The Plains had always been peopled by nomadic groups going back to the Clovis hunters. The Indians still lived out there and seemed to be successful. Vázquez de Coronado and his Conquistadors were probably the first Europeans to fully experience the Great Plains. He and his expedition were on a fool’s errand looking for fabled cities of gold. He and his people marched from Mexico well into eastern Kansas before he gave up and went back. An early explorer, Edwin Thomas with Major Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition, labeled the Great Plains as the Great American Desert in his published account of their trek across this empty space. For years that description stayed in the public perception. Mountain Men and fur trappers would venture out onto the plains and into the mountains but not many others. Long’s expedition concluded that the plains were "unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture." Free Enterprise turned a blind eye toward Long’s and others’ admonitions and in 1821, William Becknell pioneered the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri across the plains and through the mountain passes into Santa Fe, in what was then just becoming independent Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail turned out to be the interstate highway of its day. It became a military road in 1846 when the US Army marched down the Santa Fe Trail to occupy New Mexico during the Mexican-American War. New Mexico (actually named after the Aztec empire, not the country) became part of the United States officially in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
While I could not happily live on the Great Plains, I have always been fascinated by the tree-less and seemingly empty expanse. In April 2019, I struck out on my own expedition to follow the Santa Fe Trail across the Great American Desert. This account is just a small part of the story. The full story of the trip is HERE and my description and experience at three historic hotels I stayed at along the way is HERE. (My travel hobby is “collecting” historic hotels.)
I left home travelling north and east from Bernalillo (founded c. 1620 and reestablished 1694 after the Pueblo Revolt) following the old Royal road from Mexico City to Santa Fe – El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – and picked up the Santa Fe Trail about forty miles along the way.
Going east across the plains, my route was mostly on two-lane, black-top roads and I tried to avoid interstate highways as much as possible. This was the high plains. If you ever wondered what was out there on the horizon as you crossed the plains on the Interstate highway or by train, I can tell you now that there is practically nothing out there. That being said, for a photographer or an artist, it has a stark beauty and a lonesome appeal.
The few hills that one sees at first as the road leads away from the mountains soon change to an incredible flat canvas where the sky takes over as the most prominent feature.
I could not live here but I am struck by the mighty presence of absolutely nothing. There are ranches out on the plains scattered every twenty miles or so and there is occasional traffic on the highway, but one has the notion of being entirely and utterly alone.
On earlier trips across the plains by train I have talked with travelers from Los Angeles and New York and Chicago -- people who have no problem navigating and experiencing city life –- and they have a sense of awe and almost bewilderment at the endless expanse of emptiness stretching to the horizon.
There are several interesting stops along the way. Two of my favorites are the US Cavalry forts that guarded the trail and imposed an illusion of order and control.
Fort Union – New Mexico
A few miles east of Las Vegas, in New Mexico, was at Fort Union – an important military post and supply depot on the Santa Fe Trail. At one time there were 4,000 people residing at the fort working in a military capacity or as outfitters and suppliers for the Santa Fe traders. The officers’ families were also in residence.
Fort Union is a grim and ghostly ruin today. Built of mud-brick adobe, it has slowly given way to the elements. There were actually three forts here. The first was a temporary outpost. During the Civil War a second earthen fort was built in the starburst shape equipped with artillery that never saw defensive action. There was a significant Civil War battle fought about thirty miles west at Glorieta Pass where the Santa Fe Trail begins to descend toward the town of Santa Fe. What exists here now is the haunting relic of the third and largest fort, built after the Civil War.
When I visited it was even more ghostly due to the fog and April snow showers. It was cold and miserable, and I imagine the soldiers stationed there were pretty miserable at times. The fort kept two crews working in the nearby mountains just cutting firewood for heat and cooking fires.
The Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible at Fort Union. Unlike the popular idea of single file wagon trains, the freight wagons usually went four or five abreast, so the ruts are spread out over a wider area.
Fort Union exists today as a National Monument with two park rangers on duty. The weather was miserable, and they were not very busy when I visited, so I had the place to myself. The fort is huge and was complete with warehouses and repair shops. There were enlisted men’s barracks, officers’ quarters, a large hospital, and (of course) a jail.
I could spend much more time at Fort Union. It is a photographer’s dream and seeing it like this in a spectral fog only made it more enticing. I’m sure I’ll be back on a more pleasant day.
I was really just starting out on my trip. I crossed into Colorado at Raton Pass near Trinidad and continued on along the base of the Rockies to the old coal-mining town of Walsenburg where I spent the night at the La Plaza Inn, sort of a cowboy/workingman’s hotel from 1907. The next day I was truly on the plains. I eventually reached the Arkansas River and followed it and the trail eastward.
I hurried on my way through the Arkansas River towns and stopped at Fort Larned, another old cavalry fort about halfway across Kansas. This was a military post established to protect the middle portion of the Santa Fe Trail. Instead of adobe, Fort Larned was built of local sandstone and survives very nicely today - probably one of the best original examples of a US Cavalry fort.
One easily gets a feel for what military life was like in the mid-1800s at Fort Larned. Not much happened so it was a bit tedious with the usual daily tasks. Kansas in the summer is hot and humid and cold and windswept in the winter. The freight wagons came and went. There were no real “hostile” Indians by this time and the fort didn’t have a wall or even visible defenses. Unlike the much larger Fort Union, this was a trail-side outpost and waystation.
The Officers’ quarters were reasonably pleasant, and many had their families living with them.
Life in the barracks was not as grand and the enlisted soldiers had plenty of tasks to keep them occupied. There was a hospital and repair shops and livestock that needed to be tended.
The fort was decommissioned in the late 1800s and became a cattle ranch for a while before coming under the authority of the National Parks as a historic site. Being made of sandstone, the fort’s buildings provided a ready tablet for early visitors to carve their names or messages in stone. Once the fort closed it was too tempting. People wanted to leave their names to show that they were there. I guess we are always seeking immortality. Some examples show some real dedication to the effort.
There’s even a cryptic reference to Kaiser Wilhelm in a couple examples. The fort closed before WW-I so it must have been a visitor (or a spy?).
I took a lot of pictures and spent enough time at Fort Larned that I was running far behind schedule. The rest of my day's trip across Kansas is something of a blur. I stayed in Marion, Kansas, at the 1886 Elgin Hotel – an amazingly restored three-story stone structure that offered a great stay. I slept soundly in the Dwight Eisenhower Suite.
The next morning, I continued on my way to Columbia, Missouri, and eventually spent most of a week in St.Louis with friends and relatives.
The trip home was fairly uneventful. I was getting a bit tired of Kansas, so I made few stops and was glad to get back into New Mexico to see a few hills again. I spent my last night of the trip in Cimarron, New Mexico, at the St. James Hotel (1872) and stayed in Jesse James’ favorite room. With twenty-six murders or killings in or around the St. James, the place was the epicenter for the Wild West. Almost everyone from Buffalo Bill to Zane Gray spent time in the St. James and it seems some never left. One room is sealed off -- the spirit wants to be alone.
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