Our impromptu trip to Fort Bayard a few months ago was a culmination of two things: spending every weekend at home and simultaneously living through historic times. When it reached the peak of stir-crazy, my husband and I decided to take the kids out for a drive from Las Cruces to the City of Rocks State Park for an afternoon picnic.
I suggested the drive to Fort Bayard, about a half-hour away, which I advertised to my young son and daughter as a “ghost town.” However, the Fort Bayard Historic District in Santa Clara, New Mexico, is still vibrantly showcasing the past while opening the possibilities of learning from it.
How Did Fort Bayard Come to Be?
About a two-hour drive west of Las Cruces, Fort Bayard is a completely unexpected gem, where stately mansions sit among hundred-year-old trees. We came in with the sun low in the sky, giving a golden, transportive sheen to the buildings. Who had lived here? What had they seen? It turned out that we were driving slowly through Doctors’ Row.
Following the Civil War, General James Henry Carleton requested a new fort be established in Southwestern New Mexico, in the heart of the Apache homeland. Its mission would be to protect miners, ranchers, and the immigrant and business trails. It was named Fort Bayard in honor of General George D. Bayard, a West Point graduate who became a brigadier general and died in the Battle of Fredericksburg. On August 21, 1866, Fort Bayard Military Post was established by the 125th U.S. Colored Troops Company F, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, under Lt. James Kerr.
COVID-19, of course, changed the nature of nearly everything, and Fort Bayard is no exception. Cecilia Bell, president of the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society, explained that while the museum and visitors center are closed, the society continues to receive calls for tours, which volunteers still do — currently only with groups of five or fewer due to public health restrictions. The volunteers each have different affinities for history; for example, Cecilia specializes in the history of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, which was there from 1900 to 1918.
Cecilia explained that for those not taking a guided tour, the interpretive signs around the facility explain the fort’s history. “The signs were created through a grant with the local high school, but many of those signs are over 15 years old,” she said.
Dr. Doug Dinwiddie, a former history professor at New Mexico State University – Carlsbad, said, “Each of our volunteers has just a little bit different approach to the walking tour.” Doug says the basics of the tour are explaining information from the signs and then going beyond, based on their own knowledge of the fort’s history.
Cecilia said they plan to update the signage. “We love our sun in New Mexico, but it’s not congenial to the interpretive signs.” Updates to the signs are planned to include the history of women and children, and renovations of other areas are also in the works during the COVID hibernation period.
And yet, the quiet that fills the area may be an appeal even now. “There’s a certain ambiance out there that you don’t get, in my opinion, anywhere else in the local area because it is a place where you’ll notice there are lots of individual walkers and hikers,” Dinwiddie said. “I think one of the reasons, which may be different depending on the person, is the solitude here at times.”
Doug explained that Fort Bayard had two very distinct and separate capacities, first as an active military force from 1866 to 1899. “Then, the Army decided to close it as an active military post and convert it to be the first Army tuberculosis hospital in 1899,” he said.
“On tours, we relate the connection of warfare to the various areas of Southwestern history, the Indian wars, and the subsequent establishment of the mining industry in the area,” he said. “And, of course, Silver City as a tuberculosis haven for people suffering from that disease. We try to connect with what was going on at the Fort Field Hospital with the larger picture of tuberculosis through the 20th century.”
Cecilia said that the site remains a valuable teaching tool for parents who might want to call ahead and let volunteers know they are coming with children. “There’s a really neat article written by Dr. Daniel Appel, who established the medical facilities, riding into the area with his wife and two boys,” said Cecilia. “You can imagine an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old coming into the huge military fort; it would be exciting.”
The museum at Fort Bayard was once a home, but no children ever lived there. However, the museum uses an upstairs space as a children’s room. “We have indoor games they would have played and show the kind of clothing they might have worn,” Cecilia said. Volunteers can coordinate activities for children to try, even while the museum is closed. Cecilia explained that outdoor toys like old-fashioned hoops and dominoes can be borrowed and children can play with them outside on the grass. For those more adventurous, there are horseback tours that shine a light on different times.
Joe Saenz, owner of Wolfhorse Outfitters and affiliated with the Chiricahua Apache Nation, said he likes using the area in his tours to contextualize history for visitors. “In my work with horseback tours, I’m always trying to educate people as far as what is in the area,” Joe said. “How did it become that way? How did it get its name? I always liked that people get a well-rounded view of the whole history of the area.”
Becoming well rounded relates to an effort by the Apache to approach the Preservation Society in 2002 to use the grounds to promote and advocate Native culture, and even to hold gatherings at ceremonial grounds.
“As Apache, we’ve gone full circle [from] when the Americans first showed up in 1850 to draw the line. We showed up in friendship to visit with them and trade with them. And then after that, things went wrong for a long time,” Joe said.
Cecilia added, “In reality, the spirit has always been there.” Joe replied, “Yes, we are becoming whole again.”
From a designated location for birders to archives on baseball players (famous in the area while soldiers were here), there’s plenty of history to explore at Fort Bayard. For more information about the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society and to learn about small private tours of five or fewer people due to COVID-19 restrictions, go to fortbayard.org. If you’re interested in horseback tours, find out more about Joe and his expeditions online at wolfhorseoutfitters.com.
Written and photography by Cassie McClure
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2021
Posted by LasCruces.com