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Texas Hill Country Forts Road Trip

February 10, 2021

As settlers poured into Texas in the 1850’s and pushed the frontier west, and conflicts with the native peoples became more violent. Far earlier the Spanish had created a chain of presidios (forts), like Presidio de San Antonio de Bexar, established in 1718. The fort was closed in 1836 when Texas gained its independence, and is today managed as a National Historical Site by the National Park Service. The US Army built many forts in Texas, but many are now just piles of rocks.

Reconstructed Headquarters Building at Fort McKavett

Some historic forts, however, are partly reconstructed and well interpreted, and are popular historical sites, and it is quite likely you have been to one or more. Fort Davis in far west Texas is such an example, a well restored and interpreted National Historic Site in a spectacular canyon at the edge of the town. Another is Fort Concho in San Angelo, built in 1867.. Others, however, are out of the way and seen by few. One example is Fort Lancaster, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. While the fort itself is little more than a pile of rocks, the Texas State Historical Park has a fabulous museum and visitor center. Let’s take a road trip to visit four historic Texas Hill Country forts which are worth your time.

Officer’s Quarters at Fort McKavett were used as private homes for many years

Set on a lonely, windswept hill 22 miles west of Menard, 42 miles northwest of Junction, or 100 miles west of Fredericksburg, is one such fort.  It is a lonely place, but, oh, it is a beautiful place. Far removed from the frenetic activity of Texas’s cities, Fort McKavett, now called a ghost town by some, is a fort of which much remains.

The US Army built the First Federal Defense Line to protect against depredations from Mexico and Comanche and other tribes. The first forts established were Duncan, Inge, Lincoln, Martin Scott, Croghan, Gates, Graham, and Worth. In June of 1851 new forts were added: Belknap, Phantom Hill, Chadbourne, Mason, Terrett, Clark, and McKavett. Fort McKavett was at first just a camp on a hill along the San Saba River occupied by five companies of the 8th Regiment of the U S Infantry. The area was deemed unsuitable after six weeks, and the location re-established two miles away near a large spring on a limestone hill. The fort was named after a West Point graduate who had been killed by a cannonball in 1946 during the Battle of Monterrey. Some of the early construction was supervised by Fredericksburg stone mason Edmund Wiegle. Oak and stone and lime for mortar was locally obtained, while cypress for roof shingles came from Kerrville. At various times the fort was home to 250 to 600 soldiers. According to the park’s interpretative guide, “Frontier duty was monotonous, tiresome, and lonely. Soldiers had two main ways of escaping the daily grind: alcohol and desertion.” The men were paid quarterly, and irregularly at that, in silver Mexican Pesos. Charges at the camp store and laundress were paid by the quartermaster first, and what the soldiers received was often spent quickly at a local bar. The fort was abandoned in March, 1859.

The Civil War saw the fort occupied by the 1st Texas Mounted Rifles in 1861. During the winter of 1861-62, some 40 Federal prisoners were incarcerated at the fort, including some who had, ironically, helped build it. In 1866 a large group of perhaps 250 Comanche or Kickapoo raiders stole over 30,000 head of cattle in the area between the San Saba and Llano River. The fort was reopened and rebuilt in 1868.

During this time the fort was at one time or another home to all 4 regiments of black soldiers, called Buffalo Soldiers by the native people as their dark and curly hair reminded them of a buffalo. One such soldier was Emanuel Stance, who was born in Louisiana in 1843 (I presume he was born an enslaved person but did not find that recorded). On May 20, 1870, Sgt Stance was sent to recover Herman Lehmann and his brother Willie, who had been kidnapped by Apaches near their home in Loyal Valley (between Mason and Fredericksburg). They found the Apaches at Kickapoo Springs, 14 miles north of Fort McKavett. Young Willie was able to escape in the skirmish, but Herman was not; that is a great story for another time (see Nine Years Among the Indians). For his bravery in this skirmish, Sgt Stance was awarded the Medal of Honor, the first black regular soldier to be so honored. His long career included many disciplinary actions, and was found shot dead by a service revolver in Nebraska on Christmas morning, 1887, presumably by one of his Privates.

Fort McKavett was closed for the last time on June 30, 1883. During its life as a fort, 91 soldiers died while in service there. The day after closing, Fort Davis was incorporated as a town. The land was divided up and sold, and the homes were occupied by area residents. The community grew as large as 250 persons on a ranching economy, with sheep, goats, and some cattle, but the Great Depression began a serious decline in population. The Drouth of 1950-1957 was the final blow, and the town was taken over by the State in 1968 and transferred to the Texas Historical Commission in 2008. It now features a visitor center with a museum. There is a modest admission fee and tours can be arranged in advance.

The first known native peoples of the area were called the Jumano, who lived in villages like pueblos, and were traders who bridged the gap between the southwest and east. In the early half of the 18th century the Lipan Apache became dominant in the area, and then they were challenged by the Comanche moving in from the north. The Comanche were a branch of the Shoshone from Wyoming, and are thought to have been the first Plains tribe to fully incorporate horses into their way of life. They are considered to have been the finest mounted warriors in our history, comparable to any in the world.

Reconstructed Presidio San Saba Wall

The Spanish had entered the area a hundred years earlier, in April of 1757, when Fathers Alonzo de Terreros and Don Diego Ortiz de Parilla arrived in what is now Menard. The army built a fort along the San Saba River while the priests, not wanting to be directly associated with the army, built a mission 3 miles upriver. A year later a group of some 2,000 Comanche and Wichita warriors destroyed the mission and killed the priests. The fort was not attacked, and  eventually rebuilt of stone. It proved hard to support and was evacuated in 1768, then abandoned two years later. Until a few years ago the ruins were accessible by driving down the driving range of the municipal golf course. Now some of the fort’s walls have been reconstructed and there is excellent interpretation of the site, called Presidio San Saba. Signage to the fort is limited, but it can be found along the south side of US 190 two miles west of Menard. The town of Menard is quite small but also boasts a “Historic Ditch Walk” along an irrigation canal built in 1876 and fed by the San Saba River. The area has few services but I can recommend the lunch special ($10) at the Lazy Ladle Restaurant.

Reconstructed Officer’s Quarters at Fort Mason

All that remains of Fort Mason is a reconstructed officer’s quarters built of stone and wood. The fort was established on July 6, 1851 on Post Oak Hill near Centennial and Comanche Creeks. Albert Sidney Johnston, who fought in the Texas War of Independence, in the Indian Wars with the U.S. Army, and then with the Confederate States of America, was assigned to the fort in the 1850’s. He was killed during the Battle of Shiloh; Jefferson Davis said that the loss of Johnston was the “turning point of their fate.” General Robert E Lee served in the fort during the mid 1850’s, where history recorded that he kept a pet rattlesnake. The fort was closed in 1871. The existent building was rebuilt by local citizens in 1975. The covered porch commands a nice view of Mason, and is a peaceful and quiet place. Mason has a beautiful town square, several notable restaurants, and excellent BBQ served from the pit in the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, the town’s beautiful courthouse was destroyed by fire in February 2021.

Fort Martin Scott

Finally, our tour ends at Fort Martin Scott on the east end of Fredericksburg along US 290. Thousands of people pass by daily; many are visitors excited about the bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and wineries the town has to offer them. Few of them will visit, or even notice this partly-rebuilt fort. The fort is owned by the City and offers a walking trail with interpretative paintings by the Casbeer brothers, some reconstructed buildings, and a taste of what life was like during its short existence. The fort was established in December of 1848 along Barons Creek and adjacent to the new town of Fredericksburg, itself only established in 1846. Construction of the fort brought needed income to residents, who helped in its construction. Its soldiers patrolled the Fredericksburg-San Antonio road. As the frontier moved quickly to the west, the fort was closed in December of 1853. When I visit these places, once bustling with activity and drama, but now solitary places, I take time to sit quietly and listen for voices from the past. I close my eyes and feel the breezes flowing over me, notice the smells and the sounds around, and wonder what stories lie untold in the grass and stones. I listen for ghosts, too; I’ve yet to hear from one, but perhaps, one day.

From → Writing Fiction

2 Comments
  1. Chip Frazier permalink

    Switch,

    I enjoyed our road trip through west Texas!

    Thanks! Chip

  2. Thanks for that very interesting info, Robert. It gave me ideas for some mi=ore road trips.

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