History of Fort Sumner, New Mexico

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Fort Sumner, New Mexico was the destination of the Navajo Long Walks, an integral stop on the Goodnight/Loving Trail, and a favorite hideout for Billy the Kid.

In 1862, Brig. General James Carleton was granted permission by Congress to transform a former trading village in southeast New Mexico into a U.S. Army post named Fort Sumner. Fort Sumner was built in response to accusations that Navajo and Mescalero Apaches were attacking local settlers. Congress also designated the nearby Bosque Redondo Reservation for the relocation of the Mescalero Apache and Navajo people.

The Long Walks

Beginning in 1864, approximately 9000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache were forced to relocate from their lands in Arizona and New Mexico to Fort Sumner in a series of “Long Walks” led by Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson. Carson followed General Carleton’s orders to take all Navajo in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelle as prisoners and kill anyone who resisted. Carson did so by scorching the land to eliminate all food sources. At least 200 Navajo died of starvation and exposure during the 18 day, 300 mile walks through New Mexico and many women and children were stolen for use as slaves. According to the New Mexico State Monuments website, an additional one third of all prisoners died in captivity.

The Long Walk Home

In 1868, following numerous investigations, the U.S. Army admitted that both Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo Reservation were failures and General Carleton was relieved of duty. By that time, most of the Mescalero Apaches had escaped. A treaty was signed with the Navajos allowing them to return to their former homeland and granting them a 3.5 million acre reservation. On June 8, 1868, the Navajo captives left Fort Sumner for the Long Walk home. A museum now marks the site of the Bosque Redondo Reservation and explains the history of these events.

Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and the Goodnight/Loving Trail

In 1866, former Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight and cattle rancher Oliver Loving joined their herds for a historic cattle drive north. They stopped in Fort Sumner and sold a large number of cattle to the U.S. Army then continued on to Denver, establishing the Goodnight/Loving cattle trail. Goodnight returned to Texas for a second herd and Loving rode ahead to secure government contracts. Loving was attacked by 500 Comanches and seriously wounded. He managed to escape and made his way back to Fort Sumner where he later died of gangrene.

Lucien Maxwell

After the U.S. Army left Fort Sumner it was purchased by Lucien Maxwell, the largest private landowner in the world who owned a total of 1,714,765 acres in New Mexico and Colorado. Maxwell was a former fur trapper and mountain man from Illinois who traveled in the John C. Fremont expeditions with Kit Carson in the 1840s. He inherited a large quantity of land from his wife’s father and built a cattle empire, then sold most of his holdings. When he purchased the abandoned Fort Sumner, he remodeled the office quarters into a 20 room mansion. He died at Fort Sumner in 1875.

Peter Maxwell and Billy the Kid

Peter Maxwell was the son of Lucien Maxwell and close friend of the outlaw Billy the Kid. In 1881, Billy the Kid returned to Maxwell’s ranch seeking refuge after escaping from jail. Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked Billy the Kid to the Maxwell property and shot him in Maxwell’s home. Billy the Kid’s grave is in Fort Sumner along with an extensive collection of memorabilia in the Billy the Kid Museum.

NASA’s Scientific Ballooning Program

The Transcontinental Air Transport airline built an airfield in Fort Sumner in the 1920s, but the airline closed this airfield during the Great Depression. The Army Air Corps took over, using the fort as a World War II training base. After the war, the airfield became the Fort Sumner Municipal Airport. It is also the second permanent launch site of the NASA Balloon Program. There are two operational balloon launch campaigns conducted at Fort Sumner each year.

Sources:

  1. Banks, Phyllis Eileen. “Bosque Redondo-Destination of the Long Walk.” SouthernNewMexico.com.
  2. Village of Fort Sumner, New Mexico Website.