Spanish Fort: Not Spanish

spanish_fort_old_store_side-986x749.jpg

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

Cover better resolution.JPG

Buy the Book

Ghosts

Preston

Fulton

Spanish Fort

Doaksville

Tatums

Logo.jpg

Book a presentation

Calabeese

Roosevelt

Gotebo

Boggy Depot

Carpenters Bluff

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 San Bernardo Trading Post
Spanish Fort's 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 establishing trading posts along the Red River. The French hold on Louisiana rested on generating good relationships with the Indians 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 a post that the Spanish later called San Bernardo. San Bernardo was on Petersburg, Oklahoma of the Red River, and was named in 1771 in honor of the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez. The San Bernardo trading post, which was established amongst an already large Tayovayan camp, became a fairly busy place, but it did not bustle with French traders. Mostly, Indian tribes converged on the post to conduct horse and captive trading. By the mid 18th-century, the Toyovayans (a Wichita tribe) and the Comanches had settled in a large, permanent village that stretched to both sides of the river.

The San Bernardo Battle
According to the Comanche, their territory stretched all the way to central Texas. 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 (one of their ancestral enemies), warriors from San Bernardo decided to stage a raid. 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 San Bernardo, he came across a much larger settlement than he had anticipated. 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. The 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 San Bernardo trading post as more of an Indian village than a fort, with a sizeable population on the Texas side of the river. De Mezieres christened this village San Teodoro.

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 met with them at the old French trading post, and after successfully conducting business with them, he was bestowed the honor of visiting one of the holiest sites of the Native Americans who lived in the western reaches of the Red River. Not too far from the massive village 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, 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 Montague, Young and Wise Counties. 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
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). The loss of trade, coupled with disease and Anglo-American encroachment, eventually got the better of the tribes residing at San Bernardo and San Teodoro. By the 1850s, they had moved away from the location.  American settlers came upon the remains of the village and assumed it was a Spanish fort. When a settlement was founded close by, 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 cattle trade. However, the old route 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 have a little bit of fun. 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.

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 new burgeoning burg. The town rebounded in the 1920s, 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.

spanish_fort_school-980x865
spanish_fort_school-980x865

The impressive Spanish Fort high school, built during the oil boom, no longer serves students.

Spanish_Fort_on_Montague_County_Map_1924
Spanish_Fort_on_Montague_County_Map_1924

Spanish Fort was a Taovayan village that sat on the west and east sides of the Red River prior to Spanish and American land grants. The American town of Spanish Fort ended up on John Moss's land grant (Texas GLO).

Map_Spanish_Fort_Red_River_Station_from_
Map_Spanish_Fort_Red_River_Station_from_

During the cattle drive period, Spanish Fort became a supplier to the cowboys who crossed into Indian Territory at Red River Station (1896, LOC).

spanish_fort_school-980x865
spanish_fort_school-980x865

The impressive Spanish Fort high school, built during the oil boom, no longer serves students.

1/4