Following the Mexican-American War in 1846, Anglo and Hispanic settlers began streaming into the region, establishing villages in valleys formed by Rio Bonito, Rio Ruidoso, and Rio Hondo. The Mescalero Apache had occupied the land for centuries, and they fought to keep their way of life intact. But there were just too many “invaders” and they faced too much firepower. There was no way they could prevail.
Creating Fort Stanton
In 1855, the army established a fort between the Capitan Mountains and Sierra Blanca, taking a swath of land between the mountains and the Pecos River. The Mescalero signed a treaty, giving up the land, but guaranteeing them a reservation. They thought it was a done deal. No one told them the treaty had to be ratified by Congress, which legislators refused to do.
The army named the fort after Capt. Henry W. Stanton. In his book, The Mescalero Apaches, C.L. Sonnichsen calls him a “good soldier and beloved leader.”
Sonnichsen explains, Stanton led a squad to reconnoiter a group of Mescalero, proceeding up the Rio Peñasco valley. In the ardor of the chase, he became separated from most of his men. The Mescalero kept just out of the way — until . . . When Stanton and his men were isolated, a larger force of Mescalero attacked. He formed a rear guard to give his men time to retreat, but Stanton was shot in the head and died instantly.
Active Years at Fort Stanton
During those tumultuous years — the ones called the Indians Wars — Fort Stanton was the base for the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers.
Buildings at the fort, located nearly 20 miles north of Ruidoso, were constructed of local stone — so well built many are still in use more than 160 years later.
Near the start of the 20th century, the Mescalero were settled on their reservation and communities were growing. The threat the fort was established to defuse had dissipated, and the army decommissioned Fort Stanton in 1896.
Three years later, the U.S. Public Health Service acquired the property to use as a tuberculosis hospital for the Merchant Marine. It served some 5,000 sailors until 1953. Patients lived in specially constructed tents since conventional medical wisdom at the time thought fresh air and sunshine cured consumption.
A new hospital, stables, and living quarters for families stationed there were built. A large farm, worked in part by patients, fed residents. A golf course, baseball fields, and theater were added for recreation in the isolated region.
During the Great Depression, Fort Stanton was home to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program established by President Franklin Roosevelt to give employment to millions of young men. Working on nationwide environmental projects, they planted more than three billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks during its 9-year existence. Fort Stanton was only one of many camps throughout the West where the men lived.
Just before World War II, it served as an internment camp. The first internees were German merchant seaman from the luxury liner S.S. Columbus, which was scuttled off the coast of Cuba to prevent its capture by the British. They were initially labeled “distressed seamen paroled from the German embassy.” After the U.S. entered World War II, their number increased to about 400, and they were considered prisoners of war.
During World War II, Fort Stanton also housed 32 Japanese Americans from Clovis, most of whom had been employed by the Santa Fe Railroad. They were relocated to the abandoned, 14-acre CCC camp, known as the Old Raton Ranch. It had nine buildings, electric generators, abundant water, and no fences or security guards. It also had an inadequate sewage disposal system and was in a general state of disrepair. No government money was spent on camp repairs, but the Japanese used materials on hand to improve their conditions, and, within six months, they were managing a thriving garden with many different vegetables flourishing.
Fort Stanton Historic Site
In 1953, the state of New Mexico acquired the property — first continuing the tubercular hospital and later as the State Hospital for the Developmentally Handicapped. When the state decided to dispose of the property, which had outlived its useful life, a nonprofit corporation — Fort Stanton, Inc. — was established to preserve the historic treasure.
Today, Fort Stanton is one of several historic sites managed by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. It’s well worth a visit.
The museum and visitors center is open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults 17 and older. It offers exhibits and an introductory video that explains the fort’s history. There are daily docent-guided walking tours and, for the particularly adventurous — because the fort sits on thousands of BLM-managed acres — you can arrange a horseback ride, bike hike, or an overnight camp.
Former Events at Fort Stanton
The coronavirus, drought, and threat of wildfires caused the fort to curtail two popular programs: Fort Stanton Live and Fort Stanton After Dark.
Fort Stanton Live involved costumed interpreters re-enacting life at the fort. Cavalry and infantry demonstrated military tactics. There were also Victorian Ladies’ Tea and Old-Time games for children.
Fort Stanton After Dark was conducted evenings in June and October and involved rangers, historians, and Paranormal Society members guiding visitors. Whether or not anyone saw a ghost — or even believed in ghosts — the experience, especially the night skies, was memorable. Hopefully, these programs will be re-established in 2023.
Fort Stanton bills itself as the place “where history comes to life.” This humble frontier fort has had a long and illustrious life. In its own way, it most certainly fulfills that slogan.
Fort Stanton Historic Site
104 Kit Carson Rd., Fort Stanton
Posted by Ruidoso.com