MEMORIES OF OLD FORT MARCY

By Marc Simmons

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I had lunch not long ago with Keith Lummis, the 90-something-year-old youngest son of celebrated Southwestern author Charles F. Lummis. He and his wife were visiting Santa Fe from their home in San Francisco.

In the course of the meal I asked Keith whether he'd ever been up to Marcy Hill and the old fort ruins that provide one of the best overlooks of the entire city. He said he had not, but would like to go.

At the site, I remarked to him: "You probably don't know that this was one of your father's favorite places. On his last trip to New Mexico in 1927, he urged the people of Santa Fe in a newspaper interview to build an amphitheater up here."

What Charles Lummis had in mind was an open-air theater where Indian pageants could be staged. At that time, the 1920s,Hiawatha pageants were all the rage in the Midwest, and he thought the idea could be adapted to New Mexico.

Had his suggestion been followed, I explained to Keith, it would have resulted in the destruction of the military ruins and loss of an important piece of New Mexican history. As it is, the fort walls remain today, buried under grassy mounds. At some future time, they may be uncovered and studied.

Fort Marcy became the first United States Army post established in the Southwest. At the outbreak of the Mexican War, Gen. Stephen W. Kearny and his troops marched over the Santa Fe Trail, seizing Santa Fe on Aug. 18, 1846.

The very next day, he sent two of his engineers, lieutenants William Emory and Jeremy Gilmer, on a scout to find a good defensive site for a fort. This was considered necessary, since an uprising by the conquered population was still feared.

Lt. Emory discovered just the place-what he described as "the only point which commands the entire town." It was on the summit of a flat-topped hill, only 650 yards northeast of the Plaza. A half-dozen cannons positioned there could rule Santa Fe.

Soldiers and hired workmen threw up thick adobe walls, 9 feet high and surrounded by a deep ditch. A log structure inside the compound provided a magazine for storing gunpowder. Gen. Kearny named the new installation after William L. Marcy, the secretary of war at that time, and his boss.

Fort Marcy was originally intended for a garrison of 280 men, but no quarters were provided for them inside the fort. Instead, the men were lodged and the horses were corralled in and around the old Spanish military barracks next to the Governors' Palace.

It was thought that in case of trouble the men should scurry up to the fort and defend the walls. As late as 1853, military inspector Col. Joseph Mansfield described Marcy as "the only real fort in the territory." Fort Union, located on the Santa Fe Trail east of Las Vegas, had been founded but was still a flimsy collection of huts.

Downriver, the Post of El Paso, founded on Sept. 28, 1849, briefly had six companies of the Third Infantry, but its soldiers were soon dispersed to other stations in southern New Mexico. Its substantial successor, Fort Bliss, did not come into being until 1854.

Since Marcy's troops were all quartered in town and there existed no threat of attack, the walls of the fort on the hill were allowed to deteriorate. Only the magazine continued in use, since it remained the safest place to keep powder, away from the townsfolk.

Santa Fe resident Marian Russell remembered that after Fort Marcy fell to ruin, local people used it for a burial ground. "One dear old lady, a Mrs. Sutton," she recalled, had a 19-year-old son buried in the fort. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War. Coming home, he had been bitten by a mad dog on the streets of Santa Fe and died of hydrophobia. Daily Mrs. Sutton climbed the steep hill to Fort Marcy to place flowers or some little offering on her son's grave."

During 1887, a small incident occurred that must have severely impacted what was left of the fort. On Sept. 30, the Silver City Enterprise reported that a local citizen, Mrs. Tassie Wilson, had gone to the territorial capital for a visit. While there, she and friends had unearthed a trove of Spanish coins buried under the walls of old Fort Marcy.

The value of the find, said the Enterprise, was more than $2,300. The oldest coins were dated 1726 and 1740, and these had been donated to the Historical Society of New Mexico. And the paper added: "After the discovery was made, large numbers of Santa Fe citizens turned out and dug the whole country up in the vicinity of the fort, but without finding anything new." That frenzied treasure hunt must have destroyed the last of the standing walls.

In 1891, the government sold the Fort Marcy property at auction. The site on the hill was acquired by the city of Santa Fe in 1961, landscaped and turned into a scenic overlook. It is not well advertised or marked, and many visitors today miss this special place.

See historian Marc Simmons's "Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande" (University of Nebraska Press) and his many other books by visiting Amazon.com.

Other Articles by Marc Simmons

Mark Simmons Biography


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