- A Time for Peace: Fort Lewis, Colorado, 1878–1891
Fort Lewis, located at first near Pagosa Springs in the wake of the Northern Cheyenne odyssey of 1878–79, then later moved to the La Plata River country near the modern town of Durango, Colorado, was in existence for barely thirteen years, 1878–91. Situated between the Ute and Navajo country, its eventual purpose was to keep the peace in expanding southwestern Colorado following the opening of the San Juan Mountains to silver mining in the 1870s. During the early 1880s, following the Ute treaty and the removal of the Utes to two reservations, the region boomed as some of the greatest silver lodes ever discovered in Colorado were exploited. On the periphery of Indian country, Fort Lewis was never in the direct line of military conflict although patrols did campaign during the Ute War following the [End Page 538] Milk Creek fight and the Meeker Massacre at the close of the 1870s, but without seeing any fighting. Soldiers stationed at Fort Lewis were on alert for possible action several times during the 1880s.
Almost forgotten as a post of military significance, infantrymen and cavalry troopers at Fort Lewis found outlets in other ways. Duane Smith has provided a vivid picture of life at this isolated post during its short tenure. Although located in a beautiful mountain setting, the harsh winter climate was nonetheless debilitating to many soldiers, who often seemed to be seeking transfers to warmer climates. Utilizing records from the National Archives and the collections at Fort Lewis State College, Smith gives readers much insight into the problems officers had with enlisted men and with themselves when the isolation of winter closed in around them. Yet recreation was to be found both at the post and in nearby Durango, Colorado. One of the stronger chapters, "The Troopers," garnishes official reports and diaries to provide an excellent picture of what life was like for the ordinary soldier on the western frontier. The problems of desertion, drunkenness, and idleness are detailed as well as recreations like hunting (often soldiers got tired of a constant diet of venison and were glad for a change of pace by eating army rations), horse racing, contests and competitions of various sorts, and of course, carousing.
Insights into the personal lives of officers and post commanders is another strength of the book as well as an enlightening analysis of the relationships between the military elements at the fort and the growing civilian population in the area. Post records provided many statistics on contractors' activities, military units that passed through the fort, or were instrumental in the military history of the region, including the famous Ninth Cavalry. Rare, often previously unpublished photographs from the archives of Fort Lewis State College, profusely illustrate the work. If there is any fault with the book it is the lack of an organized, alphabetized bibliography, although a short bibliographical essay is provided. But this aside, Duane Smith gives students and scholars an incredibly thorough picture of the largely peacetime daily routines of soldiers, their wives, and civilians at a frontier army post of the nineteenth century West. This book belongs in the libraries of everyone interested in the military frontier.