Fort Davis: Outpost on the Texas Frontier

Fort Davis: Outpost on the Texas Frontier

by Robert Wooster

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This engaging, illustrated history of Fort Davis, one of the U.S. Army's most important western posts, relates the exciting history of Trans-Pecos Texas—the far western reaches off the state. Wooster traces the history of this Davis Mountains region from the days when Indians and later Spaniards and Mexicans inhabited the area, through its days as the site


This engaging, illustrated history of Fort Davis, one of the U.S. Army's most important western posts, relates the exciting history of Trans-Pecos Texas—the far western reaches off the state. Wooster traces the history of this Davis Mountains region from the days when Indians and later Spaniards and Mexicans inhabited the area, through its days as the site of Texan and American interests. The establishment and construction of Fort Davis in the mid-1850s tells the story of one of the army's largest western posts. We learn about the famous army camels which Secretary of War Jefferson Davis brought to the area, with Fort Davis serving as a base of operations, and about the difficult conditions imposed on the army by weather, climate, and Indians, Evacuated by the U.S. Army at the beginning of the Civil War, Fort Davis later was occupied by Texas state troops, then briefly reoccupied by the Federals. After the war, the War Department began shifting regular army units back to the western frontiers. Among these units were each of the famous black regiments, many of them composed of former slaves who proved to be excellent soldiers. The details of daily life—food, clothing, social activities, weapons, medical care—are thoroughly discussed, as are the often ineffective campaigns against Indians.

Robert Wooster skillfully uses the forty-year history of Fort Davis to provide a clear window into the frontier military experience and into nineteenth-century American society. Because of its black soldiers, and its large Mexican-American civilian community, Fort Davis is a prime resource for studying and understanding the stratified racial relations which accompanied the army's and the nation's westward expansion.

Product Details

Texas State Historical Assn Press
Publication date:
Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series , #8
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Barnes & Noble
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4 MB

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Fort Davis

Outpost on the Texas Frontier

By Robert Wooster

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 1994 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62511-008-4



JULIUS FROBEL, a German traveler, conducted an extensive tour of the Americas from 1850 to 1857. During the course of his wanderings, Frobel crossed the Davis Mountains of West Texas. "Nature appears here," he wrote of the region, "more than anywhere else I have seen, like a landscape-painter, composing a picture with the most simple yet refined taste." Most observers have agreed with Frobel, finding the air crisp and clean, the climate salubrious, and the surrounding elevations just high enough to be fairly called mountains yet low enough to be scaled by even the faintest of heart. With more water than the arid plains which encircle the canyons and peaks, the Fort Davis area offers a comfortable oasis amidst the vast Trans-Pecos region of Texas.

Pictograph displays which confirm the presence of humans over thirteen hundred years ago are located less than forty miles northwest of Fort Davis. Five centuries later, Puebloan tribes began expanding southward from New Mexico down the Rio Grande, overwhelming the less-organized cultures of the indigenous populace. Many of the newer arrivals clustered in villages around La Junta, the junction of the Rios Concho and Grande. Known variously as Patarabueyes or Jumanos, these peoples, numbering about ten thousand, spoke a Uto-Aztecan dialect.

By the mid-sixteenth century, the Mescalero Apaches had also moved into the Southwest. Fiercely independent and nomadic, small bands of Mescaleros formed loose coalitions around a male leader. As this position was neither hereditary nor permanent, an effective leader depended upon eloquence, bravery, performance, and generosity to organize a workable coalition. Sexual divisions characterized work responsibilities. Women gathered and stored wild plants and foodstuffs, made clothing, collected fuel, prepared meals, cared for children, and maintained the teepee or wickiup, a portable brush shelter. Men hunted, raided, defended the band, and, after the Spanish introduced horses, guarded the group's mounts.

Warfare was vital to Apache culture. Bows and arrows, spears, axes, knives, and clubs formed the basic weapons of war until the introduction of muskets and rifles. Small parties raided isolated enemies and picked off weakly defended goods and herds, avoiding battle when the odds seemed unfavorable. The Mescaleros often allied with their eastern neighbors, the Lipan Apaches, to launch devastating strikes against the Jumanos and later the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans.

Drawn by dreams of mineral wealth, pastoral riches, and Christianizing the native peoples, the Spanish pushed into northern Chihuahua during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But the newcomers also brought slave hunters and deadly new diseases. With local resources strained by the Spanish influx, the Jumanos grew increasingly restive. Although constrained by imperial decline, Spain's fear of French intrusion combined with continued Apache raids against mining and agricultural communities further south to necessitate action in the Trans-Pecos. Missions were established at La Junta, supported at various times by military presidios and even offensive campaigns. But the poorly equipped soldiers of the northern presidial garrisons stood little chance against the more mobile Apaches; the precipitous population decline at La Junta, attributable to wars, slave raids, migration into Mexico, and new diseases, deprived Spain of potential allies and Christian converts.

In 1821, Mexico secured its independence from Spain. Frequent changes in government, however, made it difficult for the young nation to attend to its northern frontiers. A penal colony near present-day Ruidosa replaced the crumbling Spanish complex at La Junta. But the garrison, consisting largely of criminals assigned to protect the frontier but themselves under a heavy guard, inspired little confidence. Few monies found their way to the frontier presidios and manpower levels rarely approached authorized strengths. Although the government awarded several land grants, immigration remained sporadic.

But changes were brewing to the north. Comanche and Apache strikes into Mexico increased after the United States removed eastern Indians to present-day Oklahoma. American merchants entered into lucrative trade with the raiders, exchanging guns and ammunition for stolen booty. The aggressive policies of the Republic of Texas, which won its independence from Mexico in 1836, created more problems. By 1846, the Chihuahuan legislature admitted: "We travel the roads ... at their [the Indians'] whim; we cultivate the land where they wish and in the amount they wish; we use sparingly things they have left to us until the moment that it strikes their appetite to take them for themselves."

Following the war against Mexico (1846–1848), Mexico formally ceded its Trans-Pecos claims to the United States. Seeking trails to gold-rich California and a route for a transcontinental railroad, Americans pushed west of the Pecos River. From San Antonio, Ranger Capt. Jack Hays's column nearly starved to death in the Big Bend before reaching Fort Leaton, where Ben Leaton, a trader along the Santa Fe-Chihuahua City trail and claimant by marriage to a huge Mexican land grant, had set up operations as de facto customs agent and rancher.

The U.S. Army was also on the move. In 1849, Lts. William H. C. Whiting and William F. "Baldy" Smith followed up the Hays trail. Between the Pecos River and Presidio del Norte, they encountered a small stream which Whiting dubbed the Limpia. Next lay Wild Rose Pass, which Whiting named in tribute to the spectacular flowers then in bloom. Just beyond the pass, the team located a grove of cottonwood trees on the edge of an open plain near the Limpia. They called the place "Painted Comanche Camp" for the pictographs that decorated some of the trees. Following an 1852 inspection tour, Col. Joseph K. F. Mansfield recommended that the military occupy the strategically located Painted Comanche Camp, which boasted water, grass, and wood, and might protect the burgeoning traffic to California and Presidio del Norte. However, the army—whose eleven thousand men were already overextended, chronically understaffed, and virtually without strategic direction—did not respond until October 1854, when a column led by Bvt. Maj. Gen. Persifor Smith reached the Limpia Creek.

Formerly a prominent New Orleans attorney, Smith had raised a regiment of volunteers and fought in the Second Seminole War in Florida. During the early stages of the war with Mexico he distinguished himself in combat at Monterrey and again during the campaign against Mexico City; he now commanded the military Department of Texas. Smith established a military post at Painted Comanche Camp, calling it Fort Davis in honor of then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Hoping to protect the garrison from winter northers, Smith tucked the fort into a canyon flanked on three sides by sheer rock walls. Commanding the post, which initially included six companies and headquarters, field staff, and band of the Eighth Infantry Regiment, was Lt. Col. Washington Seawell. A career military man and West Point graduate, Seawell feared that Indians could fire down into the site from the overlooking cliffs. Despite Seawell's objections, construction began in accord with Smith's guidelines.

The parade ground and Hospital Canyon at Fort Davis during the 1850s, as captured in a watercolor by Capt. Arthur T. Lee. Courtesy Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester. Like most frontier forts, Fort Davis had no wooden palisades, its structures instead forming a rough square around an open parade ground. "There is nothing to prevent Indians or anyone else, from riding through the posts in any direction," remembered one officer. "They are placed so as to have a level place for a parade, convenient to water & c., without any expectation that they will ever have to stand a siege," The troops provided most of the labor, using local building materials whenever possible. Although Congress had appropriated one hundred thousand dollars for West Texas forts, bureaucratic red tape slowed disbursement of these funds, forcing many garrison members to remain in tents. Lt. Albert J. Myer made the best of the situation by dividing his main tent into three "rooms." He explained facetiously that canvas was "the best building material in this climate." He continued wryly, "it is very tight and warm and I have often thought how cozily I am fixed." Myer took the discomfort in stride for, as he had already acknowledged, "a man gets used to taking things cooly [sic] after a little service with the army."

As time passed, picket jacales, consisting of oak and cottonwood slabs set up lengthwise about a rude frame chinked with mud and prairie grass, became the norm. The enlisted men's barracks stood fifty-six feet long by twenty feet wide. Officers enjoyed separate quarters—Lt. Zenas R. Bliss's house, for example, was fifteen feet square and six feet high. The structure's canvas roof and warped walls provided an unanticipated source of ventilation, welcomed until the first snows poured through the cracks.

In the summer of 1856, more permanent construction was initiated during Lieutenant Colonel Seawell's temporary absence. Command had fallen to Capt. Arthur T. Lee, a multitalented individual who dabbled in art, history, music, engineering, and architecture. Lee requested from departmental superiors "permission to erect such structures as will protect the comd. during the approaching winter." The army insisted that Lee's program be of a temporary nature, but construction assumed a life of its own. By January 1857 Lee reported that six new enlisted men's barracks at the mouth of the canyon had replaced the old jacales. Sixty feet by twenty feet, each stone barracks had a thatched roof and flagged stone floors. The commanding officer's thirty-eight by twenty-foot frame house had two rooms and two glazed windows. Quarters for married enlisted men, kitchens, mess halls, and hospital remained in dilapidated condition, but Lee's initiative had improved material conditions for most post personnel. The outpost on the Limpia now stood as one of the army's most impressive western positions.



AT ITS HEIGHT during the mid-1850s, Fort Davis, boasting a garrison of over four hundred soldiers, stood among the army's largest frontier posts. But supplying, equipping, clothing, and staffing western forts, particularly one as large at Fort Davis, confounded expert and casual observer alike. Hoping to resolve these problems, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis imported more than seventy camels to Texas, where they roamed the Southwest on experimental expeditions from their base at Camp Verde, Texas. About sunrise on July 17, 1857, a party of twenty-five camels en route to Arizona reached Fort Davis. In a dramatic understatement, the commander of the exotic pilgrimage noted that "we were kindly treated by the officers." Indeed they must have been, for the sight of the camels and their Arabian handlers surely interrupted the dog days of the West Texas summer. Another diarist came closer to capturing the true spirit of the occasion when he reported that "a number of young gentlemen" returned to camp in the wee hours of the night "with a gait that denoted a slight indulgence in alcoholic stimulants."

This group left the following afternoon, but Fort Davis remained a base of operations and source of manpower for subsequent camel trials. In every test, the beasts carried greater burdens while requiring less water or food than horses, mules, or oxen. Yet few handlers could tolerate the camels' bad odor, voluminous sneezing, or fierceness during rutting season. And the departure of Jefferson Davis from the War Department deprived the camels of their most powerful champion. Amidst the growing sectional crisis, interest in the camels waned; they had been sold, lost, or largely forgotten by the outbreak of the Civil War.

Weapons development and distribution compounded the army's western dilemma. During the early 1850s, the infantry-dominated garrison at Fort Davis carried the Model 1842 Percussion Musket, a .69-caliber weapon weighing just over nine pounds. The design of the minié ball enabled the army to introduce rifled weaponry in large numbers, with the .58 caliber Model 1855 Rifle also featuring an improved paper primer system. But the new equipment took time to reach the frontiers. During his 1856 inspection, for example, Mansfield found that only thirty-three of the 442 muskets at Fort Davis had the new primer system. Only four rifles were available. While the post magazine held forty-nine thousand powder and ball cartridges, it had only 4,510 minié balls.

Equally lacking were suitable uniforms, for official army issues were singularly inappropriate for West Texas. According to 1851 regulations, dark blue woolen frock coats and sky-blue trousers comprised the basic design. Trim, facings, and piping were colored according to the individual's service branch, with infantry wearing light blue, mounted rifles emerald green, artillery red, dragoons orange, and cavalry yellow. Though inspiring in its Napoleonic appearance, the dark blue shako, trimmed with pompons and bands of corresponding service colors, scarcely served the western soldier's needs, for its narrow leather visor neither shaded the eyes nor protected the neck from the Texas sun.

To save money, the uniform was to be worn on all occasions. Inevitably, however, shortages in official garments plagued the Fort Davis garrison. Nearly every company on post reported insufficient stores of trousers during Colonel Mansfield's 1856 inspection. And of the 251 men assembled on parade, 149 were without their official shakos— undoubtedly having "lost" their headgear in the line of duty. The heavy woolen uniforms were regularly discarded for more comfortable garb, especially when campaigning. "White pants and summer clothes generally have usurped the woolens," acknowledged Lt. Edward L. Hartz.

The War Department's lack of responsiveness to western conditions was also evident in its clumsy attempts to defeat the Indians. Theorists rarely saw the wars against Indians as important enough to merit serious intellectual study. Official manuals and West Point courses alike thus concentrated on engineering and conventional tactics rather than Indian conflicts. As such, the army developed neither strategic nor tactical plans applicable to frontier settings, a deficiency which compared unfavorably to the Indians' determination to tailor their style of warfare to the surrounding terrain.

Some problems lay beyond the army's control. The inability (or refusal) of federal and state governments to establish effective, workable Indian policy meant that violence would characterize relations between Indians and non-Indians in the Fort Davis region. Public distrust of a large standing military meant that even after a substantial increase in 1855, the antebellum army numbered less than eighteen thousand men. And since cavalry units were more expensive than foot soldiers, the army's composition—four artillery, ten infantry, and five mounted regiments—rendered pursuit of tribes deemed hostile by the federal government a dubious prospect.

Confrontations had occurred even as General Smith was selecting the site for Fort Davis. En route to the Limpia, Smith had detached Capt. John G. Walker with fifty men to follow up an Indian trail. Pushing southwest from Eagle Springs toward the Rio Grande, Walker's command ran smack into the middle of an Apache encampment of sixty to seventy lodges. "The sides of the mountains were literally covered with mounted and dismounted warriors," Walker recalled, "with the women and children escaping from the village." The soldiers destroyed the lodges, along with large quantities of beef, before retreating. Walker's losses included one killed and two wounded; he estimated Indian casualties at about twenty. Smith proclaimed that Walker's "spirited action" was "to his credit and that of his command. His own conduct is spoken of in the highest terms by all present and his clothes which are cut in more than by the Indian arrows bear testimony of his having been in the thickest of the fight."

But distances, aridity, and the availability of escape routes to Mexico or the reservation near Fort Stanton, New Mexico, made duplicating even Walker's incomplete triumph rare. Comprised largely of Eighth Infantrymen, the antebellum Fort Davis garrison lacked the mobility and single-minded determination necessary to catch mounted Indians. Post surgeon Albert J. Myer described a typical effort. "Infantry on foot after Indians on horseback," he muttered." They were near enough, at one time, to fire and they did so, injuring, they say, two warriors, very badly, but after a long race in a broiling sun they came back utterly exhausted."


Excerpted from Fort Davis by Robert Wooster. Copyright © 1994 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

ROBERT WOOSTER has published many articles and books on western military topics. He is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi.

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