Monday, March 20, 2017

Texas Border Outposts: Part Two


Last month I talked about early Texas military posts. This month as promised, I'll share what I've learned about forts established later, between 1851 and 1867.

As settlers pushed farther west into land long the domain of Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribes, confrontation escalated. The Indians conducted bloody raids, stealing horses and killing their owners, regarding them as intruders. Forts built in the 1840s were now behind the line of settlements. New posts were needed to protect ranchers, farmers and their families. The map below illustrates the Army's efforts to keep up with the ever advancing frontier.

Notice forts in southwest Texas, intended to quell Apache raids; forts to the north dealt
 mainly with Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne raiders 
Forts built in 1851 include Fort Belknap in the north, Fort Phantom Hill farther south, and Fort Mason west of Austin, the state capitol. Fort Belknap stood in what is now Young County. At its height, this post was the largest on the Texas frontier. Headquarters of the Fifth Infantry, it was founded by Gen. William Goldsmith Belknap, commander of the Department of Texas at that time. The fort attracted many settlers, serving as a transpotation hub. Trouble inevitably developed between settlers and reservation Indians such as the Caddos and Anadarkos, leading to tragic events on both sides. Belknap was closed in 1859, but during the Civil War, Confederate troops battled Comanches and Kiowas in the area.

Note guardhouse & chimneys in background; photo by Pi3.124,
 creative commons 3.0 license 

Fort Phantom Hill was never given a legal name, being designated only as the "Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos." Somehow it acquired its ghostly title, why I don't know. Lack of a good water source presented a problem. The post was only manned for three years. Shortly after the troops left in 1854, the fort burned down.

Fort Mason was named in honor of Lt. George T. Mason, who was killed near Brownsville during the Mexican-American War. Troops from Fort Mason fought numerous skirmishes with Indians, the most notable led by Lt. John Bell Hood, who later led Hood's Texas Brigade in the Civil War. The fort was commanded by Robert E. Lee from December 1860 until early 1861, when Lee chose to side with his native Virginia in the War Between the State. Fort Mason was sporadically used by Confederate troops, and was briefly occupied by portions of the 4th Cavalry after the war. It closed in 1869.

Forts Chadbourne, McKavett and Clark were established in 1852. Fort Chadbourne depended on Oak Creek for water, but this source was unreliable. Comanches caused trouble from time to time, but could be friendly on occasion. One Comanche woman who begged bread from the soldiers always wore a bonnet to hide her light hair. She was Cynthia Ann Parker. Like other Texas posts, Fort Chadbourne was periodically occupied by Confederates during the Civil War. Afterward, federal troops manned the fort for a short time while Fort Concho was being built. It later acted as a sub-post for Concho.

Located in the San Saba River valley, Fort Mckavett was constructed by soldiers stationed there, out of native stone like many Texas forts. Prior to the Civil War, the troops occasionally engaged in "punitive expeditions" against the Indian. McKavett was taken over by settlers during the war, and afterward they gave returning federal troops trouble. The Army reclaimed the post in April 1868. Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie took command in 1869, turning the 38th Infantry (African Americans) into one of the most efficient black units in the Army. Combined with other units, the 38th became part of the famed Buffalo Soldiers. During the 1870s, Fort McKavett provided scouts, troops and supplies for Mackenzie's war against the Comanche, Kiowa and other tribes. The fort remained in operation for 30 years, officially closing in June 1883.
Fort Clark Historic district; photo by Pi3.124
 creative commons 3.0 license


Fort Clark stayed open until 1946, longer than any other fort in Texas' western line of defense. One reason for its longevity was the location. Built on the west side of the Las Moras River, very near the river's head spring, the post stood in a valuable position between the Rio Grande and the Indian frontier. Like Fort Mckavett, it served as a source of troops and supplies during Mackenzie's campaigns in the 1870s. Fort Clark was put on "full defensive footing" following Col. Mackenzie's famous (infamous some might say) raid on Kickapoo and Apache strongholds some 60 miles inside Mexico. For nine years, the Army's Seminole-Negro Scouts were stationed at Fort Clark. After one harrowing action in which three of the scouts saved their commander from Comanches, all three were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 Forts Davis, Lancaster and Stockton were established in 1854, 1855 and 1859 respectively. Their primary purpose was to protect travelers crossing the southwestern part of the state, and provide them a place to rest, Although abandoned during the Civil War and burned, likely by Indians, Fort Lancaster was used as a bivouacking area after the war. It was the scene of a major attack by 900-1200 Kickapoos and Lipan Apaches in December 1867. Troops of Company K, 9th Cavalry dug in and held off the attackers for three hours with only three casualties.

Fort Stockton was also burned and abandoned during the Civil War. Buffalo Soldiers rebuilt the fort in 1867 a few hundred yards from the original site. For a few years, the area was fairly peaceful. Then, in 1878 full blown war erupted, with Warm Springs Apache Chief Victorio leading the Indians. Troops from Fort Stockton and Fort Davis plus several sub-posts eventually put down the uprising. Like other posts, Fort Stockton spawned a town and, unlike others, this one flourished. Named St. Gall at first, the name was officially changed to Fort Stockton in an 1881 election.

Fort Davis National Historic Site; public domain

Before the establishment of Fort Davis in 1854, there was no military protection between Fort Clark and Fort Bliss. First built in Limpia Canyon, Fort Davis was vulnerable to sniper fire from above. When Texas seceded from the Union, Confederates took over the fort. However, Indian depredations increased, and Southern troops were defeated at Glorieta Pass in March 1862 by Union forces. In August of that year, federal troops returned to Fort Davis, but they evidently did not stay. The place deteriorated. In 1867 the post was reactivated and a new fort built on a broad plain outside the canyon. Fort Davis served as a base of operations during the Victorio War. The post closed in July 1891

Forts Concho, Richardson and Griffin, established in 1867, were the last three posts added to the western line of defense in Texas. They were closely intertwined during the early 1870s.

Fort Concho Officers Row; photo taken by author

Ideally located, Fort Concho was built at the confluence of the North and Middle Concho Rivers. Fish and game were plentiful. Westbound trails converged there en route to El Paso. Well built and preserved, much of the fort still remains. Militery actions were mainly defensive to begin with, but became more offensive when Col. Mackenzie arrived in September 1869. He began developing strategies he would employ against the Comanche nation over the next four years.

In 1871 Mackenzie was ordered to Fort Richardson, closer to the Staked Plains and the heart of Comancheria. Fort Richardson was located by Lost Creek, near present day Jacksboro in Jack County. The troopers performed escort duty for cattle herds heading north and fought Indians. Soon after Mackenzie's arrival, he led 600 troops out of Fort Richardson on a punitive expedition against the Kwahadi Comanches. He encountered swift attacks by War Chief Quanah Parker and his followers. On another occasion, he learned the only way to stop the Indians was by killing their horses, a grisly tactic he ordered his men to carry out after their decisive defeat of the tribes in Palo Duro Canyon on September 28, 1874.

Fort Griffin and the town it gave birth to were rough and tumble places. The town played host to gunmen, lawmen, gamblers and cowboys. Known as "The Flat," the town rivaled Fort Worth as a gathering place for cattle and hides. As with other such towns, the fort came first. Established as a replacement for Fort Belknap, it was built about 35 miles up the Clear Fork of the Brazos River from Belknap. Living conditions were terrible, with men sharing cramped shanties with poor ventilation and no bathing facilities, except for the nearby river. But they could fight Indians, and they did, serving in every decisive campaign against the Kiowas and Comanches.

Fort Richardson was abandoned in 1878, Fort Griffin in 1881, and Fort Concho in 1889, Portions of some of these legendary outposts still stand. The others are gone but not forgotten by Texans who love their history.

10 comments:

  1. I've been to many of these sites, Lyn. I especially enjoyed touring Fort Concho, which has mini-museums in some of the buildings. I don't like Raynald MacKenzie, though. He was too brutal in my opinion. The park in Lubbock, TX where I mostly grew up is named after him.

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    1. Caroline, I toured Fort Concho some years ago and enjoyed it immensely. Hubby and I also toured Fort Mckavett, and I have a bunch of photos of the buildings, inside and out. Unfortunately, I never scanned them in and am having trouble setting up everything on my new computer, so couldn't scan them in now.

      I agree, Mackenzie was brutal, but he did get the job done. He and his men didn't kill nearly as many Kiowas and comanches as they did the Indians' horses. The killing of those innocent animals realy bothers me. That said, Mackenzie was a brave man. He was wounded seven times in battle.

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  2. Very informative post, Lyn. MacKenzie was everywhere, wasn't he? I've toured many of these forts and now that we have a small rv, imagine we'll see some of the others. Fort Davis is one of my favorites. We lived in Alpine for a time so visited often. Also lived in Fort Stockton. Every year they have a Living History Day and on occasion bring a couple of camels in. Love history of all kinds.

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    1. Lynda, I would love to tour Fort Davis. From photos, it's such a magnificent setting. Oh, how I wish I could see those camels!

      Yes, Mackenzie was posted to several different forts in Texas. He was a career officer and was breveted Major General at the end of the Civil War. He commanded the 4th Cavalry in Texas

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  3. I find old forts fascinating..even though I've seen few. Fort Davis is excellent--inside the buildings are displays under glass of letters wives wrote home or received letters. Wives did dwell there for a short time--I surely would have been happy to return home had I been one of those people.
    The map you have shown is fantastic. It is a very good research tool for anyone writing a novel set in any of those areas. Thanks so much for your thorough research and presentation. Well done.

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    1. Thanks, Celia. I hope the map is helpful to others. I forgot to include my research sources. They are "A Historical Atlas of Texas" by William C. Pool, "Frontier Forts of Texas" by Charles M. Robinson III, and several maps online that I used as guides.

      I agree, Fort David might be nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there for very long. It's too isolated.

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  4. Great map, especially for research on a book taking place in Texas during a specific time. I am amazed at how many forts there were. I'm certain the pioneers were happy about that.
    I lived in Texas for a year and only saw the Alamo. I didn't know they had preserved so many forts there.
    Quite a terrific post, Lyn.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah. Texas did have a lot of forts. It's a big state! The soldiers had a lot of ground to cover.

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  5. Fascinating but it also leaves me with lots of questions as I don't know much about Texas and its history. The history of our contact with the American Indians has always been brutal.

    Do you know what they were using as walls around the forts?

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  6. E., some Texas forts started out with a picket wall - wooden posts - but most were built of native stone. If you'd like to learn more about some of them, check out this site: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/forts/index.html

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