Friday, July 10, 2020

Fort Union – Safe Haven on the Santa Fe Trail

By Suzanne Norquist

Imagine traveling by wagon along the Santa Fe Trail for weeks with another hundred miles to go when you run across a massive adobe structure on the prairie. Fort Union, New Mexico.

What a welcome sight. The largest military base within five-hundred miles in any direction served travelers—both military and civilian. The over-sized flagpole in the center was a ship’s mast designed to survive high winds that frequented the area.

The structure housed a military post, arsenal, supply depot, and hospital. It functioned as a government-run small town with hundreds of residents. Like any small town, it contained a store and various forms of entertainment. The military provided necessary supplies, but “extras” could be found at the sutler’s store—candy, spices, underwear, paper, tobacco, patent medicines, and canned meat, to name a few.

The store was a favorite hang out with it’s card tables, billiards, and even a bowling alley. One could pick up a meal in the restaurant or have a glass of wine or beer.

The fort housed reading rooms and occasionally put on dramatic and musical productions. Its band provided music for entertainment as well as military occasions.

Officer’s families lived at the fort. Their quarters were large and comfortable. Two apartments shared a kitchen and dining room. Quarters were assigned by rank.

Officer’s wives directed social activities. The dining room was actually a wide hall, which was superb for dancing. The quartermaster would stretch canvas over the floor and decorate the wall with flags to make a beautiful ballroom.

Marian Sloan Russell traveled the Santa Fe Trail several times and married an officer stationed at Fort Union. In her memoir (Land of Enchantment: Memoirs of Marian Russell Along The Santa Fe Trail . Normanby Press.), she describes when she met her husband.

“It was at Fort Union in the year of 1864 that I first met Lieutenant Richard D. Russell. I was rounding a corner rather suddenly, my green veil streaming out behind me. The wind was blowing my hair in my eyes and I was trying to keep my long skirts where they belonged when suddenly he stood before me. That was the moment the whole wide, world stood still. My tall, young lieutenant stood and smiled at me while I struggled with my skirts, veil and hair. Then on he marched with his company, taking my ignorant young heart right along with him. For days the memory of his smile came between me and my prayers. Almost immediately he made an opportunity to be formally presented.”
They married at the little fort chapel, and for a time, she was the only white woman living at the fort.

Enlisted men weren’t allowed to marry or have children without permission. Often permission was granted if the wife would be a laundress. The married couple was given an eighteen by twenty foot one-room apartment in an area known as Suds Row.

For these families, the fort provided a safe haven in hostile territory. For travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, it brought a welcome bit of civilization to a vast prairie.

The site is now a National Monument.

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D. 

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

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  1. Thanks for the post! Now, that's not a very good reason to allow yourself to be courted by a military man..... a chance to be a laundress???!!! Although, I suppose the protection and perks of the fort would be desirable.

    1. You're right. A lot of hard work and a tiny apartment.

  2. Interesting post, especially the photos. I can't imagine living in such a remote location.

  3. This was so intetesting how couples needed permission to get married. I am sure it was a welcome place to stay before going further west