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Borderlands: Early Fort Bliss Occupied Pioneer Sites 18 (1999)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Early Fort Bliss Occupied Pioneer Sites

Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.

By Philip Varela and Chris Fumagalli

On November 7, 1848, the War Department ordered the 3rd Infantry to establish a base in New Mexico to protect the region known as the Pass of the North. On November 7, 1998, Fort Bliss celebrated its 150th anniversary commemorating the presence of the military in the El Paso region.

Known as "The Post Opposite El Paso" (El Paso referring to modern Juárez), the original site was also known as Ponce's Rancho and was located in what is now downtown El Paso. The modest adobe building housed Major Jefferson Van Horne and six companies of men.

Along with the fort in San Elizario, the Post Opposite El Paso was closed in 1851 because of budget cuts, but it was ordered reestablished in 1853. In 1854, the fort moved to Magoffinsville, on the corners of today's Willow and Magoffin Streets. The fort's name was officially changed to Fort Bliss on March 8, 1954, in memory of Lieutenant Colonel William Wallace Smith Bliss, a Mexican War veteran and son-in-law of Zachary Taylor, General and President. By the late 1850s, 11 posts existed along the Rio Grande, from San Elizario to Santa Fe.

Image caption: Replica of Fort Bliss during its Magoffinsville days is located on post.   Photo by H. W. Gale

Leon Metz tells us that in 1857, a company of soldiers from Fort Bliss joined New Mexico soldiers to fight successfully against the Gila Apaches in New Mexico. In 1859, Fort Bliss soldiers suffered several casualties at the hands of Apaches at the Battle of Dog Canyon near Alamogordo.

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During the Civil War, Fort Bliss was first under Confederate rule, but Union General James H. Carleton and his Californian Volunteers resumed command of the fort in August 1862. Carleton's men stayed at Hart's Mill near the Rio Grande. After the end of the Civil War, Fort Bliss was reestablished at Magoffinsville.

One of the many floods of the Rio Grande washed away most of Fort Bliss in 1867, forcing the Army to move the post to the Concordia Ranch. The carried the name Camp Concordia for a little more than a year before it was renamed Fort Bliss. It served as a base for the Buffalo Soldiers, troops of black Cavalry soldiers who helped protect settlers from Indian attack and Maintain peace in the fledgling town.

During the early 1870s, The United States Army closed down Fort Bliss as a cost-cutting measure. The absence of law and order throughout El Paso led to the notorious Salt War of 1877, an incident involving corrupt politicians and their followers from both sides of the border.

Because of the violence and bad feeling the Salt War produced, Fort Bliss again came to life. The previous quarters at Concordia were now in ruin, so the soldiers stayed in empty downtown buildings. This area known as "Garrison Town" was a temporary base until the government purchased 135 acres in the area of Hart's Mill, currently the location of La Hacienda Restaurant.

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" "The Hart Mill base allowed passage for troops confronting Indian attacks to the west and north of El Paso. However, by the 1890's, Fort Bliss had outgrown its tiny sliver of land on the Rio Grande. Congress allocated funds for the relocation of Fort Bliss but did not provide money to purchase land for the new base. In 1891, local businesses and individuals contributed over 1,100 acres of La Noria Mesa five miles east of El Paso to the United States Army. In 1893, Fort Bliss moved to its sixth and current location.

Image caption:  Another view of the replica.  Photo by H. W. Gale

The Fort Bliss Museum is a replica of the post in its Magoffinsville days. Located on base at Pleasonton and Pershing roads, the museum welcomes visitors from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free.

El Pasoans gave the museum to the post to honor its 150 years in the area. A plaque at the entrance of the museum presented by the Armed Forces Committee of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce reads:

To our Army Friends - The soldiers, Civilians and families who serve at the post of El Paso. In grateful appreciation for their partnership that has enabled us to build our future together.

Like sand in the desert, Fort Bliss has been all over El Paso. With the 3rd Cavalry leaving, and the 31st, 35th and 108th taking its place, Fort Bliss is still changing. From the soldiers who escorted wagons of settlers in the 1800s to the troops restoring peace in Bosnia, Fort Bliss has been an integral part of El Paso's history, culture and economy.

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