Western Trips

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wagon Train Ruts From The Santa Fe Trail Days / New Mexico

The old Santa Fe Trail that crossed from Missouri to Santa Fe was one of the busiest trade routes in North America. What's amazing now in the 21st Century is that there are many sites where vacationers and historians can still view remnants of this trail and this era of long ago. Viewing old Santa Fe Trail wagon train ruts is a fun any western vacation road trip. The National Park System has done a great job in preserving much of this trail.

Historic Fort Union

wagon train ruts
Santa Fe Trail 6 miles south of Fort Union
Our Western Road Trip takes us to the ruins of Fort Union located in the northeast part of New Mexico. If your road trip takes you along Interstate 25 between the Colorado border and south into New Mexico, chances are you'll pass quite close to the Fort Union National Monument.

The site is located between the cities of Raton and Las Vegas New Mexico, closer to Las Vegas. The partial ruins of the adobe structures have been saved and restored and are fascinating.

The Fort Union National Monument Visitors Center has a terrific museum with a large amount of frontier artifacts.

At the Visitors center you'll be able to get hold of a Santa Fe Trail map. It's a terrific stop while on family vacation. There's also a very informative twenty minute video regarding the fort's history. If you're passing by on Interstate 25, it's a great road trip stop. Exit Interstate 25 at the Watrous exit 366 and then go west for eight miles on NM 161. Fort Union is about ninety-five miles south of Raton New Mexico and about two-hundred and forty three miles south of Colorado Springs Colorado.

A Crucial Frontier Army Fort

Fort Union was a very important U.S. Army installation. The primary duty was to protect traders and pioneers who traveled over the Santa Fe Trail. The fort was also a large supply depot for travelers on the trail. Fort Union was located at a kind of crossroad where two branches of the Santa Fe Trail intersected. These were the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cut Off. The Mountain Branch ran between New Mexico and Colorado. The Cimarron Cut Off was a bit shorter and ran between Kansas and New Mexico heading in a southwest direction. This route left the Arkansas River just west of Cimarron, Kansas. 

Cutting diagonally it crossed the southwest corner of Kansas, a small bit of Colorado. It was a popular trail for the fast mail wagons because the cut off shortened the distance to Santa Fe by about 100 miles. This could knock off eight to ten travel days.

The Important Santa Fe Trail

trail ruts at fort union
Bare remnants of the SF Trail passing through Ft. Union
The Santa Fe Trail  served two purposes for the U.S. First, it was a premiere trading route with the Mexican territory of Nuevo Mexico. Secondly, during the Mexican American War in 1846, the trail served as a primary road for U.S. troops to invade the Mexican colony. Fort Union itself didn't appear of course until after the Mexican American War and the territory had been ceded to the United States. In many respects, Fort Union could have been the most critical military outpost in New Mexico Territory.

The Santa Fe route could actually serve to take travelers all the way to California by connecting with the California Trail which was established by the Spaniards. The California trail route ran from Santa Fe and touched a bit of southern Utah before turning southwestward toward southern California.

Fort Union During the Civil War Years

Ft Union also played a key role in the American Civil War. The southern troops, mostly Texas volunteers, had occupied a large part of the southwest, mostly in the southern section of New Mexico Territory.

The Confederates made a move to the north and occupied  Old Town Albuquerque for about thirty-nine days. They made an advance northward to the east of Santa Fe in an effort to cut off Union supplies and forces on the Santa Fe Trail. The result was a battle at Glorieta Pass, just about twenty miles east of Santa Fe along what is now Interstate 25. Union forces from Fort Union and Colorado volunteers had a decisive victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass which essentially stopped Confederate advancement northward.

Fort Union's Buffalo Soldiers

santa fe trail ruts
Santa Fe Trail ruts south of Fort Union
After the Civil War ended, Fort Union was occupied by the Buffalo Soldiers. The famous Ninth Cavalry or Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at Ft Union for five years between 1876-1881.

Black soldiers really had their start during the Civil War. They had a very impressive record in battle and as a result were formed into official regiments in 1866. 

With the white troops busy in the south during reconstruction the new black soldiers were largely sent to the western frontier. In 1867 there were four black regiments. This included the 9th and 10th cavalry units and the 24th and 25th infantry units. The units were commanded by a white officer.

The Buffalo soldiers were at Fort Union to primarily protect trade on the Santa Fe Trail. The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad would not be built to Santa Fe until 1879, so the trail was vitally important. The Santa Fe Trail, particularly the Cimarron Cut Off from Kansas, passed through what was known as Comancheria. Traders often had to bargain with the Comanches for safe passage. Sometimes bargaining didn't work. The Cimarron Cut Off was used less than the northern Mountain Route because of the Comanche action and the general lack of water. There are a lot of stories of Comanche attacks across the Cimarron Strip.

There are several sites along both the Santa Fe Trail and the old Oregon Trail and it's offshoots where wagon ruts can be seen today. It's really rather amazing at how you can view these flashbacks into American history even 150 years after the fact. It's also amazing how they have stayed identifiable after those many years in the outdoor elements.

Just to name a few parts of the old Santa Fe Trail where wagon ruts can easily be seen in addition to the Fort Union New Mexico area are the ruts at the Cimarron National Grassland. The Cimarron National Grassland is located in Morton County Kansas with a small part in Stevens County. The grassland includes twenty-three miles of the old Santa Fe Trail and wagon train ruts are clearly visible. Another good site is just west of Dodge City Kansas. The Santa Fe Trail wagon train rut viewing area is between Cimarron and Dodge City Kansas, on US 50/400. The site is nine miles west of Dodge City.

The link below takes you to another Western Trips photo article about the historic Fort Garland in Colorado...

Fort Garland Colorado and Kit Carson 

Also see our article about some Great Stops Along the TX and NM Old Route 66.

Old Wagon Ruts Around the West

fort union wagon ruts
Wagon trail with ruins of Fort Union in background.
There are also several good places to see wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail in both Nebraska and Wyoming.

Nebraska's Rock Creek Station State Historical Park is not only filled with Pony Express and Wild Bill Hickok history but offers good viewing of old wagon ruts. The park is near the present day village of Endicott. To the northwest of the old Pony Express station site is a great stretch of wagon ruts.

Many people believe they are the best preserved Oregon Trail ruts in Nebraska. In Wyoming you'll want to make a stop at Lake Guernesy State Park. Here again are some fine examples of Oregon Trail wagon ruts.

As a side note, the National Park Service administers the Oregon National Historic Trail which generally consists of remnant sites and trail segments. They are not necessarily contiguous but there are some great areas where the old wagon ruts can be seen.

Some of the original Oregon Trail and it's connecting trails are in private hands. Others are not. Of the 11 National Historic Trails, nine are administered by the National Park Service, one by the USDA Forest Service and one by the Bureau of Land Management. The Oregon Trail sites.

You can enjoy the Oregon National Historic Trail by auto-touring, visiting interpretive sites, hiking, biking or horseback riding trail segments and visiting museums. You can all or some of the activities mentioned above depending on which site and trail segment you choose to visit. The Oregon National Park Trail runs through the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Wyoming.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)