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Spanish Fort in Montague County, Texas: Not Spanish and not a Fort

A store left over from Spanish Fort's oil boom days now sits lonesome aloong the town's main street.

Spanish Fort in Montague County, Texas: Not Spanish and not a Fort

One of the Red River Valley's most intriguing ghost towns is Spanish Fort in Montague County, Texas. Throughout its fascinating history, this little hamlet — which wasn't really that little when it was in its prime — saw cowboys, Indian battles, French traders, Spanish dragoons, card sharps, boot makers, and wildcatter's traverse its streets. The town's name intrigues, as well... so, how did Spanish Fort come to be known as Spanish Fort?

The Taovayan Village that became known as the San Bernardo Post

According to established history, Spanish Fort's recorded history reaches all the way back to the first half of the 18th century, when Louis Jucherau St. Denis, governor of Natchtioches, tasked envoy and explorer Jean Baptiste Bernard de la Harpe with founding trading posts along the Red River. The French hold on Louisiana rested on generating good relationships with the native people who lived along the rivers, and it was trade — specifically, guns and furs — that established French dominance of the Red River Valley throughout the colonial period. Thus, de la Harpe founded two trading posts by 1719: the Nassonite Post along the Great Bend of the Red River (by Fulton, Arkansas) to trade with a large Caddo village, and Fort St. Louis de Carolette.

Fort St. Louis de Carolette may, or may not have, become the trading post that the Spanish would later call San Bernardo. San Bernardo was on the Petersburg, Oklahoma of the Red River, and was named in 1771 by Athanase De Mezieres, a Spanish envoy, in honor of the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez.

San Bernardo was not really a trading post, however. It was a large Taovayan village with earthen walls, an encampment of Comanche tents, and permanent thatch houses. It may have held a log cabin and a stockade. This village, which may or may not have been a French trading post, was an incredibly busy place, but it did not bustle with French traders. Mostly, native tribes converged on the post to conduct horse and captive trading.

There is doubt in my mind that Harpe established a trading post among the Taovayans. In the 1930s, a historian claimed it to be Fort St. Louis Carolette, but this is not thoroughly documented. The Texas Historical Commission has taken this narrative, however, and ran with it, thus creating the accepted history today. However, from my research, Fort St. Louis Carolette was by the Bois d'Arc River.

The Taovayan Battle with the Spanish

The Comanche territory stretched all the way to central Texas, and they were in constant battle with the Apaches and the Spanish. When they learned that the Spanish had erected a mission and a Presidio along the San Saba River in today's Menard County to missionize the Apaches, warriors from the Taovayan village staged a raid. And this is another interesting part of the history: the Apaches had encouraged the erection of the mission to set a trap for a Spanish and Comanche showdown.

In 1758, several dozen men converged on the mission, where they killed 19 friars and stole the remuda. They also burned the mission to the ground. New Spain's governor tasked Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla, the commander of the San Saba Presidio, to neutralize the Comanche threat. With over 400 Spanish and Indian troops, Parrilla tracked the Comanche and Tayovayan warriors north to the Red River, pillaging and burning other Indian villages (including Tonkawa villages) along the way. However, when he reached the Taovayan village, he came across a much larger settlement than he had anticipated. He noticed that the village was flying a French flag.

The French flag may have also been a sly signal to stop the Spanish from attacking, as it would create an international incident.

Though Parrilla and his men engaged in battle, they were quickly overwhelmed and fled, leaving much of their military gear behind. Some historians argue that it was this defeat that prevented the Spanish from further encroachment in the Comancheria, as the "Nortenos" proved too ruthless an enemy.

The San Teodoro Village

Even after Spain gained control of Louisiana in 1763, the Spanish continued to rely on the French to maintain relationships with the Indians along the Red River. Frenchman Athanase de Mezieres, lieutenant governor of Spanish Louisiana, tried to re-establish communication with the tribes along the western Red River. He wrote that the Nortenos continued to be defiant against the Spanish. He also described the Taovayan village as spanning the Red River, with a sizeable population on the Texas side of the river. De Mezieres christened the Texas side of the village San Teodoro and the Oklahoma side, San Bernardo.

Holy Site

One of the first American mentions of San Bernardo and San Teodoro was made by Henry Glass, a horse and slave trader and cotton planter from Natchez, Mississippi. In 1806, he set out on the Red River to buy horses from the Wichitas. He used the name, Pawnees, to describe their ethnicity, although he may have been using the English spelling of the French designation, Panis — a term denoting a mixture of tribal affiliations in one place.

Glass met with them at a village that established histories believe to be the Taovayan village. Again, I have my doubts about this; not that he didn't visit, just that it may have not been the Taovayan village but a Panis village further east, which may have been the actual Fort St. Louis de Carollete.

After successfully conducting business with the native people, he was bestowed the honor of visiting one of the holy sites of the Native Americans who lived in the western reaches of the Red River. Not too far from the village Glass was visiting lay a giant stone, which the Indians called the "medicine rock." Glass noted the reverence paid to this stone —it was considered a great healer and a bestower of talismen, with magic properties. He also noted that the rock may be made of platinum.* Upon his return to the Louisiana Territory, he relayed his findings to Dr. John Sibley, the Indian Agent along the Red River. Sibley charged several men with stealing the rock, which was ultimately ferried to New York for further determination. There, geologists determined that the rock was a giant meteor.**

It is interesting to speculate that the theft of this very important religious relic may have spurred Comanche hatred against American settlers in northern Texas. Until the end of the Civil War, American men and women lived in terror of Comanche depredations, which only subsided after the defeat of the Southern Plains Indians during the Red River Wars.

Burlington? No, Thank You

The loss of trade, coupled with disease and Anglo-American encroachment, eventually got the better of the tribes residing at the Taovayan village that the Spanish had named San Bernardo and San Teodoro. By the 1830s, they had moved away from the location to a village near the 100th meridian and documented by George Catlin. Holland Coffee, who is best known for his trading post at Preston and his plantation Glen Eden, briefly set up a trading post at San Bernardo in the 1840s, but he was forced to leave it by federal authorities in Indian Territory (he sold liquor and may have dealt with stolen horses; he was also a slave trader/ human trafficker, but THAT was legal back then). Later, American settlers came upon the remains of the village and assumed it was a Spanish fort, perhaps based on Coffee's trading post. When a settlement was founded close to the village site, its name "Burlington" was rejected in their post office application in 1876. So inhabitants renamed it in honor of who they thought had lived there previously — Spanish Fort.

Cowboy Haven

Spanish Fort's location was advantageous to the Tayovayans, Comanches, French, and Spanish... so of course it was for the Americans, too. By the late 1860s, Texas had resumed its profitable, pre-Civil War cattle trade. However, the old route that led to Sealia, Missouri gave way to a new one founded as a commercial enterprise by Joseph McCoy; this trail has become known as the Chisholm Trail.

As cattle herds began their long trek towards the new trail's end station in Abilene (KS), cowboys stopped at Spanish Fort to get supplies and be lured to leave their money behind. A hotel, restaurant, saloon, laundry, and dry goods store appeared. Another store that debuted in Spanish Fort was the cobbler shop founded by H.J. Justin from Indiana, who supplied superior boots to the trail drivers. Justin Boots would become synonymous with Texas cattle driving history. Soon, Spanish Fort gained a rather sordid reputation as a place for drinking, gambling, and carousing, as well as an ideal hide-out for men wanted by the law, as they could very easily slip into Indian Territory from Spanish Fort, or vice versa, to evade authorities.

The cattle and cowboys did not ford the Red River at Spanish Fort, however. They instead crossed at Red River Station, where dipping tanks and tax agents had set up shop to keep control over the enterprise.

The Railroad does not commeth

Spanish Fort was doing very well until the railroad came through in the late 1880s. A new town, Nocona, was platted about 15 miles south, and Spanish Fort began losing population to this burgeoning burg. Spanish Fort rebounded in the 1920s, however, when oil exploration made its way to the fields outside of the town. The brief boom that ensued helped to fund a new,brick school in 1924, but a major explosion in a nearby well and several dry wells hurt Spanish Fort's viability. By the late 1960s, Spanish Fort began to shrink until ultimately, it became the ghost town it is today. During this time, both Texas and Oklahoma, independently from each other, conducted research and archaeological expeditions on the sites. Today, Southern Methodist University and the University of Oklahoma house artifacts collected from San Teodoro and San Bernardo, which now sit on private property.

*Much of this information was supplied by Dan Flores' transcription of Henry Glass' journal. Dan Flores is one of the preeminent scholars of the Red River Valley.

**The "Red River Meteorite" now resides in the Peabody Museum at Yale University.

Stylized lion
During an archeological excavation of the Taovayan village, some European trade goods and artifacts were uncovered, suxh as this brass lion (OHS).
Land grant map 1924
Spanish Fort was a Taovayan vilalge that spanned the Red River on both the east and west sides of the banks. When Texas granted land to homesteaders, the village was claimed by John Moss (1924, TX GLO)..
During the cattle driving period, Spanish Fort became a supplier to cowboys who crossed into Indian Territory at Red River Station (1896, LOC).
Old school
The impressive Spanish Fort high school, built duing the oil boom, no loner serves students.


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