In April 1852, two companies of First Dragoons from Fort Union (east of Santa Fe) and one company of Third Infantry, under command of Major George Alexander Hamilton Blake, First Dragoons, were sent to establish Fort Massachusetts, in New Mexico Territory, 80 miles north of Taos, on public land, in the heart of Ute Indian country. The land was previously part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
The fort mission was to protect settlers in the San Luis Valley and travelers going over La Veta Pass from hostile Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians. Hispanic agricultural settlements, with colonists from Taos, dotted the valley, attracted by the Spanish Sangre de Cristo land grant, especially along the Rio Culebra near San Luis, the oldest town in current day Colorado, established 1851.
The new fort was established June 22, 1852, at the foot of Mount Blanca on Ute Creek, a tributary of the Rio Grande, near the San Luis Valley, in New Mexico Territory at that time. It was built of pine logs, 10 feet high, about 270 by 320 feet, and could house up to 150 men. Some women and children also lived at the fort. They were the families of the officers or post laundresses.
After the Christmas 1854 massacre at Fort Pueblo, troops gathered at Fort Massachusetts for a campaign against the responsible hostile Indians. After six months, the Mohuache Utes and their allies, the Jicarilla Apaches, were beaten and ceded their lands in the San Luis Valley.
It was a bad fort location due to its cold, swampy, snowy, high-elevation, 8400 feet, bears, mountain lions, and short growing season. The fort was abandoned on June 24, 1858, when the garrison was moved 6 miles southwest on Ute Creek and Fort Garland was established.
The site of Fort Massachusetts is now on Trinchera Ranch, private property, and is being excavated for six weeks every year since 2010 by archaeology students from Adams State University Field School in Alamosa, led by Dr. Richard Goddard. See Fort Massachusetts Field School. Students and volunteers must apply.
Fort Garland operated from 1858 to 1883, then was abandoned and the troops were transferred to Fort Lewis in Durango. It was once commanded by legendary frontiersman Kit Carson.
Following the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859, Colorado became a territory in 1861 and joined the Union. During the Civil War, in 1862, Colorado Volunteers from Fort Garland marched to fight the Texan Confederates, attempting to capture the West. The Confederates were defeated at Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe.
Colorado became a state in 1876. After the Civil War, many black soldiers responded to the government’s call for troops to help create permanent settlements in the West. The 9th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” of the U.S. Army were garrisoned at Fort Garland from 1876 to 1879.
After the Utes killed Indian Agent Nathan Meeker in the Meeker Massacre at the White River Agency in northwest Colorado in 1879, the Ute Indian tribes were militarily escorted from their central Rockies home to sagebrush reservations in eastern Utah or the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute reservations in southwest Colorado.
In 1877 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad blasted its way over La Veta Pass and connected Walsenburg with the San Luis Valley. When the Indians were removed and the railroad arrived, the need for Fort Garland came to an end in 1883, when the land lease expired after 25 years.
Currently, Fort Garland is a state museum and includes six of the original adobe buildings. It is operated by History Colorado (formerly Colorado Historical Society) and holds special living history events including a Memorial Day Living History Encampment.
Land Lease for New Fort Massachusetts (Fort Garland)
The land lease below is a historic document. It refers to Fort Massachusetts, but the name of the new Fort Massachusetts was changed to Fort Garland.
Know all men by these presents, that we, Charles Beaubien and Pablita, my wife, of the county of Taos, and Territory of New Mexico, our executors, administrators, and assigns, do hereby, for the consideration of one dollar to be to us paid at the end of each and every year from the date hereof,
lease and grant to the Government of the United States, for the period of twenty-five years from said date, the exclusive and free and undisturbed possession and use of all lands belonging to us and lying and being situate in the county of Taos, Territory aforesaid,
within three miles of a military post about to be located at a point between the Utah and Sangre de Christo Creeks, measuring from said post east, west, north, and south.
Said military post known by the name of Fort Massachusetts.
The Government of the United States to have the further privilege during the occupancy of said post, to pasture, cut grass, timber, and firewood upon any adjacent land belonging to us, and the said Charles Beaubien and Pablita, my wife.
The Government of the United States to have and to hold the said premises, with the privileges hereinbefore set forth, and for the time specified, unless said military post shall be sooner abandoned by said government, in which case it is understood and agreed that all improvements on said land, its use, to revert to us, the said Charles Beaubien and Pablita, my wife, our executors, administrators, and assigns; provided no other covenant or contract shall be hereafter made between parties hereto.
In witness whereof, we hereunto set our hands and seals on this seventeenth day of July, A. D. 1856.
CHARLES BEAUBIEN [seal]
MARIA PAULA LOBATO [seal]
L. C. EASTON [seal] Capt. A. Q. M.,U. S. A.
Signed, sealed, and delivered in the presence of —
J. M. Francisco,
Witness to signature of Capt. L. C. Easton. (Langdon Easton, Assistant Quartermaster, U.S. Army)
Note: Witness Nestor Martinez was Taos County Sheriff in 1854
Witness Joab Houghton was a merchant and lawyer in Santa Fe and became Judge of the New Mexico Supreme Court, 1865 to 1869
Charles Beaubien from Quebec was a fur trader and became owner of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1844 and a Judge of the New Mexico Supreme Court in 1846. In 1851 he semi-retired from public service. In 1863 he sold the Colorado land grant to Colorado Governor William Gilpin.
John M. Francisco
One of the signing witnesses, John M. Francisco, was the sutler (civilian supplier) at Fort Massachusetts (Certificate of Appointment: 11/4/1856) and Fort Garland until 1862. Born in 1820 in Virginia, he had been in the Santa Fe trade since 1839 and previously operated mercantile posts in Abiquiu and near Fort Union, New Mexico. He had a contract to supply adobe bricks for building Fort Garland.
Francisco and his trading partner, Henry Daigre, a French Canadian from Quebec, were in the cattle ranching business, supplying beef to the army garrisons at Forts Lyon, Bascom, Union, and Garland.
He was elected to the First Colorado Territorial Legislature as a member of the Council, 8th and 9th Council Districts, 9/2/1861. He was a Colorado Territorial Notary for Costilla County, appointed 1/25/1862 by the first Governor, William Gilpin, who was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln.
Francisco and Daigre built Francisco Plaza in 1862, north of the Spanish Peaks, near the Cucharas River, as a defensive fort, trading post, and farm and ranch headquarters. It was an adobe U-shaped building, about 100 by 100 feet, with thick walls, around a central courtyard.
It was on a northern branch of the Santa Fe Trail, known as the Trappers’ Trail to Taos. It provided food, livestock, and supplies to military forts, mining camps and nearby Hispanic and Anglo-American settlers and became the local social and economic center.
When the railroad arrived in 1876, the town was platted and named La Veta, Colorado. The plaza housed a post office, telegraph office, railroad depot, polling place, and other businesses. Francisco maintained his home in the fort for 40 years until his death there in 1902.
Today, Francisco Fort in La Veta is a museum and has special events during the year including demonstrations of frontier life.
Also, see our article on Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, east of Pueblo.
1. Model of Fort Massachusetts at Fort Garland Museum, photo by Zfrancescato (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Delegation of Ute Indians in Washington, D.C. in 1880. Background: Woretsiz and General Charles Adams (Colorado) standing. Front, left to right: Chief Ignacio of the Southern Utes; Carl Schurz US Secretary of the Interior; Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta by Mathew Brady, one of the earliest photographers in American history [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Francisco Fort, fair use for educational purpose, San Luis Valley Museum Association
Fort Massachusetts, Fort Garland, John M. Francisco, 1852
Fort Massachusetts, Fort Garland, John M. Francisco, 1852