NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

Soldier and Brave
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark FORT BELKNAP

Location: Young County, at the terminus of Tex. 251, about 3 miles south of Newcastle.

Founded in 1851 to safeguard settlers and emigrants in the Red River area, Fort Belknap was both a base for military operations against the Indians and a peacemaking center, but did not excel in the latter role.

Following the U.S. annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican War (1846-48), Texas frontier settlers began to demand protection against Kiowa and Comanche raids from the north and west. The Army set up a string of forts: Martin Scott, in 1848; and Worth, Gates, Graham, Croghan, Duncan, and Lincoln, the following year. But the rapidly advancing line of settlement soon brought new outcries from the frontiersmen. Another system of forts came into being: Forts Belknap and Phantom Hill, in 1851; and Forts Chadbourne, McKavett, and Clark, the next year. The northern anchor, Belknap, on the Brazos River, was the nearest to the dangerous Kiowa and Comanche country. Besides watching out for settlers, Forts Belknap and Phantom Hill guarded the Fort Smith-El Paso Road, a major link in the transcontinental route pioneered in 1849 by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy.

In the early 1850's large numbers of Regulars, often bolstered by Texas Rangers and State troops, did their best to deal with Kiowa and Comanche raids. More successful was Col. Albert S. Johnston's newly organized 2d Cavalry Regiment, which arrived in December 1855 in Texas and dispersed among the forts in the chain.

The major offensive involving Fort Belknap troops was Capt. Earl Van Dorn's 1858-59 Wichita Expedition, a march into Indian Territory to retaliate for raids into Texas. Van Dorn led 250 of the garrison's cavalrymen and infantrymen and 135 Indian allies northward; founded Camp Radziminski, Okla., as an advance base; and won victories against the Comanches in the Battles of Rush Springs, Okla. (October 1, 1858) and Crooked Creek, Kans. (May 13, 1859), near present Dodge City, Kans. These aggressive measures caused the Comanches to divide into smaller bands. Many fled to the Staked Plains of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle, while those remaining near the more populated areas of Texas curtailed their activities. The next year a regiment of State troops organized at Fort Belknap and pushed north as far as Kansas, but took part in no engagements.

Fort Belknap
Restored Fort Belknap. (National Park Service)

Fort Belknap had also been the base of the expedition of Captain Marcy and Lt. George B. McClellan in 1852. This was Marcy's third. The first two had originated at Fort Smith, Ark. Marcy and McClellan explored the Canadian River and discovered the headwaters of the Red River, the last segment of the southern Plains to be explored.

Marcy returned to Fort Belknap in 1854 to help Indian Agent Robert S. Neighbors survey and establish two Indian reservations. The State authorized them in response to Neighbors' humanitarian efforts, which had begun as early as 1845 and included the negotiation of peace treaties between Indians and whites. In 1854-55 he and Marcy founded the Brazos Agency, a few miles south of Fort Belknap; and the Comanche Reservation (Comanche Reserve), 45 miles to the west, guarded by Camp Cooper. Within 3 years more than 1,100 peaceful Indians from various small tribes had settled around the Brazos Agency, but only 400 Comanches moved onto the Comanche Reservation.

Under Neighbors' tutelage the reservation Indians relinquished their nomadism and took up agriculture. Bitter area settlers, however, blamed them for depredations committed by nonreservation Indians. In July 1859, after Neighbors and Fort Belknap troops had repulsed a mob of settlers intent on murdering the reservation inhabitants, he realized the only solution was abandonment of the two reservations. A squadron of cavalry moved a caravan of Indians to a spot on the Washita River 12 miles west of the newly established Wichita Agency, Okla., protected by Fort Cobb. Upon his return, Neighbors was assassinated by a disgruntled settler in the town of Belknap, founded in 1856 near the fort. Between 1858 and 1861 Belknap was a station on the Butterfield Overland Mail.

Meantime, in 1859, because of lack of water, a problem that in 1851 had necessitated a 2-mile move downriver from the original location, Federal troops had abandoned Fort Belknap and transferred to Camp Cooper. During the Civil War, Confederates of the Texas Frontier Regiment used it for a base against hostile Indians and for the protection of settlers, but the inexperienced troops could not stop Indian raids. For a short time in 1867, U.S. troops returned to the fort and even began to restore its buildings, but abandoned it because of the poor water supply and because the frontier had moved westward. Forts Richardson, to the northeast, and Griffin, to the southwest, replaced Belknap in the frontier defense system. Detachments were occasionally stationed there to watch over the mail road or to control Indian uprisings, but after the subjugation of the southern Plains tribes in the Red River War (1874-75) the fort fell into ruins and settlers dismantled it.

In 1936 the State of Texas, using supplemental Federal funds, began to restore the fort. At that time only the magazine and part of the cornhouse were standing. The State restored these structures and reconstructed the commissary, a kitchen, two two-story barracks, and the well. All of these are on the original foundations except the kitchen, constructed between the barracks. The buildings are of stone construction and have shingled roofs. The 20-acre site is a county park. The Fort Belknap Society administers museums in the commissary and cornhouse; and, jointly with Texas Wesleyan College, the Fort Belknap Archives of Western America, located in one of the barracks. In the town of Belknap is a monument to Indian Agent Neighbors.

NHL Designation: 12/19/60

Previous Next
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005