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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Frontier Forts of Texas

by Clay Coppedge

The 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 to Eagle 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."

The 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, Fort McKavett, Fort Clark, Fort Concho and Fort 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 Griffin.

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 1922. Ringgold 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

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