by Mike Magers
Fort Sumner is in De Baca County in the eastern central part of the state and is named for a military governor of the area prior to statehood, Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner. Sumner was a Union Army general who lived from 1797 to 1863. He joined the U. S. Army in 1819 and served continuously until he died.
Sumner entered the service as a Second Lt. after graduation from a military academy in Massachusetts. He served in the Black Hawk War and around that time was promoted to Captain. During the Mexican War he received a brevet promotion to Lt. Colonel for bravery for his actions during the Battle of Cerro Grande. It was here that he picked up the nicknames “Bull” and “Bull Head” after a musket ball reportedly bounced off his head. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1861 and was assigned to President Lincoln, also being credited with having written to the President advising him that he needed to be armed at all times. Sumner continued to serve during the Civil War and died of a heart attack while at his daughter’s home in New York in 1863.
The “fort” at Ft. Sumner was only in operation from 1863 to 1868. Its main function was to intern the nearby Navajo and Mescalero Apache tribes. It was one of the few Union forts to remain in operation during the Civil War. The fort was closed in 1868 and the property was sold to a rancher by the name of Lucien Maxwell, for whom the village of Maxwell is also named.
The town and former fort also figure into the fate of the the famous outlaw Billy the Kid. After escaping from the jail in Lincoln, the outlaw had time to make a run for the border, but instead he elected to go to Ft. Sumner to gather funds from friends and associates. Sheriff Pat Garrett was still searching for him and had gotten word that the outlaw was in or around Ft. Sumner. Billy the Kid apparently also had some kind of relationship with a daughter of Lucien Maxwell named Paulita who the family instead wanted to marry a wealthy New Mexican. In July of 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett and two associates had made their way to Ft. Sumner, having gotten word that the Kid was in the vicinity. Garrett was at the home of Pete Maxwell, Lucien’s son and Paulita’s brother, when their paths crossed a final time. Though details of the story vary according to the teller, Billy the Kid was killed by Garrett. The following day, the young outlaw was buried in the old fort’s military cemetery, eventually to be joined by Lucien Maxwell.
A short forty years later, the airfield at Ft. Sumner was constructed. It dates from the 1920s and was briefly a commercial field, part of one of the earliest (but failed) attempts to create a transcontinental airline. It later served as a military training base during World War II and more recently it has been a launch site for a high altitude balloon program of NASA.
Despite its relatively small population, Ft. Sumner has enjoyed a rich history in high school athletics, achieving its greatest success in football and girls basketball. Tied for 9th with Santa Rosa with fifteen state championship appearances in football, its teams have won the title ten of those times (1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010) under a number of coaches, tying it for 6th with Melrose on the list of most state championships. Its girls basketball teams achieved great success under Coach Rafael Roybal who notched 401 wins, all earned at Ft. Sumner during the years 1977-2003. During that period his teams took the state title some 6 times, tying them for 8th with Clovis in most state championships.
It is one of the few teams to adopt two mascots with the boys teams going by the Foxes and girls teams adopting the Vixens. The current lineup of head coaches are as follows: Matt Moyer – football, Brad Holland – boys basketball, Ben Segura – girls basketball, Lyndel Bonds – boys track, Lisa McMath – girls track and volleyball.