Texas history: Forts evoke a rough and isolated, but well-ordered, frontier life
FORT McKAVETT, TEXAS — Here, the wind whispers stories.
In lonely places such as the frontier forts in West Texas, old stories swirl through the dry breeze, slipping around the stone, wood and plaster. Like ancient castles or palaces, temples or churches, these precincts tug at one's illusions, even if full and accurate histories of the sites never seem complete.
On a recent road trip, your "Think, Texas" columnist and a travel buddy visited, among many other points of interest, three West Texas forts — Mason, McKavett and Concho. We intended to see a fourth, Fort Chadbourne, but it sits on private land on U.S. 277 in Coke County that was not open to the public when we reached that spot. We'll return on another trip.
Spaniards, Mexicans, Texans, Americans and Native American allies along with others established more than 30 presidios or forts in the deserts, mountains, plains and thickets of West Texas. Some were occupied by Confederates during the Civil War; others were abandoned.
Tribes, mostly Apaches, Comanches and Kiowa in this part of Texas, rarely attacked these forts. Instead, fortified places served as logistical bases for supplies; retreats for much-needed rest and recuperation for soldiers; and a way to protect nearby trails, settlements and civilians who lived within the barricades.
In modern terms, they projected power. Think of them as far-flung naval bases from which cavalry and infantry regiments, like ships, patrolled the open spaces of West Texas, ocean-like in its vastness.
The Army had abandoned almost all of them by the 20th century, but because of the arid climate and varied post-military use, several remained in excellent condition.
Decades ago, I visited my first West Texas fort, probably Fort Davis in the Davis Mountains, as a child. The scene lent a concrete, personal solidity to the romanticized stories and images half-remembered from Western movies and books.
Yet every time I return to West Texas, I learn completely new things.
At the same time, they are little changed. The West Texas forts evoke a rough, isolated but well-ordered life. During the 19th century, they offered little in the way of luxuries. Soldiers found companionship mostly outside the barricades among the camp followers.
Yet the forts look clean-lined, geometric, functional and clearly meant to impose structure and rules on a land that was perceived as unredeemed wilderness.
The far view from Fort Mason
The first and most important thing to notice about this 1851 fort that overlooks the Hill Country town of Mason is the view. From here, scouts could see anything coming their way along this valley not far from the Llano River.
The stroll up the hill to the fort from the courthouse square — where the singed remains of the Mason County Courthouse, burned earlier this year, await revival — is not challenging. Yet rarely have I seen a more strategically placed fortification.
All that remains of Fort Mason is a replica of one of its officers' quarters constructed of the same dark brown sandstone that nearby modern residents have used for their homes. Four rooms around a dogtrot, the structure gives us a sense of how officers and their families lived — in what would have been quite cramped quarters. It also houses interpretive displays that can occupy a good half hour of rewarding historical time.
The amazing fact about Fort Mason is that 31 of the officers posted here later served as generals during the Civil War, 20 of them Confederate, 11 of them Union. Their numbers include Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston. What was it about this outpost during the 1850s that foreshadowed such future leadership?
On display is an enlarged copy of a letter written from Fort Mason by Lee to his son Custis on Jan. 23, 1861. It confirms that Lee opposed the Confederacy's departure from the Union — "secession is nothing but revolution" — but Lee also writes that, if arms were taken up by the North as part of an invasion, he would defend his home state of Virginia. His logic is tortured, but his feelings appear genuine.
A few minor footnotes to history find their way onto the fort's walls, including the court martial in 1856 of Capt. Charles Edward Travis, son of Alamo commander William Barrett Travis, for "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." He was pronounced guilty and dismissed here.
I could have spent a lot more time on the wide porches considering the broader sweep of history, but the local high school's girls basketball team had taken over the site for a merry photo shoot. A good reminder that not all frontier forts are isolated these days.
Evocative Fort McKavett
This is one of the most imposing frontier forts in the state. Some parts stand in ruin, as poetic as Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey. Yet a great number of intact, whitewashed stone buildings — with impossibly crisp rooflines — remain mute testaments to regimental life here.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman called it "the prettiest post in Texas." Why is it in such good condition?
"It was a town after it was a fort," said interpreter Jay Wright, who sports what looks like a historically inspired mustache. "A week before the Army decamped in 1883, they held an auction. So civilians lived in these buildings from 1883 to 1974."
That's when it became a virtual ghost town.
The fort, located in Menard County and first established at the source of the San Saba River in 1852, also looks ship shape because it has been preserved and interpreted by the Texas Historical Commission. The sizable museum is packed with history and the fort's multiple structures are outfitted to resemble what they looked like in the late 19th century.
As repeated often at the site, after the Civil War, the Army went out of its way to recruit African Americans for duty in the West. They made up a majority of soldiers here, and although they received equal pay, they were not promoted to top leadership positions.
This kind of "Buffalo Regiment" was not uncommon and more history is being uncovered about Buffalo Soldiers by the year. Just remember that, in contrast to all those old Hollywood Westerns, when the cavalry came to the rescue, those wished-for horse soldiers were just as likely to have been Black.
McKavett, originally called Camp San Saba, was reactivated after the Civil War, not to directly confront the Native Americans, who were already retreating toward the north, south and west, but rather to protect the trails west to El Paso.
Interpreters here do a good job of treating the soldiers and civilians as individuals. Many of those civilians lived in the infelicitously named nearby camp of "Scabtown." (I don't know the origin of the name, but it doesn't sound flattering.)
While a stage line served the town of Fort McKavett, the railroads skipped it. Yet it had a brief boom after the military left thanks to sheep ranching in the region, as proclaimed in a posted flyer: "Wool! Mohair! Canned Mutton!" During the 1890s, the village even supported a newspaper, the Fort McKavett Breeze.
Yet the village dwindled to ghost status. Which makes the grounds of the fort all the more evocative.
Don't skip the springs that feed the San Saba, which lie, according to Wright's humorous directions, "a quarter mile down the hill and four miles back." There, in a shaded grove with clear water gushing at our feet, the air swam with monarch butterflies.
One last note from the springs: A interpretive sign informs us that the women who did the hard, dirty work of cleaning military laundry at this spot could, if industrious, easily make more money than their soldier counterparts.
On the parade grounds at Fort Concho
Another reason some fort buildings, such as those at McKavett, survive is their sturdy limestone construction.
Such is also the case at Fort Concho in San Angelo, as interpreter Ryan Roden reminded us.
"It was never really abandoned," Roden said. "It is now owned by the city of San Angelo and we consider it the 'Crown Jewel of San Angelo.'"
Established in 1867 above the Concho River, the fort was never on the edge of the frontier. Rather, it supplied the troops who guarded the trails to and from San Antonio and Chihuahua and westward.
The railroad arrived in 1888. That harkened the death of Fort Concho. So its life as a military base lasted just over 20 years.
The city of San Angelo — located in a metro area now populated by more than 100,000 people — rose from a batch of huts across the river from the fort.
Gazing down the wide and neatly maintained parade grounds at the fort, the guest encounters about a dozen buildings. Some contain excellent permanent exhibits on artillery or officer life. One particularly well staged structure houses the fort's small school and chapel.
Not directly related to early fort life, another building from that period now houses the Museum of Telephony. This was locked when we visited this time, but I'd explored it on an earlier road trip, and you want to check out the old telephones and the machinery that supported them.
While McKavett and Mason are perched on hills, Concho lies on flat land. Why?
"The frontier had pretty much been conquered," Roden said. "The Kiowa were not here; the Apache were scattered."
In other words, they didn't need the strategic elevation.
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Over the years, those interpreting West Texas forces have done an increasingly better job dramatizing the rough and isolated daily life of the soldiers and their families. Each of these forts showed that, even in comparatively cushy officers quarters, life was no picnic.
In addition, interpreters have introduced more valuable history about Buffalo Soldiers, as well as background on some incidents I'm sure some Texans would rather forget, such as the Battle of Dove Creek, when Confederates and Texas militia attacked a group of peaceful Kickapoos, then were promptly trounced.
(We tried to visit that battlefield, which is south of San Angelo in the felicitously named hamlet of Knickerbocker, later in our trip, but the marker is on private land.)
The historical interpreters could, however, help us understand Native American life better. They are barely mentioned at Fort Mason, and although the leaders at Fort Concho provide some living American Indian history, the tribes do not figure prominently in the permanent displays.
Fort McKavett at least details the areas where the tribes lived and provides chronicles of several campaigns, such as the Red River War. Those among my readers who are geographically inclined will already know that the last among the Texas frontier campaigns is far from the Hill Country, but McKavett provided some back-up.
These sites have been miraculously preserved. Now we need ever deeper and broader history of the forts and their times.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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