Updated: Sep 19
While Fort Davis by Big Bend National Park gets more coverage, and Fort Concho in San Angelo is more visited (and both are deserving in their own right) — more than any other fort at or near the Red River Valley, Fort Richardson embodies American Indian reservation policy.
The fort's original location was supposed to be near Buffalo Springs in today's southern Clay County, but a dry spell made water scarce, and instead, a new site along Lost Creek was selected instead. Established in 1868, the fort served — like all Texas forts did — as a station of protection and offense against the Comanches and Kiowas. Fort Richardson, named after Union General Israel Bush Richards, encompassed three hundred acres and boasted fifty-five buildings, was by far the largest installment in Texas. Being in such proximity to the Red River, Fort Richardson became the staging area for the Red River Wars, waged from 1871-1874.
Southern Plains tribes like the Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Apaches, and others had camped around the confining protection of Fort Sill since the Battle of the Washita of 1868, where General George A. Custer and his troops slaughtered men, women and children in an incredible war of attrition. The Battle of the Washita occurred a year after the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaties had been signed to prevent such a massacre.
Kiowa chief Satanta had participated in the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty of 1867, but he did not agree to the terms. His iconic speech given at the meeting echoed much of the Native sentiments:
"I have heard that you intend to settle us on a reservation near the mountains. I don't want to settle there. I love to roam over the wide prairie, and when I do it I feel free and happy, but when we settle down, we grow pale and die Hearken well to what I say. I have laid aside my lance, my bow, and my shield, and yet I feel safe in your presence. I have told you the truth. I have no little lies hid about me, but I don't know how it is with the Commissioners; are they as clear as I am? A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up the river I see a camp of soldiers, and they are cutting my wood down, or killing my buffalo. I don't like that , and when I see it my heart feels like bursting with sorrow. I have spoken." *
By 1868, the Kiowas, Comanches, and other Plains people had resumed the war path. In 1871, Kiowa bands under Chiefs Satanta and Big Tree raided the Warren Wagon Train along the former Butterfield-Overland Stagecoach route and military road. Seven teamsters were killed in what was termed the Salt Creek Massacre.
William Tecumseh Sherman, by now the General of the U.S. Army, ordered the arrests of the leaders of the Wagon Raid. Prior to the Civil War, Sherman had served at Camp Cooper in Texas, where he had witnessed hostilities from whites against Native Americans. After the Civil War, he practiced total warfare against the Plains Tribes in order to open up the U.S. interior to white and black settlement, including ordering the Battle of the Washita in 1868. Sherman was at Fort Griffin when the Salt Creek Massacre took place, narrowly escaping the ambush just a day before.
Sherman treated the participants of the massacres as criminals, not as war foes. After an investigation that led to the arrests of Satanta, Big Tree, and others, they were jailed at Fort Richardson to individually stand trial in a military criminal trial. This marked a continuation of Indian reservation policy set in 1862, when over 150 Dakotas were sentenced to death by hanging in Minnesota Territory for waging war against settlers. The raid also soldified the "undeclared" war of attrition against the native people, as Sherman wrote, ""White men flocked to the plains, and were rather stimulated than retarded by the danger of an Indian war. This was another potent agency in producing the result we enjoy today, in having in so short a time replaced the wild buffaloes by more numerous herds of tame cattle, and by substituting for the useless Indians the intelligent owners of productive farms and cattle-ranches."
Though sentenced to death, the punishment for the leaders of the Wagon Train massacre's was commuted by Governor Edmund Davis. After serving time in Huntsville, Satanta and Big Tree were sent back to Fort Sill, but they continued to fight to preserve the Kiowa way of life, participating in the Red River Wars in 1874. After the Kiowa and Comanche surrender, Satanta was re-arrested and sent back to Huntsville, where he committed suicide. Big Tree died in Anadarko in 1929.
By 1876, the "frontier" was considered secure, especially after a federal law barred Native Americans at the Fort Sill reservation from entering Texas. The fort closed in 1878. Today, Fort Richardson is an interesting state park not far from Jacksboro, with restored buildings and a hiking trail. It's hard to imagine that this serene park saw so much brutal history a mere 130 years ago.
* Excerpted from My Early Travels and Adventures in American and Asia (London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Co., 1895) by Henry M. Stanley. In Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West was Lost, ed. by Colin G. Calloway.Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.