Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Fort Yuma
(Including Camp Calhoun, Camp Independence, Camp Yuma, Yuma Quartermaster Depot)
Fort Yuma on the Colorado. Circa 1860
Fort Yuma
by Robert B. Roberts
First established on November 27, 1850, it was originally located in the bottoms near the Colorado River, less than a mile below the mouth of the Gila. In March 1851 the post was moved to a small elevation on the Colorado's west bank, opposite the present city of Yuma, Arizona, on the site of the former Mission Puerto de la Purisima Concepcion. This site had been occupied by Camp Calhoun, named for John C. Calhoun, established on October 2, 1849, by 1st lieutenant Cave J. Couts, 1st Dragoons, for the boundary survey party led by 2nd Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple, Corps of Topographical Engineers. A ferry service, maintained by the soldiers for the survey party's convenience, also accommodated emigrants. Fort Yuma was established to protect the southern emigrant travel route to California and to attempt control of the warlike Yuma Indians in the surrounding 100 mile area.
Established by Captain Samuel P. Heintzelman, 2nd Infantry, it was originally named Camp Independence. In March 1851, when the post was moved to its permanent site, its name was changed to Camp Yuma. A year later the post was designated Fort Yuma. In June 1851 the Army virtually abandoned the post because of the high costs incurred in maintaining it, and it was completely abandoned on December 6, 1851, when its commissary was practically empty of provisions.

The post, however, was reoccupied by Captain Heintzelman on February 29, 1852. In 1864 the Quartermaster Corps erected a depot on the left bank of the Colorado, below the mouth of the Gila River. When the extension of the railroad system obviated the need of a supply depot, Fort Yuma was abandoned on May 16, 1883. The reservation was transferred to the Interior Department on July 22, 1884. Today, the site of the military reservation is occupied by the Fort Yuma Indian School and a mission.
Extracted from Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States
Fort Yuma
by Justin Ruhge
Fort Yuma in Imperial County was first established on November 27, 1850 in the bottoms near the Colorado River, less than a mile below the mouth of the Gila River. The post was moved to a small elevation on the Colorado's west bank, opposite the present City of Yuma, Arizona in March 1851. The site was on the former Mission Puerto de la Purisima Concepcion where an earlier massacre occurred during the Spanish period. This site had been occupied by Camp Calhoun, named for John C. Calhoun on October 2, 1849. This earlier camp was under the command of 1st Lieutenant Cave J. Couts, 1st Dragoons. It was established for the boundary survey party led by 2nd Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple, Corps of Topographical Engineers.
A ferry service, maintained by the soldiers for the survey party's convenience, also accommodated emigrants.
Fort Yuma was established to protect the southern emigrant travel route to California and to attempt to control the warlike Yuma Native Americans in the surrounding 100-mile area. As mentioned earlier in this book, the Yuma's were the bane of the Spanish and the Mexicans who were not able to keep this important land trail open on a regular basis due to their determined attacks.
When established by Captain Samuel P. Heintzelman, 2nd Infantry, Fort Yuma was originally named Camp Independence. When the post was moved to its new site, its name was changed to Camp Yuma. A year later the post was designated Fort Yuma. In June 1851, the Army partially abandoned the post because of the high costs of maintaining it and it was completely abandoned on December 6, 1851 when its commissary was practically empty of provisions. The post was reoccupied by Captain Heintzelman on February 29, 1852.
As with the other forts in California during this period, Fort Yuma was inspected by Colonel Mansfield, Inspector General of the Army, who prepared a report for the Army and a drawing of the layout of the Fort. The following are excerpts of Colonel Mansfield's 1854 report, which gives this history a more in-depth insight into the conditions and life at this early Fort:
"Fort Yuma is beautifully situated on an eminence about 80 feet high directly opposite the junction of the Gila with the Colerado, and at the crossing of the Colerado by emigrant trail from El Paso on the Rio Grande, and affords protection to emigrants, and is one link in a chain of posts that should be established on the route to El Paso. It is well selected and should be maintained. It is 220 miles from San Diego, 275 miles from Los Angeles, and 600 miles on Cooks Route to El Paso via the Pimos Villages, which are 185 miles distant. It is 150 miles from the mouth of the Colerado, about 150 miles below the big Canon, which is supposed to extend from 200 to 300 miles, a few hundred yards from the boundary line and one of its monuments on the opposite side of the Colerado, in latitude 32 degrees 43 minutes… and longitude 7 hours, 38 minutes... It has a commanding and extensive view, with Pilot Knob in the distance lifting its head above the horizon for a beacon. It was once a mission station but destroyed by the Indians. The water of the Colerado, a very rapid stream, is good for drinking, and it is navigable for small steamers to the Gulf of California, and supplies are being furnished that way direct from San Francisco which not doubt will result in a great saving of expense over the transportation across the desert 100 miles with bad water and no grass, 120 miles over steep mountains and bad roads in wagons exposed to the hazard and suffering consequent to such trips. This mode of supplying will undoubtedly eventuate in making this post a sub depot for the supply of such post as will probably be established on the route to El Paso. And here I would remark I shall again refer to this subject under the head of post recommended and endeavour to designate localities, sites, or positions which would open this route to monthly mail and stage across the country to San Diego or Los Angeles. The Gila is not at all seasons a running stream, and the water is not good, and stands at times in pools in its bed. There are two ferries, one just below the fort and the other at the point of rocks within six miles of this post and a trading house kept by G. F. Hooper, the sutler of the post, at Algodones, about 11 miles further down the river. The whole white population within 100 miles is confined to the ferries and store above mentioned, and probably never exceeds 15 men. There is good grazing, abundance of wood, and a garden for vegetables no doubt can be established here by irrigation.
The Yuma Indians in this vicinity number about 300 warriors armed with bows and arrows and are of sulky and uncertain character and not to be trusted. There are other Indians in this quarter-say within 150 miles-which, combined with these, might raise the number to 1,000 warriors. For a sketch of this position see D hereunto appended.



Fort Yuma as drawn by Colonel Mansfield in 1854. Courtesy of the National Archives.
This post is under the command of Brevet Major S. P. Heintzelman of the 2d Infantry. It was established by him in 1850, and was abandoned by Captain D. Davidson of the 2d Infantry without authority and again reoccupied by Major Heintzelman in February 1852. Attached to this post is Assistant Surgeon R. O. Abbott. The force consist of Company D, 2d Infantry, 41 in the aggregate, Captain and Brevet Major S. P. Heinzelman…A detachment of Company I, 1t Artillery, from the Mission in San Diego, 17 in the aggregate, commanded by 2n Lieutenant A. J. Slemmer, who is also acting commissary of subsistence, and assistant quartermaster…. A detachment of Company F, 3rd Artillery, from the Mission of San Diego, 51 in the aggregate, commanded by 1t Lieutenant J. S. Mason…. No Musicians at this post. ……. The discipline of this post is good, and the troops have been instructed-their arms and equipments in good serviceable order. Major Heintzelman gave a very handsome battalion drill and some target firing. There are two 12-pounder mountain howitzers in good serviceable order and a suitable supply of ammunition for all arms of the service, but no magazine, and the powder is piled in the center of the parade and covered with tarpaulin and secure against the weather. The quarters of the men and Officers and storehouses and hospital, being constructed of willows, with the single exception of the commanding officer's quarters just erected of adobes, are worthless. General Wool has subsequently directed that good temporary quarters be erected here for at least two companies on a plan of Major Heintzelman, approved by the quartermaster and recommended by myself, which were well adapted to the locality.
The Medical Department is well managed by Dr. Abbott, and the sick are as well cared for as the hospital would admit.
Lieutenant Slemmer has in his hands, as commissary of subsistence, 1,468 27/100 dollars and as assistant quartermaster, 150 dollars kept in an iron safe. Major Heintzelman, as recruiting officer, has in his hands 52 dollars. The post fund is in dept 17 84/100 dollars. George F. Hooper is sutler and gives satisfaction.
The supplies of this post are good and obtained from San Francisco either direct by water, or via the sub depots at New San Diego by land, with the exception of hay and wood which are had by cutting from two to ten miles off. A garden has been established here, but owing to the saline soil and want of suitable moisture, has been a failure. It will however be undertaken again. As before observed, the water of the Gila is brackish, but that of the Colerado is good and permanent. Major Heintzelman is entitled to great credit for the improvements in the roads, and for the manner he has supplied the post with water. By a force pump and mule power, seated on the bank of the river, he raises the water into a reservoir about eighty feet high, and above the level of the parade, and conducts the water, after it has settled, by pipes into a reservoir near the parade, where the garrison get an abundant supply.
The ration of coffee and sugar at this post in not enough, and a complaint was made of too much salt meat and too few vegetables.
A small steamer now plies between this post and the mouth of the Colerado, a distance of about 150 miles, and has a contract for the transportation of supplies. The present road to San Diego in places very bad, particularly over the steep mountains and thro' the narrow Canon. An appropriation of 10,000 dollars on this road judiciously expended would be very advantageous, not only to the Government, but for emigrants.




A drawing showing the scene at Fort Yuma in the 1860s. Artist is unknown. Thef ort is in the upper background on a knoll 80 feet above the river. Source: Fort Yuma On The Colorado River by Colonel H. B. Wharfield, USAF, Retired.
It seldom rains here, and the sand storms from the desert, at times, fill the whole atmosphere and shut out the rays of the sun.
There was great harmony among the officers here, and they all mess together.
Colonel McCall inspected this post in 1852.
Since I left, I understand Brevet Major G. H. Thomas, 3d Artillery, with his command, has relieved Major Heintzelman, and the detachments of Companies I and F from the Mission of San Diego."



End of Colonel Mansfield's report.
In 1864 the Quartermaster Corps erected a depot on the left bank of the Colorado, below the mouth of the Gila River, which provided military supplies and personnel to posts throughout Arizona and New Mexico. Supplies were shipped in by steamer on the Colorado from San Diego and San Francisco. Over a 20-year period, the Fort was developed into a proper military post with new buildings similar to those seen at other posts in this presentation.
When the extension of the railroad system obviated the need of a supply depot, Fort Yuma was abandoned on May 16, 1883. The reservation was transferred to the Interior Department on July 22, 1884. Fort Yuma Indian School and the Mission of Saint Thomas then occupied the site. Fort Yuma then became part of the Quechan Indian Reservation. Several buildings still remain from the military period.
A good description of the buildings at Fort Yuma in August 1870 is found in R. O. Tyler, Outline Descriptions. January 1, 1871, p.16.
A comprehensive history of Fort Yuma is given in Fort Yuma on the Colorado River by Colonel H. B. Wharfield, USAF, Retired, 1968.
The California Military Museum and the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Grounds have descriptions of Fort Yuma.
Fort Yuma and Yuma Quartermaster Depot
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (Retired)
"If necessary, defend your post to the last extremity, then if you are obliged to give way, which is not at all probable, destroy it and fight your way across the desert . . . Keep all of the time on the qui vive, yet do not be stampeded. You can whip any force that will menace you, having, as you have, command of the river."



The orders were to the point. It was 1862, rumors were out that 1,000 rebels were gathering at Tucson for a march on Fort Yuma, and the fort was to be held. "Surrounded as it is by a vast desert, if once in the possession of any enemy the key to the state is lost," was how one officer assessed the importance of the place.
A year earlier, the Sixth U.S. Infantry at the fort had been told, "the general considers that your command will be sufficiently strong to resist successfully any attack that may be made. At all events, under no circumstances whatever will any regular force in this military department surrender to the rebels."
In its location at the southeastern most corner of California, Fort Yuma's importance was recognized even before its site was in the Union. Spanish priests had established missions atop its flat mesa, only to lose their lives and their converts in an Indian massacre in 1781. Early emigrants had built a pioneer fort nearby, naming it "Fort Defiance" to indicate their attitude to the hostile Indians.
An estimated 60,000 emigrants crossed the Colorado at the site in 1851, a figure that Bancroft, the historian, suggests might be overestimated. To care for "worn out and hungry gold seekers . . . emigrants, and the various bands of Indians," in 1849 the Army set up Camp Calhoun at the location of the ill-fated mission. In 1850 the post was shifted to the Colorado river ferry crossing not far away, renamed Camp Independence, and an assemblage of thatched huts made to answer for quarters, kitchens, guardhouse, and hospital.
This was too near the scene of Indian raids on the ferry, and to emigrant charges of exorbitant rates by the ferry keepers. A year later the Army returned to the Calhoun site and adopted a new name, after the Yuma Indians in the area.
Camp Yuma was marked for failure early in the game when the food supply was reduced to one barrel of flour. While the bulk of the garrison had gone to the coast for provisions, several hundred Indians surrounded the camp and put it under siege. The nine-man garrison held out for more than a month. Word that a relief column had been attacked and turned back was the final blow, and the scurvy-weakened soldiers cached the government property and abandoned the post.
Two months later, 150 troopers defeated a 300-man hostile band and reestablished the post. They found that everything at the camp had been burned by the Indians. The hidden property had been dug up too.
When the Bartlett Boundary Commission arrived at the Colorado the next year, they were pleased to see that the Army was in possession. "We . . . pushed on towards Fort Yuma," Bartlett wrote in his report, "which appeared a few miles in advance, the stars and stripes waving from the flagstaff first greeting our eyes through the dense foliage of the valley."
He commented that the ruins of the old mission still were in evidence, though many of the walls had been removed and were used in building barracks at the fort. "The officers and men were living in tents, covered with sheds made of branches to protect them from the sun," be said. "The command was as comfortably situated as the nature of the place and its inaccessibility would allow; but long deprivation of fresh provisions and vegetables had at sea.engendered the scurvy among the soldiers."
Bartlett noted that a few weeks before his visit, an entire patrol of eight soldiers had been clubbed to death by the Yumas. This caused the post commander to drive "them all from the banks of the Colorado for some eighty miles above, destroying their corn fields and their villages. They had been so cruel and treacherous to the various parties of Americans passing here, and had manifested so much hostility towards the troops, that it was found useless to attempt to conciliate them, or make any treaty with them unless they themselves were forced to come in and ask it."
Even while he was at the post, Bartlett found that the Yumas were on the watch. One morning he was told by the commanding officer, "From the peculiar barking of the dogs during the night, he believed the Indians had been near the fort." Herdsmen reported footprints in the bottom land below the place and signal fires during the night.
It was about this time that the famed "Oatman Massacre" took place. The Indians had killed Royce Oatman, his wife, and four of his seven children. A 14-year-old son escaped telling how the ‘savages' had kidnaped his two sisters, Olive, 16, and Mary Ann, 10. The Bartlett party came across the site 100 miles from Yuma, noting "numerous fragments of trunks, boxes, clothing, wagons, with human bones and skulls" despite earlier attempts to cover the bodies with stones.
Five years later, a Fort Yuma carpenter, Henry Grinnell, suspected a friendly Indian knew something about the whereabouts of the missing girls. He pretended to read from a newspaper article that a large army was en route to Yuma to rescue the girls and annihilate the guilty tribes. He noted that the Indian was impressed.
Twenty days later, having been given blankets and beads which he said he would need for bartering, the Indian returned to the post with Olive Oatman. While an officer's wife hurriedly lent her a dress to cover a scanty Indian wardrobe, Olive explained that her younger sister had died. Further details had to wait until the noise died down of the cannon fired in celebration of her rescue.
By 1858, a soldier was able to write home, "The houses and quarters are built of sun-dried bricks and with every effort and provision for making the summer's beat bearable for white inhabitants. Still though the post is but seven years old and is garrisoned by only two companies, a well-filled graveyard gives mute testimony of a most unhealthful climate for other than natives." He noted that in the summer it was so hot the soldiers had no duties, "even the sentries pace tip and down under a roof built for that purpose." By Army traditions, Fort Yuma was the hottest post in the country. The surgeon once reported that his watch "felt like a hot boiled egg in my pocket," and the parade ground was so hot that-though he could not personally vouch for the story-a dog would run "on three legs across it, barking with pain at every step."
And, of course, every recital of Fort Yuma must include General George C. Thomas' anecdote of the veteran who in death had found hell so cool after the Yuma heat, that be returned to the barracks to requisition a few blankets as protection against the devilish chill.
Thomas was commander at Yuma in the 1850's. In his Memoirs, the place is described as "one of the most disagreeable posts garrisoned by the Army . . . The bills around the garrison seemed to concentrate the excessive beat of the summer on the parade ground, and it was not an unusual circumstance to have . . . 116 degrees in the shade." Sleep before midnight was impossible "and then only on the rooftops."
When Thomas received orders to Texas in 1855, he "left Fort Yuma for the States without any delay whatever." In 1869, a major general, he made a quick stop at Yuma simply so he could revel in the fact he "would never again be compelled to become a permanent part of the garrison at that point."
Despite the secessionist danger in July 1861, Yuma's commander warned against sending reinforcements "to the post during the present or next month . . . where the heat is excessive and exceedingly debilitating, and the supplies of water scanty and generally bad." A daily temperature greater than 108 degrees had been recorded for the past month, he added.
Regardless, the troops came. Rumors that the garrison was disloyal with a large number of soldiers who "will turn upon their officers the moment the attack is made," were added to tales that 250 secessionists were planning to take the fort. Although the authorities put little credence in the reports, they recognized the strategic location of the post and rushed reinforcements.
Within a few months, four companies and several cannons had been added to the camp. California Volunteers relieved the regular troops in 1861 and were ordered to examine every person who tried to pass the post. "All the crossing of the river must be done at one point under the guns of the fort," they were directed, and the oath of allegiance was to be required of any suspicious persons.
The appearance of a fortress was attempted and the troopers got out shovels. "I am throwing up one work 350 feet, faces on a low bill west of and adjoining the fort-and three smaller ones at different points," Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. West described. "This gives us plenty of work. Also, drilling all spare time, and an artillery detachment at it continually. As Mose says, I shall 'spile' for a fight in about a week."
Reports came that Confederate pickets were within 50 miles of Fort Yuma. Civilians were employed as spies to locate them. West wrote at least one report to Carleton in Greek to baffle interceptors. He suggested that he could get the Indians to help, too, if he had $1,000 worth of blankets and leaf tobacco for presents to the principal chiefs.
Carleton arrived at Fort Yuma on May 1, 1862. He stayed long enough to gather his supplies and to admonish his men, "Have your sabers very sharp that they might readily cut through clothing . . . the cold steel will win against the pistol."
In two weeks, Carleton felt everything was ready. He led his troops across the Colorado and, in the words of one of his officers, "Crossed the Rubicon and emerged into the great field of labor" from which there was no "return without glory or disgrace."
This hand drawing of Fort Yuma during its busiest period shows it as a neat, orderly military installation
 B  Barracks
 BK  Bakery
COQ  Commanding Officers Quarters
 GH  Guardhouse
 K  Kitchen
 QM & ADJ  Quartermaster and Adjutant
 RES  Reservoir
 SH  Storehouse
Civil War redoubts still were visible in later years, but a surgeon in 1869 doubted their value. "That which entitles Yuma to the designation of fort are certain unpretentious entrenchments scattered along the slopes of the bluff, which command the river and the bottom-lands adjacent," he wrote. "They are not visible from the river, and the spectator is not aware of their existence until be steps to the edge of the bluff and looks down upon their gabion revetments. They were constructed for barbette guns, but are now dismantled." In 1862, a departmental inspector had this to say: "The tracing of the works is, to speak critically, defective, but when you recollect that the whole was executed by officers who had no previous experience and no military works to refer to, it is altogether one of the most creditable undertakings and executed in a manner worthy of commendation." Redoubts never were tested because, Yuma's war role became that of a supply and personnel depot. After the war, its small garrison provided security for supply depot and occasionally fielded patrols against marauding Indians. It was given up by Army in 1885. (Redrawn from Surgeon General Circular No. 4, 1870.)
Fort Yuma 1881
"Fort Yuma is popularly believed to be in Arizona, but is in reality in the extreme southeastern corner of California," wrote General James T. Rusling of a 1866 visit. "The fort itself stands on a high bluff, on the west bank of the Rio Colorado, which alone separates it from Arizona, and is usually occupied by two or three companies of U.S. troops." He added that opposite was Arizona City, "a straggling collection of adobe houses." "Here and at Yuma are located the government smokehouses, shops, corrals, etc., as the grand depot for all the posts in Arizona. Hence, considerable business centers here; but it is chiefly of a military nature, and if the post and depot were removed, the 'City' as such would speedily subside into its original sand-bills." Arizona City became modern Yuma, Arizona. This view is from Arizona side. Commanding officer's quarters are at left with back walls of officers' quarters along center of mesa top, then guardhouse and storehouse.
Never a fort surrounded by walls, this photo was taken of Fort Yuma in the late 1800’s. The purpose of the post was to protect the strategic Yuma Crossing and protect wagon trains headed to California.
This late-1800’s photo shows the fort during its declining years. When the military necessity for the post vanished, Fort Yuma became excess and was abandoned by the military. The Army was not to return to the desert Southwest until the World War II years, when activity in the Yuma Proving Ground area began.

Fort Yuma in 1963 resembles early appearance from across Colorado. This view was taken from Territorial Prison and presents slightly different angle than old picture. Rear view of former officers' quarters can be seen, although trees have been added to area. In 1870, a surgeon said, "Shade trees are an impossibility, and grassed surfaces unknown." He described post as "a collection of substantial adobe houses, enclosed by deep verandas with Venetian blinds, which shut out every direct ray of sunlight and exhibits an air of privacy unsurpassed by the surroundings of a Mormon harem In 1861, General A. S. Johnson passed the fort en route to join Confederacy, wrote of hearing gun salute in honor of July 4. His men were spotted by fort soldier who said he and others wanted to desert "and then seize the place and plunder it," Johnson's companion recorded. "But for the general's coolness on that occasion, we would in all likelihood have left Fort Yuma behind us a heap of smoking ruins. He objected to the procedure, on the ground that we were not in commission and that an attack would be equivalent to piracy
The Post Guardhouse in 1964 was the Indian Agency headquarters, but 4 by 8 foot solitary confinement cells supposedly are still beneath building. Tradition has it that a tunnel once ran from here to Territorial Prison across river-but doesn't explain how it got under the river. During Civil War, Fort Yuma guardhouse housed numerous political prisoners, including Sylvester Mowry, an Arizona mine owner who was arrested because of secessionist actions. He had been lieutenant at Fort Yuma in 1850's and once served with Carleton. Later he accused Carleton of causing the arrest over past jealousies and in order to confiscate Mowry mine for personal profit. After four months in the guardhouse, he was released and sued Carleton for more than million dollars. Senate investigation came to no conclusion and case died.
In 1963 the former post hospital has been covered with wood exterior and double roofing is obvious. Verandas surrounded most buildings so that passage was possible from building to building without going into sun, Hospital was busy, despite overall good health at post, partly because of diseases prevalent in area. When whites came, as a private in 1858 wrote, some Indians began to earn living by begging "and by the profits of an infamous trafficking in their wives and daughters . . . I fail to see that civilization has profited them anything." General Rusling observed, "All seem corrupted and depraved by contact with the nobler white race. Then open and unblushing looseness and licentiousness of the riff-raff of Arizona City, with these poor Indians, was simply disgusting, and it is a disgrace to a Christian government to tolerate such orgies, as frequently occur there, under the very shadow of its flag." He put some of the blame on Army's earlier permitting of Indians to enter post. An official report in 1861 said there were no local diseases, "except such as arise from bad whiskey and diseased women."
Yuma Quartermaster Depot
 ENG RM  Engine Room (Fire Station)
 GH  Guardhouse
 K  Kitchen
OQ  Officers Quarters
 RES  Reservoir
 SH  Storehouse
Not only did some officers of California Column believe that fraud was involved in Yuma's supply dealings and "the officers at that post . . . are too much engaged (or at least the majority of them) consuming whiskey," but it was felt wasteful to land supplies by boat on the California side of the Colorado and ferry them across to Arizona. When a flood in 1864 damaged fort buildings and left it virtually an island, a supply depot was built across the river. It became the principal forwarding depot up Colorado River and was important quartering place for mules, sometimes boasting upwards of a 900-mule population. Fire destroyed it in 1867, but it was quickly rebuilt. A large storehouse was 121 by 103 by 14 feet and the corral was 146 by 216 feet. Adobe was principal building material. (Redrawn from McDowell 1879 report.)
This page was reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West, published in 1965
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Updated 8 February 2016