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Chapter One:
Fort Davis and the Western Story (continued)

The return of Union forces to west Texas took some time, as the war in the East moved toward closure in 1864-1865. The departmental commander of New Mexico, Brigadier General James H. Carleton, had sent down from Santa Fe in September 1862 a party under the command of Captain E.D. Shirland. The Union troops found Fort Davis mostly in ruins, with furnishings and supplies sold by the CSA to the Hispanic residents of the border. Not until 1865 would Army forces reoccupy the west Texas region, and even then the focus was on either the presence in Mexico of French troops under the leadership of Maximilian, or the need to implement the policies of Reconstruction in eastern Texas. Yet the quickened pace of travel along the San Antonio-El Paso road after the war brought a new round of Indian raiding, which the Army met in 1867 by reopening Fort Davis. Two years later the post had become the headquarters for the Presidio command of the 5th Military District of Texas, and the fort would remain in operation throughout the height of the Indian wars of the 1870s and 1880s.

By orders of the Department of Texas, the Army staffed Fort Davis in 1867 with companies of the Ninth Cavalry, composed of black soldiers recruited for the segregated units created after 1866 to permit freed slaves to serve their country in uniform (as they had done in the latter stages of the Civil War). Eventually all four black units would be assigned to Fort Davis: the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry. Led at first by Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, a Civil War hero, the 9th Cavalry had over 50 percent Civil War veterans. The fort contributed to the re-establishment of the nation's military presence throughout west Texas and southern New Mexico, with several posts housing black troopers. Merritt set his soldiers and civilian employees to work rebuilding Fort Davis outside the canyon walls of the first site, using two steam-powered sawmills to cut timber. Soldiers also quarried sandstone from the nearby cliffs, and burned lime for mortar at the post.

Expansion of the fort led to more encounters with Indians in the Trans-Pecos (19 in all from 1869-1877), which in turn drew attention to the security provided by Fort Davis. In 1871 Lieutenant Colonel William ("Pecos Bill") Shafter took command as increased Indian activities throughout west Texas reduced the fort to 110 soldiers. Shafter's successor, Colonel George Andrews, commanded Fort Davis from 1872-1878, and sent out few parties to fight Indians. Much of the black troopers' duty involved protecting the stage and mail stations and routes, along with construction work at Fort Davis. By the late 1870s the troopers had worked on military road construction, and strung 91 miles of telegraph wire as part of the El Paso-San Antonio communication link. Robert Wooster, in his History of Fort Davis, Texas (1990), noted that many civilians in the area were white CSA sympathizers who saw the Army as a symbol of their defeat, while free black soldiers were reminders of the "lost world" of the Confederacy. Often the stage and mail drivers disliked the black Army escorts, even though the stage company owners preferred to use soldiers rather than pay for their own scouts and guards.

The volume of Indian raiding did not abate throughout the early 1870s, and at one point officials from the U.S. customs office and the Office of Indian Affairs called for removal of troops from Fort Davis to Presidio. The state of Texas stepped in to help the U.S. Army with law enforcement on the frontier, dispatching in 1880 a unit of the famed "Texas Rangers" to Fort Davis. Like their civilian counterparts, the Rangers were often rebel veterans who opposed the presence of black soldiers in west Texas. Despite this attitude, the Army commanders not only continued the use of the 9th Cavalry; they also employed in the 1870s members of the famed "Seminole Negro scouts," formed by blacks intermarried with Seminole Indians who had fled the Indian Territory before 1860 to find shelter in Mexico. The scouts worked out of several posts in west Texas, and provided invaluable service with their stamina, knowledge of the land and of Indian ways, and their seeming indifference to the racial animosity generated by their presence. [2]

Activity at Fort Davis reached its peak in 1880, when the prominent Warm Springs chief, Victorio, refused to return to the Apache reservation at San Carlos, Arizona. He wished instead to have a reservation at Ojo Caliente in the San Mateo Mountains. John Briggs, a post guide at Fort Davis, was sent to inspect the Mescalero reservation in response to rumors that it had become a supply center for potential outbreaks by Mescaleros and Chiricahuas. The latter bands, led by Geronimo, had frightened settlers from Tucson to El Paso in the 1 870s, and fears remained that they would seek shelter in the mountainous areas along the Mexican border. The Army in anticipation of this action also built in August 1879 Camp Pena Colorado, a "sub-post" to the east of Fort Davis (south of modern-day Marathon). On July 30, 1880, U.S. forces under the command of Colonel Benjamin Grierson, soon to become commander at Fort Davis, met Victorio's band at the Battle of Tinaja de las Palmas, south of the modern-day Sierra Blanca. After another fight with Victorio north of Van Horn, Texas, (Rattlesnake Springs), Victorio withdrew across the Rio Grande. Grierson's troops drove Victorio into Mexico, where Mexican soldiers under Colonel Joaquin Terrazas killed him in battle. Fort Davis and the Trans-Pecos would see no more major confrontations with the Apaches, although on October 18, 1880 a band of Apaches under the war chief Nana stole horses from the fort's grazing pasture.

Perhaps because of the strong presence of U.S. forces in the Davis mountains, Fort Davis did not experience the engagement of places like the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Big Hole Battlefield, and other western military historic sites now managed by the National Park Service. Yet life at the post in the years after the Civil War, especially beyond 1880, was at once tedious and colorful. Robert Wooster defined "health, race, and discipline" as the critical variables for commanders and soldiers alike at the fort. As a frontier site, Fort Davis (both town and post) had its share of violence and conflict; both exacerbated by the awkward presence of black troopers in large numbers. Wooster noted the story that the Jesse Evans gang, led by an associate of the New Mexican outlaw, Billy the Kid, had come down in 1880 from the Lincoln County wars to harrass the citizenry of the Davis Mountains. The Texas Rangers based at Fort Davis had captured Evans, and rumors flew that the "Kid" would appear in town to rescue his friend. No such event transpired, but its potential demonstrated the uncertainty of law and order in the Trans-Pecos area in the late nineteenth century.

Matters of hygiene and health care, always a problem in the close quarters of military life, underwent scrutiny at Fort Davis because of the post's isolation and difficult mission. Assistant Surgeon Daniel Wiesel came to Fort Davis in 1868 with orders to improve conditions of diet, exercise, and personal cleanliness. He instituted a post garden tended by soldiers to increase the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, and also prescribed more bathing in Limpia Creek to ward off parasites and germs. Under Wiesel, the mortality rate at Fort Davis was one-third of the Army's average, as was the rate of illness. Medical discharge, a common problem throughout the service, stood at Fort Davis at 60 percent of the service average. Wiesel and his successors, however, had less opportunity to reduce the scourge of alcoholism, which afflicted all military posts in the West.

Racial dynamics posed their share of challenges to the staff and line of Fort Davis, given the post's location near Mexico, its hosting of the black units of a segregated Army, and the isolated conditions that bred both cultural accommodation and cultural stress. Intermarriage between soldiers and local women was usually limited to black-Hispanic liaisons; a situation somewhat surprising given Texas' proscriptions on interracial marriage. More sensational for Fort Davis, however, was the celebrated court-martial in 1881 of the post commissary officer, Second Lieutenant Henry 0. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Upon graduation from the academy in 1877, Flipper had served at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, under the future Fort Davis commander, Colonel Benjamin Grierson. Flipper came to Fort Davis in 1880, but less than one year later faced charges of mismanagement of post funds. His books were poorly kept, and he could not account for $2,400 in receipts. He sought to cover the shortfall with royalty payments pending from his upcoming autobiography; a situation which never materialized. Post gossip held that Flipper had been too bold with the sister of one of the white officers at the fort, escorting her on buggy rides on Sunday afternoons that scandalized other officers and white citizens in town. At his court-martial hearing, held in the post chapel, other residents of Fort Davis collected over $1,700 in one day to help Flipper meet his expenses, but the military tribunal stripped him of his commission for "conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman." Flipper then left the service and moved to El Paso, and started a second career in the Southwest and in Mexico as a mining engineer and translator of Spanish.

The irony of the Flipper experience was that on balance, black soldiers had more opportunity within the service than they would have had as civilians in segregated Texas. The post chaplains held classes in the chapel for soldiers who wanted to learn to read and write; something denied by the mid-1870s to many blacks in both the North and South as Reconstruction came to an end. The post library boasted in 1876 a total of 1,600 volumes, and soldiers and officers alike utilized its services. Then under the command of Colonel Grierson (1882-1885), Fort Davis witnessed its last major initiative for upgrading and improvement of facilities to benefit the lives of the soldiers. Grierson well known for his Indian-fighting and his support of black units, arrived in the Davis Mountains after the major confrontations with Indians had ended. General William T. Sherman, commanding general of the Army, had wanted to locate all primary western posts along railroad routes for matters of efficiency and economy of service. This jeopardized Fort Davis, as the Army in 1884 made Camp Pena Colorado a separate post, built Camp Rice (near old Fort Quitman) in 1882 as a subpost of Fort Davis, and even stationed Fort Davis troops for a time in 1882-1883 at Presidio.

Under Colonel Grierson, Fort Davis held off these encroachments, and expanded its troop strength in 1884 to 39 officers and 643 men. The commander also petitioned his superiors to expend $81,000 for post improvements from 1882-1885, not all of which he received. At the same time, Grierson was motivated (like other officers of the day) by a desire for his own financial security. A larger post, with more construction work for local contractors, would also create the impression of economic vitality that would draw new settlers. The colonel set out to purchase or lease lands in the Trans-Pecos area, owning at one time nearly 45,000 acres, which included 126 town lots in the community of Valentine, west of Fort Davis on the road to El Paso. In like manner, the commander of the black Seminole scouts, Lieutenant John Bullis, acquired title to 53,500 acres of land in Pecos County to the north of the post.

Fort Davis and the surrounding area never grew as Grierson had hoped, even though he and his family labored to put down roots in the Davis Mountains. Opportunities for his soldiers also slipped away as the Indian wars began to fade from memory, making Fort Davis vulnerable to budget-cutting officials in the War Department and the administration of President Grover Cleveland. Grierson and his officers were also aware of the Hispanic "red-light" district one half mile north of the post called "Chihuahua." By 1880 the town of Fort Davis (some 792 people) would be over 67 percent Hispanic. There soldiers found entertainment, excitement, and sin in equal measure away from the prying eyes of the white townsfolk or of their own officers.

By 1885 Grierson realized that his tenure at Fort Davis would be limited, and in March the 10th Cavalry received orders to transfer to Whipple Barracks in north-central Arizona. There they would participate in the campaign in Mexico to find Geronimo, while their white replacements, the Third Cavalry, would oversee the gradual abandonment of the fort on Limpia Creek. The post-military future of Fort Davis was already arriving, as in the late-1880s a Presbyterian minister named William Bloys would preach in the post chapel on alternate Sundays with Methodist and Baptist clergy. The town also clung to its Republican sympathies, given the long relationship with military personnel and defense spending in the Davis Mountains. Conditions deteriorated as budget cuts made it more difficult to maintain the adobe structures, and the limited water supply contributed to diseases like dysentery. Once the last scout for Indians was completed in February 1888, it would be but a matter of time before the U.S. Army called upon Fort Davis to close its doors.

The decision to deactivate one of the West's more celebrated posts came in 1891, when Secretary of War Redfield Proctor realigned the West's military installations. The last major encounter between the Army and Indian resistance had ended at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in December 1890. While tragic, this incident had reminded military officials that few tribes any longer posed a threat to the well-being of American settlement. Fort Davis, isolated and distant from railroad traffic (the nearest railhead was 20 miles southwest at Marfa), and situated on land that the military did not own, thus became a casualty of the changing dynamics of western military defense. In an interesting twist, the local elite did not engage in the supplication familiar to many other western communities in danger of losing their major source of federal income. Perhaps because most of the community was non-white, there was little awareness of the means of influencing the federal government to maintain a military post that the service no longer found useful. Perhaps the low incomes of Fort Davis residents also kept them from funding a full-scale lobbying effort. Perhaps the small number of concerned citizens limited their appeal. For whatever reason, in June 1891 the last soldiers marched out of the post and down Limpia Creek on their way to history.

Those soldiers, settlers, and service workers at Fort Davis could not have known of the fascination that was already building among military buffs and historians alike for the rapidly disappearing western frontier, and its symbols of conquest and achievement. It is not surprising that two years after the closure of Fort Davis, a young history professor from the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, would deliver to an audience of academics in Chicago his now-famous "Frontier thesis." In that forty-page treatise marked by powerful phraseology and sweeping generalization, Turner would speak as much to the uncertain future of large urban centers, advanced technology, and the impersonal nature of twentieth century life, as he would the bygone days of forests, fields, and streams of the "mythic West" of his youth. The longing for a simpler life that Turner suggested to his listeners (and later legions of readers) might explain how the struggle of soldiers at Fort Davis to wrest the Trans-Pecos wilderness from nature and the Native bands who called it home would become, some three generations later, the location of Fort Davis National Historic Site.




*Beginning in 1986, Fort Davis changed its method of recording visitors to the park from a traffic counter to counting visitors in the visitor center.

Figure 3. Visitation Data for Fort Davis (1963-1995). Courtesy Fort Davis NHS.

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2002