(Scroll down for photos.)
When the state of Texas won its precarious independence from Mexico in 1836, it was immediately confronted with a hostile, revanchist state on its southern border, just waiting to reverse the outcome of the Battle of San Jacinto. Unfortunately for the Texans, Mexico was not the only hostile power confronting them. Most of the western half of the large territory they claimed was already occupied by a power as frightening as that from which they had just won their independence. For Western Texas was also known by another name: The Comancheria, or Land of the Comanche. Further west still were hostile Apache tribes that had been pushed into the desert by the Comanche during the previous half century.
One of the primary reasons Texas sought admission to the United States was so its settlers could be protected from Indian attack by the United States Army. Within a year of the conclusion of the Mexican War, with Texas securely tied to Washington, the federal government began establishing a network of frontier forts stretching from near the Red River all the way to the Rio Grande. Most of these frontier posts were located between the 98th and 100th meridians, which marked the transition zone from the settlements of the east, and the lawless and incredibly dangerous Comancheria.
The discovery of gold in California resulted in mass migrations across the Southwest deserts to the Pacific. Additional forts were established along the two main migration routes in far West Texas to protect California-bound pioneers from both Comanche and Apache.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, nearly all of the forts were abandoned. The frontier actually receded about 100 miles during this period as the Comanche tribes exploited the lack of defenses and pushed eastward into lands they had been forced to cede earlier. Both Comanche and Apache tribes burned down many of the posts. Once the war came to an end, most of the abandoned forts were rebuilt and remained in service into the 1880’s. All but a few were decommissioned by 1900, and left to slowly crumble under the harsh Texas weather.
Today, most of the frontier forts lay in various states of disrepair. However, with few exceptions, remnants are still visible, and open to the public. Parts of some of the forts have been restored, giving the modern visitor a glimpse of what those lonely and brave bluecoats would have experienced 150 years ago.
With this post, I invite you to visit a few of these remnants of the Western frontier with me. I hope you enjoy the tour!
Fort Concho, San Angelo, Texas
When visitors first see a frontier fort, one of the things that often surprises them is the openness, its lack of a palisade or protective wall. Forts of the Southwestern frontier did not use a wall. The presence of several hundred well-armed soldiers was enough to deter a direct Indian attack.
Fort Concho was located on the San Antonio – El Paso Road. Its presence made possible the development of the city of San Angelo. At one time, it housed up to 500 soldiers, who were involved in engagements against Comanche, Apache, and Comanchero outlaws. Today, Fort Concho is one of the best preserved nineteenth century forts in America. It is managed by the federal government as the Fort Concho National Historical Landmark.
Officers were allowed to bring their families with them, where they could live in relatively large and comfortable dwellings.
Fort Chadbourne, between San Angelo and Abilene Texas
The country about here is not particularly inviting to settlers and I should think on account of the generally poor land and dry seasons, it will not soon be occupied. There are no settlements unconnected with the garrison directly or indirectly.
Col. J.F.K. Mansfield, 1856
Col. Mansfield’s assessment remains almost as accurate today as it was 150 years ago. What is left of the fort is located on a rugged plain about half way between Abilene and San Angelo, Texas. Fort Chadbourne was commissioned in 1852, abandoned during the Civil War, and recommissioned in 1867. It was abandoned in 1872, when the regiment stationed there was transferred to Fort Concho, about 40 miles away. In addition to occassional hostilities with the Comanche, the soldiers stationed at Chadbourne suffered from chronic water shortages. It was the lack of reliable water as much as anything else that forced the fort’s closure. Today, Fort Chadbourne is a ruin, but restoration efforts are underway.
Fort Lancaster, near the Pecos River bridge on US Highway 290
This post is indispensable to travelers and in a locality often visited by the wild Indians traversing the country. It cannot be dispensed with. At this place, travelers can rest and recruit their animals and repair their wagons with safety. It undoubtedly has and will save many valuable lives.
Col. J.K.F. Mansfield, 1856
Few frontier posts are as remote as Fort Lancaster. It is set in an austere, but scenic valley of the Pecos River. Commissioned in 1855, it was abandoned and destroyed during the Civil War, and briefly recommissioned in 1867. That year, a band of around 1000 Kickapoo and Lipan Apache warriors launched a direct attack on the fort, resulting in the deaths of several Indians and soldiers. The fort was used sporadically after that, and was abandoned by 1874 following the elimination of the Comanche threat.
Today, Fort Lancaster remains in ruins, under the management of the Texas State Historical Commission, which maintains the ruins in such a way that further deterioration is prevented, but with no plans to actually restore them.
Fort Davis, Ft. Davis, Texas
Fort Davis is managed by the federal government as the Fort Davis National Historical Sight. Much of the fort has been restored, with parts of it left in a state of stabilized ruin. It was commissioned in 1854 to protect travelers on the San Antonio – El Paso road, as well as the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach route which ran from St. Louis all the way to California. Soldiers stationed at Fort Davis saw action against Comanche and Apache Indians. Federal troops abandoned the fort in 1861, and it was taken over by Confederate forces who used it as a base for the planned conquest of New Mexico. That effort collapsed in 1862 following their defeat at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Shortly afterwards, the Confederates abandoned the fort.
After Glorieta Pass, federal troops retook far West Texas. When they entered Fort Davis that August, it was empty save three Confederate soldiers who had obviously suffered from small-pox, their dead bodies now riddled with Apache arrows. When the main Confederate force moved out, they left behind the three men who had contracted the pox. A short time later, Apache scouts entered the room and saw the sick men. They immediately killed them and fled the scene to avoid contracting the disease themselves.
Fort Davis remained unoccupied through the remainder of the war. At some point, Indians burned the fort down so that it was a complete ruin when it was recommissioned in 1867. The fort was rebuilt about 100 yards east of the original site. The last major Indian battle involving Texas was fought mostly by African-American “buffalo soldiers” from Fort Davis, when they defeated the last remnant of Apache War Chief Victorio's fighters in 1881. Victorio himself had been killed the previous year by Mexican forces south of the Rio Grande. The fort remained in operation another 10 years, and was shut down in 1891. In addition to the buildings that have been restored or stabilized, visitors can also see the foundations of the original structures that were destroyed by the Indians.
View from Sleeping Lion Mountain, showing officers' quarters, parade gounds, hospital, and an enlisted men's barracks.
When Fort Davis was recommissioned after the Civil War, it was given a Gatling Gun, the first "machine gun" designed for combat. Fort Davis's Gatling was never used in battle, and was only fired a few times. One reason for this is because frontier soldiers were required to purchase their own bullets for practice. Few soldiers wanted to waste their money on learning how to handle a Gatling Gun!
These are just a few of the many frontier forts located in Texas and throughout the Southwest. They all offer a poignant glimpse of a time hardly imaginable to twenty-first century visitors. When you walk those historic grounds, however, and look upon the ruined and restored buildings, you come a little closer to appreciating what came before, and the sacrifices, hardships, and conflicts that made our comfortable lives possible.