Exploring the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico

Updated: Jun 27, 2021


Last week I set out to explore the old Santa Fe Trail in the Fort Union area, from Las Vegas on up to Raton, New Mexico. This is the southernmost portion of the Mountain Branch of the Trail. At Watrous, New Mexico, the Trail split into two routes: the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Branch (or Cimarron Cutoff), then merged back into a single trail in Southwestern Kansas. The Mountain Branch was the safer but more rugged of the two branches. It was the difficulty in getting wagons over the Raton Pass near the New Mexico-Colorado border that made this route the less favored one for most of the trail's history. I decided to start in Las Vegas before heading up to Watrous and Fort Union, the point where the trail split. From there I veered off the trail to see some sites up toward Mora, then continued north following the trail all the way up to Raton. If you'd like to read my overview of the Santa Fe Trail, check out this blog post or look for my other blog posts about traveling the Trail.


Las Vegas


Established in 1835 by Mexican settlers, Las Vegas became an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail for most of the trail’s history. The Trail lead directly through the plaza at the center of town which quickly developed into a robust trading destination in itself. In 1846, Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny arrived in Las Vegas on the Trail with his "Army of the West" and, from the rooftop of a building on the plaza, claimed New Mexico for the United States. He met no initial resistance. By 1879 the railroad reached Las Vegas, and with it came “New Town,” a competing development east of what was now being called "Old Town." New Town was quickly built and populated with an influx of Americans – from merchants to outlaws and everyone in between - brought in by the railroad. In its early days, Las Vegas attracted many Western legends such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid and Jesse James to name a few, but by this time the era of the Santa Fe Trail was at or near its end. A year after it arrived in Las Vegas, the railroad reached Santa Fe, bringing an end to the Trail era.


Today "old town" and "new town" are the single town of Las Vegas. Visitors can still see the original building where Kearny claimed New Mexico for the United States, and the plaza is a lovely public park. Many other interesting historic buildings remain around town and are easily accessible, though most of them date to the post-Trail era.


Watrous


Watrous was originally a settlement called La Junta (meaning "the junction" in Spanish) established in the 1840’s at the New Mexico juncture of the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Trail. Farmers sold or traded fresh vegetables and dairy to travelers, making it a popular stop for both inbound and outbound traders on both branches. In 1849 the establishment of a trading post called "Barclay's Fort" and separately the arrival of Sam Watrous meant big changes for the settlement. The "Fort" became a bustling stage stop and trading post with a hotel and corral, while Sam Watrous rapidly built a large ranching and farming operation. Watrous sold food to travelers and to nearby Fort Union. When the railroad arrived in 1879, the new town of Watrous was established just southeast of La Junta, and the old settlement area was slowly abandoned. Today a number of historic La Junta structures remain, including Watrous' sprawling ranch house, but all are on private land and not generally accessible to the public.


Fort Union


Photo of Fort Union ruins
Ruins at Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico.

This was perhaps the most significant military outpost on the Santa Fe Trail. The Fort was built and re-built three times beginning in 1851. Its purpose was to protect travelers, to be a resupply point for both the Army and civilian traders, and to serve as a major army depot and a base of operations for strikes into Indian country. This was no minor fort. At its peak it functioned much as a small city. For a time the hospital, built in 1864, had 126 beds and was the largest and best to be found within 500 miles in any direction. The Fort also played a pivotal role in repelling Confederate forces at Glorietta Pass in 1862 who tried to take New Mexico for the Confederacy.


Though only ruins remain, the site today is protected, preserved and beautifully interpreted for visitors as Fort Union National Monument. There is a visitor center, and leashed pets are welcome on the extensive paths that wind through the old Fort grounds.


Image of bull snake at Fort Union.
This large bull snake was sunning on the trail.

Mora, New Mexico


Though Mora was not on the Santa Fe Trail, the surrounding settlements played an important role in the Trail's history. The establishment of Fort Union in 1851 and its subsequent expansion meant that a lot of food and supplies were needed to keep it running. Area farms and mills provided these, and two significant examples remain today in the Mora area.


La Cueva Mill


Photo of the gristmill in La Cueva, New Mexico.
La Cueva Gristmill

About 20 miles west of Fort Union, just east of Mora, is La Cueva Mill. This gristmill was built in the 1860's by Vicente Romero at his 33,000 acre ranch and farm. The complex originally had an 8,000 square foot home and numerous outbuildings, and the flour ground at the mill was sold to Fort Union. Whole grains, vegetables and other produce were also sold to Trail travelers. Reportedly, the mill supplied up to 60 wagons full of wheat and corn flour to the fort per day.


The mill at La Cueva was one of seven mills operating in the area at the time, and is one of the few still standing. The mill today is remarkably well preserved. The site is privately owned but easily accessible for photos from the road or from the grounds. A sign asks visitors not to enter the building.


St. Vrain's Mill


A few miles further west is the town of Mora. Here, the gristmill built by Ceran St. Vrain also worked to supply Fort Union and surrounding communities with flour.

St. Vrain was born in 1802 near St. Louis, Missouri. He began trapping and trading at a young age, and by 22 he was making trips along the Santa Fe Trail. While living in Taos, he met William Bent and formed the St. Vrain Company, which built Bent's Fort on the Mountain Branch of the Trail in Colorado-at the time, the only white settlement between Kansas and New Mexico. Though he established trading posts throughout Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, in 1855 he settled in Mora and built this mill. Here he lived out the rest of his days with his family, passing in 1870.


Today the mill has been preserved through the substantial efforts of local citizens. It is being remodeled and is open to the public. For more information or to help preserve this wonderful piece of history, visit https://www.stvrainmill.org/


Ocate Crossing


After visiting the mills around Mora, I headed east and then north to pick up the trail again at its crossing of Ocate Creek. The crossing was about ten miles east of the town of Ocate on State Highway 120. Unfortunately, the site appears to be on private land with no historical markers of any kind.


Rayado, New Mexico


Just north of what is today called Kit Carson Mesa, Lucien Maxwell built a home in 1849 on the Santa Fe Trail, establishing the settlement of Rayado. Maxwell at the time owned 1.7 million acres of land, and had worked as a mountain main, trader, Indian Agent and cattleman. He convinced his friend Kit Carson to move to the area, but Carson did so hesitantly, only building a small home and never relocating his family from Taos. At the time Indian raids were common in the area, so attracting settlers proved difficult. In 1857 Cimarron was established a few miles north, and Maxwell built a home there. Today Maxwell's Rayado home is part of the Kit Carson Museum complex at Rayado, owned and operated by the Philmont Scout Ranch, part of the Boy Scouts of America.


Cimarron, New Mexico


Lucien Maxwell moved his home from Rayado to Cimarron in 1857. The home was built of adobe but was expansive and luxuriously appointed. It also served as a hotel, saloon, dance hall, gambling den at house of ill repute. Maxwell had numerous business dealings in Cimarron and also built the Aztec Mill in 1867. With the nearby discovery of gold following the Civil War, the Cimarron became a boomtown and quickly earned a deadly reputation. By 1870 Maxwell had moved on, and throughout the 1870's during the final years of the Trail era Cimarron became a den for notable outlaws such as Jesse James and Clay Allison. A new inn called Lambert's was ground zero for violence and murder.


Today the Maxwell house is gone, having burned to the ground in the early 20th Century. Lambert's became the St. James Hotel, which still operates today and boasts an all-star list of former clients from the Old West, including: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Jesse James, Black Jack Tom Ketchum, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Frederick Remington, Governor Lew Wallace, and writer Zane Grey.

From left to right, The St. James Hotel, the Aztec Mill and Schwenk's Gambling Hall.


The Clifton House Site


The Clifton House was built of adobe in 1867 by Tom Stockton and furnished with goods brought down the Trail from Fort Dodge. It was initially a ranch headquarters, but became a stage station and hotel after Lucien Maxwell sold his land holdings in 1870. A small settlement called Clifton grew up around the site, but it is most famous for what happened in 1874. On January 6, Clay Allison was having dinner with Chunk Colbert. Colbert had recently killed a man in Cimarron and had a reputation as a gunfighter, as did Allision. Colbert and Allison were reportedly not on the best of terms, and during their meal Colbert attempted to draw his pistol. Allison fired first, killing Colbert instantly. The body was buried in an unmarked grave behind the hotel. Eventually the hotel fell into disrepair and was burned to the ground by an arsonist in 1885.


Today little remains of the house but rubble and some of the foundation. The Clifton House site is on private land and is not accessible to the public, though there is a roadside marker nearby.

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