Despite its remote location, Fort Davis played a major role in the military defense system that opened the Western United States to expansion in the 1800s. The sleepy resort town that grew outside of the military post and its still sleepy today belies the dramatic events that took place here more than a century ago.
Texas had joined the Union only three years before the Gold Rush of 1849 attracted migration to the West Coast. Additionally, the Mexican War of 1846-48 opened New Mexico and Arizona; wagon trains were leaving the east on an almost daily basis.
A vital addition to the western expansion was the southern transcontinental route that avoided the mountains and winter snows of the central routes. The San Antonio-El Paso Road quickly became a major thoroughfare to the newly acquired territories. Unfortunately, the road crossed territory claimed by the Apaches and Comanches who considered any use of their land as an invasion.
By 1854, the Indians were pushed south from the Great Plains. Attacks against West Texas ranchers and travelers on the San Antonio Road had reached alarming proportions. The military commander in San Antonio selected a box canyon near Limpia Creek with an ample supply of water, wood, and grass for six companies of the Eighth U.S. Infantry to make their base camp.
The original fort was a shabby collection of pine barracks and huts that were intended to be temporary while a stone fort was built. There was never any log stockade as portrayed in the movies. Even to the untrained eye, the location with rugged mountains on two sides looks like a poor site for a defense against Indians who were known for stealthy attacks. The use of the infantry against the Apaches and Comanches, the greatest light cavalry ever assembled, was even less effective.
From 1857 to 1860, the feasibility of using camels in the West Texas desert around Fort Davis was tested with encouraging results. The fort also saw use as a base for cavalry expeditions.
When the Civil War erupted, the military commander in San Antonio ordered Fort Davis abandoned. The Confederate army occupied the fort for a short time with plans to conquer New Mexico. When that plan failed, the troops retreated to San Antonio and the fort was destroyed by Apaches.
It was not until 1867 that the U.S. Cavalry returned to Fort Davis. The fort was one of the first western military posts where African-American soldiers were stationed. The Black regiments fought valiantly against the Indians and earned the name "Buffalo Soldiers."
It was during this period that Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point, was stationed at Fort Davis. In 1881, Flipper was accused of embezzling funds. In his court martial he was found innocent of the charges, but guilty of conduct unbecoming of an officer. In 1976, after an Army review, Flipper's discharge was changed to honorable.
Fort Davis was abandoned by the military in 1891 after 37 years of service. Most of the buildings were dismantled or became rent houses. During the 1920s, the post was used as a movie set. In 1961, Congress purchased the remains as a historic site and a restoration program began.
Admission to the fort is $2 per person and includes entrance to a visitors center and museum. Tours are aided by a brochure and costumed guides during the summer season. There also are three trails; one goes to the nearby Davis Mountains State Park and another goes to a scenic overlook. The fort is open 8am-5pm, and until 6pm during the summer. Special events are planned for Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend. For more information, call 915/426-3224.
The town of Fort Davis is the county seat of Jeff Davis County, named for the Secretary of War (when the fort was organized) and former president of the Confederacy. The Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce, 800/524-3015, has information on nearby sights in the area as well as lodging and restaurant suggestions.
Coming up this weekend...
Czech Kolache-Klobase Festival in East Bernard includes a baking contest and lots of polkas, June 14. 409/335-7554.
Chisholm Trail Roundup in Lockhart celebrates with rodeos, cookoffs, produce shows, art festivals, and music, June 12-15. 512/398-2818.
Tribute to Texas Western Swing at the historic Stafford Opera House in Columbus happens June 14 with appearances of three Country Music Hall of Famers, and more. 409/732-5135.
Juneteenth Festival in San Antonio in the Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park features 30 different kinds of food, music, arts and crafts, and more June 13-15. 210/653-6202.
Shakespeare Festival in Dallas in Samuell-Grand Park presents two different plays during the week, June 17-July 27. 214/559-2278.
Legends of Western Swing Music Festival in Snyder presents the greats of Country Music in a festival atmosphere at Scurry County Coliseum, June 18-21. 405/376-4939.