Historical archeology is often about testing assertions made in historical documents against physical remains in the archeological record. Historical archeologists often look at whether the archeological remains verify what is written, or tell a different story. If they do suggest something different than written accounts, what alternative version do they present and why might people have written down something else?
This process of verifying the written record was used to unravel and document the stone masonry of the spring enclosure at Fort Davis National Historic Site. Was the existing spring enclosure actually a reconstruction built in the 1940s? If it was a reconstruction, was it built in the original location? If there was some portion of the original masonry left, which portions were original and which were reconstructed? The resulting investigation illustrates the unique perspective that archeology can bring even to sites occupied relatively recently and the way it can provide information on aspects of peoples’ daily lives that aren’t discussed in detail in written accounts.
Situated near Limpia Creek on the eastern side of the Davis Mountains in western Texas, Fort Davis played a key role in the settlement and development of the western frontier. Established in 1854, the fort housed troops of the Eighth Infantry in their pursuit of Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. Texas seceded from the Union during the Civil War, and the Federal government evacuated the fort at that time. It was occupied by Confederate troops between 1861 and 1862 and though Union troops took possession in 1862, they left soon afterwards.
The fort lay deserted until the companies of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry reoccupied it. The Ninth U.S. Cavalry was an African American regiment that was formed after the Civil War. This regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was active in securing the Southwest for American colonization. The African American troops began construction on a new fort, just east of the original site, and construction continued through the 1880s. With the end of the Indian Wars and in the wake of the army’s efforts to consolidate its frontier garrisons, Fort Davis was finally abandoned by the military in 1891.
Water at the Fort
As anyone familiar with the West knows, water is a precious and uncommon resource. In the early days of the fort, from the 1850s through the 1880s, water was hauled from the nearby Limpia Creek in mule-drawn wagons. In 1869, post officers urged that a spring near the fort be developed as an alternative to Limpia Creek, and it was used for several years. The spring was blamed for an outbreak of diarrhea, however and so hauling water in wagons recommenced. Several wells near the barracks and officers’ quarters were in place by 1872, and after a thorough cleaning, the spring that is the focus of this inquiry was once again in use in 1875.
At this point, according to the historical documents, a stone wall was raised around the spring, and a small pump was used. While this may have made water collection easier, the Post Surgeon, Ezra Woodruff, still had concerns about the water quality which he expressed in a communication to the Post Adjutant.
There is a defect in the fact that the water passes through to the wall below the surface and rises directly into the [adjacent] drainage ditch. The ditch...is the resort of pigs and I have observed them wallowing in it within six feet of the spring, besides being the receptacle of other rubbish. I would...suggest that the wall enclosing the spring should be made water tight by hydraulic cement, so that the water once escaped from the spring cannot flow back. I would also suggest that the ditch should be graded steeper so that the water should flow rapidly away and not be able to stand near the spring. I would also suggest that the spring be covered with boards & that a stone wall be built around it at a proper distance to prevent persons and animals from directly approaching the edge of the spring and dipping dirty vessels of all kinds directly into it.
There are no documents that specifically note that Surgeon Woodruff’s recommendations were implemented, but there is a clue in a contemporary description of the spring as being 10 by 13 feet in diameter and containing 6 feet of water, and in another that describes the spring as “walled up.” A period map shows the spring with irrigation ditches extending from the spring to the fort garden.