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On July 4, 1903, Gregory Page, a Gallup businessman, wrote an essay protesting a possible closure of Fort Wingate, an aging 1860s frontier fort southeast of Gallup.
“The people of McKinley County protest vigorously and unanimously against the removal of the troops from Fort Wingate,” Page wrote. While the years of open hostility between Indians and Anglo and Hispanic settlers were mostly over, Page felt uneasy that Navajos were “not confined to their reservations, but roam at will over the country.” Given the tribe’s huge loss of sheep during recent drought years, he stated it would be an “absolute impossibility” to keep them from stealing sheep and cattle. Adding to this fear, he named four traders that had been murdered over the last two years in McKinley County, adding they were killed in the “barbarous atrocity commonly shown by Indian murderers.” He concluded his essay predicting a “grave mistake will be made if the troops were removed from Fort Wingate which will have the effect of endangering life, depreciating the value of property, and retarding the development of the country.”
As chairman of the McKinley County Republican Party and representing business interests in Gallup and the county, Page communicated a common sentiment during the late territorial period. While statehood looked good on paper, it was in the interests of some — mainly Old Guard Republicans — for the federal government to continue to manage the territory. Expressing this sentiment, a group of New Mexico business interests opposing statehood during the Fiftieth United States Congress said the territory “at present is totally unfitted for such responsibilities, and the federal control from Washington [is] preferable.”
The tension between gaining statehood and maintaining the status quo often played out in the disposition of frontier-era forts.
Located 15 miles southeast of Gallup at Ojo del Oso (Bear Springs), near the headwaters of the Rio Puerco, Fort Wingate was established on August 31, 1860 by William Chapman, 5th U.S. Calvary. The site of the fort had earlier significance. On November 21, 1846, the site witnessed the signing of the Bear Springs Treaty between Colonel A. W. Doniphan, commanding the United States’ forces and Navajo chiefs. The treaty recognized mutual trade between the two nations and guaranteed “Americans, Mexicans, and Pueblos” access to “all portions of the Navajo country and the Navajos all portions of the American country without molestation.”
Originally named Fort Fauntleroy, after Colonel Thomas T. Fauntleroy, 1st U.S. Dragoons, the fort initially served as an Army post of Fort Defiance, 35 miles northwest in Arizona. Essentially a tent camp, Fort Fauntleroy became the base for Colonel Edward R. S. Canby’s 1860 campaign against the Navajos; a second treaty with the tribe took place at the fort in 1861 as a result of Canby’s campaign.
With onset of the Civil War, Fort Wingate emerged as the staging ground for the part of 2nd Regiment of the New Mexico Volunteers. When the fort’s namesake resigned to join the Confederacy, the installation was quickly renamed Fort Lyon, memorializing Brigadier General Nathanial Lyon, who died on August 10, 1861 at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. But just two weeks before the re-naming, the post nearly vacated as the garrison marched east to meet the Confederate threat along the Rio Grande. Aside from a mail station, the fort remained closed for seven years.
Another fort, some 70 miles to the east, saw extensive use during this period as the site of Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson’s campaign against the Navajos. Fort Wingate, named after Captain Benjamin Wingate, 5th U.S. Infantry, is sometimes referred to as “Fort Wingate I,” to distinguish it from the post at Ojo del Oso. Fort Wingate I served as the headquarters of the 1864 campaign to remove some 9,000 Navajos from their homelands and then, through a grueling 450-mile march called the Long Walk, remove them to Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner. There the herding tribe, along with Apaches, were to learn to become farmers.
On June 1, 1868, the signing of the treaty of Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner concluded this disastrous experiment. The treaty included closing the first Fort Wingate and transferring the garrison to Fort Lyon. Renamed Fort Wingate, the latter processed some 6,913 Navajos returning to their homelands. To prepare for the event, several dozen adobe buildings were hastily erected. After processing the Navajos, the fort at Ojo del Oso assisted the Navajo Agency, operating out of former Fort Defiance.
During this time, a plan for a permanent Fort Wingate finalized. The Army dismissed the initial sketch of 18 buildings arranged in a circle around a parade ground, as too costly and difficult to defend. A separate plan, approved in 1870, included a configuration of buildings around a rectangular parade ground with corrals, stables and quarters for civilian employees beyond. By 1875, the commanding officer’s and eight officers’ quarters, along with barracks, were completed, each constructed of adobe over a stone foundation with a shingled pitched roof. The developing fort included a 24-bed hospital, also constructed of adobe. Construction continued as new needs were identified, resulting in a clubhouse, quarters for married soldiers and other secondary structures.
During the 1880s and 1890s, soldiers at the fort spent much of their time patrolling for bootleggers. Brevet Brigadier General A. Carr, who campaigned against bootleggers, stated the problem succinctly: “A number of groggeries have been set up on the edge of the reservation…They are usually supplied with harlots; and soldiers visiting them are drugged with vile liquor, wheedled out of their money, clothing, and arms, and sent back drunken demoralized and with venereal diseases…” The immediate problem resolved when Army canteens were permitted to sell alcohol.
Real action came in the mid-1880s, when Fort Wingate companies transferred south to assist the Apache campaigns. Lieutenant John L. Pershing, assigned to the fort during this time, wrote in September in 1890, “this place is a S.O.B. and no question —tumbled down, old quarters, though [Lieutenant John M. Stotsenburg] is repairing as fast as he can.”
A fire in June 1896 swept through the fort, burning barracks and destroying all the buildings west of the parade ground, including the hospital. Shortly after Gregory Page penned his letter, two new barracks of local red sandstone were erected on the north side of the parade ground; each two stories and in a sprawling E-shaped plan of two barracks wings flanking a center kitchen/dining wing. The side facing the parade ground featured long verandas, catching the reviving east-west wind.
Despite Page’s plea, in 1911 Congress moved to close the fort except for a small detachment, which remained until March of the following year. During the Mexican Revolution, the fort saw new use, as approximately 4,000 Huertistas (members of the Mexican Federal Army loyal to then-provisional president, Victoriano Huerta) and their families camped in tents north of the post. In 1917-18, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department took over the post, developing a munitions-depot for high explosives. In 1925, most of the fort and its buildings were transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
The fort remained a decaying but intact example of a frontier military post until the late 1950s, when the BIA demolished much of it to build a modern school. Today, the school itself is closed, its concrete block buildings boarded up. Of the Army fort period, only one major building — one of the two 1906 E-shaped barracks — remains, anchoring the northeast corner of the abandoned parade ground.
Located 15 miles southeast of Gallup at Ojo del Oso (Bear Springs), near the headwaters of the Rio Puerco