It’s not really a destination. It’s more like ‘that place at the bottom of the pass,’ where you might stop or simply decide to just keep driving. But if you take the time to get out of the car and look around, you quickly learn that Fort Garland is more than a place to stretch your legs and calculate the distance to the next town. If you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find a place where the past comes back to life.
“The experience you’ll have is authentic,” said Anita McDaniel, Director of the Fort Garland Museum. Beyond serving as director, McDaniel also conducts tours every day the museum is open. In the summer, that’s seven days a week. In the winter, sub-arctic temperatures often dictate a little discretion.
The story McDaniel tells is a tapestry of pain and perseverance. The narrative begins in 1858. Manifest Destiny---the concept of American expansion from coast to coast---is percolating. The lure of an untamed American West, McDaniel explains, was enticing, both politically and practically. The land was endless and pristine, holding unknown possibilities. For those willing to tempt fate, there was also the romance of adventure, maybe even opportunity. But for those dreams to come true, it meant unsettling and uprooting those already here, the Spanish and indigenous people. There would be no romance for them in what would come; conquest, subjugation and suffering.
“It was grim,” said McDaniel of the life in this valley of harsh winters and oven-baked summers. For the soldiers, most of whom came from places where trees and shade were in abundance, this new land may well have been the dark side of the moon. The only dabs of color came from the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains that looked down on an endless ocean of prairie.
The fort was constructed with adobe, mud and straw---two things in abundance in this dusty, barren land. “Being on the frontier was not glamourous,” she said. “It was a pretty desolate location.” In all, soldiers constructed five buildings. If you take the tour, said McDaniel, you can walk through the same rooms these troops called home. Bunks were the only luxuries. “There were no bathing facilities,” said McDaniel. “They bathed in the creek in the summer and in the winter, they didn’t.”
For the better part of a decade, the legendary Kit Carson played a major role in and around Fort Garland. His scouting years had helped him create a relationship with Chief Ouray, the Chief’s wife, Chipeta and other Native leaders. Carson is one of history’s famous and infamous; as fabled as a lion, as shady as a jackal. While he may have had friendships with Indian leaders and played a role in sustaining a nearly decade-long peace, he carries sullied baggage more than a century later.
The trapper, scout and Indian agent led “The Long Walk,” a resettlement of the Navajo Nation from the Four Corners to Bosque Redondo in southwest New Mexico. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 deaths took place along the route or after arrival in the new locale. “It’s not black and white,” said McDaniel. Certainly, he is not remembered well among the Navajo, she said. He does, however, enjoy a degree of acceptance among the Ute, she added. “We talk about the controversy and try and give a full picture of the man.”
A visitor to Fort Garland will get equal portions of the good, bad and ugly of this historic settlement. “That’s what history is,” she said. “It’s messy. There is no black and white.”
Visitors can learn the minutiae of this living monument all year round. But the best time to visit is the Memorial Day weekend or for the Fiber Festival on June 22-23. There are military reenactments, sheep shearing demonstrations, weaving. “It’s ‘sheep to shawl,’” said McDaniel, with a living history thrown in for good measure.