History of Fort Davis, Texas
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With the destruction of Indian military power, the army undertook several far-reaching reforms designed to improve material conditions for the common soldier during the latter 1880s and early 1890s. The introduction of post canteens, better food, and renewed efforts to reduce desertion greatly benefited the troops at Davis, as did the further civilian development of the region. But other changes boded ill for the post on the Limpia. Seeking to concentrate its scattered frontier garrisons at forts on the railroads, military officials redoubled efforts to identify and eliminate useless positions. Brig. Gen. David S. Stanley believed that its questionable water supply, its lack of direct access to the railroad, and poor sanitation made the continued occupation of Fort Davis unnecessary.

But forts were rarely situated for purely military reasons. Because of their direct benefits to the civilian economy, local citizens argued forcefully against their removal. Representing the interests of their constituents if not the nation as a whole, congressmen often fought to keep posts in their districts despite the lack of military rationale. Discontinuing an army fort thus resulted only after a complex series of external and internal factors had made removal either politically palatable or militarily unavoidable.

The army had tried hard to reform its system of post traders. Although sutlers John D. Davis and George Abbott had satisfied most garrison members, their trade drew fire from those who linked the abuse of alcohol with poor morale, high rates of desertion, and general inefficiency. Department commander E. O. C. Ord asserted "that Posttrader's Establishments are, with rare exceptions, simply dramshops, where the cheapest and most deleterious liquors are generally sold." Ord recommended the government itself sell the soldiers beer and wine in an effort to reduce drunkenness in the ranks. During the mid-1880s a system of nonprofit canteens gained momentum. Col. Elwell Otis, commander of Fort Davis from October 1887 to May 1888, asked permission to open such an establishment in an unoccupied barrack soon after he took charge. Chaplain Brandt C. Hammond joined in the chorus of attacks against the post sutlers. [1]

The new canteen opened on December 18, 1887. It sold "beer, tobacco, cigars, pipes, playing cards, oysters, sardines, and sundry other articles" to enlisted personnel. It also maintained billiard tables; chess, checkers, and backgammon sets; and dominos and cards for its patrons. As part of new army doctrine, sales of hard liquor were forbidden—this correlated nicely with the increased popularity of beer and wine in the nation at large. No civilians were allowed on the premises. The canteen also extended limited credit (from three dollars per month to privates to five dollars per month for sergeants) to the soldiers. Its long hours (9:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., with an hour off for lunch and dinner), low prices, and congenial atmosphere quickly lured business away from Davis and Abbott. [2]

Abbott protested the new canteen to Texas Sen. Richard Coke. The merchant argued that since the canteen paid no taxes or rent, its employees received government salary, and its supplies were shipped by government transportation, it had an unfair advantage over sutlers who paid a head tax to the post fund. Furthermore, Abbott charged that the canteen allowed gambling and remained open on Sundays in flagrant violation of state law. "Its establishment is contrary to the spirit of American institutions," reasoned the capitalistic Abbott, "and is borrowed from customs prevailing in the armies of Europe." A writer using the pseudonym of "Temperance" added the following description of the canteen to Texas newspapers: "It encourages intemperance, it weakens discipline, it leads to desertion, crime, lost manhood, and the wreck of mind, body and soul. . . . [and] now resounds to the clinking of Bacchanalian glasses, loud and obscene language and maudlin profanity." [3]

But Abbott's protests fell upon deaf ears. The adjutant general ruled that the Fort Davis canteen did not infringe upon the rights of the sutlers. Daniel Murphy's decision to open a "saloon lunch" in late 1888 drew away more business from Davis and Abbott. After another attempt to convince the government to purchase their business failed, the army revoked the sutlers' appointment in May 1890. The Fort Davis experience typified the War Department's growing opposition to the old sutler system. From eighty-five post traders throughout the nation in 1889, there were only eleven by 1891. [4]

With less competition, the canteen expanded its operations. A commissioned officer, assisted by a sergeant and two or three enlisted men, managed the enterprise. By 1891 the operation boasted several lamps, chairs, pictures, an ice chest, knives, forks, bowls, glasses, and two ice cream freezers in addition to its original appointments. Stock worth nearly one thousand dollars now added cheese, candies, pickles, jellies, toilet paper, envelopes, cherries, cookies, cigarettes, gum, and lobsters. But the absence of hard liquor led some soldiers to illegal outlets. A local jury found one man guilty of selling "spiritous liquors without a license." At the same time, the court found him not guilty of "keeping a disorderly house." [5]

Fig. 10:33. East side of Fort Davis, ca. 1886. The post trader's complex is in the foreground, the enlisted barracks and cavalry corrals in the center. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, HG-8.

The canteen system was but one of many reforms championed by Secretary of War Redfield Proctor. Concerned about the high desertion rate, Proctor hoped to better the lot of the common soldier. In 1889 he abolished the full Sunday morning dress parade, long a fixture at every military post, in favor of a parade under arms on Saturday and a dress and general appearance inspection on Sunday. Proctor theorized that giving the troops more free time would help morale. He also placed greater emphasis on recruiting in rural areas, thus accepting the widely held notion that city dwellers, many of whom were immigrants, made poorer soldiers. Of more practical value was the decision to hold recruits on probation until the army performed a perfunctory background check. [6]

Like several predecessors, Proctor sought to make punishment less severe and more equitable, thus reducing the temptation to desert. An act of October 1, 1890, established summary courts for petty offenses. By avoiding the standard court-martial procedure, the newly established courts assured the accused a trial within twenty-four hours. Like the old courts-martial, they found the overwhelming majority of defendants guilty, meting out punishments of up to thirty days at hard labor for offenses ranging from neglect of duty to leaving one's post without permission. Proctor prescribed uniform punishment for certain offenses, thus reducing the capriciously discretionary powers of courts-martial. [7]

A further change allowed enlisted men to purchase an army discharge after only a year of military service. Increases in the vegetable ration, the retention of some pay until the end of a soldier's enlistment, and the authorization allowing civil officers to arrest deserters were also part of Secretary Proctor's comprehensive plan. Strongly influenced by commanding general John M. Schofield, Proctor, by reforming the military code of punishment, encouraging the establishment of post canteens, and improving morale, hoped to make every soldier come to view his company as his family. "Every captain should be to his company as a father, and should treat it as his family, as his children," explained the secretary. "Unnecessary restraint should be removed and the soldier's life in post be made as comfortable and pleasant as possible," concluded Proctor, whose reforms indeed cut desertion from 11 percent in 1888-89 to 7.5 percent in 1890-91. [8]

Officials in the Department of Texas continued to link high desertion rates to inadequate commissary provisions. The ration had remained largely unchanged from earlier years—pork, bacon, beef, flour, cornmeal, beans, peas, rice, hominy, coffee, tea, sugar, vinegar, candles, soap, salt, pepper, and yeast powder comprised the official articles. Brig. Gen. David S. Stanley and Judge Advocate representative Capt. John G. Ballance both argued that soldiers in Texas found pork unacceptable and that too few vegetables were actually available. In a single year troops within the department contributed more than $12,000 out of their own pay to purchase potatoes and onions. The War Department agreed to pay for kitchen utensils and tableware while abolishing post and regimental funds, so that all ration savings would go toward food purchases. It also increased the bread quota, which allowed frontier companies to peddle excess flour in return for other goods, and added more vegetables to the daily fare. [9]

Company cooks and local purchase offered other alternatives. A revised edition of the Manual for Army Cooking was published in 1883. But Congress continued to kill efforts to fund permanent cooks. At Fort Davis the search for culinary talent continued. Eugene Kentner, a private in I Company, Fifth Infantry, served as a baker for a year, but eventually became disgusted with the task. "The duties are trying and laborious," he complained, "and I believe, owing to the necessity for night work and close confinement over hot ovens is affecting my health." The garrison found greater solace from the independent purchase of fresh foods, procuring melons and fruit from Limpia valley growers, lemons and oranges from Mexico, grapes from El Paso, and pears and peaches from the Pacific Coast. [10]

War Department officials also counted on post gardens to supplement the diet, and, indirectly, to reduce desertion. The lack of a garden in 1885 forced troops to buy vegetables at usurious prices from surrounding farmers. The following year, plagued by a severe drought, each company cultivated its own garden; although 1887 and 1888 were disappointing years, 1889 saw the men raising eight acres of vegetables. The post system returned the next year with spectacular success. Two mules aided six workers; at a cost of $1,340, the garden yielded $2,624 worth of foodstuffs. Cabbage and sweet potatoes comprised three-quarters of the 131,000 pounds of vegetables grown; other popular crops included beets, carrots, cucumbers, melons, onions, squash, and tomatoes. [11]

The army's educational efforts at Fort Davis proved less successful during the 1880s. Following the departure of Chaplain Mullins, a school for soldiers gradually fell into disfavor. Some children now went to a private institution established by Mattie Belle Anderson in 1883. "The enlisted men manifest but little interest [in] a school for their benefit," concluded one report. By April 1886 none of the 195 enlisted men were attending school, although 24 children still used the facilities. Adj. Gen. Richard C. Drum labeled the army's attempts to educate its men "a failure." He urged that teachers be accorded higher rank and recognition and that attendance for enlisted men who could not read and write become compulsory. But only in late January 1889 did the War Department redouble its efforts, decreeing that post schools be held during regular duty hours with mandatory attendance from those in their first enlistment. Despite the official pronouncements, the post school at Davis remained ineffective during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Insp. Gen. Joseph C. Breckinridge reported that only sixteen of the eighty-one-man garrison were attending school on April 30, 1890. [12]

Maj. Eugene Beaumont, a veteran campaigner serving as inspector general in the Department of Texas in 1889, identified other problems usually ignored by Washington staff officers when he noted that "the absence of any provision for the amusement of enlisted men makes army life on the frontier unendurable." To overcome this problem, Beaumont urged that the army construct "bowling alleys, lecture, dancing, and music halls, and theater combined," so as to provide enlisted men with diverse amusements. [13]

With much ground to make up after decades of neglect, the army made great strides along these lines during Proctor's tenure as secretary of war. Support for libraries continued during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Sporadic theatrical performances added color, if not always refinement, to garrison life. "A soldiers show is usually one of protracted waits for something," noted Asst. Surgeon John V. Lauderdale in July 1889. Two hundred persons attended a festival the following year. Enlisted men performed acrobatic feats on gymnastic rings and a high wire. But the comic performance by one Sergeant Beyer, D Company, Twenty-third Infantry, stole the show with "his excellent make-up and acting." [14]

Soldiers also joined fraternal organizations. The Good Templars, a national association, formed a lodge at Fort Davis in 1886. Using one of the deserted enlisted barracks, the Good Templars boasted sixty members by February 1887. The group sponsored meetings, dances, and an occasional variety show for members of the garrison. In a separate enterprise, at least twenty-five members of an unidentified Fort Davis community fraternity listed their occupation as "soldier" during the late 1880s or early 1890s. Others joined the Oddfellows. The Grand Army of the Republic, a powerful organization of Civil War veterans, also flourished at Fort Davis, with Capt. Frank Baldwin alternate delegate to the departmentwide encampment in 1890. [15]

Sgt. Thomas Hall Forsyth, one of Fort Davis's most interesting characters, was a member of both the Good Templars' and Oddfellows' lodges. A Civil War veteran, Hall's heroic action in protecting the body of his commanding officer in 1876 was later rewarded with the Medal of Honor. The sergeant married in 1871 and had eleven children, one of whom wed a Third Cavalryman at Fort Davis. From a wealthy family, he enjoyed dancing, music, chess, and subscribed to several eastern newspapers. Forsyth became commissary sergeant at the post on the Limpia in 1885. Holding down one of the army's most honored noncommissioned slots, Forsyth was allotted an individual adobe house befitting his position. [16]

Like their comrades in arms throughout history, soldiers at Fort Davis took great pride in their abilities as practical jokesters. The dour assistant surgeon Lauderdale, who usually refrained from involving himself in any frivolity, could not help himself when making his diary entry for November 23, 1888:

A strange sight met my gaze this morning walking down the road in front of the officers row—some soldiers had dressed a burro in white drawers on the legs, and a white jacket round its body and an old hat upon its head, the animals' ears projecting through openings in the crown. Playing cards were pinned to the sides of the coat, and a cigar box hung from the fore shoulder. Thus attired the brute has been walking up and down the post all day to the amusement of those who saw it. [17]

Baseball became one of the most popular leisure time activities at the army's western posts, and Fort Davis proved no exception. Weather permitting, members of the garrison played ball on the parade ground after duty. Rules and equipment at these nineteenth century contests often differed from modern day hardball. Six balls equaled a walk; a batter could call for a high ball, between his belt and the shoulders, or a low ball, between the belt and his knees. Although the old underarm pitch was giving way to sidearm or overhand delivery, the soft baseballs of the period made long-distance slugging rare. Fielders used their bare hands or tiny hand leather gloves to shag the blows of their opponents. [18]

Holidays often provided the occasion for contests between the Davis nine and civilian or rival garrison teams. Fort Davis played a team from Marfa in November 1888. In 1889 a Washington's Day ballgame saw the Fort Davis team lose to a powerhouse club from Peña Colorado. Another game highlighted Independence Day celebrations the next year, though spirits were dashed when rain washed out the affair in the seventh inning. More staid observers, however, did not appreciate such activities. Assistant Surgeon Lauderdale criticized the post's adjutant for playing in one ballgame and was mortified that "the C. O. was an earnest looker on." "Is it not time that these miserable people be superseded by a better and more civilized command?" he wondered. "They are a disgrace to the army." [19]

Fig. 10:34. Sgt. Thomas Hall Forsyth and family. Back row (left to right): niece Beulah Rolhouse Wylie, Clara Wharton Forsyth, Mary Elizabeth Forsyth, Henry Hall Forsyth. Center row: Sgt. Thomas Forsyth, Margaret Forsyth, Mary Elizabeth Strickland Forsyth (wife) holding Thomas Hall Forsyth. On floor: George "Harvey" A. Forsyth, Mabel Agnes Forsyth (Thomas Hall's twin sister), and Isabella Forsyth. Not pictured is Patience born in 1890 after this photograph was taken. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, AB-8.

Fig. 10:35. Surgeon John Vance Lauderdale and family on porch of their quarters at Fort Davis. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, AA-147.

Lauderdale found the budding science of photography more appealing. Itinerant photographers occasionally visited Fort Davis, spurring a flurry of excitement and providing invaluable visual records of post activities. Lauderdale's interest, however, seemed more genuine. He and his servant clambered up the surrounding cliffs to get panoramic views for his shots. Taking advantage of his position, Lauderdale set up a darkroom in the post hospital. He occasionally presented his handiwork in "a lantern entertainment" to select friends; slides of Ireland, New Mexico, and the Centennial Celebration at Philadelphia highlighted his collection. [20]

Picnics, dances, hunts, and dinner parties delighted officers and their families. Romantic young couples played tennis or managed to steal away from larger groups for strolls into the canyon. Friday nights saw an officers' dance at the post chapel. In December 1888 two new pianos arrived at Fort Davis, bound for the homes of Lt. and Mrs. Joseph McDowell Partello and Lt. Col. and Mrs. Melville A. Cochran. Birthday parties for officers' children featured games like pin the tail on the donkey. At a "progressive euchre party" attended by many officers' wives and hosted by postmistress and teacher Mattie Belle Anderson, the "booby prize" consisted of "a good-sized healthy-looking frog, who croaked melodiously when handed to the winner." Not all the parties were purely for entertainment—in 1890 the charitable society branch of the King's Daughters organization, headed by Anna Cochran, daughter of the post commander, held a festival at the post chapel to raise money for San Antonio orphans. Serving cake and ice cream, the dance cleared fifty-two dollars. But some of the social engagements disappointed attendees. Mrs. Frank Baldwin concluded that she "never had such a stupid time in all my life" at one party. [21]

On a more practical level, the surrender of Confederate forces in 1865 had left the United States army with enormous stocks of uniforms. Quartermaster officials believed the clothing on hand would obviate any problems for several years. This might have seemed the case to an officer sitting behind a comfortable desk in Washington; few frontier regulars would have concurred with such claims. The Civil War uniforms were of notoriously poor quality. Furthermore, Civil War contractors, seeking to save material and to increase profits, frequently cut their uniforms too small. And although uniforms theoretically came in four sizes, the demand for medium and large sizes quickly outstripped available supplies. As a result, enlisted men paid tailors, usually drawn from their companies, to alter their uniforms at personal expense. [22]

In 1868 the Medical Department issued a pamphlet, based upon the comments of 160 medical officers, which sharply criticized the army's system for clothing its enlisted personnel. With the gradual depletion of Civil War surplus stocks, a board of officers convened to revise uniform regulations in 1871. The board's reports appeared the following year and won the approval of the War Department and the president. The infantry received looser fitting dark-blue pleated coats. In place of the extremely unpopular felt hat adopted during the 1850s, foot soldiers also obtained new shakos as part of their dress uniforms. All troops were to be issued broad-brimmed felt hats for campaign duty. Cavalrymen were given longer coats instead of the traditional shell jackets. For dress uniform, mounted soldiers added a Prussian-style spiked helmet with yellow horsehair plume. [23]

Financial exigencies, field experience, and regional climatic differences led to several modifications in the 1872 regulations. Production of the new uniforms proved slow; the army's determination to use existing stocks of supplies meant that frontier units wore jackets, hats, and trousers from a series of different issues. The pleated infantry jacket was soon replaced. A stiffer model modified the black campaign hat, unsuitably flimsy for frontier service, in 1875. The Texas heat also spawned continued criticism from soldiers wearing the official wool uniforms. On several occasions, war secretaries reiterated an 1871 pronouncement allowing soldiers in Texas to wear straw hats and light white trousers during summer months. Despite recommendations from officers like Zenas R. Bliss, however, such comfortable garments had to be acquired through private means. As Adjutant General Drum finally sighed, "time and fashion must settle the everlasting hat question." [24]

Summer uniforms became more prevalent during the 1880s, reflecting the general trend toward improving conditions for frontier regulars. Following the example of the British army, the War Department designed a cork summer helmet, covered with white drill cloth and later with unbleached brown linen, for enlisted men. In 1886 the army sent lighter cotton duck uniforms to Texas for experimental use; the Secretary of War approved their adoption two years later. NCOs were authorized bleached coats, trousers, and overalls, and privates were to get similar garments of unbleached materials. The quartermaster general directed the purchase of three thousand muslin shirts for trial by Arizona and Texas troops in 1890. [25]

In still another move toward practicality, the army had begun issuing leather gauntlets to its cavalrymen in 1884. Piping and trim for the respective branches was also changed. The sun had bleached the cavalry's yellow and the infantry's light blue to an almost indistinguishable white. By the late 1880s official regulations, for once bowing to practicality, adopted white for the infantry service trim and directed that cavalry uniforms be faced with a darker orange-yellow shading. Finally, the army increased the range of regulation uniform sizes to twelve for trousers and six for shirts. [26]

The purchase and distribution of uniforms was also modified. Soldiers paid for their own uniforms, but were given clothing allowances in addition to their regular pay. In 1872 privates received just less than $180 over their five-year enlistments. Careful troopers could thus increase their effective incomes by keeping their uniforms in good condition. Veterans often sold garments to their friends upon leaving the service, thus adding to their own coffers as well as offering cut-rate clothing options to the remainder of the ranks. As regulations changed in 1888 the quartermaster's department sought to bring official allowances in line with reality, and to save money for the government in the process. The soldier's five-year quota of three dress jackets and twelve pairs of trousers was cut to two coats and ten pairs of pants. On the other hand, mounted troops received more gloves and the yearly allotment of cotton stockings was raised from two to six. Linen collars, campaign hats, and fatigue coats, trousers, and overalls were added to official allowance tables at minimal prices (a private's coat cost $0.98; trousers $0.88). Soldiers in their first year of enlistment would heretofore receive two fatigue caps, rather than one as had formerly been the case. [27]

Gradual development had transformed Fort Davis from a sleepy hamlet to a bustling community by the mid-1880s. In 1870, 313 nonmilitary personnel could be identified from the U.S. census. By 1880 that figure reached 792, a whopping 253 percent increase. Although the civilian economy remained heavily dependent upon the military presence, a wide range of private entrepreneurs now dotted the surrounding area. In 1884, for example, a drug store, lumber yard, clock shop, dressmaker, bakery, butcher, stable, dairy, and liquor store were present. At least two saloons, two grocery stores, two hotels, and seven dry goods-general merchandise stores also competed for customers. Of course, the village was still in its formative stages, and suffered the problems of a typical frontier settlement. One 1890 observer remembered that the town "did not impress me very favorably." It "sprawled around the post in a very disorderly manner, and there was not a well-defined street in the whole place." [28]

Census records and contemporary accounts provide a fairly reliable picture of the fast growing civilian population. Well over half of the nonmilitary residents had Hispanic surnames in 1870; census returns suggest they made up more than two-thirds of the population by 1880. Whites, who comprised nearly thirty percent of the civilian community in 1870, made up just over twenty percent ten years later. The percentage of blacks had fallen to less than ten by 1880. Although whites were diminishing as a percentage of the total population, many believed that they should dominate civilian society and looked with disfavor at other racial groups. [29]

The racism of the late nineteenth century United States was clearly discernable at civilian Fort Davis, although strict lines of racial segregation were not always evident. One white observer, having bought a soda water for his wife at a local drug store, resented seeing his black servant and a friend enter the same establishment. The white diarist criticized this display of economic prowess: "The colored people are nothing unless they are spending money freely like the white folks." Another white, Dr. I. J. Bush, referred to the population as "a melting pot" of races. "A nondescript, hybrid population" lived at the village. Black and white soldiers, upon retirement, often married Hispanic women. Horrified, Bush added: "The racial mixture that resulted after this condition had existed for a quarter of a century may be imagined." [30]

With some blurring of color lines, then, Fort Davis consisted of several communities, distinguished by race, geography, and economic class. Army personnel lived at the post itself. A recent development, referred to as North Fort Davis or New Town, extended east and north of the military reservation. Many of the businesses clustered around the court house south of the fort proper. Most Hispanics lived east of the central business district, in Chihuahua. The income distribution was skewed, with a few elites dominating the local economy. Echoing the racism of the times, an army report noted that the Hispanic population was "content with little and generally not well to do in a worldly point of view." By contrast, "there are several cattle owners hereabout worth twenty-five to fifty thousand dollars," it boasted. [31]

Further civilian development was seen in the organization of a Masonic Hall and publication of local newspapers. Masons held their first local meeting on December 15, 1883. Three years later, however, the headquarters moved to Marfa, as many members were county officials. Petitions from enraged Fort Davis Masons led the state group to order the lodge back to the original community in January 1887. After two more years, the local group split, with the old lodge returning to Marfa and Fort Davis members establishing an independent branch of their own. Local newspapers also highlighted community maturity. The Apache Rocket, the first newspaper in Presidio County, appeared on May 21, 1882. Capt. Millard F. Eggleston took a prominent role in the weekly publication, which was later succeeded by the Presidio County News. James Kibbee, former editor of a Tom Green County sheet and future owner and proprietor of the Limpia Hotel, bought out the old Rocket and established the Fort Davis News, which featured local news, advertisements, and clips from sister journals. [32]


Hispanic surname183541




WhiteBlack/HispanicMulatto WhiteBlack/HispanicMulatto


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Note: Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding errors.

Among civilians, Daniel Murphy retained his position among the elite of Fort Davis society. A former beef contractor, he had established a ranch and sawmill in the Toyah Valley of the Davis mountains against the face of Indian attacks. His home and store lay three hundred yards outside the southern limits of the post, a convenient gathering place for townspeople and officers. "The Murphys are real warm-hearted frontier people," explained one traveler, thankful for the generous welcome extended by the family. "The girls were each in school at San Antonio; and sending to New York now and then for dry-goods, really 'get themselves up' very creditably. The ladies got up a very nice supper, and Miss Mary Murphy's chocolate and jelly cake were simply delicious." [33]

Murphy's daughters were especially attractive to the unmarried officers. Tired of the frontier life, the Murphys moved to San Antonio briefly in 1884. But Mr. Murphy had returned to his old haunts by February 1886. Three years later, an officer described his condition as being analogous to that of a typical agricultural baron—land rich but cash shy. Murphy assured the diarist that he was "running behind financially every year." [34]

George and Lizzie Crosson moved to the Fort Davis area in the mid 1870s. Indian attacks forced them repeatedly to shift their sheep-raising operations, but the family remained loyal to the region. They cultivated close ties with members of the Davis garrison, who sporadically patrolled the Crosson place in an effort to fend off the depredations. Even after being transferred to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, members of the Twenty-fifth Infantry corresponded with the Crossons concerning matters of business as well as pleasure. Several officers who owned land back in Texas leased or sold their property to the Crossons. Others noted their fond memories of the Fort Davis climate, or waxed eloquent on the friendly civil-military relations they had enjoyed. "Mrs. Woodruff and I both remember with pleasure our . . . pleasant visits to your ranch, where spareribs were sweeter and better than I have tasted since," wrote former post surgeon Ezra Woodruff. [35]

Otis and Whitaker Keesey also boosted civilian development at Fort Davis. The brothers had come to the area as bakers for the army, but quickly went into private business. Whitaker lived with his two sisters, Isabell and Annie. He held various public offices, including those of deputy sheriff and treasurer. By 1881 his general store was doing a thriving business with members of the garrison, for whom his rye whiskey seemed especially alluring. Otis married a woman named Adelina, and by 1880 had three young girls living at home. Like many frontier entrepreneurs, Otis, who presided over the Presidio County court for a time, also branched out into less reputable activities. He owned a series of "cribs," or brothels, southeast of the post. Operated by James Watts, a one-armed roughneck who was later run out of town, the prostitutes were segregated by race and often lived in tents. One of the Keeseys also commanded the local Grand Army of the Republic post, a potent political force comprised of Civil War veterans. [36]

As the War Department finally cracked down on the use of strikers, officers at Fort Davis increasingly relied upon civilian servants throughout the late 1880s. Upon his transfer, surgeon Lauderdale brought a longtime domestic worker, a black man named David, with him to Fort Davis. He also employed various Hispanic assistants, including a nurse and a hospital steward. Colonel Cochran hired a Chinese native who undoubtedly had come to West Texas with the railroad work parties. Contemporary descriptions of these workers reflected the rampant racial prejudices of the time. Complained Lauderdale, "We are quite disgusted with such help as it is about equal to doing the work ourselves." He added that "the market is not full of good nurses," and advised colleagues to hire qualified workers before they came to Davis. [37]

Religious diversity accompanied civilian development. Early post chaplains included a Baptist, a Disciple of Christ, and an Evangelical Lutheran; although intended primarily for the troops, their presence undoubtedly affected civilians as well. On the nonmilitary front, Father Joseph Hoban built a Catholic church and school on land donated by Daniel Murphy in 1875. The Catholic church remained influential, but a strong Methodist movement spurred by the efforts of pastor Samuel G. Kilgore challenged the Catholic hegemony in the mid-1880s. The Presbyterians made a concerted effort later in the decade, when the Rev. William B. Bloys began preaching at Fort Davis. With too few buildings for every denomination, preachers took their turns at the Methodist church and the post chapel. Each had one Sunday a month at the latter building; they rotated the last Sunday between them. [38]

Brandt C. Hammond, a Methodist Episcopal minister, was appointed post chaplain in April 1885. He continued with the chaplain's regular duties on post—conducting regular religious services, holding a variety of administrative positions, ministering to the sick and forlorn, and overseeing educational activities. Hammond, perhaps unwittingly, became involved in something of a newspaper war two years later. In an unofficial capacity, Hammond had become editor of the Fort Davis News. As "this position involves the Chaplain in local controversy," department officials suggested that post commander Albert G. Brackett "counsel him to terminate at once all connection with the newspaper." [39]

The army made few provisions for discharged soldiers. In 1885 Congress agreed to provide veterans of thirty years' service annual retirement benefits consisting of three-fourths of their yearly pay. The Soldiers' Home in Washington, D.C., offered beds to a few retired enlisted men. Others managed to build up savings accounts over the years. But little was done for those who fell through the gaping holes in the retirement system. By refusing to make an entry on the lower part of the official discharge form reserved for character, an officer could effectively block reenlistment, thus ruining the futures of those with no other choice but to make the military their career. This was meant to prevent undesirable elements from reentering the service. Some, however, believed such discharges resulted from petty slights rather than sound professional judgments. [40]

A number of garrison members remained at Fort Davis after leaving the army. Archie Smith, a Tenth Cavalry veteran, married a native of Mexico and "made some money in the cattle and stock raising business." John Jackson served as a local freighter and petty landowner. Other discharged buffalo soldiers, including Charlie Owens, Jack Jackson, Hemp P. Jones, and George Bentley, cooperated to build a substantial rock wall to protect their horse herd some four miles north of the post. Bentley, a Kentucky native whose father was the illegitimate son of a white man and a black woman, had joined the army to escape his parents. After retiring from the Ninth Cavalry in 1871, Bentley settled at Fort Davis, married a woman named Concepcion, and had numerous children. [41]

Other former soldiers who made a name for themselves in the local community included Anton Aggerman and Charles Mulhern. Born in Bohemia in early 1859, Aggerman immigrated with his parents to the United States as a youth. He enlisted in 1878 with the Eighth Cavalry; briefly discharged in 1883, he reenlisted with the Sixteenth Infantry the following year. Stationed at forts Davis and Stockton, he joined the hospital corps in 1889 before receiving a special discharge in 1890. Later remembered as "a camp cook and quite a yarn teller," Aggerman, reportedly the last Fort Davis soldier to live in the community, died at the ripe age of 95. [42]

Veteran Charles Mulhern, returned to Fort Davis upon his 1885 discharge. The Irish-born Mulhern had first come to the post on the Limpia in 1878 as an ordnance sergeant before later moving on to Louisiana. He and his wife Eva, a native of Switzerland, had at least four children. Mulhern saved his money and operated a cattle ranch as well as serving as agent for the Fort Davis interests of Lt. Mason M. Maxon. His ranch house three miles southeast of the post became a popular social center. Selling stock to local residents both public and private, a diarist described Mulhern as "living in comparative comfort." He later became a county commissioner. [43]

The Grierson boys remained active in Fort Davis life. Managing the ranch, Robert continued to appear at post and civilian functions, flirting with the girls but growing increasingly lonely without his family and Tenth Cavalry connections. George and Harry Grierson arrived in 1887; following his retirement in 1890, Colonel Grierson divided his time between the Spring Valley Ranch near Fort Davis and his family in Jacksonville. Robert, the backbone of the local operation, again collapsed, depressed over both his mother's death and pressure surrounding the embezzlement of nearly $2,000 in public funds by the county treasurer. As a county commissioner, Robert had promised sureties on the treasurer's personal bond and was held personally accountable for the loss. After placing Robert in a mental home back in Illinois, George and Harry gradually became alienated from their father, who remarried one Lillian King. [44]

Over time the increasing civilian development inevitably disrupted the traditional ways of the military community. The onset of the canteen system and the increased number of private enterprises near the post took away the sutler's competitive edge by the decade's close. Post doctors also changed their habits. Long accustomed to treating civilians as well as members of the military community, the surgeons habitually sold prescription drugs to townspeople. Civilian druggists George W. Geegge and A. B. Legard believed the competition hurt their businesses and complained to the Secretary of War and Congressman S. W. T. Lanham. Although post medical officers charged that Geegge was incompetent, officials immediately forbade the sale of army equipment for private purposes. The army also transferred those most involved in the case, Dr. Paul Clendenin and steward Richard Dare. [45]

Fig. 10:36. Post hospital complex, ca. 1885-88. Note the post magazine to the left of the main hospital buildings. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives.

The military presence greatly affected local politics. The Republicans generally retained their control over the executive branch and thus over the War Department as well. The large number of local military contracts tied residents to the federal government. Discharged soldiers, both black and white, also tended to vote Republican. As such, the party's influence over Fort Davis remained stronger than in the Lone Star state as a whole, which had by the 1880s become solidly Democratic. [46]

Local governmental races thus remained hotly disputed. The legislature had completed the organization of Presidio County in 1875, with Fort Davis designated the county seat. The burgeoning railroad town of Marfa, however, soon began to rival the older community. In a bitterly fought election on July 14, 1885, voters moved the seat of local government to Marfa by a 392 to 302 count. Although prominent Marfa landowner J. M. Dean was accused of fraud, the election stood. Fort Davis retained the jail as a consolation prize. A protest before the state supreme court failed, but a separate Jeff Davis County, with its own county seat at Fort Davis, was created by an act of March 15, 1887. Tensions still ran high in the presidential contest of 1888, with local campaigners allegedly bribing voters with promises of free soda water. [47]

Fort Davis had long been considered one of the army's healthiest positions. Its moderate climate, sheltering canyon walls, and plentiful water supply made it a favorite among military personnel who enjoyed the serene isolation of the Trans-Pecos. It therefore shocked many officials when studies conducted during the mid-1880s showed Davis to have high sickness rates. Although deaths generally remained rare, it had a higher than average incidence of sick and hospital admissions in 1884 and 1885. Conditions grew worse still in 1886, when the constant noneffective rate at Fort Davis (78 per 1,000) was the second highest in the nation. Its hospital admission rate (2.276 visits per soldier per year) led all Great Plains region posts. Abnormally high rates of typhoid, dysentery, malarial fevers, diarrhea, and venereal diseases accounted for the disastrous results. [48]

The figures astonished David S. Stanley, in command of the Department of Texas. Noting the high rates of sickness, Stanley explained that "this is new and somewhat of a disappointment, as Fort Davis, with its temperate climate, has long been reckoned as a good sanitarium for Texas." But a sanitarium could scarcely be built in an unhealthy site. "If further experience shows the water to be unwholesome," warned Stanley, "measures must be taken to vacate the post." [49]

Stanley attributed the declining health to an impure water supply, which had nagged Fort Davis officials since its reoccupation in 1867. Although a large spring lay within the reservation's limits, surgeon Daniel Weisel had reported that "this water . . . was once, for some reasons unknown, condemned as unfit for potable purposes." Until samples of the spring water could be tested, wagons imported water from the nearby Limpia during the early years of the second fort. The spring was back in use by 1876, when increasing complaints of diarrhea led the post adjutant to suggest that drinking water again be hauled in from the Limpia. Two years later, surgeon Ezra Woodruff protested the unrestricted use of its waters by pigs and horses. [50]

Closely related to the water supply were problems of drainage. Floodwaters rushed down Hospital Canyon during heavy rains; few Americans understood the relationship between sanitation, drainage, and disease control during the immediate postwar years. As such, drainage remained "in a great measure natural" as of 1875. Hoping to control the continuing problem of flooding, Napoleon B. McLaughlen ordered his troops to dig a large ditch in the summer of 1880. "I never worked harder in my life than when officers and enlisted men alike were frantically digging the big ditch," recalled a former soldier. [51]

It remained for the inveterate empire builder Benjamin Grierson to attempt decisive action. If Fort Davis were to be the lynchpin of the army's presence in West Texas, a clean, reliable supply of water was essential. At the colonel's behest, Lt. Millard F. Eggleston and Lt. Charles H. Grierson, both of the Tenth Cavalry, joined with civil engineer W. H. Owen to survey a potential waterworks system in April 1883. Their report called for a pipeline from Limpia Creek to the military reservation. Supported by Lt. Gen. Phil Sheridan, the War Department in June 1883 authorized $5,000 for the pump, boiler, cypress tank, and more than 12,000 feet of pipe needed for the system. The appropriation came out of a scant budget of just over $51,000 earmarked for supplying water to military posts located throughout the nation. [52]

Work began immediately. Pipes from the pumphouse, located just south of the Limpia Creek, carried the water over a steep incline directly south to the post, ending at the hospital. Like all of Grierson's projects, initial estimates proved insufficient for the fort's needs. Officials authorized another 2,000 feet of pipe, along with twenty fire hydrants, in December 1883. The existing pump soon failed, so a larger machine was approved the following April. Workers installed a bigger tank in 1886; a new steam pump and boiler were added that year as well. These improvements added another $3,500 to the project's cost. [53]

Despite the revisions, the water system failed to meet the garrison's demands. Medical officials linked the post's high rate of dysentery to the "unwholesome" water supply. The water smelled and tasted foul, "which quality may no doubt be attributed to tadpoles that develope [sic] in large numbers in the distributing tank," according to one surgeon. New filters, vitrified iron piping, and a steam condenser were added in 1887 and 1888, bringing the total amount spent on the water system for Fort Davis to $10,397.81 by early 1888. Fiscal year 1889 saw another $331.95 added to the project. [54]

Fed up with the nagging problems, surgeon Lauderdale took a special interest in the post's water supply. On June 23, 1888, Lauderdale noted that he and the engineer had made a great improvement "upon the thin pea soup emulsion which has been passed round to the people of this Post as distilled water." Five days' additional tinkering with the filter produced water which was "delicious, soft, and free from any odor or taste of machinery oil." But by August 4 even Lauderdale seemed resigned to nature's dominance—thousands of tadpoles and frogs were thriving in the reservoir, making useless all previous attempts to clean the filtering system. [55]

Continued flooding further magnified the growing health problems. Runoff water from the surrounding hills poured through the military reservation, a condition exacerbated by the overgrazing of lands surrounding the post. Despite efforts by post commanders McLaughlen and Grierson, existing drainage ditches proved too shallow to divert waters from the deluge of August 1888. Surgeon Lauderdale grew increasingly vitriolic in his private complaints about the beefy post commander, Col. Melville A. Cochran. According to Lauderdale, floodwaters "washed away the feeble barriers thrown up by our fat commander who does not seem to know as much about looking after the interests of a Post as Barnum's fat boy. I do not think that fat men are good for the service," continued the surgeon, "as they are too sluggish in their minds to do much real work." [56]

Flooding frequently disrupted the daily routine. Between May 16 and August 31, 1890, runoff waters from the surrounding hills broke through an earthen embankment immediately west of the officers' row on five separate occasions. In several instances it inundated the officers' quarters. Post surgeon J. O. Skinner attributed the high number of remittent fever cases among the families of officers during the same period to the floodwaters. Post commander Samuel Overshine agreed. Repairing the ditch seemed useless; although the major believed that new ditches and a masonry reinforcing wall might prevent flooding, such measures would consume enormous amounts of labor. But he did not favor using the garrison to complete the task, and admitted that private contracts would be extremely expensive. After a series of additional reports, new post commander William A. Kellogg concluded that such action "would not be advisable unless this is quite certain to be a permanent station." [57]

Along with their efforts to secure a better water supply, to improve sanitation, and to reduce the risk of disease-ridden floodwaters, medical officers hoped to uplift personal hygiene. Troubled by the lack of adequate bathing facilities, Capt. John T. Morrison used his company fund to procure enough zinc for two bathtubs in 1884. Only in 1888, however, did official monies become available to construct two bathhouses, complete with hot and cold running water, for the command as a whole. Hot water connections to six sets of officers' quarters were authorized two years later. [58]

Upkeep of the post also declined. An 1887 inspector feared that the accumulation of filth under the floors of the enlisted men's barracks would lead to an outbreak of typhoid fever. "The kitchens all need repair," he added. "Bakehouses not neatly kept." The privies also demanded special attention. Although acknowledging that the post's "general appearance . . . has been much improved," the inspector concluded that "there is a great deal yet to be done, in order to put the post in proper condition." [59]

Five barracks underwent substantial repair following the inspector's criticism, leading surgeon Lauderdale to conclude that both officers' and enlisted men's quarters at Davis surpassed comparable accommodations at rival Fort Clark. By 1888 four cottonwood trees also lined the area in front of officers' row. The trees as yet provided but little shade, but madeira vines sheltered the front porches. Bermuda grass further improved the area's appearance. In yet another effort to keep the livestock from nearby ranches from destroying everything in their wake, Colonel Cochran oversaw construction of "a rustic fence" in front of officers' row the next year. [60]

With such conditions placing everyone on edge, the petty rivalries so common to the frontier army again reached crisis proportions at Fort Davis during the latter 1880s. Lt. Col. Paul Clendenin received stern orders to avoid meddling in the affairs of others. Dr. Daniel M. Appel protested his transfer from the relative comfort of Davis to the wilds of Fort Hancock. The daughter and wife of Capt. Frank D. Baldwin, on the other hand, complained just as bitterly about having to remain at Davis. Mary Swan Thompson, embittered about her husband's failure to win the promotion she believed he richly deserved, concluded that "life in Texas is a dreary round." [61]

Surgeon John Lauderdale continued the long-standing feud between medical and line officers at Fort Davis. Angry at a thousand real and imagined slights, Lauderdale shunned any social encounters with Joseph M. Partello. But he reserved his choicest criticisms for his post commander, Melville Cochran. "That heavyweight next door has been tramping up and down his porch for the last half hour making a fearful racket. I suppose he is trying to reduce his weight by exercise," wrote Lauderdale. Of Cochran's subsequent efforts to walk off a few pounds, the surgeon confided: "If he should consult me I would say start for Marfa and if that does not do it right on towards San Antonio." [62]

In 1885 Surgeon Gen. Robert Murray had recommended that all posts in Texas and Arizona be furnished with ice machines. Demand quickly outpaced monies; the ice maker for Fort Davis did not arrive until mid-August 1888. After lengthy disputes, surgeon Lauderdale, quartermaster Partello, and commander Cochran agreed to place the machine in the now abandoned band quarters. As members of the garrison set up the ice maker, Lauderdale charged his archrival Partello with illegally diverting the building materials purchased from the medical department's funds to the quartermaster's office. "I never was at a Post where I had to encounter such a selfish pig of a q.m.," complained the surgeon, who engaged in "a rather hot discussion" over the matter with Cochran. [63]

The availability of ice seemed a godsend to the sick, and allowed the garrison to store game and seafood. But the ice machine, which broke down frequently and consumed huge quantities of fuel, proved a continual headache for the irascible Lauderdale. On the evening of June 23, 1889, the newly refurbished icehouse burned. "To be without ice for even a few weeks . . . in this country, will cause much discomfort and sickness," reported the Fort Davis columnist for the Army and Navy Journal. Considering the constant turmoil and high costs, it was not surprising that the post's chief medical official quarreled with officers of the line. Lauderdale charged "that the q.m. and his employes [sic] have been cheating us in the delivery of fuel." A board of survey's forty-one page report on the ice house capers proved inconclusive, as no one could verify the amount of fuel actually delivered. [64]

Thus in spite of repeated efforts to improve health at Fort Davis, confusion reigned. Medical knowledge, though becoming increasingly sophisticated, was unable to meet the complex demands of the frontier environment. The post's primitive system of wooden privies and dry earth closets was ill-designed to encourage effective cleanup efforts. Despite prodding by medical men, line officers frequently made only half-hearted attempts to police the post. In 1890 Davis remained less than ideal as a prospective permanent station—its noneffective rate of 6.28 per 1,000 men was the thirteenth highest in the nation. [65]

In 1882 the completion of the Texas & Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads heralded a new era for Fort Davis. To many it signaled a brighter day—the powerful locomotives presaged faster and surer communications, better supplies, and a whole new range of possibilities. Its proximity to the railroad and healthy climate marked Davis as one of the southwest's most important military positions, reasoned the editors of the influential Army and Navy Journal. But others seemed less sanguine. "We are no longer the frontier," warned the Fort Davis correspondent for the San Antonio Daily Express, "for we will have fallen into the embrace of the iron monster and will possibly perish beneath its wheels." [66]

The latter observation proved correct. For with the easier access to "civilization," the railroad also made it easier for the army to transfer its soldiers to trouble spots throughout the West. Patrols continued only sporadically. Pvt. John Wood and Cpl. Julian Longorio made the last recorded scout against Indians on Fort Davis records in February 1888, riding seventy miles from the subpost at Nevill's Springs down the Rio Grande. With the Indian military presence eliminated, the twenty-odd miles to Marfa, the most important depot serving Fort Davis, were just enough to make Fort Davis seem misplaced. Wouldn't it be easier, officials wondered, to have a major reserve base directly on the railroad? [67]

General Stanley echoed those sentiments in two 1887 reports. In August he noted that "Fort Davis is very much out of place; it is inconvenient to get to it and to draw troops from it, and it is expensive. It is only kept up because we can not do without it." Later that year, Stanley launched an even more ominous threat to the post on the Limpia. He pinpointed three strategic spots along the Mexican border, all of which coincided with a railroad entering that country—El Paso, Laredo, and Eagle Pass. He believed El Paso most important, but decried "the entire unfitness of the present post for a military station." Stanley suggested that the army acquire a better site three miles east of the city. "I recommend that a post for a full regiment be built upon the site referred to," he remarked, "and upon its completion, that Fort Davis be abandoned." [68]

Stanley's recommendations regarding Fort Davis won little support from his superiors, as orders went out in April 1888 readying the Eighth Cavalry, five companies of which were then stationed at Fort Davis, for transfer to Dakota. Replacing the Eighth's troops at Davis would be elements of the Sixteenth Infantry. Stanley again questioned the wisdom of occupying the Limpia post. "Davis must be maintained," responded War Department officials in no uncertain terms. By contrast, a recommendation for the abandonment of Fort Concho would "be considered." But the general refused to sanction such a move, claiming that recent robberies of the U.S. mails near Concho necessitated that post's continued occupation. [69]

Stanley renewed his offensive against Fort Davis the following year. Of the nine regular military posts in Texas, the United States government now owned six; the title to another was in question. Only forts Concho and Davis were still under lease. Showing a slight change of heart, Stanley admitted that Concho could be abandoned. But he remained firm on Davis, which was too far away from the Rio Grande and the railroads to be of much use. A three-company post at Peña Colorado, formerly a subpost of Davis, would be more valuable. [70]

Stanley's reports ran into stiff opposition from new commanding general of the army John Schofield. Although the two men were close friends, Schofield having been instrumental in securing Stanley his first general's star, the commanding general rejected the immediate abandonment of Fort Davis. Instead, on September 27, 1889, he asked that shelter be erected there for six cannon. Stanley got the message; in response to a request for a list of posts to be abandoned, he replied that none within his department fit that category. [70a]

But Schofield then unwittingly confused matters in the process of making out his own recommendations. In a letter of March 20, 1890, he listed sixteen posts suitable for abandonment if accommodations for the garrisons could be found elsewhere. Fort Davis was not among these; instead, it fell into a different list, marked number two. A clerk reported in a note dated April 2 that in regard to those posts marked number two, "their abandonment has been recommended but not fully determined upon." Schofield attempted to clarify the situation on April 29, when he explained that a "clerical error" of April 2 "makes it appear that I had recommended that the following posts be abandoned, viz.: . . . Fort Davis, Texas. . . . These are the posts in respect to which the question was presented for consideration, but upon which no recommendation was made by me." Schofield thus remained convinced of Fort Davis' military value. The transfer of four additional companies to the post that spring seemed a further indication of the army's desire to maintain Davis. [71]

Schofield reiterated his support for its occupation in October 1890, when he suggested that empty quarters at Davis or Clark be used to eliminate overcrowding in Arizona. Observers also interpreted events later that year as heralding a permanent occupation. The Fifth Infantry Regiment, of which two companies had been at Davis since 1888, was alerted for a possible move in response to Indian disturbances which culminated in the Wounded Knee disaster of December 1890. But the transfer call never came. "Now that the Indian trouble is settled and the 5th Infantry are not to leave, the officers and companies here are unpacking and settling down to garrison life once more," reported a writer for the Army and Navy Journal. [72]

But Secretary of War Redfield Proctor, in addition to championing disciplinary and subsistence reforms, advocated the abandonment of useless frontier forts. As he reasoned, "I am always glad to reduce the number of posts as I think it advisable to make them as large and have as few as possible—we can thus have better ones." During a spring tour in 1891 the Secretary caught the train out to San Antonio. There, on March 24, he met General Stanley and his staff and discussed "many important matters relative to the defence of the Rio Grande." Proctor also visited Eagle Pass, Fort Clark, and Del Rio. [73]

Upon his return to Washington he reported his findings to Congressman S. W. T. Lanham, whose Trans-Pecos district would be most affected by possible changes. Proctor believed a large post at El Paso advisable. Although Fort Hancock seemed "neither necessary nor desirable," the new buildings there meant a continued army presence. On Fort Davis, however, the Secretary delivered bad news: "Both General Schofield and General Stanley think that Fort Davis is not needed. It is so far away from the railway that it is not thought desirable to maintain it longer. The troops will probably be withdrawn from there before the first of July." [74]

Local residents and merchants had long feared such a move. In September 1885 when conditions in Arizona and the Indian territory demanded the reduction of the Davis garrison, no fewer than 108 persons petitioned the president of the United States for a larger garrison. Another two-pronged campaign was initiated in 1889. While Lieutenant Colonel Cochran and Lieutenant Partello promised their support, Fort Davis citizens called upon prominent former residents like Benjamin Grierson to add their influence. And in 1890 a worried S. A. Thompson queried Congressman Lanham: "It is reported here that a bill has been introduced in the 'House' for the abandonment of this Military Post. Please let me know if such is the case, and if you feel bound to support such a move, who it is that is advocating the above document," inquired Thompson. [75]

Local residents knew of Proctor's decision to abandon Fort Davis by April 1. Venerable old Daniel Murphy offered one final plea to Secretary of State James G. Blaine. To Murphy it seemed foolish for the military to leave what would soon become "the richest mineral belt on the Continent south of us to the Pacific." This would leave the entire Big Bend region open "to the most unlaw abiding people of bought [both] countryes and we are liable at any time to be plased in a disagreeable pocession [position]." [76]

The lack of protest from Texas's congressional delegation to the move is an unsolved riddle. Military posts meant big money; representatives usually fought like tigers to protect the economic interests of their constituents. Indeed, Texas Sen. John Reagan struggled to keep Fort Elliott open; Lanham protected Fort Bliss, Fort Elliott, and the post at Del Rio. The latter camp, in fact, boasted special lobbying. In August 1890 General Schofield admitted that "the representative in Congress from that portion of Texas has been to see me several times on this subject [of Del Rio]." But no record has been found to indicate that Davis had such a champion. Its small population and the Republican tendencies of its voters meant that it had little political clout. Presumably, closing Fort Davis seemed economically sensible and politically feasible. [77]

Stanley and Proctor had agreed to evacuate all troops from Davis by June 30, 1891, the end of the fiscal year. At the time of their meeting, four companies of the Twenty-third Infantry, one company of the Fifth Infantry, and one troop of the Third Cavalry garrisoned the post. The cavalry troop was sent to Fort Hancock. The Twenty-third Infantry received orders to move to Forts McIntosh and Bliss. Company F, Fifth Infantry, would remain at Fort Davis until government property had been moved or sold, after which it would go to Fort Sam Houston. [78]

Post quartermaster Charles B. Hardin oversaw the details of the military evacuation. The inventory of public property began on May 15. Quartermaster stores, uniforms, nonperishable foodstuffs, and chapel furniture were shipped to San Antonio. The post library went to Fort Hancock. On June 19 Hardin auctioned off condemned food and medical supplies, fuel, and forage at a public sale. Civilian residents snapped up the goods in an auction which netted the government nearly three thousand dollars. [79]

Military personnel dreaded transfers such as this. In addition to the usual problems of any move—the invariable scramble for boxes, crates, and packing materials—the garrison faced the army's chronic shortage of transport. Two years earlier, the men of F Troop, Eighth Cavalry, when faced with a similar dilemma, each contributed a dollar (officers gave five dollars) toward the purchase of a light spring wagon to move more of their belongings. Excess goods were sold at bargain rates, particularly when faced with the competition of the government auction of 1891. "To sell anything of value in this poor country at its real worth is almost impossible," complained a victim of such a depressed auction, "and many things will have to be sold at a sacrifice." [80]

The troops had left by July 3; Lieutenant Hardin and Pvt. William Boyer, Company F, Fifth Infantry, remained behind making final arrangements. His task completed, Hardin first engaged Thomas Kiess as custodian for the abandoned public buildings. When Kiess accepted other employment, Hardin recommended a local resident, Joseph Grainger. [81]

The decision to abandon Fort Davis thus came as part of the army's general efforts to consolidate its scattered frontier garrisons. Secretary of War Redfield Proctor proudly reported that twenty-eight posts had been abandoned between June 1, 1889, and November 3, 1891. In explaining the evacuation of Fort Davis, Stanley noted: "Fort Davis had outlived its usefulness as a military station, and yet it is to be regretted that it was discontinued, owing to its salubrious climate and its usefulness as a government sanitary hospital, to which enfeebled soldiers could be sent." [82]

Fig. 10:37. East side of Fort Davis, ca. 1900. Note the ruins of the old post trader's complex in the foreground. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives.

Charles Mulhern, a former soldier now acting as estate manager for Lt. Mason M. Maxon, cogently reported the effects of the military's abandonment. "Plenty of houses in Davis now and no one to live in them," he wrote. "As you say yourself the Bottom is out of Ft. Davis." Mulhern later added to his worried client: "There is no chance to sell property of any kind now as for leasing houses there is no chance to get a tenant." An immediate economic depression indeed followed the withdrawal of the military garrison. Although most settlers remained, the captive market offered by the army was gone. The John James family, owners of the former military reservation, rented out buildings for residences for several years. But the buildings inevitably fell into disrepair as looting and weather took their toll on stone and lumber. [83]

Fort Davis is among the most representative of all frontier forts. Established before the Civil War, it was occupied for nearly fifty years as the nation achieved what many believed to be its manifest destiny—the conquest of a continent. This victory was not without cost, particularly to the region's early inhabitants. The Indians of the Trans-Pecos—Apaches, Comanches, Jumanos—were removed as distinct cultural entities. With them went most traces of their diverse cultures and societies. Although descendants of the Spanish and Mexican explorers and settlers remained and made important contributions to West Texas development, nineteenth century racism often restricted their political influence.

The army had played a major role in the western expansion of the United States. In establishing and garrisoning posts like Davis, it encouraged non-Indian settlement and development. It offered at least limited protection to overland emigrants and to those who elected to settle in the vicinity. Limited in numbers and mobility and befuddled by the hit and run raids of the Indians, whose true skills were often unfairly belittled by contemporary military theorists, the army's umbrella was rarely foolproof. Westerners and more particularly Texans frequently criticized the army's efforts.

In the Trans-Pecos, warfare against the Indians was rarely conclusive. Long campaigns exhausted many a man and beast but only infrequently resulted in decisive combat. Skirmishing and pursuit rather than the stereotypical Hollywood-style cavalry charge were the order of the day. Yet in the end, the frontier regulars stubbornly did the job assigned them by the federal government. As non-Indian settlement increased and the railroads arrived, old haunts and hunting grounds were progressively reduced and the Indians removed.

During its tenure as a military establishment, Fort Davis housed some of the army's most colorful characters: Henry Flipper, first black graduate of West Point; William "Pecos Bill" Shafter, rugged veteran who later defeated the Spanish in Cuba; Benjamin Grierson, Civil War hero and unsuccessful empire-builder; Frank Baldwin, awarded two Medals of Honor. Others of less repute but of equal interest include a series of chief medical officers such as DeWitt C. Peters, Daniel Weisel, and John Lauderdale, whose constant harping upon health conditions infuriated post commanders but saved numerous lives. And just as remarkable were the enlisted men who endured low pay and long hours to build lives for themselves—Charles Mulhern, Thomas Forsyth, Anton Aggerman, and George Bentley representing but a small sample.

After the Civil War the army decided that four of its regiments should be comprised of black enlisted men. Each of these four units (Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry) served at Fort Davis. This experience, combined with the large Hispanic civilian community in the region, makes Fort Davis a prime target for analyzing the stratified racial relations of nineteenth-century America. With few exceptions, white soldiers and civilians considered blacks, Hispanics, and Indians to be inferior, and treated these peoples accordingly. Although frontier necessity often blurred these color lines, available evidence strongly suggests that racial prejudice permeated post society.

Like many frontier military establishments, Fort Davis attracted a colorful variety of settlers and drifters. Some settled down and contributed mightily to regional development. Wives, children, and assorted military dependents helped the soldiers carve out lives for themselves amidst the picturesque Davis Mountains. Laundresses and post traders also played a crucial role in bringing American culture and society to the region. Other opportunists, looking for the main chance, came and went as frequently as did the constantly changing garrison itself.

Fort Davis thus reflected in a microcosm many salient features of the frontier military. Women were not accorded full equality, but because of their relative scarcity were allowed greater freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities than was often the case back East. Walls did not enclose the post's sprawling buildings, as danger from Indian attack was minimal. The bluecoats spent far more of their time building and performing day-to-day chores than they did fighting Indians. Although many a ne'er-do-well joined their ranks, the soldiers were by and large solid citizens who left behind their permanent imprint upon the American psyche.

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2008