Red River Forts

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Scenic ruins abound at Fort Griffin, now a Texas State Historic Site.

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Red River War

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Twelve military installations in the Red River Valley - five in Louisiana, three in Oklahoma, and four in Texas - show above any other cultural feature how closely history is linked between the three states. Spanning five wars - the French Indian War, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American, Civil, and Indian Wars - the forts not only record the progress of the southwestern frontier, but also what has been lost in the American quest for Manifest Destiny.

Many forts - some private, some federal, some confederate, some French - existed all along the Red River Valley. The twelve forts listed here are those that can still be visited/viewed and were governmental, not private, installations.

Colonial forts
Colonial forts

Colonial era forts (pre-1803) that concentrated on trade and conversion.

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American forts
American forts

American-era forts (pre-1836) that concentrated on international border protection.

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West war forts
West war forts

U.S. military installations that focused on securing the "frontier" from Native American land claims and supervising the reservations.

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Colonial forts
Colonial forts

Colonial era forts (pre-1803) that concentrated on trade and conversion.

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Fort St. Jean Baptiste
Along the Red River behind a high bluff (the Grand Ecore), Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, a French Canadian envoy, encountered the well-developed Caddoan village of the Natchitoches in 1702. He became friendly with the tribe, and removed them closer to New Orleans when a flood devastated their village. In 1714, on his way to establish trade and relations further west in New Spain, he and the tribe returned to the site of the Natchitoches village. There, St. Denis set up a small trading post as the Caddos rebuilt their settlement, thus establishing permanent trade and dominion. These two huts became the center of the European version of Natchitoches.

Two years later, with trade brisk and with constant worry that the Spanish would inch themselves into the Red River Valley, the French government erected a more substantial installation, christened Fort St. Jean Baptiste, under the leadership of Sieur Charles Claude Dutisne. St. Denis became the commander in 1722 to keep up friendly relations with the Caddo tribes as well as keep the Spanish at arm's length, as they had set up their own presidio and mission, Los Adaes, in 1716 to counter the French claim on the Red River, and which they named the capital of the province of Texas in 1720. Inside Fort St. Jean Baptiste, the first church congregation (Catholic, of course) organized.

The fort suffered a severe attack by the Natchez tribe in 1731, which prompted a slight geographic relocation and the erection of substantially larger stockades and gates on a larger mound a bit further from the shores of the Red River. By 1737, the church inside the fort had consecrated a cemetery for all of its Catholic citizens (free or slave, Indian or European or African) just outside of its walls; this location is now known as the American Cemetery in Natchitoches.

After the French defeat in the French-Indian Wars/ Seven Years' War in 1763, Louisiana Territory came under Spanish jurisdiction. The Royal Road, aka El Camino de Real, was extended from Los Adaes to Natchitoches, and the Spanish government began to supply more permanent commercial and Catholic institutions. As the official border disputes between France and Spain became moot, so did the function of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The city of Natchitoches built around the garrison, with locals most likely harvesting materials from the fortress. The fort's church vacated the old site as well. The congregation built a more substantial building and consecrated a new cemetery along the Red River just north of the original fort, where St. Denis was supposedly buried in 1744 (this site is now a commercial structure at the corner of Front and Church streets). By the time of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the fort was in utter ruins. This is why the American government built Fort Claiborne 1804.

In the late 1970s, local historians, together with the Louisiana Office of State Parks, purchased a site that approximated the original location of Fort St. Jean Baptiste to resurrect the historic fort for educational purposes. Just a block removed from the Cane River, historians, archaeologists, archivists, and architects reconstructed the fort using original plans and locally sourced materials.

The result is a wonderful educational center that uses living history demonstrations to explain life in French Louisiana. Military demonstrations, cooking classes, handwork exhibits and more are offered by exceptionally knowledgeable staff. The fort is listed as a resource for the Cane River Creole National Historic Area.

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Fort_Natchitoche-977x616

Fort St. Jean Baptiste was erected at the Natchitoches village, and therefore this French map depicts it as Fort Natchitoche (LOC).

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The recreated stockades for the fort also includes the recreated French church.

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The fort is staffed by historians who have an in-depth knowledge of the area.

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Fort_Natchitoche-977x616

Fort St. Jean Baptiste was erected at the Natchitoches village, and therefore this French map depicts it as Fort Natchitoche (LOC).

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Los Adaes
East of Robeline, Louisiana
Three claims to the Red River decided a lot of fates during the colonial period (in our area, pre-1803 and pre-1836). The French claimed the river portions in Louisiana and Oklahoma and Arkansas, and the Spanish claimed the portion of the Red River in Texas, and the Caddos claimed the entire Red River as it ran in East Texas, in Louisiana, Eastern Oklahoma, and in Arkansas. Of all three powers, the Caddos had the most say during this time. They had better access to food, knew the land, knew the politics all throughout the region, and were better weaponized.

To get the Caddos to become allied with them, both the French and Spanish enticed them with trade and promises of eternal life. The French set up a trading post at the Natchitoches village (Poste St. Jean Baptiste), and the Spanish set up a trading and mission post just a few miles down the footpath at the place known simply as Los Adaes, in 1716. Like all Spanish names, the post had a much more involved moniker: the fort was officially knows as the Nuestera Senora del Pilar Presidio, and the mission was called San Miguel de Linares de los Adaes. "Los Adaes" means the Adaes people, members of the Caddo confederacy and possessors of the lands between Natchitoches and Nacogdoches.

The Europeans differed on their interactions with the Caddos, however. While the French openly traded their surplus guns with the Caddos, the Spanish forbade the weapons trade. Conversely, the French only paid lip service to conversions, while the Spanish took Catholic conversion deadly serious. The Caddos, of course, preferred trade with the French, and this is why Los Adaes became much more tied to the Natchitoches post than with the other Spanish missions further west. An agreement between the Spanish governor and St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches who married into the Spanish governor's family, strengthened trading ties. An isolated, creole community emerged at Los Adaes and the surrounding area, combining Caddoan (Adaes), French, and Spanish customs through intermarriage and trade.

Even though the Spanish colonial government declared Los Adaes the capital of the province of Texas in 1720 to dissuade French incursions (Spanish law forbade intra-colonial trade), the people at Los Adaes continued to live their hard but simple lives as farmers, cowboys, blacksmiths, seamstresses, leather workers, cobblers, soldiers, and cooks. It was most likely due to the Adaens's peaceful policies that no other violence took place at the fort.

In 1763, the French lost their New World empire to the British (trading relationships in the Ohio River Valley and in Canada) and to the Spanish (Louisiana Territory). This made the outpost of Los Adaes obsolete. The Spanish government moved the capital of Texas to San Antonio and ordered the Adaens to leave their homes for the missions in San Antonio, too. The trek to San Antonio killed almost half of the people. They pleaded to the diocese at San Antonio to go back home; while they couldn't go back to Los Adaes anymore as the Spanish could not guarantee their safety, they were granted permission to settle in Nacogdoches along the Camino de Real instead.

For a long time, the mission and trading post at Los Adaes was forgotten until historians and archaeologists combined their efforts to explore the fort further. Today, the site is a Louisiana State Park and listed on the National Register.

Neat quote on food at Los Adaes:
The soil is almost entirely destitute of water; which unhappy circumstance, joined to the natural indolence of the people, frequently reduces them to the way of the most common necessaries of life. The chief means of their subsistence is Indian corn, which they boil, mixed with quick lime, whereby the husk is dissolved into a kind of powder, and the grain considerably softened. Having washed and bruised it on a chocolate-stone, it is formed into a lump of paste, which they knead between their hands. Of this dough they made a sort of cake, which is toasted on a plate of iron laid over the fire. This bread is the native food of the people of New Spain; and indeed, when these thin cakes, or rather wafers, named by the Spaniards tortillas, are well baked, they are far from unpleasant” (Pierre Marie François de Pagès, Travels Round the World, 1763, p. 51)*

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Robeline_el_camino_de_real_at_Los_Adeas_

El Caminio Real, or The Royal Road, was extended from Los Adaes to Fort St. Jean Baptiste in the Spanish period. The trace is still visible.

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Robeline_el_camino_de_real_at_Los_Adeas_

El Caminio Real, or The Royal Road, was extended from Los Adaes to Fort St. Jean Baptiste in the Spanish period. The trace is still visible.

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Fort Claiborne
Inside Natchitoches

he Louisiana Purchase of 1803 necessitated that the Americans protect their newly-acquired property, much to the chagrin of the French and Spanish creoles in northern Louisiana, which saw these "depraved Americans" as a threat to their way of life. The conflict between the American new-comers and the "old inhabitants" along the Red River could be seen with the establishment of Fort Claiborne.

With the original fort of Natchitoches, St. Jean Baptiste, in ruins, the United States established a new garrison to the north of town. Fort Claiborne, named after the territorial governor, became a quite substantial locale as it continued to be occupied for close to fifteen years. Here, the Indian Agent Dr. John Sibley signed treaties with Caddoan, Coushattan, and other tribes - including the famous Caddo chief, Dehahuit - to begin the process of westward removal. It was also at Fort Claiborne where the Red River expedition of 1806 by Peter Custis, Thomas Freeman, and Captain Sparks was launched.

The creole parishioners of Natchitoches sued the American government to remove the fort, since they believed that the fort was built on communal property that was overseen by the church, which was located at the fort's southeastern corner. The suspicion that the Creole community had against the Americans was evidenced by the abandonment of the original cemetery at the location of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The Catholic Creoles removed their dead from the cemetery once protestants began their burials at the newly renamed "American Cemetery."

Fort Claiborne thus had an active but relatively short life. After the signing of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, which firmly established the border between New Spain and the Louisiana Territory, the Mexican Revolution of 1821, and the American push into North Texas, the U.S. government established Fort Jesup along the Spanish Road (Camino de Real) northwest of Natchitoches.

Today, the old location of Fort Claiborne has been reclaimed by the Natchitoches citizens. The site is now occupied by the convention and visitor's bureau, Louisiana museum and hall of fame, the events center, the Main Street office, and other city service buildings. The only reminder of the old fort is its guest house, which sits at the corner of Second and Lafayette Streets.

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Fort_Claiborn_guest_house_from_HABS_surv

The only extant building from Fort Claiborne still remains just behind downtown Natchitoches (LOC).

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Fort_Clairborn_1814_map_library_of_congr

Fort Claiborne's location was disputed by Natchitoches residents as an unnecessary intrusion on public property. When Fort Jesup was activated, the need for Fort Claiborne vanished (LOC).

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Fort_Claiborn_guest_house_from_HABS_surv

The only extant building from Fort Claiborne still remains just behind downtown Natchitoches (LOC).

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Fort Jesup
Between Robeline and Many, Louisiana

Named after Brigadier General Thomas Sidney Jesup, a decorated veteran of the War of 1812, the US army erected Fort Jesup in 1822 along the Spanish Road, which linked Natchitoches to San Antonio and other Mexican cities. The fort replaced Fort Claiborne of 1804.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the western portions of Louisiana territory along the Red River were in a major disarray. Since 1763, Louisiana had been controlled by Spain. After Napoleon won the territory back in 1798, he promptly sold it the U.S. in 1803. No one, of course, asked the inhabitants what they wanted. Instead, a "neutral strip" of land between the Red and Sabine rivers was established by default, where gentleman's agreements were supposed to keep peace, but offered little in the way of an organized government. The people living there did not know to whom they owed allegiance... and some men took advantage of that. Some, like James Bowie, sold false land claims, while others may have tried to establish a New World kingdom, which Aaron Burr allegedly tried to do. The presence of the US army after the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 (which established the international borders between New Spain and the United States) was supposed to alleviate the doubts.

Like nearby Fort Towson in Indian Territory, Fort Jesup provided protection for native tribes and American settlers. Mostly, however, the troops engaged in road building, not combat. They built a road to Fort Smith, Arkansas and one towards Baton Rouge. During the Texas Revolution, American volunteers were mustered at Fort Jesup before entering Texas. The army regulars at Fort Jesup were also sent into Texas in 1845 to counter the Mexican army upon Texas statehood. Led by Zachary Taylor, one can argue that Fort Jesup started the Mexican American War (1846-1848).

The fort closed immediately after the Mexican American War. Its location was not of any great in importance thereafter, not even during the Civil War, as it remained unused. The federal government disbanded it completely in 1869.

Built in the Cane River Creole style of raised foundations, the fort gradually succumbed into ruins save for its kitchen, which was restored when the residents of nearby Many raised money to do so. By the 1950s, the Louisiana State Park department acquired the fort, which was also designated a National Historic Landmark.

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Fort_Jessup_1-980x740

Fort Jesup is now a Louisiana State Historic Site. This is a recreated building culled from the original design as a creole-style (raised foundation with accessible above-ground basement) structure.

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A dragoon's helmet in the fort's collections.

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Only the kitchen building is original to the fort, including its impressive hearth.

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Fort Jesup is now a Louisiana State Historic Site. This is a recreated building culled from the original design as a creole-style (raised foundation with accessible above-ground basement) structure.

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Fort Towson
Northeast of Fort Towson, Oklahoma

In 1819, the United States Congress decided that the upper Red River area needed protection; not for Anglo American settlers, but for Native people who faced violence in this frontier region. Building the fort was difficult, though, because materials had to be either ferried over non-existent roads across the rapids of the Cassotot and Little Rivers, or via steam boat, which the Great Raft of the Red River made near impossible to do. But, by 1823, the fort was finally operational.

The small garrison had to deal with a lot of scuffles between Arkansas and Texas Anglos who wanted to settle in the fertile valley. The military sided with the Nativ peoples, as many had come to the Red River Valley due to previous treaties that the U.S., at least at this time, wanted to honor, and the Anglos were trying to pre-empt legitimate land claims. So, because they were squatting on Indian land, the white men decided that instead of acquiescing to Union control, they'd just burn down the fort, which they did in 1829. The fort rebuilt in 1830 and was dubbed "Camp Phoenix."

As the displaced Indians moved in and established towns like Doaksville (the first Choctaw capital) and Boggy Depot, the fort stayed active but relatively small. In 1840, it housed the troops that would later fight in the Mexican War (1846-1848), but was permanently closed in 1856. During the Civil War, General Sam Bell Maxie used the old fort as a command post, and General Stand Watie of the Confederate Cherokees made it a staging area for his guerilla raids on Union troops. General Watie, in fact, was the last Confederate Commander to surrender, doing so in Doaksville in 1865.

Fort Towson is now a small historic site managed by the Oklahoma Historical Society. The fort consists of ruins, as latter-day settlers dismantled the stone buildings to use in their own houses. A small interpretive center and store houses some interesting artifacts found around the fort.

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Grant Foreman, Oklahoma's first state historian, documented the remains of Fort Towson at the turn of the 20th century (OHS).

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Not much remains above-ground of Fort Towson, which is now a state historic park.

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1867 map of Chickasaw and Choctaw nation
1867 map of Chickasaw and Choctaw nation

An 1867 map of the Chickasaw Nation highlighted some of its forts.

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Grant Foreman, Oklahoma's first state historian, documented the remains of Fort Towson at the turn of the 20th century (OHS).

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Fort Washita
Northwest of Durant, Oklahoma
Fort Washita is today an historic site managed by the Oklahoma Historical Society and listed on the National Register. Sitting close to the Washita River, along the old Texas Road, the Fort is a scenic, contemplative and quiet place where one can really reflect on history. But in its former use as a frontier outpost, the Fort saw lots of action.

Established in 1842, the fort's main purpose was to protect Chickasaw and Choctaw settlers from the Plains Indians and Anglo "land smugglers" - men attempting to preempt Chickasaw and Choctaw lands. Being the furthest fort in the Southwest, Fort Washita anchored growing Indian communities as well as served as a staging area for the Mexican-American War of 1848. Though the fort generally had a population of about 150 soldiers, during the height of that war over 2,000 troops called it a temporary home.

Post-war, the fort became the seat of the Chickasaw and Choctaw agencies. As 1861 rolled around, however, the Union army abandoned its post after the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations seceded, and Confederate forces soon took over. Well, we all know what happened to the Confederates. Fort Washita did not see any major battles as it was a solidly built place, though there may have been attempts by the Union army (a cannon ball was found in a field near the fort by amateur archaeologists). Nonetheless, by 1865 the fort was abandoned.

As the frontier moved further west, settlers dismantled many of the stone structures. The Chickasaw leader Charles Colbert bought the fort and lands surrounding it, and his extended family lived in many of the buildings. Their house - the former West Barrack - burned in 1917, but the family remained (and many members are buried on the grounds). In 1962, the Colberts deeded the property to the Oklahoma Historical Society, which has done a superb job of preserving it.

Driving out to Fort Washita, you'll see cross timbered prairies and semi-ghost towns, relics of Fort Washita's hey-days. The drive is truly tonic for the soul. Fort Washita has a wonderful interpretive staff and a small museum and store. So drive on out and witness Oklahoma history first hand!

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Fort_Washita_ruin-963x718

Fort Washita's scenic ruin changed drastically when a fire engulfed it.

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The aftermath of the fire.

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Fort_Washita_military_road_sign-977x740.

The old militay road led to the administration building. Today, Fort Washita is a state historic site.

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Fort Washita's scenic ruin changed drastically when a fire engulfed it.

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Fort Belknap
Near Newcastle, Texas

In June 1851, General William Belknap set up a small fort in Young County that served as a protection for white settlers against Plains Indians and for Indians on the Brazos River Reservation against white settlers. Fort Belknap, as it came to be known, was first made out of rock dugouts called jacals, but eventually the campus included several native stone buildings quarried from the area. Belknap centered the western frontier as a hub for the various roads that crossed North Texas. The ubiquitous Butterfield Overland Mail line stopped here, as well as feeders for the Shawnee cattle trail.

The fort became an important trading hub for Anglo settlement into the Comanceria. Its role as a protector of the Brazos Indian Reservation also made it a target of Indian-hating whites, who led raids against the reservation, murdered Natives indiscriminately, and even killed Belknap's Indian Agent, Robert S. Neighbors.

A small auxiliary town sprung up around the fort, housing whites, blacks, and Tonkawas, who sought refuge from the more powerful Comanche. Tonkawa men also served as scouts, and stayed with Confederate forces as the Union troops headed for Leavenworth in 1861. While the fort was too far west for major Civil War action, the Texas Rangers - who led raids on non-Confederates, or anyone they considered an enemy - used Belknap as a staging area.

Many depredations from Anglo and Native gangs took place in the area during and after the Civil War, which eventually led to the Red River Wars. Upon defeat, the fort briefly held troops to secure the frontier until Fort Griffin and Fort Richardson opened, thus moving the frontier further west -and Belknap was abandoned. Locals and new settlers dismantled many buildings and fences to help build their own houses. However, the Citizens Group of Young County, together with the help of Senator Benjamin G. O'Neal, restored what was left of the camp in celebration of the Texas Centennial.

The fort is now a jewel of a relic, with camp sites and a large picnic area. Inside the administration building is a very interesting museum, and a restored barrack is home to fort archives. One of the outbuildings serves as a historic dress museum, at least when I visited it (it's not always open).  Fort Belknap is unique, too, in that it's a county park and not a state park.

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Fort_Belknap_admin_well_and_gun-980x733.

Much of Fort Belknap has been reconstructed.

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The most prominent grave in the fort's cemetery is that of Robert Neighbors, who was shot and killed by a man who hated Native Americans and those who protected them.

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Fort_Belknap_before_restoration_LOC-973x

In the 1930s, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documented the ruins of Fort Belknap (LOC).

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Much of Fort Belknap has been reconstructed.

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Fort Phantom Hill
North of Abilene, Texas

Just a few miles north of Abilene are the picturesque ruins of Fort Phantom Hill, a frontier fort that shouldn't have been there in the first place.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the U.S. Military ordered several military forts constructed to guard settlers from Comanche raids - and to establish the lands for the U.S. General William G. Belknap had decided to place a fort southwest of Fort Belknap along the Brazos river, but General Persifor F. Smith, unfamiliar with the area, ordered the fort to be built on a hill on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River instead. That was a bad idea: this area was sparsely timbered, and for miles there was no source of potable water. The fort had to be constructed of stone quarried a good two miles away, and the wood used for most buildings had to be brought in by oxen. (Ironically, a reservoir now lies just a few minutes away, and timber planted by later farmers seems quite abundant.)

In its short life, the fort - which was plainly called Fort on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and not by its colorful name until years later - saw little action. Several tribes friendly to the Texans came to trade and visit. The soldiers had to fight boredom and the elements, but not men. The fort was abandoned in 1854. Though the wooden buildings mysteriously burned soon after, what remained found a second life as a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage Coach route. During the Civil War the outpost acted as a sort of way station for Texas Rangers, and both General William Tecumseh Sherman and Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie spent time there during the Red River War campaigns.

Fort Phantom Hill centered a small town of the same name in the 1880s, where the main source of income derived from buffalo slaughter. When the supply of animals diminished and the railroad bypassed the town in favor of Abilene, the town and the fort faded from maps. Today, the fort sits on private land. A local historical society has made the fort accessible, with informational brochures available to guide the visitor along foot paths.

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Fort_Phantom_Hill_by_Miller-974x891

A contemporary drawing of Fort Phantom Hill. After it was decommissioned, the fort became a stop on the Butterfield Stage.

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Fort_Phantom_Hill_jail-979x743

The ruins of the fort can be visited on a walking trail.

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Chimney structures at Fort Phantom Hill.

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Fort_Phantom_Hill_by_Miller-974x891

A contemporary drawing of Fort Phantom Hill. After it was decommissioned, the fort became a stop on the Butterfield Stage.

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Fort Griffin
North of Albany, Texas

After the Civil War, several frontier forts in Texas (such as Belknap, Worth and Cooper) were abandoned, and new ones established further west. One of these new forts was Fort Griffin, which opened in 1867. Its original location may have been at Young and Stephens counties, but it was moved west along the Clear Fork of the Brazos River to occupy a site at the border of Throckmorton and Shackleford counties. Along with Fort Richardson, which lay just to the northeast of Fort Griffin, these forts marked the boundary line ("the frontier") between Native American lands and white settlement ("civilization") from Indian Territory all the way to the Rio Grande at Fort Davis.

The words "frontier" and "civilization" when used within the context of western history are problematic. These terms denote that Native people weren't Americans, and that whites were a superior culture. It's an archaic world view that historians now refrain from using except when discussing the language of the era.

Erected on top of a hill in the beautiful, scrubby countryside just west of the Cross Timbers, Fort Griffin allowed white Texans to settle Comanche country. A rough and tumble town nicknamed the "Flat" appeared at the north side of Fort Griffin's hill, where saloons and bawdy houses competed for the soldier's business. In the late 1870s, the Great Western Trail had a stop at the Flat before pushing further north towards Dodge City, Kansas. The town's businessmen "cleaned up" its reputation in the 1880s, and campaigned to make the town of Fort Griffin the county seat. However, Albany, with its proximity to the railroads and heavy local investment, became the seat instead.

The antebellum Camp Cooper, where both the Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman served, lay just northwest of Fort Griffin in southern Throckmorton County. Established in 1854, the camp's purpose was to protect a reservation for a band of peaceful Comanches against the hostile whites. A Comanche School was founded nearby. But the white settlers terrorized them until the band was forced into Indian Territory. In 1860, the Comanche Chief Peta Nocona was killed along the Pease River in the Caprock, and his wife, Cynthia Ann Parker, was re-captured and brought back to the camp. (Cynthia Ann was a pioneer's daughter who had been kidnapped during a raid on Parker's Fort in the 1836). Cynthia Ann's son Quanah led the remaining Comanches during the Red River Wars.

After the Red River Wars of 1871-1874, federal law prohibited Native Americans who once called Texas home from crossing south of the Red River.  The United States closed Fort Griffin, though The Flat hung on for a while until it, too, succumbed to population loss.

Today, the site is a state historical park that is also home to the official state longhorn herd. The town of Fort Griffin (the "Flat") sits on private but accessible land. The site of Camp Cooper lies on private land and from what I gather, nothing visible remains except a historic marker from 1936.

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fort_griffin_admin_ruin_2-983x751

Much of the fort is in ruins, but the state historic site houses one of the best museums in the region.

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Fort_Griffin_flat_bridge_plank-985x769

The bridge at Fort Griffin Flat can be walked today.

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Fort_Griffin_Echo_August_1881_Portal_to_

A newspaper account suggests that Fort Griffin Flat was not on its last legs, but history proved otherwise when the railroad favored nearby Albany instead of the Flat.

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Much of the fort is in ruins, but the state historic site houses one of the best museums in the region.

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Fort Richardson
In Jacksboro, Texas

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, 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.

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.

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Fort_Richardson_ruins_guardhouse-978x763

Much of Fort Richardson is in ruins as locals carted off the stones to use for their own structures.

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Fort_Richardson_armory_1941_grafitti-973

Historic graffiti is always a treat to find!

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1876 map of Texas Fort Richardson UTA
1876 map of Texas Fort Richardson UTA

This 1876 map accurately predicted the railroad that would cross the old fort's site (LOC).

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Fort_Richardson_ruins_guardhouse-978x763

Much of Fort Richardson is in ruins as locals carted off the stones to use for their own structures.

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Fort Sill
Lawton, Oklahoma

For anyone interested at all in Indian Territory, frontier, or Native American history, Fort Sill is THE place to go. This bastion from the Old West flourishes as the last remaining, active military post that was built during the Indian wars.

Established in 1869 by Major General Phillip H. Sheridan and built by the volunteer soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry, Fort Sill's primary function was to contain the Southern Plains people, who had been relegated to the reservation in the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty. The reservation for the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches, carved from the Chickasaw nation in 1866, surrounded the fort, which also served as home to several displaced Indians tribes and housed prisoners of war from the Apaches and Kiowas tribes. A cross section of white and black Americans interacted with the Native Americans at the fort, including "Buffalo Bill" Cody", "Wild Bill" Hickok, the 19th Kansas Volunteers, and the 10th Cavalry, widely known as the African American Buffalo Soldiers. The fort also saw plenty of bison hunters, who were decimating the grand herds of the Southern Plains. The vast majority of the soldiers  hailed from more settled areas like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. They either joined the army during the Civil War and remained in service, or enlisted after 1865 to assist in the next great, but undeclared action - the wholesale expansion and exploitation of the American West.

In 1871, Kiowa warriors under Chiefs Satanta and Big Tree ambushed and killed seven men of the Warren Wagon Train in Young County, Texas. The Kiowas at Fort Sill boasted of this coup. General William Tecumseh Sherman, Chief of the U.S. Army, ordered the Kiowas responsible for the assault arrested and sent to Fort Richardson  to stand trial. The accused men were sentenced to death, though Chief Satanta's eloquent speech about his people's suffering helped to spare their lives when the Texas governor commuted their sentence.

Sherman believed that the only way to defeat the Indians was to wage a war of attrition, thus beginning a series of skirmishes now known as the Red River Wars in 1871. Fort Sill became the headquarters for the American troops. After the resounding defeat at the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon in 1875, the Plains tribes returned to Fort Sill. The fort became the center of their new homelands.

Fort Sill is the last tangible link to frontier history in the United States, and is worth a lengthy visit. As it is an active military post, you will be subjected to a search upon entering the fort, but the grounds are free to tour. So enjoy the incredible history that is Fort Sill!

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fort_sill_oldest_barracks-971x726

The barracks are the oldest buildings at Fort Sill, built in 1869.

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Fort_Sill_1889_lib_of_con_restr-977x776.

Fort Sill, here depicted in 1889, is still an active military installation (LOC).

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Legend says that Geronimo bent the two bars in his jail cell door, which is on display in Fort Sill's jail.

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fort_sill_oldest_barracks-971x726

The barracks are the oldest buildings at Fort Sill, built in 1869.

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