Ft. Davis: Texas’ frontier army post

A surprisingly moving visit to this little historical site

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We came to Ft. Davis army post expecting to spend an hour tops. We’d been there years ago and remembered it as being a dry, dusty little place, your average 19th-century army fort, with a small cluster of buildings and an American flag flying out front.  A museum in the visitors center orients you to the history; from there you can wander the grounds and inspect the handful of buildings that have been restored, and, if you don’t put this place into its proper historical context, you may forget it as soon as you leave.

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Fortunately, the National Park Service doesn’t want this to happen.  Ft. Davis is a National Historic Site, and the Park Service employs an enthusiastic staff who help visitors to put the fort into historical perspective.  Park ranger Rick Keith was a perfect example of this dedication.  Rick was dressed in a full military costume representative of the era and looked quite authentic.  I felt sorry for him under those many layers of wool (this was summer in Texas, after all), but he was so passionate about Texas history that he seemed impervious to the heat.  Through a vibrant discussion with Rick and then a visit to the very good museum after, we quickly came to appreciate the slice of American history that this little army post was a part of.

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The Ft. Davis museum

Why Ft. Davis came to be

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We all know the history of the great migration of the 1900s, Americans moving west by the thousands to settle the vast frontier lands. The pioneers came in wagon trains, covering 10-15 arduous miles a day on a journey that might take them four months or more to complete.  The trip was difficult and dangerous, with unreliable water sources, difficult river crossings, terrible road conditions and of course conflicts with Native Americans defending their homelands.  And yet none of this deterred the many thousands of people who moved west in the 1800s.

After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, Texas officially became a part of the United States, and this opened up a southern route for those headed west.  The 600-mile San Antonio-El Paso Highway became one of busiest roads for travelers, immigrants, and gold seekers going to California.  It also became an official U.S. Mail route and was used by freight wagons.

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Map of the San Antonio-El Paso road; picture taken inside the Ft. Davis museum

Conflict with Indian tribes rapidly increased as the route became more traveled, and the confrontations were often violent.  Indian warriors, for example, attacked several U.S. Mail coaches, murdering the employees, looting the contents, and burning the carriages.

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Ft. Davis

The federal government had an obligation to protect this area, a pledge the U.S. made when Mexico ceded Texas to the United States after the Mexican-American War.  The Army built Ft. Davis in 1854 to protect travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. The fort, named after then U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, was built in a box canyon adjacent to the Limpia Mountains. Its mission was to pacify the Indian tribes by making hunting, gathering, and raiding as a way of life impossible, thus allowing Americans to have peaceful passage through western Texas.

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12-pound Mountain Howitzer, designed for service in rugged terrain

The Indian tribes of West Texas and the Indian Wars

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While few Indian tribes lived in the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas (the region Ft. Davis protected), the Comanche and Kiowa from the Plains and the Apache from southeastern New Mexico long had a presence in the area.  Moving in small, highly mobile and highly skilled bands throughout west Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico, these tribes were well adapted to the extreme conditions through which they traveled. They followed the buffalo but also raided Mexican, American, and other Indian settlements, capturing food and livestock both as a means of survival and, as time passed, to establish territory on lands that were being claimed by the U.S. and Mexico.

American expansion after 1850 began to deprive Apaches and other tribes of their traditional land, affecting their hunting and foraging way of life.  Some tribes experienced food shortages and starvation as well as “repeated violations of promises, agreements, and treaties,” all of which forced them to retaliate, sometimes violently.

Example of Apache shelter
Example of Apache shelter

The U.S. Army battled with the Apache and other Indian tribes from the 1850’s to 1880.  From 1854 to 1861, Ft. Davis was manned by the 8th U.S. Infantry, but when the Civil War started and Texas seceded from the Union, it was evacuated. Confederate troops occupied the fort from 1861-2, after which it was abandoned and sat vacant for five years.

After the Civil War, the San Antonio-El Paso route again became crowded with travelers, and in 1867 the Army returned and reoccupied the fort. After five years of vacancy, the army post was in poor condition. Few of the original buildings remained, and the post had to be rebuilt. Construction continued for the next decade, and when completed it had over 100 buildings and accommodations for 400 soldiers.

Between 1867 and 1881, the fort was occupied exclusively by four companies of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, all African-American soldiers. Later called Buffalo Soldiers, these men served all over the western frontier.  Their duties included providing escorts for wagon trains and coaches, scouting and patrolling, engaging in skirmishes with Indians, and establishing the fort’s infrastructure.

The Army battled Native American warriors who were described as “highly mobile, lightly equipped, and courageous;” despite this, we know from our U.S. History classes that the defeat of these tribes was inevitable, and the Texas Indian Wars drew to a close in the 1870’s-80’s.  The last battle with the Comanche occurred in 1875, in Palo Duro Canyon, (about 400 miles north of Ft. Davis by road) where the U.S. Army defeated Comanche war chief Quanah Parker and his band of warriors.

Bust of Victorio in the museum
Bust of Victorio, Apache leader, in the museum

The last major Apache campaign in Texas was from 1879-1880.  Victorio, the leader of the Warm Spring Apaches, resisted efforts to move his tribe to reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, and as a result he and his people had many conflicts with both U.S. and Mexican soldiers.  Victorio’s last battle with the U.S. Army was at Rattlesnake Springs near Fort Davis.  The Apaches’ access to water sources had been blocked, and when the thirsty Indians approached Rattlesnake Springs, soldiers engaged.  Victorio and his band fled to Mexico, where a private Mexican militia discovered them and, on October 15, 1880, defeated them in the Battle of Tres Castillos (Three Peaks) in Mexico.  Most of the Apache warriors were killed along with many women who participated in the battle.  68 women and children were taken captive.

From the late 1500s to the early 1700s, Apache territory covered over 400,000 acres.  Today, many Apache reside on several reservations, including the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south-central New Mexico.  The Kiowa and Comanche reservations are in Oklahoma.

Ft. Davis outlives its usefulness

Fort Davis continued in its capacity of safeguarding the frontier until 1881, when most of the area’s Indian tribes had been defeated and moved onto reservations. The army continued to occupy Fort Davis until 1891, but with the Indian Wars over, the frontier post had “outlived its usefulness,” and the army ordered that the fort be shut down.

Fort Davis sat vacant for many years but was established as a National Historic Site in 1961.

A look at the fort

Fort Davis is one of the best preserved frontier forts in the nation.  Here are some of the rooms and artifacts that were on display:

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The Squad Room: one of the barracks for enlisted men (in the process of being restored)
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Mess Hall ruins
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Enlisted mens’ barracks, ruins
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Guard House, ruins
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The Commissary
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Replica of what a commissary storage room may have looked like. It was a difficult task getting supplies for up to 400 men to the fort
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The hospital
The hospital
The surgeon’s office
Commanding Officer's quarters
One of the Commanding Officer’s quarters.  Officers lived a much more comfortable life than the enlisted men
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The library in the Commanding Officer’s home

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 Conclusion: Ft. Davis is not an irrelevant relic

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I struggled with how to end this post.  It’s probably enough to tell you about Ft. Davis’ history and show you pictures, but I felt like I should add more, about how this dusty little fort is far from irrelevant, that its place in history and the era it was a part of shouldn’t be forgotten.  Something that Rick said during our conversation stayed with us: as human beings, “we like simple narratives.”  But there is no simple narrative at Ft. Davis.  It’s a complex story in the middle of the sweeping saga of American history.

Some key points that we took away from our visit:

  • The soldiers at Ft. Davis believed in what they were doing.  Rick quoted a Buffalo soldier, who essentially said something like, “We come to bring peace and civilization to an area that has known neither.”
  • The American expansion westward from the east coast and northward from Mexico, which started the moment the first Europeans arrived, has given us a national narrative and shaped who we are today.  The pioneers were brave and tenacious, and I’m not sure that I could’ve survived the perilous journey that they undertook.
  • But the expansion also came at a huge cost.  Dale and I love The Last of the Dogmen, a heartwarming fantasy of a movie in which Tom Berenger and Barbara Hershey discover a Sioux tribe that has managed to stay hidden in Montana’s Oxbow for over a century.  Hershey plays Professor Lillian Stone, an expert in Sioux history and culture.  One of her best lines is regarding the outcome of American expansion: “What happened was inevitable.  The way it happened was unconscionable.”  Native Americans from east coast to west were driven from their lands, massacred, assimilated, and condensed compactly onto reservations, their cultures nearly annihilated.  This abysmal treatment, along with slavery and its long aftermath, left ugly scars on our country’s skin that still exists today.
  • The Comanche and Apache were not peace-loving tribes, and they didn’t become bellicose only after Americans arrived.  War was a part of their culture.  They preyed upon other tribes, including the Pueblo of New Mexico (more on that in future posts about New Mexico). If you grew up in Texas, you learned about the Comanche–proud, fierce warriors who struck fear into the hearts of pioneers.

Again, this is no simple narrative.

And the museum and staff at Ft. Davis National Historic Site did an excellent job of presenting an unbiased, well-rounded view of this incredible period in American History.

 

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Most of the above information was taken from the Ft. Davis museum and educational materials and from our discussion with Ranger Rick Keith.  All quoted statements come from the museum’s literature.