History of Fort Davis, Texas
NPS Logo


Julius Frobel, a German traveler, made an extensive tour of the Americas from 1850 to 1857. In the course of his wanderings, Frobel crossed the Davis Mountains of West Texas. He found them to be "among the most interesting things in nature I have ever seen. . . . Nature appears here, more than anywhere else I have seen, like a landscape-painter, composing a picture with the most simple yet refined taste." [1] Indeed, even the modern-day tourist safely ensconced in the comfort of an automobile and secure in the knowledge that food and housing are available cannot ignore the enchantment of the Fort Davis area. The air is crisp and clean, the climate salubrious, 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 immediate area is comfortable rather than stark—an oasis amidst the beautiful yet barren Trans-Pecos region of Texas.

Frobel's comments, then, are not unusual. "The position of Fort Davis is extremely picturesque and peculiar," recalled another awe-struck traveler. "The most wonderful scenery in Texas is displayed, and the mountains contain minerals and gems." [2] The final remark proved prophetic. For despite the physical beauty of Fort Davis, scenery alone has not satisfied many who have entered the region. Not surprisingly, some have wanted more than Davis is able to give. The history of Fort Davis thus begins with the environment, for it is the land, and perceptions of that land, which hold the key to understanding the human experience.

Fort Davis stands amidst the region known as the Trans-Pecos. Since the Texas boundary was recognized in the Compromise of 1850, the Trans-Pecos has been defined as that area west of the Pecos River, north of the Rio Grande, and southeast of the state of New Mexico. Peculiar geologic and physical features dominate this 28,000-square-mile area. Striking in its contrasts, the Trans-Pecos encompasses mountains, plateaus, and intervening basins. To the north, a massive fault formed the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest in Texas. Since the Guadalupes overlook an arid region known as the Salt Basin, their springs and watering holes attracted Indians and soldiers alike throughout the nineteenth century. As such, they are critical to the history of the federal occupation of Fort Davis. [3]

South of Fort Davis lies the rugged Big Bend of the Rio Grande, described by Lt. William Echols as a "picture of barrenness and desolation" in 1860. Erosion has stripped away much of the soil in the Big Bend, exposing the bare surface of the underlying rocks. Hot summer temperatures accentuate the region's aridity and dry soils. Yet the spectacular geologic features have long offered the promise of mineral wealth; countless miners and traders have sought to capitalize on its perceived riches. Ranchers have also exploited the precious pasturelands in the valleys and basins near the Rio Grande. [4]

Fort Davis itself, established by United States troops in 1854, lies nestled in the picturesque Apache Mountains, later known as the Davis Mountains. "I will never tire of looking at them," noted one immigrant. Formed by masses of volcanic materials, the Davis range boasts Mount Livermore, the state's second highest peak at an elevation of 8,382 feet. Benefiting from the natural erosion which deposits the rich black soil from the mountain slopes, drainage basins along the foothills constitute some of the best grazing lands in the Trans-Pecos. [5]

Sheer rock cliffs overlook the fort on three sides. Atop the adjoining range is ignimbrite, quarried for building purposes by early residents of the federal post. Lower outcroppings of rhyolite porphyry display hues from grayish red to brown as weathering continues. At the bottom of the canyon andesite deposits are exposed. These layers of rock resulted from the prehistoric volcanic activity which formed the mountains. [6]

Many of the extremes in temperature which characterize the Trans-Pecos have less impact on the area immediately surrounding Fort Davis. "The climate of this part of Texas is probably the finest in the world," one inhabitant exclaimed after a mild winter. "The most delightful summer climate of any place I have ever seen in the South," added another resident. Slightly less than twenty inches of precipitation falls annually, most of which comes between July and September. Not always sufficient for farming, the rain does support grasses and forage needed for ranching. Average temperatures range from the low thirties in winter to the eighties in summer. [7]

Prior to twentieth century settlement, the Fort Davis environment supported a rich variety of flora and fauna. Buffalo did not roam the immediate area, but observers commonly noted black and white-tailed deer, antelope, black bear, wolves, and prairie dogs near the post. Black and blue quail, turkeys, ducks, partridges, prairie owls, and squirrel hawks also inhabited the region. Trees and brush dominated the cliffs and hills, grass covered the flatlands, and cottonwood trees lined stream banks, much like the vegetation does today. Overgrazing, however, has stimulated a greater growth of brush in the higher elevations, with catclaw, sumacs, and algarita becoming increasingly common. [8]

Of course, neither the Americans nor the Spanish were the first humans to occupy the Trans-Pecos. This distinction belongs to peoples whose precise roots remain shrouded in prehistory. Conclusions about the Paleo-Indian (ca. 9200 B.C. to 6000 B.C.), Archaic (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000), and Prehistoric (A.D. 1000 to 1500) ages of the Trans-Pecos remain tentative. Nonetheless, more than one hundred prehistoric sites have been identified in Jeff Davis County alone. Scientists have also unearthed evidence of Paleo-Indian activity near Van Horn, in the Guadalupe Mountains, and near Langtry (approximately 50, 75, and 125 miles from Fort Davis, respectively). Artifacts found at these sites indicate that the occupants hunted big game and used rudimentary grinding tools several thousand years ago. [9]

Scientists have also identified Archaic-era tools, projectile points, mill stones, petroglyphs, and pictographs along the lower Pecos River and in the Big Bend. Relatively few of these sites have been discovered in the Davis Mountains, suggesting that early native peoples made only limited use of the region. Apparently, however, drought in the surrounding areas led Archaic peoples to explore the Davis Mountains. Several spectacular displays of pictograph shelters are found fifteen miles west of Fort Davis, near Mount Livermore. Another site, dated shortly after A.D. 600 and a mere thirty-seven miles northwest of Davis, depicts men using bows and arrows to kill game. These early pictographs signal the first definite use of such weapons in the Davis Mountains. [10]

These earliest recorded inhabitants of the Trans-Pecos lived arduous lives. Dependent on nature's gifts, they utilized the native wild plants and animals to the fullest and migrated according to season and resources. Prickly pear, yucca, river walnuts, and animals provided most of their food. A few prehistoric inhabitants crafted rough baskets and sandals. By A.D. 800-900, Trans-Pecos peoples began to carve small arrowpoints and scrapers characteristic of the Plains tribes that originally lived north and east of the Davis area. [11]

Anthropologists and historians believe that the Puebloan culture began expanding southward from New Mexico down the Rio Grande in the eleventh century. The causes of this expansion remain unclear; climatic changes, incursions from Apache raiders, epidemics, and internal strife undoubtedly contributed to this migration. Whatever the case, Puebloan lifestyles and mores overwhelmed the less developed cultures of the indigenous populace. Whether significant numbers of Pueblo Indians actually migrated to the Trans-Pecos is unclear; native bands might simply have adopted the cultural ways of a stronger Pueblo minority from the north. [12]

Sometime during the fifteenth century the Puebloan expansion stopped, probably a result of either a decrease in rainfall or additional raids by tribes into the Trans-Pecos. A number of villages seem to have been abandoned. A major concentration of the remaining Trans-Pecos natives clustered around the junction of the Rios Conchos and Grande, which ultimately became the major southern entry point into the region. The peoples at La Junta (the junction) were most influenced by the Puebloan lifestyle, although they also adopted some of the characteristics of the hunting-and-gathering tribes that had preceded them. Along the Rio Grande farming predominated. Possibly because of declining rainfall, other groups roamed the northern lands beyond the Davis and Chisos Mountains, returning to the river valleys when hunting season ended. [13]

Did the nomadic bands of the interior share a common heritage with the settled gardeners of the valley? Anthropologists J. Charles Kelley and Jack D. Forbes argue that the two groups were different. They suggest that the nomadic tribes (Jumanos) were of Plains derivation, and that they pushed south and west into the Trans-Pecos as early as the thirteenth century. Roaming the area from the Neches River to the Rio Grande, they were distinguished from the sedentary valley tribes, or Patarabueyes. In so arguing, Kelley and Forbes follow the distinction made by Diego Perez de Luxan, a member of one of the earliest Spanish expeditions into the area. Luxan recounts that while the Patarabueyes had killed several of the expedition's horses, the nomadic Jumanos welcomed them with food and drink. [14]

Kelley, a preeminent authority on the Trans-Pecos tribes, concludes that the Jumanos played a crucial role in the diffusion of European culture from Mexico to the southern Plains Indians. He also argues that some of the Jumano lived year round near the Rio Grande, while others merely migrated there during the winter season. These constant shifts, however, have convinced other scholars that the nomadic and sedentary peoples were all from the same stock. Indeed, the dean of Texas Indian scholars, W. W. Newcomb, Jr., maintains that both groups should be called Jumanos. [15]

According to this latter theory, fifteenth-century climatic changes forced some of the Jumanos from their valley homes to the West Texas plains. The reminiscences of the earliest Spanish visitor, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, support such a position. Upon his query as to why they were not planting maize, the Indians replied "that the rains had failed for two years in succession, and the seasons were so dry the seed had everywhere been taken by the moles, and they could not venture to plant again until after water had fallen copiously. They begged us to tell the sky to rain, and to pray for it." [16]

Other scientists have challenged some of Kelley's archeological evidence. Kelley claims that Jumanos roamed the central Texas plains; materials which he originally traced to the Jumanos subsequently have been attributed to entirely different tribes. Newcomb also points out that Antonio de Espejo, the leader of the expedition chronicled by Luxan, called both interior nomads and river-dwelling farmers Jumanos. Newcomb admits, though, that the arguments remain tentative; the Spanish referred to virtually all regional Indians who tattooed or painted their bodies as Jumanos, rendering attempts to resolve the impasse virtually impossible.

The inability of historians and anthropologists to unravel this tangled evidence thus hampers efforts to identify and describe the Indians of West Texas. Assuming, as does Newcomb, that both nomads and farmers were Jumanos, the disparate tribe numbered more than ten thousand persons. The majority lived in several villages along the Rio Conchos near its junction with the Rio Grande. They were probably related to the even more mysterious Sumas, who lived westward up the Rio Grande. The river villages each had at least one chief; some had separate leaders for war and peace. The nomadic groups developed less centralized political structure, although the most famous Jumano chief, Juan Sabeata, came from such stock. [17]

Whatever the case, several distinct Indian groups lived in the Big Bend area of Texas at the time of the Spanish arrival. Although evidence remains incomplete, scholars have suggested that these Indians, along with the Sumas, spoke one of the widely used Uto-Aztecan languages. Those living along the Rio Grande (whom Kelley calls the Patarabuey) occupied single-storied, flat-roofed houses made of wood and adobe, clustered together in villages. The structures at La Junta differed radically from the portable framed structures covered with skins, grass, and reed found elsewhere in the Trans-Pecos—northern Chihuahua area. These villages, at least three of which lay on the Rio Grande's east bank, were also larger than the regional norm. [18]

Map 1:1. The Indians of the Trans-Pecos. Map drawn by the author. (click on image for a PDF version)

The La Junta Indians carried powerful bows, adorned themselves with elaborately coiffured hair, animal skins, and a variety of coral and copper trinkets, and grew corn, beans, melons, and squash. During years of drought they depended more heavily on wild mesquite beans, prickly pear tuna, pitahaya fruits, and tornillo beans. They also hunted and fished, and kept large domestic animals by the 1690s. Archaeologists have uncovered shards of pottery made by Indians of East Texas and Arizona in one of the villages, confirming that La Junta served as an important trading center. [19]

Less is known about the migratory Jumanos of the interior. Unlike their more sedentary cousins, by the sixteenth century these hunters lived in tents akin to those of the Plains tribes. Moving widely, they traded with the Indians of East Texas during the spring and summer months. They hunted buffalo and traded the products of the great beasts to their stationary kinsmen along the Rio Grande. The nomadic groups wintered at La Junta, setting up their tepees across from the earthen lodges of the valley people. Both groups dressed in a similar fashion, understood one another's language, and reacted peacefully to the initial Spanish conquistadors. [20]

Yet neither could fend off the cultural onslaughts of the coming years. Harrassed by Apache Indian attacks and demoralized by Spanish slavers, growing numbers of Jumanos migrated south and west toward the shelter offered by the San Bartolome River valleys, where, working on ranches and haciendas, they were assimilated into Mexican society. Disease claimed many others. By the eighteenth century the remaining hunters had become allied with the Apache and known as "Los Apaches Jumanos." The distinct Jumano culture was extinct by the 1900s. [21]

The Jumano experience highlights a problem fundamental to Spanish Indian policy. Spanish missionaries hoped to Christianize the native peoples. Spanish explorers wanted to find mineral wealth. Spanish settlers needed labor for their farms and ranches. The Spanish government sought to profit from its New World colonies. Each group ran afoul of the other: missionaries needed the protection the soldiers offered, but sharply criticized their actions; explorers seeking mineral wealth often resorted to means which reflected poorly on Spanish standards of morality; the government refused to pour desperately needed resources into what it perceived to be a barren region. Ultimately the Jumanos collapsed, unable to defend their interests against the more powerful outsiders.

In contrast to the militarily impoverished Jumanos, the Apaches dominated the Texas plains by the time of Spain's arrival in the New World. The Spanish called the range of these powerful tribes the "Gran Apacheria," which extended from ninety-eight to one hundred eleven degrees west longitude (present day Austin, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona), and from thirty to thirty-eight degrees north latitude (roughly Austin to Wichita, Kansas). During the 1850s one young American officer even found evidence of Apache habitation near Fort Davis. Accustomed to free movement, these peoples fiercely maintained their independence. Extended families usually remained together; several such groups often formed loose confederacies for military and ceremonial purposes. The most respected of the local family leaders headed the assemblage, but held advisory rather than dictatorial authority. [22]

Apaches spoke a dialect of the widely used Athapaskan family language. The bulk of Athapaskan speakers lived in Canada and Alaska, but small bands of Apaches filtered south through the Plains and the Rocky Mountains. By conservative estimate, the Apaches had arrived in the Southwest by A.D. 1400. During his epic search for the mythical Gran Quivira, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado encountered peoples whom some scholars consider Apaches. These nomads followed the buffalo and used dogs as beasts of burden. Coronado's scribe remarked: "They are a kind people and not cruel. They are faithful friends." Juan de Onate, Spanish colonizer of New Mexico, first used the term Apache to describe these tribes in 1598. Again, initial impressions seemed favorable. "We were not disturbed by them, although we were in their land, nor did any Indian become impertinent." [23]

In all probability the Mescalero Apaches had already occupied western Texas and southern New Mexico by the time of Spain's explorations. In the mountains of southern New Mexico between the Rio Grande and the Pecos River lived the Faraones, often lumped together with their more powerful southern neighbors, the Mescaleros. East of the Pecos River ranged the Llaneros and the Lipans. Although no precise boundaries existed, the various tribes seem to have worked out a tenuous alliance. [24] Spanish slave traders took their toll on the tribal bands, thus contributing to the hostilities between Apaches and Europeans. The Mescaleros learned to elude the powerful Spanish columns and became increasingly difficult to bring to battle. Striking weaker opponents, they eluded all but the most determined pursuers and refused to fight except when confidant of victory. [25]

The Mescaleros followed a seasonal round, moving in search of buffalo herds and the mescal plant for which they were named. A large desert agave, the mescal grows amongst the foothills of the mountains of the American Southwest. In early summer Apache women, using long sticks to avoid the plant's protective spikes, gouged out the large white bulb. The women then dug out a huge cooking pit, which they lined with stones. Next they started a fire in the pit; once it became sufficiently hot the women inserted the raw mescal bulbs and covered the pit with grass. Dirt and rocks sealed the cooker. The steaming process produced a syrupy substance. What was not consumed immediately was spread into thin sheets, dried, and saved for the future. [26]

The tribes also used the mescal's fiber for making thread and fabric. Only occasionally, however, did they ferment the mescal juices to make an intoxicant. For alcoholic drink, Mescaleros instead preferred fermented corn sprouts to make tulpai or tiswin. They gathered wild desert plants—sunflower seeds, yucca, cactus fruits, mesquite beans, wild potatoes, acorns, juniper berries, and screw beans among others—to diversify their diet. [27]

When available, families constructed tepees from buffalo hides. But during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, increasing pressure from the north drove the Mescaleros into the rugged Guadalupe, Davis, and Sierra Blanca ranges. As buffalo hides became more scarce, they turned to rude brush shelters (wickiups). Buckskin shirts and breechclouts served as the regular garb. Mescaleros took particular pride in their long, straight black hair, which was either braided or tied with a headband. The intense demands of environment and culture kept them in superb physical condition; until old age took its inevitable toll, they remained lean and well-suited for their mobile lifestyle. As one Spanish diarist concluded: "They have better figures, are better warriors, and are more feared" than those peoples at La Junta. [28]

Although the Mescaleros did not develop strong political or intratribal organizations, they did enjoy a deep sense of community. Bands formed around a male, who by virtue of his leadership abilities and familial relations attracted additional followers. Twenty to thirty families might gather at places deemed safe from attack that afforded water, fuel, and forage for horses. Rarely did all members of such a band occupy the stronghold simultaneously; hunting, raiding, and gathering parties scoured the surrounding territory as economic and environmental conditions allowed. [29]

Crucial to understanding Mescalero organization is the role of the local group leader. The term for leader, "nant'a," has several connotations: "he who commands," "he who leads," "he who directs," "he who advises." Always filled by a male, the position was neither hereditary nor permanent. Band leaders typically headed a strong family group whose members allowed him greater authority than did other members of the local alliance. An effective chief depended upon his eloquence, bravery, performance, and generosity to organize a workable coalition. Deeply concerned with family solidarity and honor, the Mescaleros also expected their leader to arbitrate fairly the disputes of group members. [30]

The local band usually included several extended families. A man and wife, their unmarried children, and any married daughters, their husbands, and offspring comprised a single extended family. The matrilineal structure meant that when a man married, he left his own family to live with his wife and parents-in-law. Each simple family occupied its own dwelling close to that of the oldest married couple. Girls learned to cooperate with their mothers and sisters, with whom they would almost always live. Boys honed their individual skills so as to provide for their in-laws. [31]

Labor was divided according to sex. Women gathered and stored wild plants and foodstuffs, made clothing, collected fuel, prepared meals, cared for children, and maintained the tepee. Men hunted and defended the band and, after the introduction of the horse, the group's herd. Apache males also made and maintained weapons, riding gear, and ceremonial garb. Because of their mobility, Mescalero artifacts tended to be small and portable. Water jars, baskets, grinding instruments, and grooming devices dominated the list of family possessions. Bows and arrows, spears, axes, knives, and war clubs formed the basic weapons of war. Growing numbers of Apaches turned to muskets and rifles after the arrival of the Europeans. [32]

Mescaleros revered two supernatural beings—the Child of the Water and his mother, White-Painted Woman. Oral tradition held that the Child of the Water had freed humans from a series of evil monsters and giants. In so doing, he and his mother established the tribe's cultural patterns. Elaborate ritual ceremonies safeguarded every individual from birth to maturity. Other spirits also influenced religious beliefs and daily life; certain persons, called shamans, were believed capable of summoning assistance from the otherworlds. The tribe buried their dead as quickly as possible. The deceased's possessions were destroyed, the encampment moved, and the name never used again. In sum, they hoped to speed the ghost's entry into afterlife, which was free from disease, sorcery, and unhappiness. [33]

Mescalero Apaches found a convenient void in the region surrounding latter-day Fort Davis. Weakened by Spanish intrusions, remnants of the older Jumanos left a power vaccuum that the Mescaleros filled. In so doing, the Mescalero often allied with the Lipan and Llanero tribes of the east. Using the rugged mountains of the Trans-Pecos to their fullest advantage, they launched devastating raids against Jumano villages and Spanish settlements throughout northern Mexico. In turn, the Spanish reacted clumsily and inconsistently to Apache war parties.

Still, newly imported diseases and wars against the Spanish and other Indians took a grave toll amongst the Apaches. Estimates of Mescalero population vary; the lack of internal political structure and deliberately inflated figures offered by edgy settlers make it impossible to calculate specific numbers. Not until the mid-nineteenth century are fairly reliable figures available. At that time, historians believe that between twenty-five hundred and three thousand Mescaleros remained. [34]

Lipan Apaches also ranged across much of the American Southwest. By the early nineteenth century, the Lipans were a fairly small group, numbering fewer than a thousand. Their numbers, however, fail to reflect their reputation among contemporaries. Although they had once grown maize, beans, squash, and pumpkins, after acquiring the horse Lipans became ever more dependent upon the buffalo as a source of food and ceremony. Like their Mescalero kin, Lipans avidly collected sotol and mescal bulbs. Social organization and the extended family structure also resembled Mescalero practices. [35]

As was common for Plains tribes, warfare played a vital role in Lipan culture. Small parties of a dozen or so men raided isolated enemies and picked off weakly defended goods and animal herds, avoiding battle if the odds seemed unfavorable. Even before acquiring the gun, bows, arrows, and lances made the Lipan warrior a formidable enemy. Captives were often killed or tortured, but some, having survived the initial ordeal, gained acceptance within the group. Strongly influenced by the supernatural, the Lipan Apaches believed that a mythical being, Killer-of-all-Enemies, had freed the tribe from various monsters and founded the roots of Lipan culture. [36]

Pressure on the Mescalero and Lipan Apaches came in the form of an even more powerful group of warrior tribes: the Comanches. Evidence suggests that the Comanches defeated the Apaches in a climactic nine-day struggle on the upper Red River valley system in the early 1720s. To make matters worse, the Comanches began to acquire firearms from the French by 1740. The Spanish, on the other hand, tried to keep the Apaches from obtaining such weapons. Forced south and west, the Apaches, like a row of falling dominoes, in turn pressed against the Spanish intruders coming from the opposite direction. [37]

Comanches spoke a dialect of the commonly used Shoshonean branch of Uto-Aztecan language. Cultural similarities also suggest that Comanches were originally related to the Northern Shoshones. They traveled the Rocky Mountains on foot, searching for wild plants, small animals, and the occasional buffalo. The acquisition of the horse revolutionized Comanche society during the 1600s. The poor gatherers and scroungers were transformed, with breathtaking speed, into skilled mounted warriors who dominated the southern Plains. The very word adopted by Europeans to describe these people reflects the feelings of outsiders about Comanches: the original Ute term was Komantcia, or "enemy." Comanches, on the other hand, saw it quite differently; their own term for themselves meant "human being," implying a perceived superiority over outsiders. [38]

Diet, elaborate belief systems, kinship, and warfare dominated their lives. Although they also sought other animals, the buffalo provided the major source of food, clothing, and ceremony. Wild plants—fruits, nuts, berries, and roots—supplemented their meaty diet. They moved their sturdy buffalo-hide tepees according to season, game, and tradition. They believed in an afterlife that promised escape from this world's miseries. All could look forward to this heavenly existence save those who had been strangled, or who had died in the dark, or had been mutilated or scalped—thus explaining their reluctance to fight at night and their practice of scalping and disfiguring the bodies of their enemies. Like Apaches, Comanches had a relatively simple political structure. Kinship systems formed familial bands that provided social and political networks; men regarded women as little more than chattel. [39]

Military decisions came from a council, members of which gained their status through wartime achievements. The group then recognized a special war chief, but every individual could refuse to join the effort or even organize his own war party. The individual warrior and his intricate kinship group thus dominated Comanche society. In battle, Comanches specialized in the ambush; when faced with a more determined enemy whose firepower seemed superior, Comanches deemed a well-timed withdrawal more prudent than incurring needless casual ties. [40]

The first Europeans to enter the Trans-Pecos region belonged to the party headed by that most intrepid of wanderers, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza, Estevan, and two followers had survived a once grand expedition which had washed ashore upon the Texas coast in 1528. Years of slavery among the Indians preceded the party's epic break for Spanish Mexico. They wandered west and south through the area of Fort Davis, encountering several villages around the Rio Grande and Conchos River. The Indians welcomed their exotic visitors with open arms. An impressed Cabeza later described the Jumanos at La Junta as "the finest persons of any people we saw, of the greatest activity and strength, who best understood us and intelligently answered our questions." [41]

Cabeza and his comrades finally blundered into a Spanish slaving party, which escorted the bedraggled group to safety in Mexico. Cabeza repeated the legends of spectacular wealth he had heard while amongst the Indians; the imaginative Estevan asserted these stories even more forcefully. Attracted by the tales of gold and silver, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a large column through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas during the years 1540-42. Coronado found none of the fabulous wealth he sought; despite his failure, the lure of mineral riches would eventually lead countless fortune hunters back into the Trans-Pecos.

Drawn by dreams of mineral wealth, pastoral opportunities, and a zeal to Christianize native peoples, Spanish settlers pushed into northern Chihuahua. Growing settlements at Zacatecas, Durango, and San Bartolome signaled increased interest in and awareness of the northern fringes of New Spain. With Spanish civilization the newcomers also brought slave-hunters. Eager to exploit the mines to the south, the slavers found the area around La Junta ripe for their trade in human cargo. Although the government officially abolished the slave trade in 1585, repeated violations of the law left a bitter legacy among the tribes. [42]

Sketchy reports of the northern lands spawned further investigation. Officials granted Fray Agustin Rodriguez, a lay brother stationed in San Bartolome, permission to mount an entrada in 1581. Rodriguez and two fellow Franciscans hoped to Christianize the Indians. But the leader of the expedition, Francisco Sanchez (called Chamuscado, or the singed one), seemed more interested in finding temporal rewards. Chamuscado ventured up the Rio Conchos, reaching the Rio Grande on July 6, 1581. Here the expedition encountered a number of Indians, who, having already been introduced to the less Christian-like slave traders, feared the Spanish presence. [43]

Chamuscado died before his return home; the three friars who had accompanied the expedition were slain in New Mexico. But the members of the ill-fated Chamuscado expedition were not forgotten. Antonio de Espejo, a wealthy rancher in need of clemency for his involvement in a murder, seized the opportunity to discover the fate of the three friars, and, while he was at it, enough gold or silver to guarantee himself a pardon. Espejo reached La Junta in December 1582, before continuing up the Rio Grande almost to present Santa Fe, New Mexico. Leading fifteen Spanish soldiers and several Indian guides, Espejo veered east along the Pecos River to Toyah Creek. He then turned south, passing through Limpia Canyon near present Fort Davis before crossing the plains to present Candelaria and the Rio Grande. [44]

Espejo submitted grandiose plans for colonization north of the Rio Grande. More importantly, his positive descriptions of the environment incited new interest in the northern regions of New Spain—Gaspar Castano de Sosa's colonization effort of 1590 was followed by Juan de Onate's more lasting settlement of New Mexico eight years later. Avoiding several tribes then at war with Spain, Onate did not take the traditional route up the Rio Conchos; he instead cut straight across New Spain, crossing the Rio Grande at Juarez. [45]

Fig. 1:1. Apache warrior. Photograph by Ben Wittick, courtesy of School of American Research Collections in the Museum of New Mexico, neg. # 15881.

Onate's thrust shifted Spanish attention away from La Junta to New Mexico. Cuidad Juarez became even more important in 1680, when a Pueblo revolt temporarily forced the Spanish to abandon New Mexico. A few hardy explorers had pushed east to the Pecos and Nueces Rivers, but with the new focus on the Chihuahua City—Santa Fe road, La Junta was largely forgotten in influential Spanish circles. One report suggests that Indians drove off two Franciscan fathers at La Junta between 1670 and 1672. But in 1683 seven Jumano chiefs, including Juan Sabeata, appeared in Juarez with a dramatic request that holy men be dispatched to La Junta. [46]

The church moved quickly to capitalize on the opportunity. By 1864 three Franciscan friars and nine churches graced the area. But others had more temporal goals. The cagey Sabeata hoped to pit Spain against Apaches, who for years had plagued his Jumanos. Others, including Capt. Juan Dominguez de Mendoza, who organized the expedition which followed Sabeata's request, had commercial as well as religious goals—Mendoza should find wealth in addition to helping the Indians. Shrouded in mystery, Mendoza marched past present-day Fort Stockton and negotiated a treaty against the Apaches with a Jumano tribe along the Pecos River but found no gold. [47]

A major revolt threatened to break the Spanish hold on northern Mexico in late 1684. Several changes caused the insurrection. A recent influx of new-comers, ousted from New Mexico by the massive Pueblo rebellion of 1680, strained the region's limited resources. A Concho Indian, usually referred to as Taagua, also contributed to the uprising. Thought to possess supernatural powers, Taagua urged his fellow tribesmen to renounce Christianity and return to more traditional religious rites. He claimed that his magic could transform the wrist bones of the Spanish into grass, thus rendering them helpless. It was also rumored that Taagua could cause Spanish weapons to disintegrate, and that he could immobilize enemy horses or simply kill the outsiders outright. Taagua's alleged powers notwithstanding, a ninety-man Spanish column restored temporary peace to La Junta by February 1685. [48]

To counter potential revolts like this, viceregal inspector Joseph Francisco Marin urged the crown to undertake punitive campaigns against any rebellious tribes. Indians deemed hostile by Spain should be whipped before they could launch their destructive attacks. Once crushed by Spain's mailed fist, the Indians should be forcibly relocated near the new presidios. Although his recommendations were not immediately implemented, future generations unwittingly adopted his aggressive approach to defense against Indians. [49]

But new threats soon distracted Spanish attention from the Trans-Pecos. In 1689 the Spanish seized a demented Frenchman, Jean Gery, who had established an imaginary monarchy on the Pecos River. Delayed news of an even more substantive French challenge proved more worrisome. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, had established a French fort along the Texas coast in 1685. [50]

As the eighteenth century opened, the area around what later became Fort Davis remained of minimal interest to Spanish policy-makers. Fear of French intrusion, however, combined with continued Indian strikes against valuable Spanish mining and agricultural communities to generate a demand for action. Frontier revolts such as those of the Pueblos and around La Junta also led the Spanish to further emphasize the military as an agent of empire. They set up an elaborate system of presidios, including major posts at San Juan Bautista and San Francisco de Conchos, and launched periodic expeditions into western Texas. [51]

In 1715 Fray Joseph de Arranegui received permission to reestablish the missions at La Junta. The acting lieutenant governor of Nueva Vizcaya, Juan Antonio de Trasvina y Retis, headed the expedition of fifty soldiers, twenty Indian auxiliaries, and four friars. They found eight villages numbering some fourteen hundred inhabitants scattered along both sides of the Rio Grande near La Junta. By 1716 six missions, each with its padre, stood at La Junta. Yet Apache attacks and general Indian restlessness forced repeated closures of each mission. The demographic problems of the largest position, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (also known as Los Polacmes), located at the present-day site of Ojinaga, seem typical. It boasted 550 persons in 1715; by 1747 the population had fallen to 172. As late as 1765 133 persons still lived at Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. Despite nearly a half century of activity, the mission ultimately fell into disrepair, the fate of its residents uncertain amidst wars, raids, and migrations. [52]

The continued difficulties at La Junta symbolized Spain's problems in her northern New World provinces. She had used both sword and cross in attempting to control the area's Indian population. The cross had not been without influence. But the uncertain life offered at the missions, punitive Spanish assaults, and illegal slaving expeditions for the mines in Mexico offered the Indians little incentive for friendship. Furthermore, Spain's inability to check Apache raids weakened its image in the eyes of prospective converts. [53]

Spain groped for an answer to the question that would plague non-Indian governments until the 1880s. Forays against Indians had been expensive and ineffectual. Permanent military occupation of the Big Bend seemed the only alternative. During a comprehensive inspection tour of the northern frontier from 1724 to 1728, Brig. Gen. Pedro de Rivera y Villalon recommended that Spain establish presidios in the Big Bend region, thus shielding valuable mining areas to the south. This was easier said than done. Capt. Jose de Berroteran led seventy soldiers in a tentative move across the Rio Grande near present-day Langtry. With few supplies and even less confidence, Berroteran, by his own admission "in a state of confusion," failed to establish a new presidio. Subsequent excursions to the deserted missions at La Junta proved equally uninspired. [54]

Despite his failure, Berroteran later supported the call for a new presidio at La Junta de los Rios and demanded that additional monies be appropriated for defense against the Apaches. In 1750 Gov. Juan Francisco de la Puerta y Barrera compiled an influential report on conditions in Nueva Vizcaya. The influx of Europeans into central Chihuahua meant that older presidios could be moved closer to the Indian frontier. La Junta, the site of friendly Indian villages and gateway to the settled areas of the south, seemed particularly strategic. Accordingly, de la Puerta advised that the crown erect a presidio there. [55]

It was not until 1759 that Capt. Alonso Ruben de Celis established the first fort at the junction, situated at the largest mission, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. Completed in July 1760, El Presidio del Norte de la Junta had an inauspicious beginning. Some eight hundred Indians, many of whom were Apaches, attacked the post at sunrise as opening day ceremonies began. The troops drove off the assault and even countered with a successful punitive expedition later that year; still, the presidio at La Junta had scarcely overawed the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. The added tensions further exacerbated the southwestern exodus. Without dramatic reforms, the mission effort along the Rio Grande was doomed to failure. [56]

The Spanish recognized the ineffectual nature of their previous policies. As part of a major colonial reform program inspired by King Carlos III, Field Marshal Cayetano Maria Pignatelli Rubi Cerbera y Saint Clement (the Marques de Rubi), conducted an exhausting seventy-five-hundred-mile inspection of northern New Spain. Following his remarkable tour of 1766-68, the Marques recommended extensive reorganization of frontier defenses. Seeking to reduce expenses as well as to increase effectiveness, de Rubi proposed that a line of presidios, each garrisoned by fifty well-trained soldiers, hold the northern borderlands at forty-league intervals. Expensive, poorly placed presidios would be abandoned; new positions would plug gaps in the line. One such fort should be at La Junta, abandoned before de Rubi could even get to the junction. [57]

During the 1770s Comandante Insp. Hugo Oconor, a red-headed Irishman, began to implement de Rubi's plans along the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. As per instructions, he reoccupied La Junta and established four new presidios across northern Chihuahua. [58]

Inspired by de Rubi, Oconor also called for a general war against the Apache. In 1774-75 he organized a complex pincer movement to deal with the tribes. Troops from San Saba, San Juan Bautista, the Presidio del Norte, and New Mexico would trap the Indians. But as future planners later discovered, coordinating these converging forces proved well-nigh impossible in the rugged terrain around Fort Davis. This time the New Mexico column lost its horses and the jaws of the trap failed to spring completely shut. Even so the Lipan Apaches suffered grievous losses—according to Spanish count 138 killed and 104 captured. Nearly two thousand animals were also seized. Another major effort in 1776 drove several Mescalero bands deep into central Texas, where the Comanches inflicted a devastating blow against them. [59]

Ill-health forced Oconor to move to Guatamala before he could conclude his campaigns. Delegating greater autonomy to officials along the troublesome frontier, the crown reorganized the northern provinces into the new Provincias Internas. Commanding the new department, Teodoro de Croix found military conditions in an abominable state. Frontier troops seemed dispirited: their firearms were broken or rusted, they had no swords, their horses were poor, and they had little training or discipline. Croix deemed the Rio Grande line indefensible and abandoned all the presidios except that at La Junta. [60]

In conjunction with the reorganization, Croix and his successors placed greater emphasis on pitting Indian against Indian—Comanches and Mescalero Apaches were set against Lipans; after forcing the Lipan Apaches to terms, the Spanish promptly turned Lipans and Comanches against Mescaleros. Complete success, though, remained illusory, for other imperial obligations limited available manpower and resources. During the height of the campaigns, for example, Presidio del Norte held only 106 men. Poor communications and jealousy between Spanish military and civilian officials ruined efforts to conclude a peace. Finally, the Comanche alliance remained uncertain, with tribesmen launching devastating thrusts deep into old Mexico. [61]

Despite these problems, relative quiet prevailed in the Fort Davis region at the close of the eighteenth century. In 1795 two missions remained open at La Junta. Military campaigns alternated with efforts to make the Indians dependent upon Spanish guns and powder. Yet depopulation, internal confusion and threats to Texas from the east again drew Spain's attention from the Trans-Pecos. The population decline at La Junta deprived Spain of potential farmers, military allies, and Christian converts. As Comanche and Apache raiders pressed their attacks, Spanish officials planned a punitive campaign for 1819. Anticipating that Indians would use the Trans-Pecos as an escape route, Spanish commanders hoped to launch a 255-man column from Presidio del Norte. Again, the area's strategic value was apparent; Spain, however, had neither the soldiers nor the colonists to occupy the region. [62]

Internal revolution had wracked Mexico since 1810, when Father Hidalgo issued his famous "grito" at Dolores. Although Hidalgo's dream of social revolt had dimmed, a conservative-moderate coalition of rebels finally forced Spain to concede Mexican independence in 1821. Frequent changes of government made it difficult for the struggling young nation to focus on its wild northern frontiers. A penal colony at present-day Ruidosa, some twenty-five miles upstream, replaced the crumbling presidio and missions at La Junta. The Condemned Regiment, consisting of criminals assigned to protect the frontier but under a heavy guard themselves, inspired little confidence. [63]

Mexico's attempts to maintain the presidial system proved unsuccessful. Despite generous budgetary promises, few of the authorized dollars found their way to the frontier soldiers. Corrupt officers siphoned off huge sums and stationed their reliable troops near Mexico City or Veracruz, ever alert to the political opportunities which characterized the troubled era. On the frontiers, manpower levels never approached authorized strengths. Insufficient mounts precluded effective offensive campaigning; shortages of food, clothing, and salaries endangered the soldiers' very lives. One Mexican officer estimated that Indian raids along the northern frontiers between 1820-35 killed five thousand persons, destroyed one hundred settlements, and drove off four thousand settlers. [64]

Map 1:2. Spanish and American defense of the Trans-Pecos. Map drawn by the author. (click on image for a PDF version)

A few adventurers nonetheless saw in the Trans-Pecos great opportunity. Juan Bustillos obtained title to lands on the east bank of the Rio Grande in 1830. Two years later, Lt. Col. Jose Ronquillo, commander of regional frontier forces, successfully petitioned for a massive grant—2,345 square miles—on the north side opposite Presidio del Norte. The huge grant started on the east bank of Cibolo Creek and ran up the Rio Grande for some thirty-five miles to present-day Ruidosa. It then extended northeast, past the future site of Fort Davis, to Alamo de San Juan. To the southeast the grant included the land into modern Brewster County, then back to the Rio Grande through the Puerto del Portillo Mountains. [65]

To receive official title to this land, Colonel Ronquillo had to improve the grant within three years, to live on it for an additional year, and to defend it from Indian attack. He was prohibited from selling his tract for four years. Ronquillo quickly moved to comply with these conditions. With surveys under way, he built a stone house on Cibolo Creek, cultivated a patch of land, ran a few cattle, and opened a small silver mine. Ronquillo's hopes faded momentarily when orders for his transfer arrived, but the practical colonel asked for and received a waiver of the restrictive conditions. That same day, Ronquillo sold the grant to his head steward, Hypolito Acosta. Unable to defend the grant, Acosta sold it for five thousand pesos to Juana Pedrasa in 1833. [66]

The Trans-Pecos also attracted notice from enterprising capitalists in North America. Trappers representing several St. Louis fur companies tested out the area during the 1820s. [67]

The profitable trade between Missouri and Chihuahua City sparked further interest. In 1839 promises of reduced tariff duties through the newly opened port of entry at Presidio led Henry Connelly, a U.S. citizen, to reopen the long-ignored route up the Rio Conchos from Chihuahua City through La Junta. More than one hundred men escorted seven wagons, seven hundred mules, and some two hundred thousand dollars in specie out of Chihuahua. On his return trip from the United States, however, Connelly found that the governor who had reduced the taxes had died. The new governor demanded full duties. Forty-five days passed while tariff negotiations ensued; the wagon train rolled back into Chihuahua City seventeen months after its departure. Connelly deemed the journey too long and by-passed Presidio via the older route home. [68]

Amidst the new activity, Apache and Comanche raids continued. The U.S. policy of removing eastern Indians to present-day Oklahoma increased existing tensions among older residents of the area. Forced to seek out fresh sources of food and plunder, Comanches pushed south, pressuring Apaches as they went. A particularly large group of several hundred Comanches crossed the Trans-Pecos into Mexico in 1835. Gov. Jose Joaquin Calvo tried to scrape together a force of volunteers and regulars at Presidio to check the incursion, but most of his troops instead found themselves transferred east in a vain effort to quell the Texas Revolution. [69]

The forgotten Mexican soldiers along the Rio Grande could do little to stem the tide of Indian war parties. Ever-increasing numbers of American merchants entered the lucrative trade with Indians, exchanging munitions and supplies for stolen booty and diminishing Mexico's influence with the plains tribes still further. Continued threats from the newly independent Republic of Texas, along with the subsequent Pastry War against France in 1838, only exacerbated Mexico's defensive weaknesses along her northern frontiers. The aggressive western policies pursued by Texas added to the pressures on the Plains peoples and thus in turn created more problems for Mexico. [70]

Its frontiers aflame, the state of Chihuahua revived the colonial system of scalp bounties, through which Indian scalps would be redeemable for cash. Spanish officials had periodically offered such bounties since 1619, a practice not uncommon among European colonial powers. The law of 1837 promised one hundred pesos for the scalp of any male fourteen or older; a woman's hair earned the bearer fifty pesos. A child's scalp was worth twenty-five pesos. Bounty hunters brought in substantial numbers of scalps, but critics charged that these men simply fomented additional unrest. The hunters seemed all too eager to submit the scalps of friendly Indians or Mexican citizens. [71]

In a desperate effort to purchase a peace, Chihuahua Gov. Garcia Conde initiated an innovative (if unsuccessful) program in 1842. In return for peace in Chihuahua, he offered the Indians an annual tribute of five thousand dollars, monthly rations, and the right to sell their stolen loot. Unfortunately for Conde, the latter provision only encouraged raids into neighboring states. Although many Chihuahuans supported the governor's actions, his controversial scheme led to his removal from office in 1845. [72]

Comanches launched a particularly devastating raid that year. Crossing into Mexico through the Trans-Pecos near Lajitas, they killed scores of citizens and took dozens of others captive. With some reluctance, the government again hired a bounty hunter—James "Don Santiago" Kirker. Kirker and a small company of Delawares, Shawnees, and Americans had turned in 487 scalps by the end of 1846. Still, the Chihuahuan legislature described the Indian influence in 1846: "We travel the roads . . . at their 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." In the absence of effective Indian policy formulated by either Texas or Mexico, a violent future for the Fort Davis region seemed assured. [73]

The Mexican War brought dramatic changes. An 850-man American force led by Col. Alexander W. Doniphan occupied El Paso on December 26, 1846. Acting upon information that Mexican troops still held a presidio at San Elizario, Doniphan dispatched a scouting party down the Rio Grande. The troopers found evidence that Mexican soldiers had abandoned the fort in great haste, leaving wagons of food, ammunition, and a cannon in their wake. Doniphan's column later captured Chihuahua City; other American troops also occupied Monterrey, Mexico City, Santa Fe, and California. In the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexico recognized Texas independence, accepted the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas, and ceded the Southwest to the United States. In return, Washington paid $15 million and assumed Mexican debts to U.S. citizens estimated at an additional $3.25 million. It also promised to prevent Indian raids from its newly won lands into Mexico. [74]

With the Stars and Stripes now flying over the Fort Davis area, a few opportunists sought to capitalize on the new political situation. In 1847 a party of Mexican War veterans followed Henry Connelly's old trail as they returned home from Chihuahua. Their uneventful journey seemed to bode well for Trans-Pecos settlement. Other Mexican War veterans also saw potential in the area; John W. Spencer, for example, established a ranch on the northern side of the river above present-day Presidio. [75]

Ben Leaton, formerly a trader along the Santa Fe—Chihuahua City trail, had bigger dreams. He married Juana Pedraza, the widowed claimant of the huge Ronquillas grant, and with John Burgess and others in tow, built a sturdy pueblo stockade (Fort Leaton) on the old Connelly trail. Leaton operated as an unofficial customs agent, Indian trader, and rancher. He established a reputation as a ruthless merchant more than willing to trade arms and alcohol to Indians in exchange for stolen merchandise. Even the Indians who dealt with Leaton were not safe; he was not averse to selling their scalps to Mexican officials in Chihuahua. A Mexican official charged that Leaton had committed "a thousand abuses." [76]

Leaton sought to acquire the entire region. His claim to the old Ronquillo grant was shaky; Juana Pedraza's grant was invalid without confirmation by an official of at least gubernatorial rank. Hoping a well-placed bribe might smooth the legal waters, Leaton slipped the local alcalde five hundred dollars to issue a fraudulent certificate for the adjoining Juan Bustillos grant. A Mexican court tried but failed to convict the alcalde for his action; Leaton in the meantime filed a claim on the land in his own name. Leaton's dreams of empire were shattered in the early 1850s, however, when he died in an apparent struggle for control over the Presidio trade. The U.S. occupation of the Big Bend area had begun. [77]

As private citizens crept closer to what would later become Fort Davis, government-sponsored explorers also examined the region. Just after the war topographical engineer George W. Hughes reported the Connelly trail to be of "doubtful" use. Hughes had hoped to reconnoiter this and other routes, but "the want of sufficient escorts, and the exigencies of the service, I suppose, prevented it" during the conflict. In 1848, as Hughes put the final touches to his delayed report, Capt. Jack Hays mounted an expedition through the lands west of San Antonio. Hays and his escort nearly starved to death in the Big Bend before reaching San Carlos and finally Fort Leaton, where they took time out for a massive barbecue. They followed a more northerly track back to San Antonio, returning north of the future site of Fort Davis, then across the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos River. Although the southern route between the Pecos and the Rio Grande proved extremely difficult, the return trip had been through relatively level plains with an "abundance of grass." [78]

The U.S. Army took a keen interest in West Texas. Not only did it seek to interdict Indian raids into northern Mexico, but the discovery of gold in California made it imperative to find a safe route across Texas. Commercial opportunities also beckoned. Optimists in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, whose officers were noted for their favorable projections about the West, dreamed of a transcontinental railroad. Under the auspices of the Corps, Capt. Randolph B. Marcy and three companies escorted a large emigrant train from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Santa Fe in 1849. Crossing West Texas one hundred miles north of what later became the site of Fort Davis, Marcy waxed eloquent on the possibilities for a railroad. Lt. James H. Simpson, his chief engineer, proved more restrained, and concluded that without population centers to furnish labor, a transcontinental railroad would not be built for another twenty years. The accuracy of Simpson's projection would have surprised most of his fellow engineers in the Corps; indeed, it would be nearly twenty years before the completion of the first trans-continental railroad and thirty-five years before such a road spanned the Trans-Pecos. [79]

But realists like Simpson remained in a decided minority. In 1849 Lt. William H. C. Whiting and Lt. William F. "Baldy" Smith followed up the old Hays trail. West of the Pecos and on their way to Presidio, they encountered a group of Apaches on March 17. Among the Indians was Gomez, noted for his raids in northern Mexico and the Big Bend. With only thirteen armed men, the Whiting-Smith party nervously approached the Apaches. "It was an exciting and picturesque scene," deadpanned Whiting. "Two hundred Apache, superbly mounted, set off by their many colored dresses, their painted shields, and hideous faces." Gomez wanted to fight, but another chief, Cigarito, sought peace with the United States and allowed the group safe passage. [80]

Secure for the moment, on March 20 the party followed a small stream, dubbed the Limpia by Whiting, which wound its way through a deep canyon. "It is a beautiful little brook," he later wrote, "and its waters flow clean and cool over its pebbly bed." They named the defile Wild Rose Pass in honor of the spectacular flowers then in bloom. Just beyond the pass the Whiting-Smith team located a grove of cottonwood trees on the edge of an open plain. They called the place "Painted Comanche Camp" for the pictographs that decorated the trees. Unbeknownst to the engineers, the attractive site would later boast one of the most important army posts in the American West. [81]

As the Whiting-Smith team explored a southern route to El Paso, Robert S. Neighbors, federal Indian agent for Texas, and John S. "Rip" Ford, Texas Ranger, were blazing another trail west. The Neighbors-Ford party took the more northerly track through the Guadalupe Mountains to El Paso. Near present-day Balmorhea, they found what they believed to be an old Spanish military station, probably a forgotten outpost or aborted mission effort. [82]

The new information which both teams gathered about the Trans-Pecos proved especially timely, as growing numbers of poorly guided immigrants struggled across the plains of Texas. Lured by the gold fever to California, some three thousand persons crossed the trails of western Texas and northern Chihuahua in 1849 alone. One group of gold-seekers tried to follow the old Hays trail to Presidio del Norte. "We travelled two hundred and forty miles without seeing any timber and at two different times we drove two days and night without water over mountains and ravines on the route that Jack Hays said he found water so plenty," wrote one member of the party, "and if he [Hays] had been in sight he would not have lived one minute." [83]

Aware of such problems, the army followed up both the Neighbors-Ford expedition and the Whiting-Smith route. Lt. Francis T. Bryan took charge of the northern passage; Bvt. Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston headed efforts along the Whiting-Smith road. Already a hero of the Mexican War and destined to become one of the Confederacy's most important military leaders, Johnston reconnoitered for Maj. Jefferson Van Horn's battalion of the Third Infantry as that outfit marched to El Paso, sister city to the older settlement of Juarez. On his return trip to the east, Johnston conducted additional scouts, from which he produced the first accurate map of the Big Bend. [84]

The Whiting-Smith route, known as the lower road to El Paso, proved slightly shorter than the northern trail. It also offered more dependable sources of water and wood. As such, it became the primary road between San Antonio and El Paso by the mid-1850s. The experiences of immigrant trains varied widely; some groups took twenty days to make the arduous trek from San Antonio to El Paso while others took three or four times that long. Some travelers reported having encountered no Indians; others found the journey filled with signs of their depredations. [85]

Aware of the potential dangers, Whiting had urged that military posts be constructed in West Texas. The forts would encourage settlement, "which, in time, peopled by our hardy pioneers, become the best defense of a frontier." In so arguing, Whiting took a line of reasoning traditional to U.S. military and political leaders. The small regular army could not protect all westerners. Instead, it was to stimulate population growth, which, historically, had by sheer numbers overwhelmed Indian resistance. And although its policies often seemed neither fair nor rational, the federal government promoted such migration by making it easy to purchase federal lands and by pushing the army ever westward. [86]

Applied to the Trans-Pecos, this policy represented a dramatic change from Spanish or Mexican practice. Spain's social and economic policies afforded little reason to occupy the seemingly barren Trans-Pecos region. La Junta served as a useful barrier to Indian raids on more valuable Chihuahua, but settlers were rarely encouraged to move farther north. Such expansion would only strain Spain's limited resources along its northern colonial frontiers. After having gained its independence, Mexico, plagued by internal convulsions and external threats, could afford to expend but little energy on its northern frontiers. Like Spain, Mexico's social system did not support large scale migration to the north; government policies concluded in Mexico City often conflicted with the needs of isolated northern frontiersmen. [87]

Sustained by dreams of wealth, freedom, and manifest destiny, United States citizens, backed by their federal government, then, entered the Trans-Pecos. The government took over the old informal mail system between San Antonio and El Paso in 1850. Commercial interests were rekindled, and the Chihuahua trade expanded. Heavy wagons, drawn by teams of up to twenty mules, could carry as much as seven thousand pounds each. Even more stupendous were the caravans of two-wheeled Mexican carts, which carried ten thousand pounds of merchandise. These massive caravans worked their way through the Trans-Pecos to Presidio, stimulating greater interest in the lonely Big Bend region as they creaked inexorably onward. [88]

As the Chihuahuan wagon trains transferred Mexican gold for American merchandise, neither Mexico nor the United States could ignore Indian attacks on the valuable cargos. After a major attack, Comanches herded their livestock and captives back to Texas, where they traded their booty for rifle-muskets, bullets, whiskey, and tobacco. Arriba el Sol, for example, attracted a large following by leading his Comanche clan in a series of devastating raids in northern Mexico. Shrewdly, Sol discouraged unified Mexican retaliation by dealing with local governments. In exchange for commitments against conducting wars of extermination against his band, he promised not to attack the area they represented and to fight their mutual enemies, the Apaches. [89]

Continued Indian raids into northern Mexico led to the reinstitution of the scalp-hunting system. Particularly ruthless were the thirty-odd Texans led by John J. Glanton. A former Texas Ranger and veteran of the Mexican War, Glanton allegedly never brought in a prisoner alive. Many charged that he indiscriminately butchered Mexicans as well as Indians in order to boost his scalp count. His reign of terror extended over northern Chihuahua and into the United States; one U.S. officer called him "one of the most notoriously cold blooded ruffians that ever lived." Having enraged the local populace, Glanton moved farther west to Sonora, where he again contracted his "services" to the state government. A group of angry Yuma Indians later ambushed and killed Glanton and many of his followers, but not before he had further inflamed the rivalry between Indians and non-Indians in the Southwest. [90]

Conditions thus demanded that the United States Army protect the lower San Antonio—El Paso road. Seeking further knowledge about West Texas, Capt. Samuel G. French led another exploration team out from San Antonio. A veteran of the earlier 1849 expeditions, French had on his earlier trip found the hills near Wild Rose Pass covered with grass. Much taken with the site, French had recorded its "pleasing appearance" as being "most beautiful to the eye." He also reported locating plenty of fuel and grass at the Painted Camp. A few Indian lodges and gardens lay just up the Limpia. Water proved sufficient for his men and animals, and prairie dog villages flourished along the natural road west of the old camp. [91]

Two years later, however, French found conditions much less desirable. Plagued by supply and transportation shortages, his expedition seemed jinxed. Fire had swept the prairies during the past year, leaving only ashes where green grass had once thrived. Early attempts to ferry across the Pecos ended when a cable broke. Limpia Creek was merely a thin trickle near its source; only by marching ninety-six miles to the Rio Grande in just over two days through temperatures exceeding one hundred degrees did French save his thirsty command. He described the condition of the Indians west of the Pecos as being "truly lamentable." Denied their former homelands, he argued that they lived "an existence more filthy than swine." It was no wonder, he concluded, that they attacked travelers. [92]

After an extensive tour of inspection in 1852, Col. Joseph K. F. Mansfield recommended that the army establish a series of new posts in West Texas. It was nearly 550 lonely miles between the tiny settlement at San Elizario and Fort Clark, established some 120 miles west of San Antonio in 1852. To remedy the situation, Mansfield called for the reoccupation of El Paso (abandoned only the previous year), and for new posts where the stage road left the Rio Grande below El Paso, on the headwaters of the Limpia Creek, and just east of the Pecos crossing on Live Oak Creek. Each site had water, grass, and wood. [93]

Overextended, understaffed, and with little strategic direction, the army could not respond immediately to Mansfield's recommendations. Too, the superiority of the southern route to El Paso, upon which Fort Davis would ultimately be situated, was not yet universally accepted. Though western Texas seemed well-suited to road-building, water shortages presented a significant problem. Commanding the Department of Texas, Persifor F. Smith finally set out to establish a post between the Pecos River and El Paso in 1854. Smith selected the site located by Smith and Whiting, so admired by French, and recommended by Mansfield—Painted Comanche Camp, near the Limpia Creek and Wild Rose Pass. The result of Smith's work, Fort Davis, would permanently alter the landscape of the Trans-Pecos. [94]

The human population of the Trans-Pecos had been changed long before the establishment of the United States military post. Through its missions, presidios, and haciendas, Spain left a profound imprint on the saga of Fort Davis. The Spanish brought with them their basic institutions—Catholicism and the notion of a centralized political system. They also introduced plants, animals, and new diseases. As such, the lives of those peoples living in the Trans-Pecos were irrevocably altered. Population decline and cultural genocide among the indigenous peoples left a void, filled by a mix of Spanish and other Indians, including Mescalero and Lipan Apaches and scattered bands of Comanches. [95]

Seen by Spain as a desolate wasteland, the Trans-Pecos seemed to offer little intrinsic value. A few missionaries tried to convert Jumano and Apache Indians without much success. But the distances from Mexico's population centers and the failure to discover mineral resources meant that relatively little attention would be given to the vicinity of Fort Davis. From the perspective of imperial Spain, it made no sense to settle the Trans-Pecos. Stations along the Rio Grande such as La Junta could protect the more valuable areas of Chihuahua and Coahuila against Indian attacks from the north. But more extensive efforts would only divert resources needed elsewhere.

Fig. 1:2. Limpia Creek and Wild Rose Pass, ca. 1852. Photograph, from Emory, U.S.-Mexican Boundary Survey, Fort Davis Archives, F-84.

Mexico faced a similar dilemma. Threatened from within and without, the central government's interests often differed from those of its citizens living along the northern frontiers. Promised improvements in the judicial system were rarely realized. Secularization weakened the influence of the Catholic church. The northern frontiers remained relatively underdeveloped and attracted few colonists. The presidial forces could not provide effective defense; local volunteer efforts proved similarly unsuccessful. [96] The use of scalp bounties to limit Indian attacks only alienated local residents and Indians alike.

Different interests and problems drove United States policy in the Fort Davis area. Constitutional and political limitations made centralized planning extremely difficult. Yet the rampant individualism which characterized much of nineteenth-century American society offered white males spectacular opportunities for personal initiative. The small army actively supported the westward push. Spain and Mexico had seen the Trans-Pecos as a final frontier; to the United States, it was part of a massive continental empire that should be tamed and conquered. Although the area around Fort Davis seemed in itself to have little value, in larger strategic terms it served an important purpose. With water, grass, and wood, the beautiful setting became an important station on the well-traveled road to El Paso and beyond.

Spain, Mexico, and the United States experienced varying success in occupying the Trans-Pecos. Differing perceptions of the environment around what ultimately became Fort Davis help to explain the interest, or lack of interest, each government took in the area. But these very different governments had much in common. Each proclaimed the essential righteousness of its cause. The Indians, unlettered and without Christianity, metal goods or western morals, seemed culturally deficient. Although Spain, Mexico, and the United States each produced men who expressed sympathy for Indians, virtually no one espoused Indian equality. The environment was meant to be conquered and tamed by what the Europeans and their American descendants believed to be civilized man. [97]

Prescient observers recognized that such an outlook would lead to violence with the region's Indians. A few even expressed remorse over the fate of the older Indian inhabitants, who had little option other than warfare if they hoped to retain their lands. But as Capt. Samuel G. French had explained, freethinking American migrants could not be prevented from entering areas once dominated by Indians. The undermanned army could scarcely be expected to check the desperate efforts by the tribes to save their way of life. [98]

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

Last Updated: 13-Feb-2008