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 conjunction of the Sapello and Mora Rivers, 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, by the name of 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 which were described as both 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 not only a bustling center of trade, but also a crucible of cultural interaction between American Indian, 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 were 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 junction of the Mora and Sapello Rivers. 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‘ 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 and 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 the work of the 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.