Story and photos by Nel Lampe
When the West was being settled, U.S. Army Soldiers were sometimes posted to small forts or outposts on the Western frontier.
Fort Garland was such a post. Constructed in 1858 in what is now southern Colorado, this new fort replaced Fort Massachusetts, six miles farther north. Fort Massachusetts was on swampy land and vulnerable to attacks and extremely cold weather.
The new fort was made of adobe – bricks made of mud and grass and dried in the sun. After construction, a layer of adobe “plaster” was slathered over the bricks. The adobe construction was typical of surrounding settlements.
Built around a plaza, the fort was named for Brevet Brig. Gen. John Garland, commander of the Department of New Mexico.
The fort could accommodate two 100-man companies with the mission of providing protection for settlers.
Fort Garland Soldiers were also involved in Civil War battles against Southern forces at Glorietta Pass near Santa Fe. The battle at Glorietta Pass is depicted in a display.
Following the Civil War, several volunteer regiments were assigned to Fort Garland.
Christopher “Kit” Carson was appointed a brevet brigadier general and took command of Fort Garland in 1866. He served as the fort’s commandant for about a year and was able to keep the peace by working with the Ute Indians.
The Fort Garland Museum depicts the fort in Carson’s time.
Carson’s office is depicted as well as the family quarters.
An exhibit, “The Four Careers of Kit Carson” is in the fort.
Several paintings and photographs depict Carson and his family. Army artifacts are also displayed, such as uniforms, a saddle and a mountain howitzer. A reproduction 1850s’ Dragoon’s uniform is displayed.
Maps, drawings and old photographs help depict the history of the region and Fort Garland before Colorado became a state.
Historic Army wagons are displayed, such as a yellow ambulance wagon which could carry six wounded Soldiers. The wagon was also used for tours and important visitors.
Fort Garland was later home to Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry, who were at the fort from 1876 to 1879.
“Buffalo Soldiers West” is an exhibit about black Soldiers from 1866-1891. Several artifacts and rare historic photos are in the exhibit.
After the Ute Indians were moved to Utah, troop numbers at Fort Garland were drastically reduced and the fort was officially abandoned in 1883.
The Colorado Historical Society began restoration in 1950. The restoration process took 20 years.
An exhibit “Saving the Fort” is the story of the region and the restoration of the fort.
On the Western frontier, the word “fort” didn’t always mean an Army fort. For instance, Bent’s Fort, Fort Pueblo, Fort Vasquez and Fort St.
Vrain were trading forts in Colorado. Restored Army forts of that time frame are very rare.
Visitors to the restored Army post of Fort Garland can see how Soldiers lived during the 1850s, when there were no one-plus-one barracks, no air conditioners, no telephones, Internet or televisions. Beds were of simple box-like construction.
The museum’s gift shop has souvenirs and books about Carson and other explorers, cookbooks, Western reproduction artifacts, T-shirts and hats.
The historic Pike’s Stockade is in the general vicinity of Fort Garland. Pike’s Stockade was built by Lt. Zebulon Pike on his exploration of the West during 1806. The stockade has been reconstructed. Ask for driving instructions at the museum visitor center.
The town of Fort Garland is about 50 miles west of Walsenburg. Walsenburg is approximately 85 miles south of Fort Carson on Interstate 25. Take exit 52 at Walsenburg and follow the signs for the Great Sand Dunes, Highway 160. Fort Garland is along the route to the Sand Dunes.
Once at the town of
Fort Garland, take a left at Highway 159 – it’s about a block to the fort.
The museum is open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April through October. Winter hours are observed November through March when the fort is open from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. The fort is closed Thanksgiving and the day after, and Christmas Day and the next day.
At 125 miles from Fort Carson, a visit to Fort Garland is perhaps too far for a day trip. Visitors could spend a night in Alamosa and also visit the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, about 20 miles away.
Admission to Fort Garland is $5 for adults and $3.50 for ages 6-16. Ages 5 and under are admitted free.
(Editor’s note: To mark Kit Carson’s 200th birthday, Happenings focuses on sites where he spent time.)