Fort Yuma was established Nov. 27, 1850, to protect the strategic Yuma Crossing of the Colorado River. Located on a promontory overlooking the river, the fort itself was nothing more than a ramshackle collection of huts and tents when it was founded. It wasn't until years later that the Army provided the funding necessary to make Fort Yuma into a proper military outpost.
It was difficult to supply the post during its early years. Food supplies and construction materials were shipped by water from San Diego to the mouth of the Colorado River in Mexico, but transferring the goods to wagons at that point and moving them to Yuma was backbreaking and time consuming. As a result, life at the post was hard and the military's resolve to maintain a garrison here vacillated. It was only two years later -- in August 1852 -- that temporary Camp Yuma became permanent Fort Yuma, and the Army resolved to stay for good.
Fort Yuma remained an active military post until 1883 -- 33 years after it's initial formation. During that time, soldiers at Fort Yuma maintained peace with the local Indians and kept watch over activity on the Colorado River.
Yuma was a significant Colorado River crossing point for wagon trains carrying settlers and gold prospectors to California, particularly after large deposits of gold were discovered in 1849. The Colorado River was an untamed river during those pre-dam years, with miles of the wide river virtually impassible due to vast areas of mud and quicksand. The narrow rock gorge through which the river passed in Yuma made the location an excellent, safe year round crossing point.
Over 60,000 people crossed the river by ferry at Yuma in 1850 under the protective guns of the fort. Most of these settlers followed the Gila River across Arizona to where it joined the Colorado above Yuma. They then moved south along the river toward the crossing.
As locals know, Yuma can be unbearably hot during the summer months. In 1858, a soldier stationed at the fort wrote home, "The houses and quarters are built of sun-dried bricks, with every effort and provision for making the summer's beat bearable. Still, 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."
The soldier went on to note that the summer months were so hot that soldiers had no duties. "Even the sentries pace up and down under a roof built for that purpose," he wrote. Fort Yuma was well known in Army circles as the hottest post in the country. The surgeon once reported that his pocket 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."
During the American Civil War, the fort served as base for Union troops gathered in California, known as the California Column. These soldiers blocked the Confederate thrust pointed at the California gold fields and stayed on the heels of the invading Confederate army as it retreated back into Texas. The most famous military action of these troops in Arizona occurred near Tucson at Picacho Peak, where scouting parties from the opposing armies ran across each other and exchanged shots. A few casualties resulted and the Confederates withdrew to Tucson, where they joined a larger body of troops. They evacuated Tucson and the force departed for New Mexico on a long retreat all the back to Texas. The California Column ended Confederate designs for control of the southwest.
Fort Yuma was closely associated with the Yuma Quartermaster Depot on the Arizona side of the river, which provided military supplies and personnel to posts throughout Arizona and New Mexico. The Quartermaster Depot operated between 1864 and 1891, though the Army terminated most operations there eight years earlier
The depot was used by the Army to store and distribute supplies for all military posts in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas during the Indian War period. A six month supply of clothing, food, ammunition, and other goods was stored at the depot at all times. Supplies were brought from California by ocean vessels traveling around the Baja Peninsula to Port Isabel near the mouth of the Colorado River. There, cargo was transferred to river steamers and brought upstream to Yuma.
The supplies were unloaded at the depot and hauled up a track running from the dock to a storehouse. The depot quartered up to 900 mules and crews of teamsters to handle them. The Southern Pacific Railroad reached Yuma in 1877 and heralded the end of the Quartermaster Depot and Fort Yuma.
Fort Yuma is now part of the Quechan Indian Reservation. Numerous buildings remain from the military period and can easily be seen today. The Quartermaster Depot is an Arizona State Park, with several buildings preserved or reconstructed. Yuma Proving is the lineal Army descendant of these posts in the Yuma area.