Telling the Frontier Story with a Community Perspective at Fort Union
By Catherine Moore, Cultural Resources Program Manager for NPCA’s Center for Park Research
Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico is a small unit of the national park system that tells a big story, much different from the typical soldiers-and-Indians narrative one might expect at a frontier fort.
Fort Union was established in 1851 to guard the Santa Fe Trail. The trail was a trading route between settled areas of the United States to the east and the city of Santa Fe, capital of a 250-year-old Hispanic community stretching along and out from the Rio Grande River in what is now the state of New Mexico. When Santa Fe was established in 1607, the region known as New Mexico was a Spanish colony. With Mexican independence in 1821, it became a province of the new nation, and in 1848, it became a territory of the United States following the Mexican-American War. Throughout the political changes, the people of New Mexico, including both the Native American pueblo communities and the Hispanic descendants of Spanish colonists, maintained their cultural identity and connection to the land.
The arrival of the U.S. Army and the sprawling barracks, corrals, storehouses, and parade grounds of Fort Union had a significant impact on the region, and the community became closely involved with the post. It is this story, of the connections between the established civilian community and the military over the 40 years of the military fort’s existence, which is so exquisitely reflected in both the operation and interpretation at Fort Union National Monument.
Some of the park’s employees are descendants of the more than 1,500 local citizens who worked at Fort Union during its Army heyday, filling important support roles such as carpenters, clerks, and teamsters. Park volunteers include descendants of members of the New Mexico Volunteers, regiments of local recruits that helped to protect the Southwest during the Civil War. In park events, members of the New Mexico Volunteer living history unit conduct drills in Spanish as the soldiers did during the Civil War, when 3,400 of the volunteer soldiers defending Fort Union came from the Hispanic families who had lived in New Mexico for generations.
The park’s video presentation describes the impact of the fort on the local economy. Interpreters tell the stories of the local people such as Vicente Romero who shifted from subsistence farming to supplying the Army with hay, flour, and beef in the enormous quantities needed for the major supply depot for the Army throughout the Southwest. Romero hired 116 men to help him transport supplies from his mill to the fort. Interpretive programs, many of which are offered in nearby communities, focus on New Mexico history, not just the military story of the fort. The park hosts performances of historic Spanish music, portrayals of historic figures, and lectures, among other community events.
The park bookstore in the visitor center has a terrific assortment of books on New Mexico history, including American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo perspectives. While many national parks have libraries of reference materials for park staff, Fort Union has a research library that is open to the public two or three days a week, with materials of interest to genealogists, local history researchers, and students. For people who cannot make the trip to do research in person, library volunteers will conduct research in response to email requests.
Learn more about Fort Union National Monument via the park website, www.nps.gov/foun.