Fort Belknap: The Pre-Civil War Frontier

The Pre-Civil War Texas frontier has a long and contentious history. Updated 2 years ago
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Fort Chadbourne

Fort Chadbourne

Fort Chadbourne was established in 1852. Photo by Robert Plocheck.

As settlers pushed onto the Texas plains in the early 1850s, the U.S. Army established forts to protect them and travelers on the San Antonio to El Paso road. Forts Belknap, Phantom Hill and Chadbourne were built in 1851 and 1852. As a further measure, the Plains Indians were herded onto reservations in 1854 – the Comanches to one established near the newly built Camp Cooper in Throckmorton County and the Caddos, Anadarkos, Wacos, Tawakonis, Tonkawas, Wichitas and other more sedentary Indians to a reservation built near Fort Belknap. By 1858, settlers had responded by moving into most of the western frontier of Texas to about the 99th meridian.

West Central Texas frontier families found game plentiful and wild fruits and berries in good supply, except during droughts. Deer, bison, antelope, turkeys, squirrels, ducks, geese, quail and prairie chickens furnished a varied diet, along with wild plums, persimmons, grapes and pecans. Roasted, cured bison tongue was considered a particular delicacy. In spring, the land was a riot of wildflowers and grasses: daisies, buttercups, bluebonnets and sweet Williams, with mockingbirds, bluejays and scissortails among the myriad birds found in the region.

There was little farming on the western edge of the frontier. But in the settlements in the eastern part of West Central Texas, most farmers found wheat a better choice for cultivation than corn because of the climate, although getting either crop ground into flour or meal was a hardship. In 1858, W. C. McGough, living in southern Eastland County, traveled to Witt's mill on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River in present Denton County – more than 100 miles one way – to get his grain ground. Settlers living in Comanche County often traveled a like distance to a Waco-area flour mill.

Of all the pests and hazards of frontier life – bears, panthers, wolves, coyotes, foxes, grasshoppers, drought and flood – one of the worst was grasshoppers. A Capt. Pope at Fort Belknap in April 1854 reported an army of grasshoppers that filled the tents. And in October of the same year, grasshoppers were as thick as a snowstorm in the Fort Chadbourne area: Like a Biblical plague, the horde swept through the area for three days straight, one report said.

Getting supplies in and sending products out were also major problems, especially on the extreme edges of the frontier. Some freight came to Little Rock by water, then moved west by wagon train through Preston on the Red River and on across the state. Still other cargo came in through the port of Corpus Christi, was freighted to San Antonio and was distributed from there to the frontier forts and civilian settlements. Wheat and other grain grown in the western regions was generally used at home or sold or traded to neighbors, military posts or the two Indian reservations.

The first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach was greeted with joy when it made its way across the Texas frontier in September 1858. For the few short years it operated, it brought news, visitors and merchandise to settlers who were hungry for all three. When U.S. troops withdrew at the start of the Civil War, however, operations on the southern frontier grew too hazardous, and the last Butterfield coach traveled through Texas in March 1861.

Indian raids on the frontier of West Central Texas did not decrease with the exodus of the reservation Indians when they were moved to Fort Sill in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in 1859. In fact, raids were more frequent in most areas as the Indians redoubled their efforts to protect their lands. From the Red River to the San Saba, Indians stole horses, burned buildings and scalped and killed settlers. Indian lives were lost as the frontiersmen retaliated. Numerous settlers gave up and retreated eastward to more established towns or settlements.

"Forting up" was a common practice on the Texas frontier during this period, since protection consisted of a few state troops and a loosely organized militia. Most frontiersmen depended on themselves for defense.

In Central Texas, settlers had fortified their houses for protection from Indians as early as the 1850s. On Oct. 13, 1864, occurred one of the bloodiest Indian raids in Texas history. Near Elm Creek in Young County, a band of between 500 and 1,000 Comanches and Kiowas went on a daylong rampage, moving from ranch to ranch scalping, killing, looting, burning and driving off cattle. When the raiders finally retreated, 12 settlers were dead and 13 were homes destroyed. Two women and four children had been taken captive.

The frontier families, horrified by the wholesale slaughter of the Elm Creek Raid, forted up. Some families simply fortified their existing homes. But others gathered together and built clusters of quickly built, temporary picket houses surrounded by picket stockade fences. Tree trunks, often post oak, were set on end in a trench, so that the logs were vertical, rather than horizontal as in a standard log cabin. Dirt was packed around the bases of the logs, which were bound together and chinked with twigs and mud. Roofs were commonly made from interlaced tree branches with a heavy covering of clay dirt.

Often the houses were built along the sides of a large square, with one wall of each house serving as part of the stockade wall and a picket stockade filling the spaces between the houses. Generally the houses were very simple one-room structures with floors of packed dirt, sometimes covered with bison hides. More ambitious frontiersmen constructed two- or three-room houses, some with split-log floors.

The forts were usually named – some seriously, others whimsically. Fort Davis, in northwestern Stephens County (not to be confused with the military Fort Davis in Jeff Davis County), was named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Fort Growl, in Young County where Fish Creek runs into the Brazos River, may have been named for the cantankerous personality of its owner, Arch Medlan. Some simply took on the name of the landowner, such as forts Blair, Bragg, Greer and Murrah. By the end of the Civil War, there were as many as 100 civilian picket forts all across the Texas frontier, varying in size from one ranch house with a picket stockade around it to groupings of a dozen or more picket houses sheltering more than 100 people. Since they were not intended for permanent occupation, few ruins remain to mark their sites.

One of the largest of these family installations was Fort Davis, located on the north bank of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River just east of the Shackelford County line. Construction of Fort Davis began a scant week after the Elm Creek Raid.

A 24-year-old resident, Samuel Pierce Newcomb, and his wife Susan Reynolds Newcomb, both kept diaries of life in the fort. Newcomb wrote that Fort Davis was 300 feet by 325 feet, bisected by a 25-foot alley. Unlike most of these temporary shelters, Fort Davis contained a stone building, an existing house, which served as one corner of the fort's perimeter. Women and children hid there when Indians were reported nearby. The ruins of that structure were restored for use as a hunting lodge in the late 1970s.

By Jan. 1, 1865, when Newcomb began to keep his diary, about 120 people were living in Fort Davis, with more planning to move in. By summer of 1865, the little settlement also included a smokehouse, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop.

The men of the fort spent much time traveling to and from the mill in Parker County for flour, a hazardous round-trip journey of 200 miles taking four to six weeks in an ox-drawn wagon. Obtaining salt from Ledbetter's Salt Works, about 25 miles away near present-day Albany, took less time but was no less hazardous.

Because most supplies had to be hauled in from quite a distance, the residents of Fort Davis made their own candles, soap and furniture. Since all the fabric mills were in the North, and the South was blockaded during the war, cloth was also made at home from necessity, if not from thrift. Substitutes were found for many items: coffee was replaced by parched okra or sweet potatoes. Honey and syrup took the place of scarce sugar.

A severe drought that began in 1864 limited agriculture at Fort Davis. Food for frontier families included beef, milk and butter from their own cattle, as well as buffalo meat, deer, antelope, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, wild plums and pecans. Some families kept chickens. Cattle raising, scouting for Indians and buffalo hunting occupied most of the men's time, when they were not traveling to the mill or the salt works. While the men were away on roundups, scouting trips or hunts, life for the women was lonely. And the extreme heat, blue northers, dust storms and ever-present threat of Indian attacks made life miserable as well.

Life in Fort Davis was not entirely grim, however. Any excuse was used for holding a party. All new houses were dedicated with a dance. Young people turned pecan and wild plum hunts into picnics. And a wedding was the cause for a full-scale celebration. The bride's family invited everyone in Fort Davis and the neighboring forts to as elaborate a wedding feast as could be managed. There was dancing for adults and a candy pull for children.

One of the most welcome visitors to Fort Davis was Parson George Webb Slaughter, a Baptist preacher who lived in Palo Pinto. On each of the two recorded trips he made to the fort, Parson Slaughter stayed several days, preaching several times a day and performing numerous baptisms. Weddings that had been awaiting his arrival were held. On the day before Christmas 1865, Newcomb wrote, "I understand that there were a few grown persons in this place that never had heard the word of God preached until today."

The dedication of a hand-made flag was cause for a community celebration on March 2, 1865. Visitors came from neighboring forts for the ceremony, which included a potluck dinner and a dance. When a blue norther froze the Clear Fork of the Brazos in December 1865, Newcomb, a native of Connecticut, provided the other residents great amusement when he hauled out his long-unused ice skates and took a turn on the ice.

Sam and Susan Newcomb moved to a ranch in Throckmorton County in the spring of 1866. Many other residents had already left Fort Davis for other fortifications or to return to their own ranches. Fort Davis was pretty well abandoned by 1867, and the log buildings slowly disintegrated. Only the rebuilt stone cottage is still standing on a privately owned ranch to mark the site of this once-bustling community on the Texas frontier.

— written by Mary G. (Crawford) Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1990–1991.

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