People on the Trail - Fort Nichols

From Land of Enchantment”

Memoirs of Marian Russell


Six months from the day of our meeting Richard and I were married in the little military chapel at Fort Union; that was February of 1865…. From our wedding until May of that year, Richard and I lived in Fort Union. Our honeymoon in the old fort was a happy one. Our living quarters were next door to those of Colonel Carson’s. I was the only white woman in the fort and the soldiers made much of me.

Sometimes I would ride horseback around the fort, but never alone and never far distant. It was too dangerous. The Apaches were growing bolder and more and more cruel. The Comanches were driving off the white man’s sheep and cattle. Emigrant trains were being overly harrassed.

These emigrant trains, flowing in a continual stream along the great artery of travel between the Mississippi River and the coast of California, required the protection of soldiers. Fresh water springs through New Mexico and Arizona were always twenty and sometimes forty miles apart. To overcome this shortage of water a continuous line of military posts and a system of artesian wells were planned. Of the military posts thus planned Camp Nickols was the first to be built east of Fort Union. It was completed in June of 1865 and was abandoned in September of that same year.

In May after our marriage Richard was ordered to go and help in the building of Camp Nickols. Shocking massacre after massacre had taken place. Colonel Carson was getting frantic. Something had to be done to protect the long line of wagons that was pouring westward. He thought that a fort built somewhere along the New Mexico – Oklahoma line would answer the purpose. Camp Nickols was to be this fort. It was the policy of the Government to keep always in mind the permanent good of the white man while bestowing as many temporary indulgences upon the Indians as it could. The Cheyenne and Arapahoes had by this time added their forces to the Comanches and Apaches. Wagon trains no longer attempted to cross the plains without military escort. Three hundred soldiers were immediately stationed at Camp Nickols. The idea being that when four or five large trains had gathered there, a detachment of soldiers would escort them as far east as Fort Larned, in Kansas, and then wait at Fort Larned to escort westbound trains back to Camp Nickols or Fort Union.

Sometimes wagon trains were forced to wait several weeks at the forts for military escort. Just before Camp Nickols was built Colonel Kit Carson had become in­censed over the massacre of five white persons at Cim­marron Springs, and over the theft of a great herd of horses from the wagon train of a Mr. Allison, who was California bound. These two events caused Colonel Car­son, together with Major A. H. Pfeiffer, to set out east­ward with their complements of wagons, cavalry, scouts and a band of cattle to look for the location of a new fort.

This location was found at the prong of a little stream called the Carrizo, meaning the Nameless. The little fort they built was named Camp Nickols and was loca­ted about 130 miles east of Fort Union.

Colonel A. H. Pfeiffer was one of the most noted Indian fighters of the southwest. During Colonel Car­son’s 1863-64 campaign against the Navahos, Pfeiffer led one hundred men through the Canyon de Chelly, driving the Indians before him.

Little Camp Nickols became in a jiffy as impreg­nable as an old castle. It was surrounded by rock walls and a deep ditch or moat. Inside the rock walls the houses were half-dugouts four feet under ground and four foot rock walls above ground. The only two-roomed house was used as a hospital. Mounted howitzers were placed along the walls. There were stone rooms outside the rock walls along the south side for the officers. A flag pole was placed near the entrance.

When Richard was ordered to Camp Nickols in May, I was determined to go with him. I knew that Colonel Carson would not think it was very safe, so I began planning on how I might get his consent. I asked him to come to our quarters and be guest of honor at a little dinner party. I knew he liked my cooking, which he said was just like my mother’s. That evening I prepared the pot-roasted buffalo meat the way I knew that he loved, with the red chili pods mixed with it. He watched me and smiled gravely as I presided. I think that he saw through my little ruse, but enjoyed it. When our other guests had gone, he did not wait for me to broach the subject, but told me kindly and firmly it was no use coaxing. I can see him yet as he laid a kindly hand on my shoulder; I can hear his kindly voice saying, “I promised your mother I would look out for you, Marian. You are safer here than at Camp Nickols.” He stood under the hanging coal oil lamp in our quarters, a slight man with a frown between eyes that showed an infinite capacity for tenderness. When he saw the tears that were gathering he said, “Little Maid Marian, believe me I will take you out to Camp Nickols as soon as it is safe for you there.” Years later I was to go to the ruins of Fort Union and find the little roofless room where Col­onel Carson had stood that May day refusing me the one thing on earth that I wanted.

By the middle of June 1865 Colonel Carson, true to his word came to get me. Richard came with him and a small detachment of soldiers. My trunk and personal effects were placed in an army wagon. I rode on a dap­pled gray mare beside Richard and Colonel Carson. The ride to Camp Nickols remains as clear in my mind today as the day I took it. Colonel Carson, his mind on the Indian atrocities, kept pointing out places where some disaster had occurred. When we came to the crossing of White’s Creek he had me dismount and stand by a heap of stones with him. It was here that Indians attacked the wagon train in which the White family traveled. Mrs. White, her small daughter and a female slave were taken prisoners. When the Indians were overtaken by a force of white soldiers they killed Mrs. White, whose still warm body was buried here by the soldiers. Neither the little daughter nor the female slave were ever heard from.30

When we reached Camp Nickols no house had yet been finished. Several hundred army tents were being used as quarters. Colonel Carson had a tent erected next to his own for Richard and me. The weather was very warm, and we kept the sides of the tent rolled up to catch the stray breezes. So also did Colonel Carson, and I remember seeing him lying on his cot on hot afternoons scanning the countryside with a pair of field glasses.

One night a great thunderstorm came up. I had never known the wind to blow so hard. It came fitfully and in a circular motion. At intervals the lightning would tear jagged holes in the black sky and our tent would be illuminated with an unearthly blue light. Sud­denly our tent pole buckled. I hid my head under Rich­ard’s arm and did not hear Colonel Carson calling. Rich­ard was trying to find his clothing when the Colonel’s cry changed suddenly into a roar of rage. His tent had fallen down upon him. Richard had to call out the Cor­poral of the guards to get the Colonel extricated.

During Colonel Carson’s brief stay at Camp Nickols, I saw little of him, for he seemed always busy. He per­sonally directed the construction of the officers’ quar­ters, and often he would ride out with the scouts and be gone all day. Each morning ten scouts would ride out on the prairies. They would return in the evening. The pickets were kept posted during the daylight hours. They were mounted on the fleetest ponies. Other senti­nels were placed at strategic places along the trail. Col­onel Carson’s vigilance never relaxed for a moment.

Colonel Carson did not seem extra well those days at Camp Nickols. I think the army rations did not agree with him. Some days his face seemed haggard and drawn with pain. The disease that was to claim his life in later years had even then fastened itself upon him.31 I remem­ber that he liked to play seven-up with the officers, and when they were playing I often heard his short, sharp little bark of laughter.

One morning the Colonel came leading his big black horse by the bridle. “Little Maid Marian,” he said, “I have come to say good-bye.” His last words to me as he rode away were, “Now remember the Injuns will git ye if you don’t watch out. I watched him as he rode away. The picket on time western lookout arose as he passed and saluted. The black horse mingled with mirage on the horizon and thus it was that Kit Carson rode out of my life forever. I was destined never to see his face again.

Richard and I did not live long in a tent. A nice dug­out was soon made for us. It had a dirt floor and a dirt roof. The door was an army blanket. Our bed was some cedar boughs, nice and springy. We had a folding army table and two folding camp stools.

I really had no work to do and I read and reread every book and paper the camp afforded. Our mail was irreg­ular, arriving from Fort Union by express, and by wag­on train from the east.

A soldier was assigned us as cook. He prepared his savory stews on a Dutch oven outside as we had no stove. He carried water from the river in a great wooden bucket, and was always trying to cook something nice and special for me. Our bill-of-fare was monotonous: hard tack, beans, coffee, venison or beef. A beef herd had been brought from Fort Union, and the scouts kill­ed both deer and antelope for us.

When a freight wagon arrived one day from Fort Un­ion, Richard bought $42.OO worth of groceries and we ate the lot in ten days. A number two can of peaches cost us $2.00 and everything else was in proportion.

After Colonel Carson left, Colonel Pfeiffer was in command at Camp Nickols.32 Some of the officers under him were Captains Kemp, Hubbell, Strom, Anderson, Drenner, Ortner and Richard. Perhaps Captain Strom was the best-dressed and most popular officer. I never remember seeing him, even on the warmest days with­out his uniform buttoned neatly and his military hat at a proper angle.

The camp boasted ten Indian scouts, two Indian squaws, and two Mexican laundresses. The laundresses were wives of two Mexican soldiers. Each soldier at Camp Nickols paid one dollar a month for his laundry.

The first detachment of soldiers sent out from Camp Nickols as military escort was under Captain Strom. The prairies around the camp had been covered with wagons, waiting for escort eastward. Captain Strom es­corted them east as far as Fort Lamed. When two weeks elapsed and Captain Strom did not return and more and more wagons were collecting, Richard was ordered to lead an escort eastward. He was to join Captain Strom at Fort Lamed and return to Camp Nickols with him. Of course I was not permitted to go with him, although I thought that my dappled mare and I would have made a nice escort for anybody. I said Goodbye to Richard bravely, for I expected he would be back in two weeks yet it was more than a month before he returned to me.

I passed that lonely month as best I could without Richard. I took little walks around the fort, bearing in mind Colonel Carson’s words, “The injuns will git ye if ye don’t watch out.” Sometimes I went to watch the Mexican women pounding dirt out of the soldiers cloth­ing on the bank of the little Carrizo. Sometimes I watched the squaws tanning buckskin. They would smear the hides all over with the brains of the freshly slain animals, and then they would scrape and scrape them with small sharp pebbles. In time the hides be­came a soft, pliable white.

Major Pfeiffer, seeing how lonely I was, gave me rid­ing lessons.33 He taught me how to mount a horse prop­erly and how to sit in the saddle. The Major was an elderly man crippled in one hip. It seemed that when he was stationed at Fort McRae, his wife and two women servants were killed by die Indians. Major Pfeiffer was in the bathtub when he heard a commotion. It was said that he came stark naked from that bath room and fought a defensive battle with a rifle. He was shot in the hip with an arrow.

One evening after Richard had been gone for what seemed to me like an eternity, I climbed up on top of the dugout and sat there watching the Santa Fe Trail which lay like a discarded ribbon flung eastward by a giant hand. The prairies lay bathed in the red sunset. My heart ached from days of weary waiting. As I sat there I saw a wagon train coming, many hundreds of wagons escorted by a detachment of soldiers. There were wag­ons drawn by mules, oxen and horses. There was a great herd of cattle. Soldiers rode in dusty ranks on either side of the caravan. Trembling I arose to my feet as the caravan drew nearer. A dusty lieutenant swept me a grand gesture at the gate of the fort. Lieutenant R.D. Russell had returned to his waiting bride in Camp Nick­ols!

There was another officer somewhat older than Rich­ard in Camp Nickols, one DeHague, also a Lieut. He and Richard spent many pleasant hours planning on what they would do once they were mustered out of the army. They decided they would go in together in the mercantile business. I think that I never really liked DeHague, and looking back on those days at Camp Nickols the memory of the man DeHague is the only unpleasant one that I have.

In September of 1865 orders came from Colonel Car­son to break camp at Fort Nickols and return at once to Fort Union. ‘Tis an unforgettable picture I have of the morning we left the little camp on the Carrizo. We heard the soft, clear call of a bugle, the sound of marching feet. Infantry and cavalry fell quickly into formation, then passed out through the eastern gateway. When out on the trail they swung north, then west and hit the trail to Fort Union. There were army wagons laden with sup­plies and equipment; there were the loose horses and the remnant of the beef herd. Inside the stockade we left a great stack of hay and another one outside. The flag of the Union we left flying from the tall flag pole. On its base we posted a notice warning all persons against destroying Federal properety. This was the official end of Camp Nickols.





Fort Nichols – on Alan & Jan Shields Ranch, Wheeless, Oklahoma