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Fort Union ranger enjoys teaching about 19th century life

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The idea of traveling through time enchants many people, but Megan Urban gets to live it. Urban was born in the 20th century, works in the 21st, but occasionally she travels to the 19th century and she finds that fascinating.

“I think it would be really interesting to be part of American history right after the Civil War,” she says. “I would want to observe the thought process of how America was changing.”

Urban is an education tech working for the National Park Service at Fort Union National Monument north of Las Vegas, N.M. She will be among the park service employees bringing Fort Union back to life during Candlelight Tours on Aug. 11.

Fort Union was a military supply depot along the Santa Fe Trail between 1851 and 1891. During the Candlelight Tours staff members use skits to portray the fort’s history.

For the second consecutive year, Urban says, the 3,800 Buffalo Soldiers sent to the United States’ frontier will be the theme of the presentations. She hasn’t written this year’s skits yet, but last year Urban did a lot of research about a soldier named William Cathay – whose name was Cathy Williams until she decided to become the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Army in 1866.

Megan Urban, who grew up in Los Alamos, is a 21st-century park ranger at Fort Union National Monument. (Martin Frentzel/For The Journal)

“Cathy Williams was the only female Buffalo Soldier,” Urban says. “She disguised herself and served for more than two years before she was discovered.” For deceiving the military, she was dishonorably discharged from the 38th U.S. Infantry Company.

Ordinarily, women along the frontier had limited opportunities. Officers’ wives had domestic servants and other women worked in the fort laundry or hospital. The officers’ wives also had trouble keeping servants, Urban says, because the ratio of men to women was 50 to one.

“The consensus of the day was to find the ugliest servant woman they could back east,” Urban says, “although out here they could be the hottest thing ever.”

Cathy Williams had been a house slave before she enlisted, and that probably influenced her decision to join. “Cathy probably saw the stability the Army could give somebody,” Urban says. “For a recently freed slave, the military gave somebody some purpose.”

Participating in living history skits, Megan Urban also feels at home in the apparel of women attending 19th-century balls in Santa Fe.

It appears that Urban’s purpose is to teach Americans about their history. She studied history at Los Alamos High School before attending Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. “My classes were mostly military history. However, I am more interested in human history,” she says.

That fascination led Urban to walk through cemeteries in Wisconsin, reading the tombstones and trying to figure out the far-reaching events the deceased had lived through.

Urban’s studies of 19th-century women along the Santa Fe Trail has included a thorough review of the clothing they wore. She has assembled an extensive collection of clothing appropriate for the 19th century – both everyday wear and gowns for the balls often held in Santa Fe. Urban gives presentations at schools near Fort Union and elsewhere.

“This year we had between 3,000 and 4,000 students come to Fort Union,” she says. “That’s a big increase because we usually only get a thousand.”

That growth can be attributed to the classroom presentations and the curricula Urban has developed as part of her job. She has built partnerships with schools and teachers, and the effort is paying off.

Urban studied government and history at Lawrence and to date she has worked at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage and at Lake Meade National Recreation Area. She has two sons, ages 9 and 6.

Fort Union offers multiple events throughout the summer, and the schedule is available at Brochures are available online, and they describe the fort’s campaigns against Apaches, Navajos, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, Utes and Comanches, as well as numerous outlaws.

The Candlelight presentations are free and scheduled for 7, 7:20 and 7:40 p.m. Aug. 11. Urban says the monument does not allow flash photography during the last two presentations, so those hoping to take pictures should make reservations for the 7 p.m. tour. Reservations may be made beginning today by calling 505-425-8025. Each tour is limited to 20 participants.