“The popular perception of early history in this area is most typically recalled in stories of Indian raids, cavalry campaigns, wild ‘nights on the town,’ vigilante hangings, buffalo hunts and cattle drives. Such colorful chapters have overshadowed the mundane activities that also formed the regional experience.” - Ty Cashion. A Texas Frontier.
It appears that Mr. Cashion and I have a preoccupation for the same layers of history. The Silent. The Untold. The voices in the past whose stories are never heard. The narrators are many; in first, second and third person. Some times a fusion of two or all three. I, We, You, He, She, The Omniscient They. Many are ghosts. Many are real people like you and me.
People think they know west Texas; they saw it in the movies, they read it in the novels and history books. They add pieces that wear honorary badges and feathers from history class in school; the historical markers in granite and marble that are often miles away from the actual locations that they honor. But we don’t know a quarter of what really was. The way the West 'was won.' But what does that really mean?
I remember my first impressions when driving across west Texas from Oregon over a decade ago. ‘Where’s the tumble weeds? Where’s the cattle in the roads? It’s hot and dusty. Where’s the cowboys and horses?’ And finally, ‘Are we there yet?’
My drive through west Texas was on flat land covered with scraggly brush, bright, dusty and hot. I came from mountains with giant Fir trees, blue rivers, plentiful fruit and vegetables, sheep, horses, cattle, and lush grassland. I was immigrant. I was a stranger on a strange land.
But I am not the only one. Everyone here and before was an immigrant at some point and time in their past, or their forebearers' past. Everyone has a history, skeletons in the closets, cobwebs in the attics, the rickety creases of history that thread back in time and places like the web of a spider with ADHD.
“You may have been born here, son, but y’all still ain’t a Texan.”
Let's see how, and if, the West was really won. And what that means.
People generally form communities. In one way or another, we always connect the dots. We develop relationships whereby shared resources, labor, skills, and even recreation form strong bonds ensuring survival. Despite the inevitable internal competition, a large group overcomes challenges from outside the group. Thus it was around this basic human pattern that camping spots grew into small outposts and forts, forts expanded into towns and villages, and cities joined to become states.
For mutual protection and survival on the edges of advancing colonization, clusters of explorers and settlers built camps and forts. Their combined efforts constructed shelters, cultivated fields, and defense systems. Depending on the environmental or military challenges, these forts ranged in size from fortified huts containing a few families to large military compounds. Several of these once existed in the area known as the Upper Brazos Region.
When U.S. Capt. Randolph Marcy toured north Texas in 1851 for locations to establish a line of forts, traders and military were already camping in the area of the upper Brazos River. Marcy and Major Robert Neighbors later surveyed the area to locate a site for a Comanche Reservation. Several of the Penateka Comanche were relocated to the reservation in 1855. While those relocated to the reservations were mostly peaceaful, scattered depredations continued by raiding parties from other tribes.
For many of the white newcomers, the only good Indian was a dead Indian and they blamed all depredations on those that were nearby and easy scapegoats. Thus the Texas legislature voted to establish a small post nearby in 1856 to mediate between the reservation Indians and the white settlers.
The little post, Camp Cooper, was established on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and about seven miles northwest of the high plateau where Fort Griffin was later constructed. The camp was isolated and plagued by severe weather, dust, insect, rattlesnakes and irregular supplies. It remained active until abandoned at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
Between 1858 and 1861 was a testing time for the local area and the fledgling nation. The Butterfield Mail Stage passed within a few miles on its route from St. Louis to California. Because of continuing conflict with nearby townspeople and settlers, the reservation Indians were moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and the reservation dissolved in 1859. Texas was testing its boundaries and loyalties with growing unrest, eventually siding with the Southern Confederacy to succeed the United States. And the southern Plains tribes were waiting for a lapse in military strength to increase raids on settlements.
As U.S. military troops were withdrawn from Texas, the frontier was again free to reclaim by several native tribes. Depredations increased during the War and for a number of years after. Many area settlers fled their frontier homesteads to form small private and secure strongholds. One of these was Fort Davis, also established on the same river, but further east. Not until several years into Reconstruction did the citizens leave the security of Fort Davis.
U.S. troops began moving into Texas during Reconstruction in 1864. During the nine years after the war ended, the state struggled with social, economic and political challenges. The edges of the frontier were not a priority and Indian and white outlaw depredations continued due to lack of any military presence. In response to the vocal concerns by struggling settlements, federal troops began establishing another line of posts west of the frontier border.
In 1867, Lt. Col. Samual Sturgis chose a site for a new outpost on top of a plateau overlooking the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. Lacking most of the unfavorable attributes of Camp Cooper, the new site was favorable to the four companies of cavalry that first settled it. Even though they were strangers in this strange land. They named it Camp Wilson at first; then Fort Griffin.
Some settlers returned to their homestead, others moved on, and many came after. They were all strangers. For awhile.
Labels: forts, history, Texas