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A History and a Guide
By James T. Matthews
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 2005 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
ON THE PLATEAU WHERE THE RIVERS JOIN: BUILDING FORT CONCHO
IN THE FALL OF 1867 the United States Army established a permanent camp on the plateau where the North and Middle Concho rivers join. For centuries, this high open plateau had remained barren except for passing expeditions or hunting parties. The Jumano Indians had established a village downstream on the North Concho by the 1530s, and Cabeza de Vaca stayed there on his way west in 1534. Almost a century later, between 1629 and 1632, a mission under the leadership of Franciscans Juan de Salas and Diego Lopez conducted Christian services at the thriving Jumano village. By the 1650s Spanish traders from Santa Fe became frequent visitors at the Concho River settlement. Some collected the conchos, or shells, for which the river was named and harvested them for pearls. Around 1690 the Jumanos abandoned the area entirely in the face of Apache advances onto the South Plains of Texas.
In the mid 1700s the Apaches also moved on to the south and west as the Concho River country came under the control of Comanches, the fearless horsemen of the plains. The Comanche war trail crossed the Conchos on its way from Big Spring to the Rio Grande. As the flags of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and finally the United States successively flew over the European settlements of Texas, the Comanches continued to travel freely across the South Plains. Then in 1849, following the war with Mexico, American citizens began to cross West Texas. They came seeking trade routes and trails to the gold fields of California. The United States Army surveyed these routes and proposed that a line of outposts be established along the Comanche frontier to enforce peace through a strong military presence among the tribes. In March 1852 troops manned Camp Joseph E. Johnston, a temporary site on the North Concho River. It was abandoned with the founding of Fort Chadbourne on a tributary of the Colorado River in October 1852. Patrols from Fort Chadbourne scouted south along the Concho River throughout the 1850s. Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee led one of the scouting expeditions in the summer of 1856. In 1858 the short-lived Butterfield Overland Mail route crossed the North Concho and ran west along the Middle Concho on its way to the Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River and then on to California.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 United States troops surrendered all the frontier outposts in Texas to the Confederacy. In February 1861 Capt. Robert B. Halley's rangers from Bell County took command of Fort Chadbourne. Texas troops continued to man the post until the end of the war. The U.S. Army returned to Texas after the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865.
The army's initial efforts concentrated on administering Reconstruction and providing a show of force against the French government of Maximilian in Mexico. Yet a series of events rapidly altered the mission of Federal troops in Texas. The French withdrew from Mexico in the spring of 1867. By this time, Texans searching for a means of survival had already begun to herd cattle across the Concho river region. The Goodnight–Loving cattle trail followed the Middle Concho west in 1866. To protect the growing number of cattlemen and settlers in the Concho corridor, the Fourth United States Cavalry remanned Fort Chadbourne in May 1867. At the same time, the army made plans to locate a permanent outpost central to the area with a more reliable supply of water.
During the summer of 1867 Maj. John P. Hatch, commander of the Fourth Cavalry, ordered Lt. Peter M. Boehm to establish a permanent camp on the Middle Concho River about fifty miles from Fort Chadbourne. The camp soon moved to the North Concho, where fifty troopers under Capt. Michael J. Kelly remained on duty throughout the summer. In September a board of officers including Major Hatch surveyed the North and Middle Concho rivers to determine a site for the permanent post. They chose the plateau at the junction of the rivers because of "the large quantity and quality of grass—the almost inexhaustible supply of limestone and rock and land for building and the large and never ending supply of good running water."
On November 28, 1867, Company H, Fourth Cavalry, left Fort Chadbourne to establish a permanent garrison on the Concho. Capt. George G. Huntt named the new station Camp Hatch. He described the site as "close to all the watering places frequented by the Indians after crossing the plains." Unfortunately, he continued, "The country is but poorly timbered—mesquite on the land and straggling pecans along the streams." To insure a regular line of supply and building materials, construction began immediately on a wagon road from the new site to the San Saba River near Fort Mason. Huntt's troopers spent much of their first month in camp escorting supply trains, mail runs, and cattle herds.
Construction of the new post was assigned to Capt. David W. Porter, assistant quartermaster for the Department of Texas, on December 10, 1867. Porter employed civilian masons and carpenters to construct temporary storehouses for quartermaster and commissary goods. Work began on the foundations for a permanent commissary in January 1868. While buildings remained under construction, the soldiers lived in tents or huts with their horses in temporary corrals. Open fireplaces heated many of the tents, although some troopers did manage to obtain heating stoves. The only permanent building in the spring of 1868 appears to have been the sutler's store, a general store run by a merchant under contract to provide some comforts to the soldiers. This structure, erected and opened for business as quickly as possible, had been "built of pickets, with green pecan board roof."
At the request of Major Hatch, Huntt renamed the outpost Camp Kelly to honor Capt. Michael Kelly in January 1868. Kelly had died of typhoid fever on August 13, 1867, while commanding the first "Permanent Camp on the Rio Concho." In March 1868 the construction site just north of Camp Kelly was officially designated Fort Concho by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Maj. George C. Cram replaced Huntt as commander of Fort Concho in March. Cram erected a temporary guardhouse of pecan wood and improved sanitation for the soldiers' quarters. His continued efforts to encourage construction of the permanent buildings met with little success. Captain Porter's responsibilities included construction at Forts Griffin and Richardson to the north, so he seldom remained at Fort Concho for an extended period. During his absences, Porter often left construction unsupervised. Without any direction, the civilian employees made little progress. Captain Huntt had already complained that "the expenses incurred at this Post for wages and rations of the men alone, amount to over fifty-six thousand dollars and the first stone not laid yet."
Progress at the other posts under Porter's supervision proved just as slow. During 1868 more than 150 civilian masons and carpenters worked at Fort Richardson, yet the officers and men still lived in cottages of canvas-lined pickets. At Fort Griffin, about forty frame huts were built as temporary barracks. Many actually remained in use until the post was abandoned in 1881. Construction problems at the Texas outposts were complicated by the fact that supplies had to be freighted by oxen from Indianola on the Gulf Coast through San Antonio over rough and often muddy roads. Despite Major Cram's efforts to advance the building program at Fort Concho, little occurred during the summer of 1868. During this period Cram became involved in a feud with Ben Ficklin, the mail line superintendent, over Ficklin's use of government property and resources. When Cram placed Ficklin in the guardhouse, the postmaster general became involved. By August Major Cram had received a new assignment. Captain Porter also departed at about the same time, leaving construction of the three outposts barely begun.
With Cram's reassignment, Maj. George A. Gordon, a former artillery officer, assumed command at Fort Concho. Gordon appointed Capt. Joseph Rendlebrock to take over the construction program. "Old Joe" Rendlebrock had served in the Prussian army before immigrating to the United States, where he enlisted in 1851 as a mounted rifleman. He rose through the ranks to become first sergeant in the Fourth Cavalry by the time of the Civil War. In 1862 he received a battlefield commission for meritorious service in Tennessee. By the end of the war Rendlebrock had risen to the rank of brevet major and was appointed regimental quartermaster for the Fourth Cavalry. His pre-war service on the frontier gave him the reputation "as an old and experienced Indian campaigner." "Old Joe" frequently assumed the task of instructing young officers during patrols, giving them pointers on frontier campaigning in his heavy German accent. At age forty-five, a veteran in all phases of army life, Rendlebrock proved an effective choice to take over the construction of Fort Concho.
By the end of 1868 the quartermaster's storehouse, commissary, and one wing of the hospital building had been completed. The construction crews used native limestone quarried from an area south of the post. Mortar was made with lime extracted from the stone and crushed sandstone from along the Concho River. Most wood for framing still had to be shipped from the Gulf Coast. While sawmills along the Colorado River did produce some lumber locally, most of this was pecan wood, which proved difficult to use because of its hardness and the tendency of green wood to shrink and twist after it had been nailed in place.
Captain Rendlebrock employed civilian stonemasons and carpenters to coordinate the construction efforts. Many of these were German immigrants from Fredericksburg, although the rolls also included a significant number of Scots and Irish. From 1869 to 1871 almost 90 percent of the civilian employees worked as craftsmen constructing the permanent buildings on post. Between scouting expeditions and escort duties soldiers provided much of the unskilled labor. During 1869 troopers helped build five sets of officers' quarters and the first company barracks. In August Post Surgeon William Notson reported, "This month marks a new era—the actual occupation of quarters by the troops."
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OFFICERS' QUARTERS 3
Homes for the fort's officers were built in several stages with the last ones completed in the mid- to late-1870s. Officers' Quarters 3 may have been the first completed in March 1870. Until Officers' Quarters 1 was finished in 1872, this building served as the commanding officer's home. Rank definitely had its privileges as space in the way of rooms was assigned according to military rank, not family need. An unmarried major would get more space than a lieutenant with a large family. Because Officers' Quarters 3 has more original interior fabric than any other quarters on the row, museum staff chose to restore and furnish this structure with a period interior to show the life and times of an 1870s officer, his family, and a guest junior officer. During the annual Christmas event held the first weekend of December, the building is hosted by volunteers in period clothing with the soft glow of lanterns and lamps about them.
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In October 1869 work crews completed a frame building near the center of the parade ground designated as an office for the post adjutant and quartermaster. While the stone buildings rose slowly, many officers and enlisted men, following the example of other posts, built frame or picket structures to provide some solid shelter for their families. Noncommissioned officers, the baker, the drum major, and the chief musician all lived in frame buildings lined with canvas for insulation. Although most enlisted men remained single, some married soldiers did build homes, which in later years were described by a quartermaster as "temporary tumbledown buildings erected in most instances at the cost of their original occupants."
Some of the officers moved into stone quarters in 1869. Families shared the available buildings, with captains and lieutenants authorized one room and a kitchen. A canvas or frame structure behind most of the stone quarters provided the kitchen. Single officers were housed in the upper rooms of the hospital. During 1870 masons and soldiers built two more sets of officers' quarters and a second barracks. James Trainer, the post trader, built a large stone sutler's store west of the fort. Also completed in 1870 were a stone corral, stables, and a new guardhouse to replace the one made of pecan wood. Many officers had stone walls constructed to enclose the back yards of their homes. From the completed front porches on officers' row, the banks of the North Concho River could be seen past the wide parade ground and company barracks.
In June 1870, while Maj. John Hatch commanded Fort Concho, he began to experiment with adobe as a possible substitute for limestone. Drying the brick in an open yard, he constructed walls around some of the quarters. A squad of troopers under the supervision of a commissioned officer could produce almost a thousand adobe bricks per day. This proved to be exhausting work, often more effort than quarrying limestone and making mortar. Hatch abandoned the use of adobe brick after "the heavy rains of August beat them to pieces, the freshets of the rivers washed away a good share, and the unsatisfactory material of which they were composed proved too fragile to enable them to be used for the purposes intended." His efforts earned him the nickname "Dobe" Hatch, however, which he carried throughout the remainder of his career.
Major Hatch continued to push for the completion of post structures through the fall of 1870 on into 1871. A quartermaster's corral for mules and draft animals and a shed for the wagons were erected. Foundation work began for a blacksmith shop and other workshops. Permanent sinks to provide sanitary facilities for the enlisted men were constructed behind each barracks. Lumber arriving overland from San Antonio continued to present a problem. Surgeon Notson noted that while the lumber did arrive on schedule, "the wrong articles are invariably delivered ... first delivered were shingles. The walls of four houses are as far forward as they can get until joist and rafters arrive, while sheathing and lathes are abundant."
Notson's frustration with War Department bureaucracy increased in February 1872, when Fort Concho discharged most of its civilian masons and carpenters due to a reduction in funding. A force of more than sixty craftsmen dwindled to around fifteen, most of them carpenters, retained to complete structures already begun. Notson lamented the fact that "mechanics have been collected from far and wide in the country, at great trouble and expense ... and yet, as the season opens, they are discharged and scattered, for want of a small appropriation."
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For its first decade, Fort Concho lacked a formal administration building. The ambitious Colonel Grierson addressed that issue shortly after his arrival by having the headquarters constructed in 1876. It served as a nerve center for the post until abandonment in 1889. From 1878 to 1881 this building served as Headquarters for the District of the Pecos, an administrative region of vast territory that included Forts Davis, Stockton, and Griffin and eight sub-posts for the purpose of coordinating efforts to contain increased Indian activity along the frontier. After Fort Concho's closing the building served in many capacities, including as a rooming house in the early 1900s. When Mrs. Ginevra Wood Carson decided to move her West Texas Museum from the Tom Green County Courthouse in the late 1920s, she chose this building as its new home, beginning a nine-decade effort to acquire all of the original fort buildings and land. Today four of the rooms have been restored to their original appearance (court-martial room, orderly room, adjutant's office, and regimental headquarters) while two other rooms have interpretive displays.
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Despite the loss of skilled labor, some construction did continue on the plateau where the rivers joined. By the end of 1872 Fort Concho consisted of barracks for eight companies, eight sets of officers' quarters, a hospital, guardhouse, powder magazine, bakery, storehouses, workshops, and stables. Company streets had been laid out and landscaping begun. Cedar, elm, pecan, and hackberry trees were planted and a post garden cultivated with moderate success.
In April 1875 Fort Concho became headquarters for the Tenth Cavalry under Col. Benjamin Grierson. Grierson had previously undertaken a construction program at Fort Sill and would later complete the building of Fort Davis. At Fort Concho he began by thoroughly cleaning the parade ground and repairing the barracks. Workmen then moved the adjutant's office to the east end of the parade ground and erected a flagstaff in the center of the field. In 1876 Grierson replaced the old wooden office with a stone administration building that included the regimental headquarters, a court-martial room, and a post library for more than three hundred volumes "of a literary, historical and miscellaneous character."
Grierson also ordered a forage house built and in 1877 added a double set of officers' quarters. In December 1878 workers completed the last permanent building at Fort Concho on a foundation originally laid as the kitchen for a new set of officers' quarters. Chaplain George Dunbar described the new structure, designated a schoolhouse and chapel, as "by far the best finished room in the post." The commander also took a strong interest in gardening and landscaping. In 1879 he had a water pipe laid along officers' row and "a hydrant put on the parade ground so that water can be used fully and the grass kept green."
Excerpted from Fort Concho by James T. Matthews. Copyright © 2005 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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