Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848
and transferred ownership of the present-day American southwest
and California from Mexico to the United States, came with some
heavy responsibilities for the victors.
Chief among them was a U.S. promise to protect northern Mexico from
marauding bands of Comanche and Kiowa raiders from Texas, who had
treated the area as their own happy raiding ground for centuries.
This turned out to be a hard promised to keep, especially as Texans
had their own issues with Indians and the California gold rush of
1849 sent a steady stream of adventurers across some of Texas' most
inhospitable and Comanche-controlled landscapes.
In October of 1849, Brevet Maj. Gen. George M. Brooke, commander
the 8th Military Department at San
Antonio, ordered the establishment of a line of forts along
the Rio Grande from Brownsville
Pass, extending north from there to the Red River. The plan
was to protect the border while offering settlers and travelers
a measure of protection.
By 1853, nearly a third of the entire U.S. Army was stationed in
Texas. The Army sent Brevet Lt. Col. William Grigsby Freeman to
tour and inspect the forts and write a report about what he found.
Though he gave an officer's seal of approval to Fort
Clark and a few others, Freeman found many of the garrisons
located where water was scarce or undrinkable and where the Indians
were hard to find and even harder to fight when they did find them.
Most of the forts had less than 100 soldiers, and many of those
were poorly trained and armed.
"A parade of the entire force sometimes diminish our feeling of
security," one forlorn traveler of the day noted.
Not surprisingly, the forts didn't do much in the way of protecting
settlers, especially those in West
Texas, from Indian attacks. For one thing, the forts were generally
about 100 miles apart, leaving each outpost responsible for thousands
of miles of the state's most rugged land.
Worse, there was way too much infantry engaged in a war against
the greatest horsemen in the world, the Comanche. The soldiers chasing
them on foot must have been a source of great amusement to the Comanches,
who had only to decide whether to mosey away on their ponies or
kill the foot-travelers where they stood.
"Why did the army keep its mounted troops at its eastern forts,
far from the frontier, while sending its infantry to the western
posts, where the Indian horsemen roamed?" the late Bryan Woolley
wondered in a 2005-2006 story for "Texas Almanac." "Brevet Gen.
Persifor Smith, commander of the Department of Texas, had decided
to quarter his horses where the forage was best. And there was more
grass in the east."
Civil War and Texas' secession from the Union in 1861 left the Army
forts mostly abandoned and led to settlers building their own forts
- "forting up" as they called it - to protect themselves from Indians.
The end of the war brought federal occupation to the state and,
one by one, the army reestablished a presence at many of the 14
forts it had constructed from 1849-1860.
Historian Robert Wooster, a leading authority on Texas' frontier
forts, wrote that in the immediate aftermath of the war, U.S. military
officials were "more interested in reinstalling federal authority
in Texas than they were in reestablishing the army's presence on
the state's sparsely settled frontiers."
Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, military commander of Texas and Louisiana,
illustrated the attitude with his assertion that "Texas has not
yet suffered from the war and will require some intimidation." But
the increasing intensity of Indian raids in the western parts of
the state forced his army to turn from punishing the people of Texas
to protecting them.
Col. Ranald Mackenzie, a veteran of the Civil War and Indian wars,
had commanded a number of the frontier forts, including Fort Brown,
Clark, Fort Concho
Richardson when Sheridan sent him to the Texas
Panhandle to root out and destroy the last Comanche stronghold
in the state. In November of 1874, Mackenzie's soldiers found and
destroyed five Indian villages in Palo
Duro Canyon. The tribes might have survived the action, but
Mackenzie also captured 1,500 horses and drove them to Tule Canyon,
where his soldiers shot and killed each and every one.
That act, more
than any other, effectively ended centuries of Comanche control
of the Llano Estacado. Quanah
Parker and his defiant band surrendered at Fort Sill in present-day
Oklahoma in the summer of 1875. Buffalo hunters filled the void
left by the vanquished Comanche, and Fort
Griffin, near present-day Albany,
became the center of the buffalo hide industry. In 1881, with the
Comanche and buffalo long gone, the army closed Fort
Most of the forts that hadn't already closed by that time would
in the coming years. Fort Duncan, on the Rio Grande, lasted until
Barracks and Fort Brown served in World
War II, closing in 1944, and Fort
Clark and Fort McIntosh lasted until 1946.
Fort Bliss is the only one of the original frontier forts still
active today, though Fort
Davis survives as a national historic site and others are still
around as national historic landmarks and state historical parks.
They still provide a service to the people, but they won't protect
us from the Comanche anymore.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
May 15, 2017 column