California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Historic California Posts:
Fort Yuma
(Including Camp Calhoun, Camp Independence, Camp Yuma, Yuma Quartermaster Depot)
 

Fort Yuma on the Colorado. Circa 1860
 
First estahlished 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.
 
History
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired)
Executive Director, Council on America's Military Past
 

 

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 bottomland 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."
 
 
 
FOR DIRECTIONS TO FORt YUMA, CLICK HERE
 
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  Reservior
 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 intrenchments 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 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 WW II years, when activity in the Yuma Proving Ground area began.
 
This circa 1920 postcard shows Fort Yuma above the Southern Pacific bridge
 
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, inclosed 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  Reservior
 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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