Camp Nichols (1865)
In the summer of 1865, white settlers along the Santa Fe Trail were subject to increasing attacks by Plains Indian tribes angry at white encroachment. In response to these attacks, Colonel Kit Carson of the United States Army established Camp Nichols along the Cimarron Branch of the trail. Located in the Indian Territory's panhandle (present day Oklahoma) near the New Mexico line, the fortified post housed a garrison of several hundred men who escorted wagon trains for their safety. In November 1865, as Indian attacks decreased, the post was abandoned. Today, only ruins remain on private property.
Backstory and Context
In the spring and summer of 1865, the Southern Great Plains simmered with tension between Native Americans and the United States. Tribes such as the Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Comanches, Arapahoes, and Cheyennes occupied the plains, which were increasingly criss-crossed by white settlers trekking across the plains via the Sante Fe and other trails. These tribes attacked settlers violating their territory, freight trains, and express riders. The United States Army, in the final stages of quashing the rebellious Confederacy, was tasked with protecting white settlers and quelling Native opposition.
As part of a "peace offensive" by the U.S. military, several new plains posts were created. Among them as Camp Nichols, likely named after Captain Charles Nichols of the 1st California Cavalry. Established on June 1, 1865 by famed scout Colonel Kit Carson and the 1st New Mexico Infantry, the post was meant to protect travelers along the Cimarron Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and keep watch over local Indians. Several companies garrisoned the post.
Camp Nichols’ location was remote, standing nearly 140 miles from the nearest post at Fort Union, New Mexico. The camp (never officially designated a “fort”) stood in the Indian Territory panhandle (present day Oklahoma) approximately four miles east of the New Mexico line (military reports sometimes erroneously placed it in New Mexico). Approximately 200 square feet, the camp stood between two ravines branching from South Carrizozo Creek and a quarter mile from Cedar Springs (a source of water). Guarded by stone walls, the camp contained approximately 25 buildings (both in and out of the fort's walls), including barracks, an officer’s quarters, guardhouses, and a commissary; these buildings were built primarily with sandstone, adobe, and sod.
Tasked with protecting travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, the camp’s garrison engaged with Native raiders at least once during the post’s short existence. On September 14, 1865, Captain Thomas Stombs’ Company F, 1st California Cavalry was escorting a wagon train if seventy oxen teams eastward. That morning, some thirty-three miles from Camp Nichols, a party of 40-50 Kiowas and Comanches struck the train hoping to abscond with its cattle herd. The Californian cavalry opened fire, killing and wounded several Natives and forcing them to flee. A six-mile chase ensued, but the Indians got away. One “Mexican herder” among the train’s party was killed by the Indians. As Captain Stombs’ later estimated, “It is my opinion that had it not been that we were with them they would have all been killed, stock run off, and wagons destroyed.”
As 1865 wore on, Native attacks on the Santa Fe Trail decreased. In November, the post was abandoned. Today, only ruins of the camp remain, with many of the stones being taken by locals over the years. The site is located on private property and is not accessible to the public. It is listed on the National Register for Historic Places.
1. Jon D. May. "Camp Nichols." Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Web. Accessed October 26, 2020. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CA027
2. Robert M. Utley. Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
3. Robert W. Frazier. Forts of the West: Military Forts and Presidios and Posts Commonly Called Forts West of the Mississippi River to 1898. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
4. "Camp Nichols Rance." National Register of Historic Places, Nomination Form. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Digitized. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/86510618
5. "Report of Capt. Thomas A. Stombs, First California Cavalry." June 18, 1865. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 48, Pt. 1. Digitized. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924079575316&view=1up&seq=333
Oklahoma Historical Society: https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CA027
Museum of New Mexico: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/hh/35/hh35m.htm