Fort Selden | Explore New Mexico’s Fascinating Frontier Past -
The ruins of Fort Selden as they appear today, with the tall flagpole and a covered wagon.

Have you driven north of Las Cruces on Interstate 25, spotted the sign for Fort Selden, and thought, “I should stop there one day,” but kept driving? This story will tell you why you should take Exit 19 and explore this fascinating piece of New Mexico’s frontier past.

Today, Fort Selden is trying to melt away because it was built of adobe bricks. The New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, which operates the historic property, is doing what it can to preserve the ruins of the fort. But back in 1870, Fort Selden was described by the editor of the Borderer as “one of the most pleasant military posts on the whole Southwestern frontier.”

What You Can See at Fort Selden Today

When you drive by the fort, you can see the adobe ruins, but a visit to the historic site is needed to understand what you’re seeing. Stop at the visitor center, pay a $5 fee (or use your CulturePass), and take some time to investigate the displays. Here you can see photographs of the fort and people who were stationed there, learn about Buffalo Soldiers, see artifacts that were recovered at the fort, and more. Be sure to pick up a copy of the walking tour brochure.

Interior of the Fort Selden visitor center with displays explaining the fort's history.
Inside the Fort Selden visitor center, with a variety of interesting displays.

Then head out into the old fort. Stand in front of an adobe wall, read a sign to see what that building once was, and think of the thousands of soldiers and civilians who have stood where you are now. Imagine the fort as it was, with barracks for enlisted men, nicer lodgings for the officers, a hospital wing, bakery, a parade ground, and a large administrative building with a second story above the sally port, through which people could enter the fort.

Each section of the fort has signage explaining the function of that building and some interesting facts.

There’s also a sculpture at Fort Selden honoring the Buffalo Soldiers who served here. We’ll talk more about them a little later. Be sure to check out the sign showing where the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior that went from Mexico City to the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, went through the fort. Look at the many wagons around the fort and imagine what it would have been like to travel in one of those instead of the air-conditioned comfort we enjoy today.

A path leading visitors through Fort Selden with mountains and clouds in the background.
Fort Selden’s adobe ruins.

When you’re looking at the parade ground, you’ll see the large flagpole that looks like a ship’s mast. That’s because flagpoles needed to be seen for miles to guide people, so they were up to 100 feet tall and made of two long connected poles supported by crosswires. The current flagpole was installed in 1974.

The fort has some interesting hands-on activities that you can try, like making an adobe brick, decorating a piece of pottery, or grinding mesquite beans. There’s even a Camino Real game you can play.

Special events are often held at Fort Selden, including cooking or bat box-making demonstrations, Ghosts of the Past living history nights, and Noche de Luminarias in December.

Fort Selden: A Brief History

Fort Selden is located close to the Rio Grande and is on land that had been lived on by Native Americans for centuries. When the fort was established, the Apache made their home throughout the region, including Arizona and New Mexico.

In 1598, the Spaniards established the Royal Road and near here was a camping spot along the 1,500-mile route, Paraje de Robledo (named for Pedro Robledo, who was one of the soldiers traveling north with Don Juan de Oñate and died here). Settlers, traders, soldiers, and others passed along this route for centuries.

A sign indicating where El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro passed through Fort Selden.
A sign indicating where El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro passed through Fort Selden.

Fast forward to 1848 and this land was now part of the United States as the New Mexico Territory. As more settlers and traders came through the area, encroaching on the homeland of the Apache, hostilities increased. Fort Selden was established in 1865 to provide protection for the Mesilla Valley and travelers along the road, by then called the Chihuahua Trail.

Soldiers built the fort themselves as a cost-saving measure for the Army. It took quite a while before the fort was up to the standard when it was called “pleasant.” The wife of one of the post commanders complained that the ceilings provided lodging for snakes, scorpions, and spiders. The floors were dirt for quite some time until they were covered with wooden planks.

One post commander was Captain Arthur MacArthur, who was a fine leader but may most be remembered today as the father of General Douglas MacArthur, who spent a couple of years as a young child at Fort Selden.

These crumbling adobe ruins were once the officers' quarters, lived in for two years by Captain Arthur MacArthur and his family, including young Douglas MacArthur.
These crumbling adobe ruins were once the officers’ quarters, lived in for two years by Captain Arthur MacArthur and his family, including young Douglas MacArthur.

Duties of Fort Selden Soldiers

The plan was for Fort Selden to be staffed by one unit of cavalry and one of infantry, but that wasn’t always the case because having enough soldiers was often a problem. One task of the cavalry was escort duty for everyone from settlers, traders, and herds of cattle to the territorial governor, judges, and Bishop Lamy. Escort duty provided the opportunity to travel from as close as Las Cruces to as far away as Santa Fe.

Another role was picket duty, protecting travelers at a particular spot. The most dangerous place due to Apache attacks and bandits was Shedd’s Ranch at San Augustine Pass in the Organ Mountains. The spring there attracted wagon trains and travelers, but the frequency of attacks made it necessary for the fort to provide protection. The soldiers were often also sent out to scout, looking for Apache or providing a show of force.

Communications between the forts and headquarters in Santa Fe was another duty for the men at Fort Selden. Over the years it evolved from express riders, military wagons, telegraph, heliograph (sending Morse code by light signals from mountain peaks), and later the railroad. Express riders were sometimes killed, but others were delayed when they were sidetracked by the opportunity to stop somewhere for a drink.

This photo in the visitor center shows Fort Selden as it was in 1885. The company quarters are in the center of the photograph and the post hospital is on the right.
This photo in the visitor center shows Fort Selden as it was in 1885. The company quarters are in the center of the photograph and the post hospital is on the right.

Entertainment for Fort Selden Soldiers

While those duties, plus the tedious jobs of running a fort, filled time and sometimes provided excitement, there was a lot of boredom at frontier forts. That could lead some men to go astray, particularly after payday. As often happened near forts, a small town popped up on the edge of the fort’s reserve to provide “recreational” opportunities for the men. Leasburg served that role, with bars, boozing, gambling, and prostitutes, much to the chagrin of the officers and post surgeon.

Other than visiting Leasburg, the men could sometimes take a ride or go fishing. Mostly they stayed at the fort, secretly gambling, reading, or perhaps enjoying an activity arranged by the officer’s wives. Some men didn’t stay at the fort when they should and searches for deserters and the following court martials were rather common events.

Women at Fort Selden

Officers could have their families live with them in their quarters and sometimes the wives of other soldiers lived at the fort in their own lodgings, serving as laundresses. The women, and sometimes the children, helped around the fort, growing vegetables, nursing the sick — especially during an 1886 diphtheria outbreak, teaching school (including reading classes for illiterate soldiers), and hosting events to make life more enjoyable. Lydia Spencer Lane, wife of one post commander, noted that she churned 150 pounds of butter with a primitive churn and without the benefit of ice or cold water to make the results solid.

Buffalo Soldiers

Sculpture by Reynaldo Rivera entitled “The Sentinel” in honor of the 9th and 10th Cavalry units at Fort Selden in 1876.
A sculpture by Reynaldo Rivera entitled “The Sentinel” in honor of the 9th and 10th Cavalry units at Fort Selden in 1876.

African-American companies, sometimes said to have been dubbed Buffalo Soldiers by Native Americans for their dark, curly hair and fierceness in battle, were stationed at Fort Selden throughout the years. Members of the 125th Infantry were the first Buffalo Soldiers at the fort, but they were followed by 400 other soldiers, including Company F of the 9th Cavalry. They provided the same services, such as escort duty, scouting, and serving at the outpost at San Augustine Pass. You may have noticed the water tower painted with the image of a Buffalo Soldier on your way to Fort Selden off Interstate 25.

Fort Selden Closes

Eventually, the small frontier forts were no longer needed nor cost-effective. The army decided to expand Fort Bliss in El Paso and close Fort Selden and several other New Mexico forts, including Fort Cummings, Fort Union, and Fort Marcy. By 1891, Fort Selden and 28 other frontier forts had closed.

The land reverted to private property and in 1963 it was donated to the state. The fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and construction of a visitor center began in 1973, the same year Fort Selden was designated a state monument.

Learn more about Fort Selden’s fascinating past by visiting in person or the website. Helpful written resources include Fort Selden 1865–1891 by Allan J. Holmes and Fort Selden, New Mexico by Timothy Cohrs and Thomas J. Caperton.

Read more about Las Cruces history here.

Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead

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