Administrative History
NPS Logo

Chapter One:
Fort Davis and the Western Story

Standing on the parade ground of old Fort Davis, high in the Davis Mountains of far west Texas, one sees much more than the strikingly beautiful landscape of Limpia Canyon. Heralded in song and legend, the plains and mountains of west Texas (known as the Trans-Pecos region) have witnessed not only the unfolding of the saga of the American frontier. They also are home to the story of the American experience, from its precontact cultures down to the late-twentieth century. As the steward of Fort Davis National Historic Site, the National Park Service engages constantly in the discussion of the meaning of the far western frontier. In addition, its staff, volunteers, and Friends group must preserve a highly valuable architectural and historic resource to meet the needs of visitors seeking an accurate portrayal of what is often described as the "best example of the frontier military in the Southwest."

The competing forces of history and myth that suffuse the story of Fort Davis begin with the construction of the post itself, built in the heady days of the westward surge following the War with Mexico and the "rush" to the California gold fields. From the earliest encampment of American soldiers in 1854, to the re-establishment of the Army post after the Civil War (1867), to the abandonment of Fort Davis in 1891, the Davis Mountains hosted units of the Indian-fighting forces that would be enshrined in popular culture throughout the twentieth century. Yet few visitors come away from the site knowing the full impact of the ecological and human experience that marked life at Fort Davis, or of the actions taken by their public servants to guarantee to future generations access to the national treasure that the U.S. Congress in 1961 entrusted to the park service.

If one walked the 460-acre post with a history text in one's hand, one would recognize no less a spectacle than that offered by the beauty of the red cliffs and the green valley of the Limpia. Fort Davis included all the topics that have come in recent years to constitute the "new western" history: issues of race, class, gender, power, and environment. These concepts, studied for the first time in the revisionist era of the 1960s and 1970s, held that the "nation-building" story that for decades had explained the spread of American civilization across the continent had ignored or deemphasized problems caused by urbanization, modernization, and improvement of the American standard of living. For the past two decades and more the scholarly revision of the westward movement crafted a tale that would challenge prevailing assumptions of the western military and subsequent settlement. Yet the real life of the fort, as chronicled so well by park service historian Robert M. Utley, and later Robert Wooster, would one day emerge from the mists of the past to broaden the Fort Davis story. It would also provide the park service with one of its first opportunities at the end of the twentieth century to fashion a narrative of achievement and conflict that the actual inhabitants of the fort, town, and mountainous region might recognize, were they to return to the post today. [1]

Fort Davis
Figure 1. Historic Photograph Looking South with Chapel to the left of Flagstaff (c. 1886).
Courtesy of Fort Davis NHS.

Historians of the arid West have noted the extremes of environment that differentiate the Davis Mountains region from the source of most of the westward movement's population: the humid climate of the eastern United States. At almost 5,000 feet in altitude, Fort Davis shares an ecology more akin to its western neighbors of New Mexico and Arizona, and its southern neighbor of Mexico, than it does the state in which it resides. Where east Texas boasts abundant rainfall (the city of Dallas has nearly as much annual moisture as "rainy" Seattle, Washington), which permits agriculture and urbanization on a large scale, the Davis Mountains receive only enough rain in good years to support cattle ranching and small-scale irrigated farming. Distance, isolation, aridity, and altitude have influenced all cultures that have crossed the Trans-Pecos, from the earliest precontact societies of 9000 BC to the contemporary tourists and urban expatriates who flock to Fort Davis for its cool summers and mild winters. Limpia Creek, which in Spanish means "clear," cuts through the mountains on its journey to the Pecos River basin below on lands that Spanish explorers crossed in search of gold and ancient civilizations.

Native cultures found in the Davis Mountains what still endures today: game, wood, water, and temperate weather. Migration from the settled communities to the northwest (the New Mexican village-dwellers whom the Spanish generically referred to as the "Pueblos") had reached the Trans-Pecos about a century before Coronado, but left no permanent mark on the region. More prominent were the nomadic peoples known as the "Jumanos," whom the first Spanish observed traveling through the mountain corridors on their journeys into modern-day Mexico. By 1900, the Jumanos had been assimilated into Mexican society. The Spanish also found bands of people whom they called "Apaches." Because of their ability to survive and prosper over a vast stretch of desert, canyon, and mountain terrain, the Spanish called the area "El Gran Apacheria," reaching from Austin on the east to Tucson on the west, and from Wichita on the north to Chihuahua on the south.

Of these bands, whose own names for themselves translated to "human beings" or more simply "the people," the Spanish recognized one group as frequenting the area most often; the Mescalero Apache. Named for the mescal or "agave" plant whose buds gave them energy to survive in the desert, the Mescaleros considered as their homelands an area from southern New Mexico (modern-day Ruidoso in the Sierra Blanca) to the Pecos valley of Texas, and south hundreds of miles into central Mexico. Their cousins, the Lipan Apaches of south Texas, also passed through the Davis Mountains, as would the most feared warriors of the southern Plains, the Comanches (whose name derived from the Ute word for "enemies"). It was no coincidence that so many groups with aggressive tendencies traversed the region, given the harshness of the landscape for people with limited technology and resources. Antonio de Espejo, the first Spanish explorer to walk through Limpia Canyon (1582-83), noted the difficulty of conquest awaiting Spain if it wished to recreate in far west Texas its successes of Mexico and Peru. Thus it was no surprise that the first permanent Spanish settlement of the Southwest, the New Mexico-bound party under Don Juan de Onate, followed not Espejo's route north along the Rio Concho and Pecos River, but the more westerly Rio Grande in 1598 to the northern Pueblo communities near modem-day Santa Fe.

The story of the Spanish Southwest has been analyzed at great length, first with the "Borderlands" scholarship of Herbert Bolton in the 1920s and 1930s, and later with the "Chicano school" of the 1960s and 1970s. Each disagreed with the other's assumptions about the merits of Spanish intrusion north from Mexico; the Borderlands interpretation heralding the glamour of the conquistadors, while the Chicanos decried the elitism and violence of the soldiers, settlers, and priests. For west Texas, however, the story was more complex. No major Spanish communities were founded along the lower Rio Grande, nor were Catholic priests any more successful with proselytizing at their missions. Not until 1760 (some six generations after Onate's journey) did the Spanish appear south of modern-day Fort Davis to erect El Presidio del Norte (the present-day border town of Presidio) to protect the Guadalupe mission. Thus the Trans-Pecos region knew little of the struggles that shaped the history of New Mexico and California, where Spaniard and Native fought and accommodated each other's presence, and where both groups created the tragic legacy of victimization and the birth of "La Raza," the "new race" of mixed people that emanated from three centuries of Spanish-Indian interaction.

Fort Davis site map
Figure 2. Fort Davis Site Map.
Courtesy Fort Davis National Historic Site.

(click on the map for an enlargement in a new window)

Upon the eviction in 1821 of the Spanish royal government from Mexico and the Southwest, the new leadership of the Republic of Mexico assumed control of the Trans-Pecos region. They could not, in their single generation of management of the Southwest, overcome the challenges of environment and ethnicity that had stymied Spanish royal officials. Mexico, with little money and less experience, could not carve out of the region a permanent presence to avail itself of the resources awaiting the next conqueror, the young United States of America. In 1830, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Ronquillo did petition Mexican authorities for the grant of a 2,345-square mile section of the Trans-Pecos that included the Davis Mountains and the future Fort Davis. But the impending crisis to the east, known as the Texas Revolution, drew the attention of Mexican leaders like President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana away towards San Antonio. From the loss of the Alamo in 1836 to the declaration of Texas independence (1836), Mexico had little time to contemplate the uses of the Davis Mountains, leaving the area for the Americans to conquer and develop in the 1840s and 1850s.

That experience began within months of the arrival in 1846 of U.S. forces in the Southwest under General Stephen Watts Kearny. Kearny focused his attention on the annexation of New Mexico and the conquest of California. Following the Mexican American War, U.S. officers fanned out across the Southwest to record information for future military and civilian use. The U.S. Army, under the command of Captain William Randolph Marcy, passed one hundred miles north of the future site of Fort Davis in the fall of 1849, along what is today the route of Interstate 20. In March of that year, Marcy sent a detachment under the command of Lieutenants William H.C. Whiting and William F. "Baldy" Smith to survey West Texas. They followed an old Indian trail through a pass which they named "Wild Rose," and Whiting called the stream that flowed through the mountains "Limpia." Beyond the pass in a grove of cottonwood trees, the Whiting-Smith party stopped at what they called "Painted Comanche Camp;" the future site of Fort Davis.

The Army survey had been undertaken because of the surge of travelers through the Southwest to the California gold fields, discovered in January 1848 but not publicized until the following year. Known as the "49ers," these goldseekers took a series of routes westward, the most promising being the San Antonio-El Paso road through the Trans-Pecos. Because of its level conditions, all-weather access, and the wood and water of the Davis Mountains, the road appealed to travelers who faced more taxing routes either around South America, or across the high-walled Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. The presence of nomadic Indian tribes in the region also required the security services of the Army, and in 1854 the War Department sent to the Davis Mountains Brevet Major General Persifor Smith to establish the first Fort Davis.

Smith had come to far west Texas to open a series of six posts, and to secure the transcontinental route of the 32nd parallel outlined by Congress in the 1853 Pacific Railway surveys. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (for whom the fort and mountains were named) had sought a string of forts along the Rio Grande, but Smith informed his superiors that the valley was too barren and forbidding for ease of travel. By suggesting the Limpia Canyon for location of six companies of the Eighth Infantry, Smith guaranteed the presence in west Texas of military forces that would last for the next five decades. Smith began by negotiating with John James, a large landowner in the Davis Mountains, to lease to the Army 640 acres for the post, with annual rent of $300. The government also received a purchase option to exercise within five years at $10 per acre; an option that the Army never pursued.

Little remains of this first military site in the Davis Mountains, but official records indicate that Smith and his successors in command prior to 1860 grappled with the same conditions of environment, ethnicity, and isolation that had plagued the efforts of Spain and Mexico. In 1854 the soldiers of the 8th Infantry constructed either tents or modest "jacales" of oak and cottonwood pickers, neither of which could withstand the harshness of the west Texas winter. Soon thereafter the troops processed lime in a kiln built some thirty miles from the fort, and also went into the Davis Mountains for lumber, which they milled on site. By 1857 the post had permanent barracks built of stone, although most structures still had a temporary look about them. Uncertainty about the final location of the Pacific railroad and access routes through the Davis Mountains kept Congress from funding Fort Davis adequately, although troop strength by the mid-1850s stood at 400, making the fort one of the West's largest.

The pre-Civil War Army never had the numbers nor funds to effect substantial change in the patterns of Indian migration or attacks upon travelers. In order to meet demands for protection with limited resources, Secretary of War Davis acquired from Congress $30,000 for his "camel experiment," wherein the Army purchased camels from the Middle East and brought them to the American Southwest for use in the deserts. On July 17, 1857, former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Edward F. Beale led the Camel Corps through Fort Davis enroute to their posting in Arizona, and in 1859 the camels were used again to locate a more direct route from San Antonio to the fort. The experiment, despite the worthiness of the animals, failed in large measure because of costs (support of one camel corpsman was two to four times that of infantry), and because of the offensive smell and behavior of the camels. When Secretary Davis left office in 1857, the camel corps lost its chief advocate, and by the start of the Civil War the experiment had ended.

Life at the post before 1861 bore a strong resemblance to the more prominent post-Civil War Fort Davis. Stage and mall service came within one mile of the fort, with the stop known as "La Limpia." Soon thereafter, attacks upon mall trains by Mescalero Apaches had begun, and Fort Davis troops spent a good deal of time chasing them through the mountains to Mexico. Duty at the post in time of peace, however, was as boring as anywhere else in the isolated West. Officers complained about low pay, high prices caused by transportation difficulties, and the fear of wasting their careers in the middle of nowhere. Enlisted men at pre-Civil War Fort Davis were over 50 percent foreign born. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, only six of the 94 soldiers at Fort Davis came from rural backgrounds (even though the nation as a whole was only 20 percent urban). Their diet paralleled that of other frontier outposts; heavy on such high-energy substances as starch, carbohydrates, and sugars. The post commanders, with no American farms nearby, purchased fruits and vegetables from Mexico. There too went soldiers on leave for recreation, though many found the Mexican "ambiente" too exotic for their tastes. This ethnic mingling influenced the civilian community that surrounded the fort. The 1860 census revealed that 50 of the 70 residents were Hispanic, and nearly all the adults worked for the post as laundresses, laborers, servants, and stockmen.

As the nation moved by 1860 to the brink of civil conflict, the U.S. Army began removing troops from its western outposts to prepare for engagements in the East. That year Lieutenant Colonel Washington Seawell, commander at Fort Davis, asked his superiors to remove his forces to San Antonio, which the Army agreed to do. In 1860 also, voters in Texas were asked if they wished to secede from the Union. Fort Davis residents, linked politically and economically to the national government, decided 48-0 to reject secession. Unfortunately, the Texas electorate, angry not only at the demands of northerners to end slavery, but also at the failure of the Army to stop Indian raiding, decided to leave the Union. General David Twiggs, commander of the U.S. Military Department of Texas, then surrendered all army posts (including Fort Davis) in February 1861 to the Confederate States of America (CSA), and in April 1861 the Fort Davis troops began their retreat to San Antonio.

Remaining behind at the abandoned site were several Hispanic families, plus the German immigrant Anton Dietrick (known locally as "Diedrick Dutchover"), who had married into an Hispanic family and become a substantial landowner and rancher. Rebel forces surprised the Fort Davis units on the road to San Antonio, who then were captured and held until their release in 1863. Soon after abandonment, CSA recruits came to the fort to create a garrison to protect west Texas against Indian raids, as the tribes showed no respect for the enemies of the rebel adversaries, the Union Army. By July 1861, all but twenty of the CSA troopers stationed at Fort Davis had left with Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor on his invasion of southern New Mexico and Arizona, leaving the Trans-Pecos vulnerable to attack by the Mescaleros. This in turn contributed to the embarrassing venture of August 11, 1861, when CSA Lieutenant Reuben E. Mays and his party rode out of Fort Davis only to be decimated by Mescalero Apaches.

By October of that year, the CSA could only staff Fort Davis with 62 troopers. Then in November came Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley, whose three regiments of Texas Mounted Volunteers were on their way to their ill-fated confrontation in northern New Mexico at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Upon his defeat at the hands of a combined force of Union regulars, and New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers, Sibley again passed through Fort Davis, taking with him the remaining rebel troops. Apaches then came down out of the hills to destroy what remained of Fort Davis, driving Diedrick Dutchover and his party staying at the post to the safety of Presidio. Ironically, that last unit of CSA soldiers at Fort Davis had been predominantly Hispanic, led by Captain Angel Navarro.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Apr-2002