fort sumner

The Town

Located on the Pecos River, the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico was first known as Sunnyside, New Mexico ( in San Miguel County) with a post office from 1878 to 1882. After Guadalupe County was formed in 1891 it was again Sunnyside, New Mexico with a post office 1905 to 1910. From the beginning there were two towns, Sunnyside and Fort Sumner. The Sunnyside Review reported April 17, 1909 that the two side-by-side towns had resolved their differences and merged to become one town called Fort Sumner, New Mexico with a post office from 1910 to the present (1997). Fort Sumner is on US 60, NM 20 and the AT&SF RR. It is the center of an irrigation district, and was the headquarters for construction of Alamogordo Dam now on Sumner Lake.

Fort Sumner was incorporated as a village at a meeting of the Guadalupe County Commissioners probably after 1910. It was named for the military fort which was established in 1862 by General Carleton, and which honored General Edmond Vose Sumner, commander of the 9th Military District. A post office was established in 1866 for the Fort and used intermittently at various locations after the military fort was closed until 1910. The last location was near Sunnyside where the AT & SF RR had built a depot about 1908. The town of Fort Sumner had found a home at last and when it found a place to stay, it grew by leaps and bounds.

After June 8, 1917 when De Baca, County was established, Fort Sumner was designated as the county seat. There it is today. A ranching and farming community and a monument to the old military fort and the legend of Billy The Kid.

In the 1897 business directory the following information is listed for Fort Sumner in Guadalupe County: "Population 150, is 45 miles southeast of Puerto de Luna on the Pecos River, mail twice a week from Las Vegas, weekly from Roswell, school four months, banking at Las Vegas and Roswell, Catholic church services semi-annually, principal resources livestock, elevation 4,060 feet.

"The same 1897 business directory listed the following stockmen: "Manual Abreu, saloon and sheep; Pablo Beaubien, sheep; Blanton, sheep; Consolidated Cattle Co., cattle; Flixon Brothers, sheep; C. W. Foor, postmaster and justice; Gillespie & Bro., cattle; Pete Maxwell, sheep; Joe Olivera (DeOliveira), sheep; John Olivera (DeOliveira), sheep; Pecos Mercantile Co., general merchandise; B. B. Palmer, cattle; Lon Reed, cattle; W. F. Spitz, cattle; Fred Gerhardt, sheep, Lony Horn, cattle; Mercedes Lobato, sheep; Anastacio Mares, sheep; Jesus Silva, sheep; Wheeler & Co., Gen. mdse.; E. J. Wilcox, cattle."

In 1940, Fort Sumner had a population of 1,982. Fort Sumner's chief industries at that time were cattle & sheep raising and farming. The main crops were alfalfa, sweet potatoes, apples, grapes and melons. During WW II the old TAT air field was put back in shape for training airmen. NASA uses the airfield for research with balloons even now (1997). There is a lot of history in Fort Sumner country. Following is a story written by Don McAlavy in January 2006:

Fort Sumner railroad bridge turning 100 this year of 2006
By Don McAlavy

The railroad bridge at Fort Sumner is 100 years old this year. The bridge crew knew they had a big job ahead of them. One of the great floods of the Pecos River in 1903 demonstrated to the Belen cutoff railroad crew that the bridge on the Pecos would have to be strong and high.

Then on Sept. 30, 1904, another Pecos River flood submerged the Old Fort Sumner Military Cemetery four feet under the current. Many markers and stones were moved or lost. Even Roswell and Carlsbad suffered the flood waters.The Landry Sharp Construction Co. established a large camp at the river to begin building a bridge in 1905. Some 300 railroad bridge workers came to do the job. The nearest good water was the Sunnyside Springs, about a mile north of the rails. There had been a post office, stage stop and sheep trading center at these springs from 1878 until 1882. The second Sunnyside beside the tracks was a post office from 1905 until 1910.

Bridging operations were well under way in 1906 and the fine depot building was completed. Harry R. Parsons (father of Bob Parsons of Fort Sumner) said Santa Fe Railroad officials were on the fence about which town the depot served. On one side of the depot was mounted the town name of Sunnyside; Fort Sumner was posted on the other. That seemed to settle the problem at that time.

During construction, one of the crew fell into the wet concrete being poured into the pier. The foreman, upon hearing about the incident, told the crew to keep pouring. The poor lad is still entombed in one of the piers The great railroad bridge was 1,500 foot long.

On July 3, 1908, a tornado with accompanying torrential rain and hail killed five persons and left many injured or destitute and homeless. The railroad bridge survived. A lot of the little village of Sunnyside and the town of Fort Sumner had to be rebuilt.

Sunnyside was a long straight line of businesses along what is now North Fourth Street in Fort Sumner. From the east end of the railroad bridge to a little east of the new depot, Sunnyside was a haphazard scattering of fences, sheds, and shacks. "The tornado and hailstones," said one old timer, "was the ruin of most all the little sheep drovers." The years of 1907, 1908, and 1909 were especially good years for development in the Fort Sumner valley.

Fort Sumner Townsite Company purchased the reservation land where the Navajos and Apaches were impounded during the Civil War from ranchers Doss, Taylor and others in 1907. By 1908, water began to be diverted out of the Pecos to 10,000 acres to form the Fort Sumner Project of the Fort Sumner Land and Canal Company.

On April 17, 1909, the Sunnyside Review newspaper reported that the side-by-side towns resolved their differences and merged to become the one town called Fort Sumner.

The Legislature of 1913 created a county named Sumner, but Gov. William McDonald vetoed the bill. Finally in 1917, with much credit going to the late J. E. Pardue, the new county of DeBaca was created. It was named for former Gov. Ezequiel Cabeza de Baca.

The Alamogordo Lake dam above Fort Sumner was opened in 1937. It furnished water to the Fort Sumner Valley and provided flood control and flood control was what the railroad bridge needed to survive.

Railroad traffic began on the great railroad bridge in 1907. The railroad, Fort Sumner, and New Mexico got their money's worth from that stout iron and concrete bridge. It has never been washed out.

Most of the information reported above came from Randy Dunson, an employee of the Santa Fe Railroad. He's also an historian and editor of The Pecos Handbill that City Printing, Inc. published in the mid-1990s for the railroad employees.

Other information came from Harry R. Parsons of Fort Sumner and his historian son, Bob Parsons.

Military Fort History
October 31, 1862, Congress authorized the establishment of the military Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo, a space forty miles square. It would be the first Indian reservation west of Oklahoma Indian Territory. The plan was to turn the various Indian Nations into farmers on the Bosque Redondo with irrigation from the Pecos River. Bosque Redondo was a round grove of trees on the Pecos River at a site where the Pecos Valley spread out. Until they were rounded up and taken to the Bosque Redondo these Indian Nations hated each other and were killing and steeling from each other. One can only imagine what happened when over 9,000 Indians of different tribes were all put together in a space forty miles square. The military Fort Sumner was in operation from 1862 to 1868. In 1868 it was decided that the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation was a dismal failure and the Indians were dispersed June 1, 1868 to other locations. The military Fort Sumner was closed in 1868.The old Fort Sumner buildings were sold to Lucien B. Maxwell in 1870 for $5,000. Congress passed the act of disposal on February 24, 1871.Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed Billy The Kid in a bedroom of the Pete Maxwell home July 14, 1881, which was the officer's quarters of the old fort. Billy the Kid was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Sumner. Charlie Bowdre and Tom O'Folliard, two of Billy The Kid's pals were buried there in December of 1880. Lucien Maxwell and some of his family were also buried in the old military cemetery. Mrs. Lucien B. Maxwell and her son Pete disposed of their old fort holdings by 1884.
HIGH PLAINS HISTORY; of East Central New Mexico, co-edited by Don McAlavy and Harold Kilmer, 1980.
LIVING WATER, by the Mid-Pecos Historical Foundation, Inc. published in early 1980's.
A MARK IN TIME, A History of New Mexico, by Mary Grooms Clark, 1983.
NEW MEXICO PLACE NAMES, edited by T. M. Pearce, 1965.
NEW MEXICO, American Guide Series, by the Coronado Cuarto Centennial Commission and the University of New Mexico, 1940.