Fort Davis National Historic Site Commemorates a Key Frontier Military Post

Fort Davis National Historic Site markers and historic structures.
WhisperToMe via Wikipedia.

Authorized 47 years ago on September 8, 1961, Fort Davis National Historic Site is one of the best remaining examples of an Indian Wars frontier military post. From 1854 to 1891, Fort Davis (named for then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis) guarded travelers, mail, and freight moving along the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail.

Thanks to its strategic location in the Davis Mountains of west Texas, the fort was well-positioned to monitor and control Indian activities in two areas of great concern, the Great Comanche War Trail and the Mescalero Apache War Trail.

1854 was an interesting year in the United States. Putting aside the fact that the country was being primed for civil war, there was lots of evidence of industrial, technological, social, and political progress. The country’s factories and mills were humming. The railroad and telegraph systems were expanding rapidly. Major city streets were being lit for the first time with coal gas. The first convention of the Republican party was held in Jackson, Michigan.

Nearly all of these heady trends and events were going on in the “civilized east.” On the western frontier, which encompassed most of the Great Plains and nearly all of the Mountain and Desert West, there was a much more primitive reality. The railroads had not arrived, nor were there many settlements bigger than villages. The surface transport system was pitiful, being scarcely more than a loose collection of trails and traces, and there were only a few long distance routes for the ploddingly slow transport of people, mail, and supplies.

Buffalo still roamed the plains, hills, and mountain valleys of the frontier west. And so did a good many Indians, including hostile ones who raided and killed and generally scared the hell out of emigrants and settlers. This was the time of the Indian Wars, the pre-1890 era when military posts were garrisoned in strategic frontier locations to protect travel routes and pacify the Indians.

And so it was in 1854 that Fort Davis was built in a box canyon on the eastern side of the Davis Mountains in far western (Trans-Pecos) Texas. This was a good place to offer rest and resupply services as well as military protection for travelers, mail, and freight moving along the east-west trending San Antonio-El Paso Road (also called the Lower Road or the Butterfield Overland Trail) and the Chihuahua Trail (linking Santa Fe with Chihuahua, Mexico).

Fort Davis also provided a good location from which to monitor and control Indian activities in two important arenas of conflict -- the Great Comanche War Trail and the Mescalero Apache War Trail.

This latter mission was a very tough assignment. The Comanches and Apaches were outstanding warriors, generally hated whites, and raided promiscuously in Texas and the southern plains (Comanches) and the southwestern deserts and mountains (Apaches) before finally being subdued. The last free band of Comanches, led by Quanah Parker, surrendered in 1875. The last free band of Apaches, led by Geronimo, didn’t surrender until 1886.

Fort Davis was garrisoned from 1854 until 1891, though not continuously. From 1854 to 1861, Eighth Infantry troops stationed at the fort spent much of their time in the field chasing Comanches, Kiowas (close allies of the Comanche and Plains Apaches), and Apaches. Confederates held the fort for a while after the Civil War broke out and Texas seceded in 1861. Recaptured by a Union force in 1862, it was quickly abandoned and lay deserted for five years before being reoccupied in June 1867.

To avoid confusion over the intermittent (and during 1861-1862, even hostile) occupation of the fort, historians refer to a First Fort Davis (active from 1854-1862) and a Second Fort Davis (active from 1867-1891).

Within a few years of being reoccupied in 1867 the fort – or if you prefer, the Second Fort Davis -- boasted various officers’ quarters, two enlisted barracks, a guardhouse, a temporary hospital, and some storehouses.

Fort Davis was garrisoned exclusively by Buffalo Soldiers (African American soldiers serving in the post-Civil War frontier west) from 1867 to 1881, and with a combination of Buffalo Soldiers and whites from 1881 to 1885.

By the 1880s, when the Indian Wars were pretty much over, the fort was a major installation with more than 100 structures and a garrison that numbered about 600 in the peak year of 1884.

There was no wall around this fort, nor did other frontier military posts sport them (with the conspicuous exception of Fort Phil Kearney). Indians avoided attacking the heavily defended garrison at Fort Davis, preferring to conduct raids on other, more lightly defended targets.

If you’d like to read more about historic Fort Davis, I suggest you take a look at the excellent history of Fort Davis, authored by Robert Utley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.

The fort mounted its last military campaign (against Apaches led by Victorio) in 1880. After that, the troops had little to do except repair roads and telegraph lines, escort railroad survey parties from time to time, and pursue bandits. Having served its purpose, but outlived its usefulness, the fort was finally abandoned in June 1891.

After the military abandoned Fort Davis, civilians lived in the quarters for a number of years. To prevent the property from falling to complete ruination, which is what eventually happened to most of the other frontier forts, the owner did a good deal of repair and maintenance work in the 1930s. Today Fort Davis is one of the most complete surviving examples of a typical western frontier fort.

Today, visitors to the 474-acre Fort Davis National Historic Site – of which there are around 50,000 a year --can enjoy a variety of attractions. There are self-guided tours of five restored and refurnished 1880s structures, costumed interpreters (summer months only), living history presentations (scheduled times), nature trails, and a picnic area.