History of Fort Davis, Texas
NPS Logo


During the 1870s the army turned away from Reconstruction and reinforced its frontier posts as the Democratic party returned to power throughout the South. The military Department of Texas was transferred to the sprawling Division of the Missouri, commanded by the energetic Philip Sheridan. The garrison at Fort Davis also changed its priorities. As at least rudimentary shelters became available, more and more soldiers could operate against Indians. In a series of grueling marches, Davis-based troops crisscrossed the Trans-Pecos, and established subposts throughout the region. Others guarded strategic waterholes, further limiting Indian mobility. Better coordination with Mexican military forces and increased settlement also facilitated the army's efforts. In sum, aggressive military operations, the new outposts, the advancing non-Indian frontiers, and better relations between the U.S. and Mexico combined to eliminate the Indian presence in West Texas.

One survey has documented nineteen definite and six possible encounters between Indians and non-Indians in the Fort Davis vicinity between January 1869 and December 1877. A federal commission studying Indian depredations in Texas concentrated its efforts on the lower Rio Grande region, but added, almost as an afterthought, that along the frontiers "the sufferings of the settlers are grievous." A congressional committee alleged that Indians had killed more than one hundred white males between 1872 and 1874, with a similar number of women and children captured. It attributed the loss of more than one hundred thousand cattle and horses to Indian theft during the same period. [1]

Joseph J. Reynolds, military chief in Texas for most of the period from 1868 to 1871, had found the politics of Reconstruction more interesting than formulating an effective strategy against Indians. His efforts to defeat the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Kickapoo proved uninspired. The lack of horses seemed an insurmountable burden. In August 1870 Edward Hatch speculated that a winter campaign such as that recently conducted across the southern Plains might "cripple" the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. But alas, "active operations against the Indians from this post conducted without cessation will reduce the horses to so few, the winter operations which are the most important cannot be made effective." Rather than taking the initiative, post commanders launched erratically timed patrols. Orders to Lt. Irwin M. Starr in March 1871 betrayed the timidity. "If possible," Starr should punish the Indians, but only if he could do so while exercising "care and judgment" in taking "good care" of troops and government animals. He should take no risks that might "endanger the safety" of his command. [2]

Fig. 7:19. Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter, commander of Fort Davis in 1871 and 1881-82. During his colorful tenure in West Texas he earned the nickname "Pecos Bill." Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, AA-58.

Like so many of his colleagues on the military frontiers, William R. Shafter, who first took command at Fort Davis in 1871, had compiled an impressive Civil War record. Able, imaginative, and dedicated to the army, Shafter enlisted as a lieutenant in 1861 and rose to brevet brigadier general of volunteers by 1865. Congress later awarded him the Medal of Honor for his work at the Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia. Having commanded a black regiment in the Civil War, it was natural that Shafter, who would ultimately balloon to well over three hundred pounds, should receive the lieutenant colonelcy of the Twenty-fourth Infantry. [3]

The imperious Shafter's constant bullying and dogged determination offended many subordinates. Yet whatever his faults, Shafter quickly made his presence known. He saw little need for more men or buildings at Fort Davis. Rather than the four companies suggested by department commander Reynolds, Shafter believed three companies were capable of handling any contingency. "In fact except to guard the El Paso Mail I am unable to discover the necessity for a single soldier at this post as there is not now nor ever will be an honest permanent settler from the head of the main Concho [River] to this post," he observed. As for new construction projects, Shafter again outlined a clear-cut position: outside of a few necessities, no additional construction was necessary. "I believe that beyond what I have stated every dollar expended here in building more will be thrown away if this is to be a three or four company post." [4]

Shafter's impact on scouting expeditions was equally visible, his aggressiveness reflecting the army's more general shift from Reconstruction to Indian affairs. His predecessors had worked hard but lacked inspiration. The head of a typical 1870 scout reported that his men "had marched a distance of about 187 miles, without seeing any signs of Indians and without injury to men or stock." The vast majority turned up nothing of value, a rare exception being that led by Capt. Francis S. Dodge. In January 1871 the Dodge expedition, including at least two companies from Fort Davis, surprised a group of Mescalero Apaches. The bluecoats claimed to have killed twenty-five Indians while admitting only one wounded among their own forces. [5]

Rather than assigning the task to junior officers, Shafter took the field himself. On June 16, 1871, Comanches hit the Barrilla Springs mail station, running off forty-four mules and horses belonging to A Company, Twenty-fourth Infantry. News of the attack reached Fort Davis two days later. Shafter assembled all of his available cavalry—thirty-four men of C Troop, Tenth Cavalry—Asst. Surgeon Daniel Weisel, Lt. Isaiah McDonald, and Lt. William Gerhard. They left Davis on June 19, picking up reinforcements at Barrilla Springs in the form of Capt. Michael Cooney's Ninth Cavalry detachment from Fort Stockton. [6]

Now boasting eighty-six officers and men, the command followed the trail left by stolen animals north and east toward the Pecos River. Circling back to the west, they sighted an Indian village in the distance. Shafter had few options in the treeless plain. Dispatching fifteen soldiers to seize the animals, Shafter led the rest of his troopers in a headlong charge. Although shots rang out from both sides, no one was hurt, the Indians enjoying too much of a head start. Shafter burned the village and resumed the pursuit. With rations running low, he gave up the trail on July 2 at the Pecos River. The lone captive, a seventy-year-old Indian woman, provided some useful information about the tribes on the Staked Plains. Still, the lieutenant colonel's initial effort had done little to deter Indian raiders. [7]

Shafter conducted another reconnaissance in October. With four officers, one acting assistant surgeon, two guides, and seventy-five enlisted men from I and K Troops, Ninth Cavalry, and G Company, Twenty-fifth Infantry, Shafter entered the region south of Peña Blanca. Although he found numerous signs of Indians, the mountainous terrain and convenient escape routes across the Rio Grande made it impossible to force the mobile bands to battle. [8]

The failure to achieve immediate results did not weaken Shafter's resolve. "I am desirous of making a long scout as soon as the grass is good through the country north of here," he promised. More horses would allow him "to thoroughly scour the country with cavalry." Like most at Fort Davis, Shafter attributed the depredations to tribes from the Fort Stanton reservation in New Mexico. New department chief Brig. Gen. Christopher C. Augur supported Shafter's determined stance. Post commanders should "be not content with a mere formal pursuit of a few days . . . but see that a vigorous, determined and continued effort, even to the extent of privation to men and horses, if necessary, be made to overtake and punish the marauders." They must avoid sending expeditions "under officers who have made up their minds before starting that nothing could be done," Augur ordered. "With such leaders nothing will be done, and it is mere folly to send them out." [9]

Fig. 7:20. Col. George L. Andrews, commander of Fort Davis, 1872-73, 1874-76, and 1876-78. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, AA-17.

But Augur could not spare troops for every corner of the state. For most of 1871 and early 1872, he sought to shield the state's northern frontiers and to penetrate the Staked Plains, a task made exceedingly difficult by President Grant's avowed Peace Policy, which called for nonviolent solutions to U.S.-Indian conflicts. In February 1872 the garrison at Fort Davis fell to a low of 110 enlisted men. As a result, Shafter cut back the number of men assigned to the mail stations. New recruits that spring brought the two companies of infantry (from the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry) and one Ninth Cavalry troop to 149. With little more than a corporal's guard, the garrison launched no scouts or expeditions against Indians during the first quarter of 1872. [10]

Col. George L. Andrews, Twenty fifth Infantry, replaced Shafter, called away to participate in a campaign along the upper Brazos River, as post commander effective May 26, 1872. With several interruptions, he commanded the post for four years during the 1870s. Andrews proved much less aggressive than Shafter. Five parties took the field during the second quarter of 1872, but the largest group boasted only nineteen men; four of the expeditions were directed against "Mexican thieves" rather than Indians. Active campaigning became even less common in subsequent years; from the third quarter of 1872 until the end of 1876, Fort Davis mounted only twenty-eight scouts or expeditions. Sixty-nine men comprised the largest column; the second largest was forty-six; most numbered fewer than thirty. [11]

The record seems unimpressive until one considers Fort Davis's active support for wider defense efforts, exploration, and road building projects throughout the 1870s. Capt. Louis H. Carpenter's late summer expedition of 1875 typifies such fragmentation. Consisting of his own troop of Tenth cavalrymen and I Company, Twenty-fifth Infantry, its original assignment had been to help patrol the Eagle Spring area. Carrying five days rations and two hundred rounds of ammunition per man, the eight wagons, eight mules, three guides, three packers, and tents for every two officers and men slowed the group's progress. Shortening the road around Eagle Spring took precedence over finding any Indians. For a determined officer like Carpenter, whose combat record won high marks from as tough a taskmaster as Phil Sheridan, the need to balance fighting Indians with auxiliary tasks must have been maddening. Although his unit had marched an aggregate of 1,153 miles "and mapped the country," it had caught no Indians. [12]

Civilian demands for military protection exacerbated the dilemma facing Andrews. Small detachments guarded ranches throughout the area. Since 1871 at least twelve men from the post had usually guarded the mail stations; since 1873 the garrison furnished four men per week as stage escorts. Andrews summed up recent efforts in November 1875. For the past four months, his six-company garrison boasted a mean strength of just over two hundred. Detached service claimed an average of sixty-three of these men. This left too few soldiers either to conduct proper military drills or to campaign effectively against Indians. [13]


QuarterYear Total Number
of Scouts and
led by
Enlisted Men
Size of
not reported

Source: "Tabular Statement of Expeditions and Scouts Against Indians," Fort Davis Records.

Furnishing guards for ranches, mail stations, and stagecoaches helped appease local demands and ensure the relative safety of scheduled overland travel. But such efforts drained manpower and exhausted the garrison. In addition to their scouting duties, the troops had worked on several major construction projects. Manpower levels, particularly in the infantry companies, failed to meet such demands. "My men are now getting but one night in bed," complained Colonel Andrews. The Fort Davis experience proved typical. "McIntosh, Quitman, and Bliss have only about a corporals guard for duty . . . cases of sleeping on post, on account of but one night in bed are crowding upon me," wrote department commander E. O. C. Ord. [14]

Recognizing the problem, Shafter had reduced the number of men assigned to the mail stations. Andrews eventually withdrew the guards from several points entirely. Department headquarters soon noticed this "oversight," however, and ordered Andrews to reestablish the detachments between Fort Davis and Quitman. He obediently dispatched a noncommissioned officer and three men to each station, but wondered if the stage companies should not be forced to hire their own guards. Unenthusiastic about the project, in late 1872 Andrews found himself responsible for even more positions when the War Department reduced the already undermanned Fort Quitman to a single company. Consequently, Fort Davis now bore the responsibility for guarding two additional stations—Van Horn's Wells and the ever-dangerous Eagle Spring, on the path of an Apache trail into Mexico. [15]

Uneasiness characterized relations between the military and the mailmen. The station keepers and stage drivers, many of whom were Confederate veterans, resented the presence of black troops, and the regulars soon found themselves relegated to menial tasks. Although most keepers reluctantly provided the guards with quarters, the Leon Springs boss kept the soldiers in tents. He also neglected to issue rations. Several stage drivers refused to carry the black men, thus forcing several soldiers to walk to either Davis or Stockton for food. At Barrilla Springs, a stage driver took a shot at a private; the abused soldier finally dropped the driver with a well-aimed rifle shot. Lieutenant Colonel Shafter vigorously protested the ill-treatment. "I shall be glad to furnish mail escorts as long as they are wanted but they must be properly treated," thundered Shafter. "They should either be fed by the Company or allowed facilities for cooking their own rations [and] a decent place to stay in while at the station and invariably brought back by first return stage." [16]

One of many scandals in the corruption-riddled Grant administration involved the postal department, further dividing the military and the private mail company. In attempting to reform his scandal-ridden ministry, new postmaster general Marshall Jewell halved the company's federal subsidy. Service between San Antonio and El Paso quickly deteriorated; the army began carrying its own mail between Forts Bliss, Quitman, Davis, Stockton, and Concho in October 1875. Although more dependable civilian service was restored early the following year, several carriers complained about carrying black military guards on their stages. But in September 1877 an Indian attack on a civilian hay camp near the Van Horn station spawned renewed calls for army protection. [17]

Colonel Andrews contemplated sweeping revisions in the military escort system that November. Except during the biannual sessions of the district court, almost no passengers took the stage, which ran a biweekly buckboard and weekly coach between El Paso and Fort Concho. He doubted the need for mail service between Davis and El Paso and complained that the drivers merely eased their own burdens by assigning the soldiers menial tasks. With ten percent of his infantrymen involved in such duties, he maintained that "discipline suffers accordingly." Having outlined these criticisms, he warned that "a loud out-cry" would nonetheless accompany the removal of army guards. [18]

Andrews's report had little impact, and another incident disrupted relations in November 1878. Mailmen charged that Sgt. Joseph Jenkins's detachment had stolen an express package at El Muerto. Jenkins vigorously defended his men, antagonizing the civilian stage and postal workers in the process. Subsequent investigators concluded that the cook at El Muerto, previously fired from the Davis stage station, had in fact taken the package. Superiors approved of the sergeant's actions; Captain Carpenter informed Jenkins that he "was pleased with the way in which you look after things at your present station." In reporting the incident to district officials, Carpenter theorized that the driver had been drunk. Furthermore, the latter's claim that Jenkins had delayed the mail "was a lie" which merited his discharge. [19]

Lingering distrust between soldiers and civilians along the mail lines again surfaced in 1880. At Barrilla Springs the stage men rejected military escorts without direct orders. The army in turn refused to send mails without proper protection. The feud further degenerated as Pvt. George Taylor challenged one driver to a fight. Hoping to cool tempers, Cpl. J. F. Ukkerd implemented new orders which forbade his men from hitching or unhitching the stagecoach horses. He also reported Taylor's provocation. The hot-headed Taylor "demanded to know where the black son of a bitch was who reported him" and threatened to "beat you as I beat all the other sons of bitches that try to get me in trouble." For his latest outcry, Taylor again found himself put on report. Despite such disciplinary action, ill will among soldiers and civilian stage workers continued to fester. [20]

During the early 1870s a communication from Fort Davis took about ten days just to reach San Antonio. The army had long recognized the importance of improving communications, and actively supported telegraph and railroad construction. Budgetary concerns, however, led Congress to kill an 1873 bill authorizing the War Department to construct and operate 1,483 miles of telegraph lines in Texas. The estimated $125-per-mile cost seemed too expensive to a tight-fisted Congress. The following year, the army successfully submitted a smaller package—1,275 miles of telegraph lines at $100 per mile. [21]

Lt. Adolphus W. Greely, who would later gain greater fame for his arctic explorations, directed the project. High costs continually beset Greely's efforts. Too, the laborious task of staking out the line, distributing the poles, digging the holes, planting the poles, and stringing the wires demanded enormous amounts of the soldiers' time and labor. But the work continued, with Fort Davis troops actively participating in the undertaking. In late September 1878 Lt. George Andrews, Jr. [the colonel's son], and Cpl. J. M. Kistler (Signal Corps) took thirty-one infantrymen to extend the telegraph toward El Paso. Overcoming supply deficiencies, young Andrews finally linked up with eastbound construction teams by February 1, 1879, having constructed more than ninety-one miles of wire. [22]

By 1880 the army maintained telegraph stations at Fort Concho, Grierson's Spring, Fort Stockton, Fort Davis, and El Paso. Noncommissioned personnel from the Signal Corps operated the wires; local boys earned forty cents a day delivering messages. Although floods and high winds often downed the lines, the military telegraph dramatically improved communications between the western posts. For the first time officials had a real chance to coordinate the efforts of the scattered garrisons. [23]

Troops at Fort Davis also laid military roads, easing travel through Musquiz and Limpia Canyons. Other efforts reduced the distance by road from San Antonio to Fort Davis to just over 390 miles. From Fort Davis Chaplain George Mullins marveled at the new road to Stockton, but noted the often dangerous nature of such work. "The labor was herculean and the work accomplished positively wonderful. Unfortunately, two of the enlisted men were blown up—and one noble fellow is blind for life." Soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry became especially proficient road builders, with Capt. George Schooley known as a champion construction foreman. In December 1879 a fellow officer teased: "I don't think there will be any hill in the vicinity when he gets done." [24]

Its manpower stretched by such diverse assignments, the understrength mounted contingent at Fort Davis proved unable to handle all its duties. In March 1876 new recruits pushed the average strength of the five companies of the Twenty-fifth Infantry to forty-five enlisted men, while the Tenth Cavalry's lone troop at Davis mustered but forty-five men and forty-four serviceable horses. The manpower pressures eventually forced Andrews to withdraw guards formerly afforded local ranchers. Matters further deteriorated the following spring, when hard campaigning left the troop with only eight serviceable horses. One inspector wryly concluded that the command was "inefficient for field operations." [25]

Service in the field frustrated officer and enlisted man alike. Forced marches under the blazing sun seemed useless as Trans-Pecos warriors eluded the army's clumsy efforts. Personnel stationed at Fort Davis undoubtedly echoed the sentiments of one junior officer, who after a particularly fruitless trek across the Panhandle concluded that "it seems that the 10th Cavalry is particularly blessed with incompetent commanders. . . . This poor regiment has been led by damn fools," he wrote. [26]

Responsibilities along the Mexican border further drained the garrison at Fort Davis. With the close of the Civil War and the federal reoccupation of the Texas frontiers, trade along the Chihuahua Trail expanded rapidly. Large caravans gathered at San Antonio and Chihuahua City to make the long but profitable journey. En route to Mexico the freighters carried mining machinery, baled cotton, and small manufactured goods. During the late 1860s and early 1870s large numbers of cattle, bound to restock the Mexican haciendas devastated by years of French invasion and domestic turbulence, also accompanied the traders. On the return trip the wagons hauled hides, minted coins, and gold and silver bullion. In 1875 one of the carts also bore Mexico's contribution to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition—a large meteorite. [27]

Although John D. Burgess blazed a shortcut which bypassed Fort Davis, the military post along the Limpia continued to play a vital role in the Chihuahua trade. Not only did the garrison provide an excellent market for Mexican produce, but post commanders detached military escorts for the larger trains. August Santleben, one of the most successful of these merchants, carried a shipment of nearly $400,000 in Mexican silver in 1876. On the advice of two officer friends at Fort Davis, Santleben secured escorts from department commander Brig. Gen. E. O. C. Ord. Several posts dispatched guards of twenty-five men to protect the valuable cargo. Impressed by the military's performance, a grateful Santleben gave the last group two boxes of cigars and a keg of Budweiser beer. [28]

The lively Chihuahua trade proved an economic boon to the twin Rio Grande settlements at Presidio del Norte—Presidio (on the U.S. side) and Ojinaga (on the Mexican side). By the 1870s observers credited the towns with a population of three thousand. Both governments maintained customs houses along the great river, although high duties and lax enforcement prompted many traders to circumvent official channels. Bands of sheep, goats, and burros roamed the streets, and large vineyards and fields in the surrounding areas supplied military garrisons on both sides of the river. Nightly fandangos and the colorful lifestyles of the trail hands, merchants, smugglers, ne'er do wells, and assorted government officials gave the settlements a distinctive flavor. "To the American stranger, it is a place in which he can pass a day or two with interest," calculated one contemporary guidebook. [29]

The situation along the border perplexed officials at Fort Davis. Apache and Kickapoo raids from Mexico into Texas and the inevitable congregation of desperadoes at the border towns had led Lt. Col. Wesley Merritt to send several small detachments south from Fort Davis during the late 1860s. Internal revolution in Mexico also worried army personnel. Frustrated by their inability to catch many Indians, military men believed they must be allowed the right to pursue Indians into Mexico. Secretary of War William Belknap and Secretary of State Hamilton J. Fish pressed Mexico to sanction such U.S. military entries. Mexican officials, knowing that any concessions to their northern neighbors meant political suicide, rejected State department queries. [30]

Seeking a solution, the army attempted to lure Indian groups out of Mexico and onto reservations in the United States. As usual, Fort Davis played a key role in such proceedings. In December 1870 Shafter ordered Lt. Isaiah H. McDonald to convince a band of Mescaleros near Presidio to come to Fort Davis under the federal government's protection. Negotiations for a reservation could then proceed. McDonald dutifully met with the chief, who refused to come to Fort Davis. The lieutenant believed the chief might have cooperated had Mexican officials not warned that such action would jeopardize the release of the tribe's women and children, held captive at Chihuahua City. Shafter agreed with his subordinate's assessment, blaming officials in Presidio and Ojinaga for the continued Indian difficulties. [31]

Unwilling to allow United States troops to enter their nation, Mexican officials did authorize the governor of Chihuahua to help the Fort Davis garrison crush "the hostile Indians in Texas." But effective cooperation proved impractical as violence ravaged both sides of the Rio Grande. William Russell and several merchants in Mexico threatened to lead a hundred volunteers into the United States in early 1872. Fearing a struggle between the Mexican volunteers and U.S. citizens, Shafter organized a mobile strike force from Fort Davis—thirty-five mule-mounted infantrymen—and alerted Wesley Merritt at Fort Stockton. [32]

From departmental headquarters General Augur ordered Shafter to track down any armed incursions into the United States. But both sides managed to avoid a direct clash even as the situation intensified. Bloody Chihuahuan insurrections led that state's Anglo merchants to demand military protection from Fort Davis; Shafter dispatched a company to Presidio during the summer of 1872. Farther down the Rio Grande, another officer took more decisive steps in May 1873. Backed by Augur, Lt. Gen. Phil Sheridan, and Secretary of War William Belknap, Col. Ranald Mackenzie and four hundred troopers crossed the river and burned several Indian villages near Remolino, Mexico. [33]

"The Mexican frontier will be most vexatious," warned Gen. William T. Sherman. Despite the Mackenzie raid, affairs along the Rio Grande continued to trouble Maj. Zenas R. Bliss, now on his second tour of duty at Fort Davis. Bliss had won two brevets for his Civil War service, and was later awarded the Medal of Honor. The situation along the border, however, called for tact rather than heroism. From a Presidio customs official, Bliss learned that one hundred armed men were gathering to kill the noted merchant, John D. Burgess. [34]

In December 1873 Capt. David D. Van Valzah led D Company, Twenty-fifth Infantry, from Fort Davis to Presidio for a four-week tour of duty. Bliss rode down to Presidio later that month for a firsthand look. He found the Mexican population upset over reports that Burgess had imprisoned an elderly citizen, but returned to Davis satisfied that the military had averted a riot. The following spring Bliss returned to more traditional policies, refusing to permit Mexican troops to cross the Rio Grande and again working (unsuccessfully) to convince a band of Apaches to accept a United States reservation. [35]

The links between Fort Davis and Presidio became even more evident in 1875. Seeking to resolve the borderlands problems, the Indian Bureau appropriated $25,000 to facilitate the removal of the tribes along the Rio Grande to interior reservations. Thomas G. Williams, chief negotiator with the Kickapoos who had migrated to the area from Kansas during the 1860s and received land grants from the Mexican government, investigated the Big Bend area in the summer of 1875. Williams attributed depredations to Indians from New Mexico, not those living south of the Rio Grande. Yet keenly alert to the interests of U.S. customs officials, Williams believed a strong military presence at Presidio would reduce smuggling. The projected new Indian reservation one hundred miles south of Presidio also suggested the wisdom of such a garrison. To Williams it seemed logical that Fort Davis be transferred to Presidio. Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin H. Bristow backed Williams's proposals and Interior Secretary Columbus Delano saw to it that a copy reached the War Department. [36]

From Fort Davis Colonel Andrews protested the projected transfer. In his view, Presidio's economic importance was steadily declining. A recent military inspector had rejected the possibility of establishing a post there after a thorough investigation. A furious Andrews also noted that J. W. Clarke, deputy collector at Presidio del Norte, refused to cooperate with troops from Fort Davis. "So far as is known to this office," continued Andrews, "the efforts to have troops permanently stationed there were inaugurated by one M. L. Helfenstern . . . [who] purchased, or was negotiating for some mines in Mexico located 80 to 100 miles south of del Norte." [37]

Andrews also struck back at a letter by Clarke's wife published in the National Republican. With most of the Davis garrison scouting in the Guadalupe Mountains, Andrews had no men to spare on wild chases stemming from the unreliable reports of a character like Clarke. The colonel asserted that civil authorities, not the army, must protect the customs officers. General Sheridan supported his subordinate. Fort Davis protected the road from San Antonio to El Paso; furthermore, "the recommendation of Thomas G. Williams is probably in the interests of the town of Presidio del Norte, which wants to get a market for the sale of grain and other articles of commerce." On the advice of Andrews and Sheridan, Secretary of War William Belknap dubbed the move from Davis to Presidio "detrimental to the interests of the service." [38]

Although the transfer was not effected, tumultuous events along the Rio Grande continued to distract the Fort Davis garrison. In November 1876 Bliss reported a "pretty good gang of Indians" trading at San Carlos, Mexico. The renewed call from American merchants for protection foretold more ominous developments. Moses Kelley, who operated businesses on both sides of the Rio Grande, requested assistance after receiving threats from Mexican revolutionaries. Mustering the band to stand guard at Davis, Colonel Andrews, a three-inch cannon, and K Company, Twenty-fifth Infantry, left for Presidio on December 8. Two days later Andrews demanded that Mexican authorities surrender, by noon the following day, a U.S. citizen taken hostage. "I am prepared to open up on the town of Presidio del Norte, Mexico, with my Artillery, and to follow it up with Cavalry and Infantry," threatened Andrews. Upon the rejection of his demands, Andrews unlimbered his cannon and lobbed several shells onto the Mexican side of the river. [39]

Andrews' demonstration had the desired effect, for apparently the hostage was freed. The colonel next hoped to exploit the incident to secure reinforcements for his overworked regulars at Fort Davis. But even the aggressive Phil Sheridan decried the use of force in the dispute. Sharply departing from his belligerent stance on the Mackenzie raid of 1873, Sheridan proclaimed: "I think it would be well to caution the officers in command along the Rio Grande frontier to avoid involving themselves in cases that belong exclusively to the State Department." Despite the stern warning, Andrews still monitored Kelley's reports on affairs in Mexico. He also saw to it that elements of the Twenty-fifth Infantry occupied Presidio through January 1877. Indian attacks against one of William Russell's ranches led Andrews to dispatch Capt. Michael L. Courtney in a futile reprisal early the following year. [40]

Map 7:6. Fort Davis and the Indian Wars. Map drawn by the author. (click on image for a PDF version)

Meanwhile, the depredations continued unabated. Mescalero Apaches killed six men about sixty miles northwest of Presidio on January 5, 1878; another strike six weeks later claimed two lives at Point of Rocks, fifteen miles northeast of Davis. A rash of violent encounters between April 15 and 20 shocked the area. Thirteen mules were stolen within three miles of Fort Davis; an unknown traveler was murdered west of Eagle Spring; a mail rider lost his horse and bag three miles east of Escondida. Apaches killed W. M. McCall nine miles outside of Fort Quitman. Three men fell in two new attacks at Point of Rocks. [41]

West Texans protested the seeming ineffectiveness of Colonel Andrews and the Fort Davis garrison. From district headquarters, Col. Benjamin Grierson urged Andrews to campaign more vigorously. "Troops sent out in pursuit of Indians must be amply provided for a long & vigorous pursuit," instructed Grierson. "The Indian marauders must be attacked wherever found and severely punished if possible." Stung by the thinly veiled criticism, Andrews claimed that the garrison had investigated every reported attack: "My officers are all anxious to do something and no effort will be spared to rid this section of these Indians—if I can hire two packers." [42]

Increased violence along the frontiers led the Lone Star state to reestablish its own paramilitary organization, the Texas Rangers. Richard Coke, the state's first Democratic governor after the Civil War, had convinced the legislature to appropriate $75,000 to create six companies of Rangers. In July 1880 ten Rangers established themselves at Fort Stockton; another squad set up a similar position at Davis. Lt. Charles L. Nevill and thirteen Rangers soon relieved the earlier detachment. Although the Rangers had come to investigate the holdup of a Fort Davis store, they also took part in campaigns against the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. [43]

Old disputes between state troops and federal regulars were again raised. Cooperation between the rivals proved the exception to the general rule. One soldier allowed that while the Rangers were "tolerable Indian fighters, . . . most of their time was occupied in terrorizing the citizens and 'taking in the town.'" General Sherman labeled a $1,700,000 Texas claim for reimbursement of expenses incurred in repelling Indians and Mexicans "simply monstrous. The Texas Rangers . . . have been a source of danger to the United States, rather than assistance, in the matter of frontier defense." [44]

The Rangers saw their regular rivals in similarly negative terms. The army, they believed, had too much red tape and inefficiency. Rather than fighting Indians, the army drilled and did paperwork. After one reported depredation, a Ranger reported cynically that "the soldiers left here [Fort Davis] in pursuit of the Indians on the evening of the 5th day after the fight. How is that for an Indian pursuit?" he quipped. Too, the army represented the federal government, against which many Rangers had fought during the Civil War. And finally, the regulars in the Davis area were black. One Ranger summed up the racial feelings which permeated nineteenth century Texas: "This idea of having nigger soldiers, I think, is ridiculous. If I was going to have nigger soldiers, I'd wait until a war come and put them right in front and get them all killed off." [45]

Whatever the validity of Ranger criticism, the Fort Davis garrison needed to become more effective. Recognizing the need for better scouting and information gathering services, army officials had long deployed friendly Indian auxiliaries. In Texas the Seminole Negro scouts, led by Lt. John Bullis, were the most famous of these allies. Descendants of Florida Seminoles and runaway slaves, they had fled to Mexico upon the removal of the Seminoles to Indian territory. In the early 1870s the Seminole Negroes took up service with the U.S. Army; eking out a frugal existence near forts Clark and Duncan, dependent upon the government for their livelihood. In early 1880, while escorting a privately sponsored expedition that was combing Presidio County for minerals, they secured supplies from Fort Davis and subsequently became associated with the post. [46]

Troops at Fort Davis depended more heavily upon scouts recruited at Ysleta del Sur (near El Paso), the only Pueblo Indian community in the state. Simon Olgin, head man of the local tribe, frequently found employment with the U.S. Army, as did assorted members of his family. In 1880, for example, Simon journeyed from Davis to Ysleta to enlist his people for upcoming campaigns. Lt. Samuel L. Woodward, Lt. Harvey D. Read, and Lt. Frank H. Mills, respectively, oversaw recruiting and training. Equipped with carbines, pistols, mules, and canteens from Fort Davis, the Pueblo scouts proved an important resource. [47]

With assistance from the Pueblo scouts and in conjunction with the Texas Rangers, the army strove to crush Indian resistance. Capt. Thomas C. Lebo probed the area southeast of the post in March 1878. After marching more than four hundred miles, Lebo's command returned to Fort Davis empty-handed the following month. "This country seems to have been at one time a favorite haunt of the Indians," reported Lebo, "but I saw only very old trails and camps and none at all that I consider to be recent." [48]

Capt. Louis H. Carpenter took thirty-three men from H Troop, Tenth Cavalry, west to Eagle Spring on May 20. From there, Carpenter cooperated with Presidio merchant William Russell and Mexican troops against Indians suspected of attacking Ruidoso. Although Fort Davis officials strove mightily to assist the joint effort, Carpenter's command returned on August 29, having logged more than eighteen hundred miles without encountering tribes resisting the government. The captain deduced that the troublesome tribes had come from the Fort Stanton Reservation to trade for arms in Presidio del Norte. [49]

In late June the army also occupied the crucial waterhole at Seven Springs, twenty miles north of Fort Davis. The strategic locale commanded a long-used Indian byway to the popular ambush site at Point of Rocks and rendered indirect assistance to users of the stage road between Barrilla Springs and Limpia Canyon. Capt. Michael L. Courtney took a detachment of his H Company, Twenty-fifth Infantry, from Fort Davis and encamped there. From this base Courtney scouted to Frazier's Creek and the Barrilla Mountains. Despite marching nearly a thousand miles, he returned empty-handed near the end of September, having uncovered no signs of recent Indian activity. [50]

Lt. Robert Read, Jr., led a less extensive patrol from Fort Davis beginning July 7, 1878. Pursuing Indians believed to have killed a Hispanic citizen near Musquiz Canyon, Read took ten enlisted men and a Mexican guide into the field. The Tenth Cavalry detachment located a faded trail left by three persons north of Fort Davis, but soon found it impossible to follow. A frustrated Read returned to Davis eight days later, having covered nearly two hundred miles. Concluded the weary lieutenant: "I could not detect the slightest trace of anything like a fresh trail." [51]

Capt. Charles D. Viele undertook several major expeditions in the fall. Charles had formerly been married to Teresa Viele, one of the military community's most prominent diarists; the former Mrs. Viele, who had tired of the monotony of frontier life, now enjoyed the higher society of Parisian literary salons. The captain, who later remarried, experienced a different fate. Based at the Eagle Spring subpost, he led a series of patrols throughout the Trans-Pecos. Between September and December Viele commanded elements of his C Troop, Tenth Cavalry. Although his forces were never larger than forty enlisted men, they conducted five separate patrols which logged 1,160 miles. [52]

Viele's experiences that fall symbolized the frustrations endemic in the lonely struggle for the Trans-Pecos. His first four expeditions uncovered no evidence of recent Indian activity. On the fifth scout, Viele located a trail in the Eagle Mountains estimated to be thirty-six hours old. Dispatching a squad back to fetch additional rations, Viele and the rest of his men took up the trail. The path grew warmer as two additional Indian parties, each herding several cattle, joined the original group. Over a waterless desert the soldiers tracked their foes into New Mexico, one detachment just missing an Indian camp on the third day. The terrific pace, however, had hobbled the cavalry's mounts. Without supplies or water, Viele broke off the pursuit. [53]

Other troopers from the Tenth joined Captain Lebo in another grand scout from September 4 to November 30. From Davis, Lebo took fifty-eight enlisted men to Seven Springs, then past the tiny settlement at Victoria to Gomez Peak, before heading north to the Guadalupe Mountains. Lebo relieved the detachment from M Troop based at Pine Spring and conducted several scouts from the subpost. Again the patrols proved futile, and the captain broke camp on November 22. He returned to Fort Davis eight days later, having marched 550 miles during his fall campaigns. [54]

The winter brought a lull to operations from Fort Davis. By now troops from the post maintained three subposts—Pine Spring in the Guadalupe Mountains; Eagle Spring on the road to old Fort Quitman; and Seven Springs twenty miles north of Davis. As the garrison recovered from its exertions, Mexican forces based at Ojinaga and Santa Rosa captured forty to fifty Indians in mid-December. An enthusiastic William Russell reported that the tribesmen who escaped "are rendered desperate, as they have no place they can consider themselves safe, unless it is at the [Fort] Stanton Reservation." Long troubled by Indian raids, Russell asserted that the Mexican government was now cooperating. [55]

In April 1879, as forage became more readily available, U.S. columns took the field from Eagle Spring, Seven Springs, and Pine Spring. Led by Lt. Charles G. Ayers, Lt. William S. Scott, and Captain Viele, the three expeditions logged thirty-three hundred miles but turned up little concrete evidence of recent Indian incursions into West Texas. In the most successful military action that spring, a detachment from Viele's command, led by Lt. Robert E. Safford, did capture several animals from an Indian herd. [56]

In addition to garrisoning the subposts, troops at Fort Davis responded to sporadic raids. Indians struck an animal herd near the fort in May. Lieutenant Read headed an eleven-man pursuit party, detached from H and K Troops. Hard on the heels of a handful of suspected raiders, Read's little column found several dead and broken down-horses left by the Indians. The latter scattered at the head of Maravillas Creek; by taking individual routes into the nearby hills they successfully eluded their pursuers, who returned to Fort Davis on May 9. In July, Read led another fruitless trek after Indians accused of stealing stock and killing a woman near Diedrick Dutchover's ranch. The lieutenant believed his foes were Mescalero Apaches from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. Another report, however, had the Indians crossing the Rio Grande below San Vicente. [57]

The subposts at Eagle Spring, Seven Springs, and in the Guadalupe Mountains remained beehives of activity. On July 20 Capt. Michael L. Courtney took detachments from H Troop, Tenth Cavalry, and H Company, Twenty-fifth Infantry, to Eagle Spring. Upon hearing that Indians were within eight miles, Courtney set off in immediate pursuit. The soldiers indeed discovered the tribesmen and dismounted in order to close upon their foes. But before they could position themselves, their guide, who had proceeded ahead, fired a premature shot. The Indians scrambled for their horses, only to be driven away by a well-directed volley from the soldiers. Although the Indians remained dismounted, most slipped through the loose cordon of bluecoats, whose own horses were exhausted by the previous day's chase. Two Tenth cavalrymen fell wounded; Indian casualties included two dead, one wounded, and nine horses, a mule, and assorted equipment captured. Scouts from Eagle Spring under the direction of Captain Carpenter continued through the early winter; the latter efforts, however, proved ineffectual, as did Captain Lebo's patrols from a base camp at Manzanito Springs and Sgt. H. Fields from Seven Springs. [58]

The uncoordinated efforts of the past two years seemed to offer little hope of destroying Indian opposition to non-Indian settlement in the Trans-Pecos. Ranchers and merchants like George Crosson, Daniel Murphy, and Diedrick Dutchover suffered huge losses in the meantime. Murphy filed claims for three separate attacks. The illiterate Dutchover, who came to the Trans-Pecos in 1854, allegedly lost thirty yoke of oxen in 1868 and twenty horses and two hundred sheep in 1879. Crosson suffered even more heavily. In 1875 he established a sheep ranch near Manuel Musquiz's antebellum operation—unknown to Crosson, it lay near a widely used Indian trail from New Mexico to Mexico. In July 1876 he lost $5,000 in livestock; the following year, $5,925; and in January 1879, another $1,850. Sporadic army patrols and guards repeatedly proved ineffective. On October 8 a cryptic missive warned Crosson that some Mescaleros had again headed south from the Fort Stanton reservation. It had come far too late, for on September 21 raiders had taken sixteen horses and three hundred sheep. An attack in 1880 finally forced Crosson to give up the exposed Musquiz Canyon position; he moved to Limpia Canyon before settling at a site south of present-day Alpine in 1883. [59]

Although settlers cursed the army for not doing more, the problem had been festering for several years. Evidence suggested that much of the resistance came from Indians based in New Mexico. In 1877 the Mimbres Apaches had been moved from their homeland near the Ojo Caliente Reservation in southwestern New Mexico to San Carlos, Arizona Territory. As the situation deteriorated their leader, Victorio, led more than three hundred followers away from San Carlos back to New Mexico. Victorio's suspicions of whites were understandable; his predecessor, Mangas Coloradas, had been taken prisoner and killed under a white flag. But Victorio and the Mimbres were caught and ordered back to San Carlos. Victorio and eighty men again slipped away to the mountains. In June 1879 the group appeared at the Mescalero Agency, inquiring about the possibility of moving their families to the latter reservation. [60]

Things seemed to proceed fairly well until September when rumors of his impending arrest led Victorio to make yet another break. Warriors from his own tribe, along with scattered Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches, followed the chief, whom a respectful kinsmen described as being "the most nearly perfect human being I have ever seen." Assisting Victorio was his sister Lozen, a fine warrior in her own right who allegedly possessed supernatural powers. On September 6 their annihilation of an eight-man herding party at Ojo Caliente signaled the renewal of open hostilities. Army officials complained bitterly about the government's fragmented Indian policy; neither the War Department, which controlled the army, nor the Interior Department, which oversaw the reservations, could carry out their work without interference from the other. [61]

Commanding troops in New Mexico, Col. Edward Hatch deployed his Ninth Cavalry in a futile effort to block Victorio. Following several skirmishes, Victorio brushed off Maj. Albert P. Morrow's column and entered Mexico. Additional Mescalero warriors swelled Victorio's force to nearly one hundred fifty men. Devastating raids south of the border compelled Mexican Gen. Geronimo Treviño to conduct winter operations which harassed Victorio back into the United States. Slipping past the Ninth Cavalry, Victorio disappeared into the San Andres Mountains in January 1880. [62]

Fig. 7:21. Nana, confederate of Victorio. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, C-4.

The army suspected that the Mescalero Reservation remained a supply depot, recruiting ground, and safe haven for Victorio's dependents. From Fort Davis post guide John Briggs was sent to investigate the reservation. According to S. A. Russell, the Indian agent, fifty tribesmen had left for the Guadalupe Mountains, where they joined thirty-five Comanches. Several incidents of theft, alleged to have been the responsibility of Indians, were reported near Davis and Quitman in the following months. Yet Briggs remained dubious of any information provided by Russell: "I do not think that the agent knows how many Indians are a way. He has no way of telling. The squaws draw the rations and the buck could be gone a month without his knowing anything about it." Briggs expected a major breakout at any time. [63]

Fig. 7:22. Victorio, Apache warrior. Photograph # 882 (Rose Collection) courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library.

Army officials shared Briggs's concern. Following common army practice, Colonel Hatch decided to disarm and dismount the remaining occupants of the Mescalero Reservation. Realizing the dangerous nature of the task, he convinced his superiors to dispatch reinforcements from Arizona and Texas. Hatch and the troops from Arizona would approach the agency from the west; soldiers from Texas would join him at the Mescalero Agency by April 12, 1880. [64]

Col. Benjamin Grierson set out from West Texas in late March, heading the Texas column with five companies of the Tenth Cavalry and a detachment of the Twenty-fifth Infantry totaling 280 men. A music teacher and petty businessman, Grierson joined the army during the Civil War. Promoted to colonel of volunteers in late 1862, he led one of the war's most daring cavalry raids during the Vicksburg campaign. In charge of 1,700 troopers, Grierson covered 475 miles through enemy territory from La Grange, Tennessee, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in sixteen days, diverting attention from Grant's crossing of the Mississippi River. He had assumed command of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment in the army reorganization following the Civil War. En route to New Mexico, trails Grierson located trails which "invariably" led in the direction of the Mescalero reservation. His command killed two warriors, captured four women, and recovered a captive Mexican boy and twenty-eight head of cattle. Upon reaching the agency, the colonel reported that it had served as supply base, refitting camp, and medical center for noncombatants. [65]

Fig. 7:23. Col. Benjamin Grierson, commander of Fort Davis, 1882-85. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, AA-24.

Disarming the reservation peoples went poorly. About 320 Indians were assembled on April 16. Just as the process began, firing broke out and the Indians scattered wildly. The Tenth Cavalry thundered into the melee; Grierson estimated that between thirty and fifty Mescaleros escaped to join Victorio or to form their own war parties. Few arms were recovered, but Hatch maintained a strong guard at the agency to discourage future association with nonreservation groups. [66]

The failure to disarm the Indians peaceably disappointed Grierson. Publicly he defended the government's recent actions. Grierson believed agent Russell an honest if ineffectual man saddled with the impossible task of controlling Indians up to forty miles away. Hatch, a former commander at Fort Davis, also received Grierson's official approval. Although the colonel had erred in keeping the troops too far from the place of disarmament, Hatch's delicate position invited censure and controversy. Grierson followed customary army practice by defending his brother officer and blaming the problem squarely on the Indian Bureau. According to Grierson, because it offered so many convenient hiding places, "the reservation is, if civilization is the object, the most unsuitable place that could possibly have been selected." In his view, the occupants had to be removed to another site and Indian affairs turned over to the War Department. [67]

Privately, however, Grierson was seething. Hatch's subsequent attempt to keep segments of his command in New Mexico infuriated the Tenth's colonel. Less than four days after the aborted attempt at disarmament, Grierson complained of having been retained in New Mexico "when all is as quiet as a New England Sunday." Grierson alleged that Hatch had engaged in "a systematic plan to gobble myself & command for duty in New Mexico for an indefinite but protracted length of time." In so doing, Grierson hinted at the tensions and jealousies which lay just under the surface throughout the postwar army. Like many officers, Grierson bitterly resented having been subordinated to another's plans. Freeing himself from Hatch's supposed machinations, Grierson returned to Fort Concho after a brief stay at Fort Davis, determined to prevent his command from further serving Hatch's interests. [68]

As Grierson returned to Texas, Hatch's Ninth Cavalry veterans stalked Victorio through New Mexico and Arizona. The regulars wore out their horses in vain attempts to trap the elusive Mimbres leader, but an Indian scout company nearly killed him along the headwaters of the Palomas River. Eluding the bluecoats, Victorio's band melted back into Mexico. Hatch promptly requested assistance from Colonel Grierson. Grierson, however, proposed a new strategy. Another Fort Davis probe into the Guadalupe Mountains in April had turned up only faded signs of Indians. With traditional trailing methods proving ineffective, Grierson suggested that pickets stationed along the Rio Grande would intercept Indians as they entered the Trans-Pecos on their way back to the Mescalero Reservation. Department commander Ord supported Grierson's plan, and Lieutenant General Sheridan overcame his own personal distaste for Grierson to approve the scheme on June 28. [69]

Continued depredations in the Trans-Pecos seemed to justify Grierson's position. Near Eagle Springs, Indians struck a party of citizens on May 12, killing James Grant and Mrs. Harry Graham and wounding Harry Graham and Daniel Murphy, an emigrant to New Mexico. Hit twice, Murphy hid his family in the brush and bluffed the attackers away with a broken rifle. The army sent one hundred emergency rations to the remaining group of fifteen. Murphy had "lost everything he had in the world," according to one report. And on June 11 twenty to twenty-five Indians attacked Lt. Frank H. Mills and his Pueblo scouts at Viejo Pass, near modern-day Valentine. The Mills detachment lost its chief guide, Simon Olgin, and four animals. [70]

Taking advantage of his newfound independence, Grierson shifted three companies of the Tenth from Concho to the west. On July 18 he learned that Col. Adolfo Valle and 420 Mexican troops would join 120 cavalrymen already in the field against Victorio. Grierson ordered Lieutenant Mills and the Pueblo scouts, still full of fight, to patrol the Rio Grande. He also reinforced his pickets at Viejo Pass, Eagle Spring, Fort Quitman, Pine Spring, and Seven Springs. Rather than wasting his efforts chasing Victorio, Grierson positioned his troops at strategic points to intercept the Indians and rode out to Eagle Spring to be closer to the action. [71]

Fig. 7:24. Diorama depicting Grierson's defense of Tinaja de las Palmas. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, KB-18.

With a storm disrupting telegraphic communications, Grierson's Pueblo scouts contacted Valle, who reported a sharp engagement south of the border. On July 27 the colonel moved back to Fort Quitman. To his astonishment, Valle's troops turned up the following day completely destitute of food. Grierson issued them three thousand pounds of flour and more than eleven hundred pounds of grain; Valle informed his American counterpart that he would take up the trail again only after receiving supplies from the south. To his surprise, Grierson also learned that Valle had received permission to enter the United States in pursuit of Indians deemed hostile by the government. [72]

By this time United States troops were scattered all along the Rio Grande. Capt. Nicholas Nolan and A Troop, Tenth Cavalry, garrisoned Fort Quitman. G Troop, the field headquarters, and H Company, Twenty-fourth Infantry, were at Eagle Spring. Captain Lebo held Fresno Spring; Capt. Thomas A. Baldwin (I Troop) and Capt. Louis H. Carpenter (H Troop) guarded Viejo Pass. Assuming Valle would again take up the chase, Grierson left Quitman for Eagle Spring on the twenty-ninth. They spotted an Indian near the east end of Quitman Canyon; soon thereafter they received word that Indians had crossed the Rio Grande and were headed in their direction. An attempt to run seemed suicidal and would allow the Indians to break through the line of posts into unguarded areas north of the river. With Lt. William H. Beck, five privates, and his son Robert, Grierson made camp at strategic Tinaja de las Palmas, the only waterhole for many miles. [73]

As his party dug in atop a ridge, the colonel sent out orders for reinforcements. Lt. Leighton Finley and fifteen troopers galloped up at 4:00 A.M. on the morning of the thirtieth expecting to escort the colonel's party back to safety at Eagle Spring. But Grierson had no intention of leaving Tinaja de las Palmas. "Being well supplied with ammunition, water, and provisions, I was confident of my ability to hold the position . . . as long as necessary," remembered Grierson, who instead dispatched couriers calling for more support. About nine o'clock that morning, the little squad observed the Indians' approach. Young Robert, "out in search of adventure," surely had his wish fulfilled. [74]

Though a proven combat veteran of the Civil War, Colonel Grierson had never fought Indians in battle. Impatient at the Indians' refusal to attack his strong defensive position and hoping to attract the attention of reinforcements believed near, Grierson sent Lieutenant Finley and ten men out to engage Victorio. They met stiff opposition; quite possibly, the Indians had enticed Grierson to sally forth from his rocky fort. Nonetheless, Finley's men fought well; after an hour of long range skirmishing, the lieutenant ordered an audacious attack upon the Indian positions. About ten o'clock, just as Finley seemed to be gaining the advantage, the advance guard of Captain Viele's relief party arrived, only to mistake Finley's embattled troopers for the Indians. [75]

Watching the action atop the ridge with his telescope, Grierson knew his chance to ensnare Victorio was slipping away. As Viele's company sorted out the confused fighting, another column led by Capt. Nicholas Nolan appeared in the distance to the west. Victorio's warriors scattered as the troops hidden atop the ridge finally loosed a ragged volley. "Golly!! you ought to've seen 'em turn tail & strike for the hills," wrote an excited Robert Grierson. This allowed Viele to link up with Grierson's command but left his cavalrymen too exhausted to catch the Indians. The skirmishing had lasted four hours; Grierson claimed seven Indians had been slain and several others wounded. Among the soldiers Lt. Samuel Colladay was wounded and one private killed. Fifteen horses and mules were also hit. Benjamin Grierson proudly reported that "Robert with his Winchester and his 250 cartridges executed his post in a heroic manner." [76]

Pueblo scouts trailed Victorio to Ojo del Alamo, thirty miles below Ojo Caliente. Grierson forwarded this information to Colonel Valle, apparently expecting his Mexican counterpart to block Victorio's escape. But Valle, instead of holding the Quitman area, had marched toward supplies at El Paso. Rather than pursuing Victorio with his own command, which now included three companies plus several of the invaluable Pueblos, Grierson stuck with his defensive strategy, reinforcing the detachments at the waterholes. [77]

Though bloodied, Victorio remained a dangerous foe. On July 31 Cpl. Asa Weaver led seven Tenth cavalrymen and a handful of Indian auxiliaries to the Alamo Springs waterhole twenty miles from Fort Davis. They spent the next two nights there, but saw no Indians. Resuming the march toward the Rio Grande, they ran into Victorio's main body about daybreak on August 3. Badly outnumbered and deserted by his scouts, Weaver conducted a skillful fifteen mile retreat to Eagle Spring. By the time they reached the spring, every horse and virtually all of his men had been wounded. Pvt. George Tockes had lost control of his badly wounded mount, which carried him into the thick of his pursuers. When last seen alive, Tockes, a former sailor and three-year army veteran, had dropped his reins and was firing his carbine defiantly into the Indians. For saving the rest of his command, Weaver was promoted to sergeant on the spot. [78]

On August 3 and 4 Indians encountered parties led by Capt. William B. Kennedy and Capt. Lebo. Lebo's detachment did particularly well, seizing Victorio's supplies. Grierson also tried to head off Victorio; upon hearing that his foe was near Van Horn, the colonel pushed two companies toward the crucial waterhole at Rattlesnake Springs. Marching sixty-five miles in less than twenty-four hours, Grierson beat Victorio to the springs. Robert Grierson reported that "Papa and [William] Lt. Beck were nearly frozen when we got here-neither had their overcoats. . . . It is astonishing what a great difference there is in the temperature of day and night here. Decidedly hot in the day and shivering cold at night." [79]

Troops C and G, Tenth Cavalry, deployed in Rattlesnake Canyon and awaited the Indians, who wandered in looking for water about two o'clock in the afternoon of August 5. The battle remained in doubt until the arrival of Captain Carpenter with H and B Troops. The Indians scattered, reorganizing in time to hit an army supply train eight miles south of the original skirmish. Escorted by a detachment of cavalry and Company H, Twenty-fourth Infantry, the column drove off the attack. Grierson claimed four Indians had been killed in the day's fighting and admitted no casualties among his troops. [80]

The colonel attempted to coordinate a final pursuit following the skirmish at Rattlesnake Springs. Regulars from the Eighth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth Infantry joined Pueblo and Lipan scouts and fifteen Texas Rangers in an attempt to hem in Victorio. Grierson personally commanded the main force, while Nolan, Kennedy, and Carpenter led independent columns after the wily chief. On August 9, Indians attacked a stage near Fort Quitman, killing James J. Byrne, a retired Civil War officer. "There was only one gun and one cartridge in the hands of these men—right in the center of a wild country, and during the invasion of a merciless foe," reported Texas Ranger George W. Baylor. "How men can be so blind when their lives may hang on their Winchester's muzzle passes my comprehension." Two days later, Indians ran off the mules at Barrel Springs and cut the telegraph line between Quitman and Davis. [81]

Rumors of fresh depredations abounded. A sergeant accompanying one of the trains from Barrel Springs gave sketchy details of a purported Indian attack. Fort Davis dispatchers wondered why the corporal in command of the Barrel Springs station had not reported the incident. Cpl. Joseph Merryweather coolly explained: "Sir why I did not report the case of Indians I though[t] the Sergt maid a fals[e] report." Upon closer investigation, Lt. Charles Nordstrom concurred with Merryweather's assessment. "I think I am reasonable in concluding the Sergt has a very lively imagination," explained Nordstrom, who believed the rumor "instigated by the devil and sutlers whiskey." [82]

Stung by the repeated skirmishes with the army, Victorio was indeed working his way back into Mexico. On the eighteenth, interpreter and scout Charles Berger led the allied Indian scouts across the border on Victorio's trail. Although his foes had been crippled, Grierson fumed over the indecisive end of the campaign. He blamed the failure to annihilate Victorio squarely upon Mexico. In his view Mexican troops could have snapped up the Apaches as they recrossed the Rio Grande. "There seems to be an understanding between Victorio and many of the Mexicans," charged Grierson, "that so long as he does not make war upon them in earnest, he can take whatever food and other supplies he may need for his warriors." On the other hand, some sharply criticized the colonel's failure to annihilate the Indians at Tinaja de las Palmas. Indeed, more aggressive action might indeed have ended the Victorio campaign then and there. [83]

Grierson remained wary of another Indian raid in September 1880. Prepared to use every means at his disposal to defeat Victorio, the colonel positioned a three-inch gun at Eagle Spring. By this time the army maintained a web of stations throughout far western Texas. In Grierson's District of the Pecos, troops from Fort Concho occupied subposts at Grierson's Springs and Camp Charlotte, east of the Pecos River, as well as a camp above old Fort Quitman. To relieve the strain on overworked Fort Davis, Concho also helped garrison outlying posts at Eagle Spring and Eagle Mountain. Forts Concho and Stockton maintained troops in the Guadalupe Mountains. And Davis and Stockton assumed joint responsibility for a new station along the Rio Grande at Ojo Caliente, Texas. [84]

A new District of the Bravo had also been created. Commanded by William R. Shafter, the Bravo district included subposts at Faver's Ranch in the Chinati Mountains, Mayer's Spring, and the mouth of the Pecos River. Shafter's command also maintained a garrison at Peña Colorado. Established in August 1879, Peña Colorado guarded the new road between Fort Davis and the Pecos. Grierson had been influential in the decision to occupy this position at "Rainbow Cliffs"; in late November he had bragged that "the troops at Peña Colorado will have good comfortable stone quarters by Dec. 1st." [85]

Despite such bravado, the regulars were nearly worn out. The heat, lack of water, and hard campaigning had taken their toll. Between June 30 and August 31, for example, the Tenth Cavalry's G Troop had participated in two battles and marched 471 miles. Its captain had been under arrest at Fort Concho; First Lieutenant Colladay was now recuperating from his wound at Stockton. With another lieutenant on recruiting detail, 2nd Lt. Leighton Finley had been attached to command the unit. By August 31 only thirty-two dusty troopers reported present for duty. But G Troop was not unique in having so few men in the field; A Troop mustered but thirty-four. [86]

In the meantime the troops whiled away time at their lonely outposts. Many officers played whist or read; Robert Grierson brushed up on his foreign languages. He also admitted that the southern Trans-Pecos was "a 'hell of a country' in the truest sense of the word . . . there are some pretty sights—the mountains in the distance, the clouds, some of the Spanish daggers, mescal, etc." Occasional letters from home broke the monotony of camp life. "I tell you it is fine to get letters when you are away off in the wilderness," confided Robert to his mother. [87]

A veteran of a month's hard campaigning and two brisk fights with Victorio, Robert now considered himself to have seen the elephant. Like his comrades among the regulars, he scoffed at those who had not smelled the scent of battle. For Capt. William R. Livermore, a proper West Pointer who had arrived after the fighting and who packed his mules rather more slowly than Robert would have liked, the young Grierson had nothing but contempt. Upon the bald Livermore's claim that he had "rushed through," Robert reported: "This is perfectly absurd. West Point tactics & engineering. I bet he'd be like a peeled banana if he's made a march as we did." Proud of his role in the campaign, Robert added: "If some Indians would get after him once he'd learn something." [88]

The men grew more careless as the waiting continued. One soldier accidentally shot a comrade through the leg on August 20. Dr. Eugene McLoon, acting assistant surgeon accompanying the expedition, escorted the wounded trooper back to Fort Davis; for McLoon, whose painful hemorrhoids had become inflamed after the sixty-five-mile dash to Rattlesnake Springs, the chance to return to the relative comforts of the fort must have seemed particularly welcome. Sloppy discipline continued to plague troops in the field. On the twenty-fifth, soldiers guarding two supply wagons from Eagle Spring fell asleep on duty. Two men sent to repair the telegraph line between Quitman and El Paso instead got drunk and lost their weapons. And the lures of female companionship across the river proved overwhelming. On August 27 Robert reported that "Lieut. [William H.] Beck and Doctor K [presumably B. F. Kingsley] have been across the river this eve on a 'tear'—two old women and one virgin on to 14 are there. The subject demands an immediate investigation— i.e. the one 'virgin' on to 14." [89]

Colonel Grierson's criticisms notwithstanding, Mexico outperformed the U.S. Army. Col. George P. Buell led several hundred regulars, Berger's Pueblo scouts, and some Texas Rangers deep into Chihuahua. As the noose tightened around Victorio, Col. Joaquin Terrazas, in command of Mexican troops, ordered the Americans back to the United States. Terrazas cornered Victorio in the Candelaria Mountains, killing the feared chief and most of his followers. [90]

The wizened secondary leader Nana gathered the survivors and reentered the Trans-Pecos in October. On the night of the eighteenth they stole two animals from Fort Davis. Later that month Indians snapped up a stagecoach and surprised a regular detachment eating breakfast at Ojo Caliente. At least five soldiers were killed as the Indians vanished back into the mountains. A stagecoach was ambushed in Quitman Canyon the following January. Two men died in the attack. Early reports pointed to the Apaches as the culprits. Upon inspection, however, Lt. Samuel R. Whitall believed that white murderers ("probably . . . some men who recently escaped from the jail in the town at Fort Davis Texas") had in fact tried to make it look like an Indian depredation. In making the accusation, Whitall blamed the Texas Rangers for allowing the men to escape. [91]

Whoever the real attackers were, the Rangers exacted their revenge on January 29, 1881. Commanded by Capt. George W. Baylor and Lt. Charles L. Nevill, a Ranger detail hit an Apache camp near the Sierra Diablos. One warrior was killed and two others wounded; three women and two children were also slain. The Rangers recovered seven mules, nine horses, three rifles, a cavalry pistol, six cavalry saddles, and assorted goods belonging to the stage company. They escorted their captives, a woman and two small children, back to their base camp at Fort Davis for medical attention. A self-satisfied Nevill reportedly modestly: "The people of Fort Davis are well pleased with what we have accomplished so far." [92]

Sporadic rumors of Indian attack trickled in for the next seven months. In May 1881 William R. Shafter, now colonel of the First Infantry and back at Fort Davis, held troops at Davis, Presidio, and Quitman in readiness should they be needed to assist Mexican troops campaigning along the Rio Grande. "I trust that success will attend your efforts to destroy the savages that infest the border," wrote Shafter to his Mexican counterpart. A squad of Rangers also patrolled the region. Two months later Indians broke from the Mescalero agency near Fort Stanton. Indians allegedly raided cattle ranches near Camp Peña Colorado twice within the month. A shepherd, Pedro Morales, was killed about ten miles east of Fort Davis on August 31. Such incidents notwithstanding, the Ranger fight near the Sierra Diablos proved to be the final major encounter between Indians and non-Indians in the Fort Davis region. [93]

Administrative changes were also in motion. Acknowledging the declining Indian presence, Augur, who once again succeeded Ord as department commander, abolished the District of the Pecos on February 1, 1881. Although Colonel Grierson's troops had not captured Victorio, they had performed with valor and determination in harrassing the famous chief out of Texas. In addition, the colonel calculated that his command had strung up three hundred miles of telegraph lines, built more than one thousand miles of wagon roads, and marched 135,710 miles during the past three years. According to Grierson "a settled feeling of security" now existed in West Texas; "a rapid and permanent increase of the population and wealth" was sure to follow. [94]

The postwar campaigns also gave rise to one the most enduring legends surrounding Fort Davis. According to the story, a young Indian maiden was badly wounded during some fighting along the Chihuahua Trail. Left behind for dead, the pursuing soldiers took her back to Fort Davis, where the mother of Lt. Thomas Easton took charge of her care. The girl, known as Emily, fell in love with the dashing lieutenant. But alas, Tom loved another—beautiful young Mary Nelson. The very day Easton announced his engagement to Ms. Nelson, a heartbroken Emily quietly left the post.

The tragedy of unrequited love is a staple of Western literature. But the story of Indian Emily did not end with the girl's disappearance. During her absence the threat of Indian attack on the isolated outpost grew. Anxious sentries walked the post grounds at night, challenging every suspicious movement. Upon hearing no response from one intruder, a sentinal fired, and a woman screamed. The body of mortally wounded Emily was taken to her friend, the mother of Thomas Easton. According to the story, Emily's dying words warned the garrison of an impending Apache attack. The next morning Apaches allegedly came; thanks to the girl's heroic action, the garrison threw back a major attack with heavy losses. [95]

Soldiers had indeed brought captured Indian women back to Fort Davis on several occasions, and the legend grew with each retelling. In 1936 the Texas Centennial Commission erected a monument over the "grave" of Indian Emily, located by Warren D. Bloys, Arthur Bloys, and devoted local author Barry Scobee. But the story seems to bear little relationship to actual events. A former park historian believed the legend originated with Lt. Patrick Cusack's scout in 1868. On January 9, 1882, post surgeon Paul R. Brown noted another possible source for the story. A captive Indian woman had been quartered in a tent near the hospital; someone split her head open with an ax, "and rape seems to have been the object." [96]

An Indian girl may very well have fallen in love with a handsome young officer at Fort Davis. Or, in an attempt to cover-up the last-mentioned murder, ethnocentric storytellers might very well have altered the truth in order to protect the "honor" of the soldiers. But do such incidents, even when allowing for the inevitable embelishing of events, add up to anything approaching a real-life Indian Emily? Probably not. No record of anything approaching an Indian attack on Fort Davis can be substantiated. Such an incident would have been distinctly unusual—although Indians often ran off a few animals, attacks like that on Fort Apache, Arizona, in 1881 were almost unheard of. Further more, the tale's champion, Barry Scobee, was not above stretching the truth. As one contemporary remembered, "he wasn't always right . . . he wanted to make a good story out of things." For example, Scobee portrayed Mrs. Diedrick Dutchover as a blonde Spanish immigrant; in fact, she was a Mexican immigrant with black hair and brown eyes. [97]

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

Last Updated: 13-Feb-2008