in the district, as is the historic cemetery.
When the business of William Kronig’s trading post began to diminish, he built a handsome two-story galleried plantation-type house in the Territorial Style, known as the Phoenix Ranch House, in 1865. It still stands today. In 1868 he sold the Phoenix Ranch and left the valley, returning in 1883 to build a home upstream from Sapello Crossing.
By the late 1860s and early 1870s, trade and travel along the Santa Fe Trail began to slow due to the railroad system’s westward extension. When the railroad was planning to extend into the area in 1879, the Watrous family donated the land for the right of way, stations, and yards. The Santa Fe Railroad chief engineer laid out a new town just to the east of La Junta to service the railroad. The new town took the name of Watrous in honor of Samuel B. Watrous. The economics of the valley shifted to center around the railroad, leaving the formerly bustling trading town of La Junta largely abandoned. When the railroad finally came through in 1880-81, Watrous became the major stop for Fort Union materials, just a few miles north of town on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1886, Samuel Watrous allegedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Said to have been despondent over his son, Samuel Watrous, Jr., having killed himself just a few months earlier, he followed in his footsteps. This “suicide” was immediately questioned, and the mystery of his death remains today. (See more HERE.)
The village of Watrous continued to thrive after the death of its namesake for several years. Watrous’s son-in-law, Carl Wildenstein, developed a flour mill, and several new ranches were established. By 1889 the settlement boasted a population of 365 people. In 1900 Watrous had grown to include several general stores, two churches, a hotel, a school, a post office, a barbershop, a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a lumber yard, a slaughterhouse, a tavern, and about 500 people. The village was also home to several short-lived newspapers, including the Mora County Pioneer, Pioneer Journal, Northern New Mexico Farmer’s Weekly, Arrow, and the Pioneer Plains Times.
In 1904 William T. Brown purchased land outside Watrous and built Valmora Industrial Sanatorium to provide care for stricken workers from the Chicago area. Shoemaker ranch and its fine breed of Palomino horses were great boons for the town. But, unfortunately for Watrous, its heydays were nearing their end.
In April 1910, a disastrous fire almost burned the entire town. The fire started in J.D. Rankin’s store, and high winds carried the flames to all sections of the town west of the railroad. The Hotel Frye was destroyed, as well as two stores, three saloons, the barbershop, and several others. The town was never rebuilt. However, by 1915, it was still an important railroad point, and in 1920 still supported 435 people, partly due to the sanitarium residents at Valmora Ranch. When the town was incorporated in 1939, it was beginning its decline. By 1950, the population had dropped to 256 people. Although the railroad made flag stops as late as 1953, Watrous was no longer a key shipping point.
Today, this small town of about 135 people is a National Historic Landmark District that includes the Santa Fe Trail routes that originally came together in the La Junta area and buildings and structures associated with the community’s active use from 1835 to 1879. Much of the original character and integrity of La Junta remains today, from its rustic built environment to the natural beauty of the rangeland in the valley. Throughout the district, deep trail impressions and wagon wheel ruts still dot the landscape.
Sophisticated buildings such as a log and adobe stagecoach station, brick commercial buildings, and adobe homes in the Territorial style still stand in the Tiptonville area. At the Tiptonville district’s southern tip, where the Mountain and Cimarron Branches merge, is the log and adobe Gregg Tavern-Stage Station, which served the Barlow-Sanderson Stage Line in the 1860s and 1870s. Also in this area are the Fort Union Corral Buildings, where muleskinners may have cared for the cavalry horses.
The Phoenix Ranch south of the Mora River and west of the settlement of La Junta is the site of one of the finest Territorial period residences in New Mexico. Dating from the 1860s, the two-story square plan ranch house has a two-level gallery extending around all four sides and Greek Revival details on the window and door surrounds. The rock barn and other outbuildings may date from the same period.
The Watrous Valley Ranch and House passed through three other families before coming into the current owners’ hands, completely restoring the house. Located at 2286 Hwy 161, the ranch still has thousands of acres of original grazing land and hundred of Samuel Watrous’s original Black Willow and Cottonwood Trees.
Watrous is just off I-25, about 18 miles northeast of Las Vegas and about 95 miles south of Raton, New Mexico.
To get to the Tiptonville area, cross I-25 at the north end of Watrous on the road to Fort Union. The turnoff to the old townsite is about one mile up the road. Turn left and drive about 0.5 miles. Though the buildings are on private property, many of the buildings can be seen from the road. Santa Fe Trail ruts are visible in this area.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August 2021.
Alexander Barclay – British Trader on the Santa Fe Trail
The Life & Mysterious Death of Samuel B. Watrous
Santa Fe Trail – Highway To the Southwest
Tiptonville – Extinct on the Santa Fe Trail
Clark, Anna Nolan, Fifty Years of Change, New Mexico Magazine, February 1938
American Latino Heritage, National Park Service
New Mexico Office of the State Historian
Santa Fe Trail Association Quarterly, Volume 12, February 1998
Santa Fe Trail Site Map & Writing Credits
Varney, Philip; New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide; University of New Mexico Press, 1987