A Trip in Time: Exploring the Great Frontier, Fort McKavett

In January of 1977, I remember watching a docudrama mini-series with my dad called “Ten Who Dared.” Produced by BBC in association with Time-Life films and narrated by Anthony Quinn, it re-enacted 10 of the most challenging explorations of recorded history.

The first episode recreated the voyage of Christopher Columbus, while three others included Captain James Cook’s voyage around the world and his charting of vast unexplored areas of the Pacific; Mary Kingsley, a Victorian English woman who journeyed down the Ogowe and Rembwe rivers in Africa; and Roald Amundsen’s successful attempt to reach the South Pole in 1911.

What stood out to me the most is the indomitable drive of the human spirit to risk everything to explore and conquer new frontiers. This was not only true of the rare individuals portrayed in Ten Who Dared but also of the many people who risked life and limb and endured great hardship while expanding the western American frontier in the 1800s.

A black and white photograph of Fort McKavett in 1896, taken from the northwest window of the second story of the commanding officer's quarters.
A photograph of Fort McKavett taken circa 1896.
A photograph of a hand-drawn sketch of the aerial view of Fort McKavett in 1876, depicting the layout of the buildings of the fort, including the barracks, stables, laundry, bakery, hospital, officer's quarters, and more.
Diagram of Fort McKavett, circa 1876

This was driven home to me during a recent visit to Fort McKavett in west Texas. Originally known as “Camp on the San Saba” (river), Fort McKavett was built in March 1852 and was renamed later that same year after Captain Henry McKavett of the 8th Infantry. The initial rough installation of canvas tents was gradually replaced with sturdy buildings constructed from local limestone quarried by hand near the property. Even the mortar had to be made from local materials; the old lime kiln is still in evidence near the bottom of the hill the fort occupies. All soldiers were responsible for building their own barracks, as well as a hospital, kitchens, quartermaster’s storehouse, schoolhouse, and multiple officer’s quarters.

Top photo, exterior of officer's quarters at Fort McKavett. Small photo top left: the officer's living quarters Small photo top right: the officer's parlor Small photo bottom right: typical children's toys of the period displayed in the officer's home Small photo bottom left: the dining room in the officer's quarters
Top photo, exterior of officer’s quarters at Fort McKavett. Small photo top left: the officer’s living quarters, Small photo top right: the officer’s parlor, Small photo bottom right: typical children’s toys of the period displayed in the officer’s home, Small photo bottom left: the dining room in the officer’s quarters.

The settlers needed a military garrison for their safety and security. When the first Spanish missionaries arrived in the San Saba valley in 1753, they found countless thousands of Lipan Apache, Commanche, Tonkawa, Wichita, and Yojuane Indians, who were not happy to see them.

Soldiers quarried stone by hand to build Fort McKavett

Why was there such a large Native American population in an area of oppressive heat, scant water, and hostile weather? The Edwards Plateau, a huge region in central Texas, is the home of a special kind of quartz mineral called Edwards chert, or flint. This stone was so highly prized by the natives for tools and arrowheads that it was traded between tribes as far away as 600 miles, and they were fiercely protective of this resource.

A view of Fort McKavett across the parade grounds to the ruins of Barracks Number Three.
A view of Fort McKavett across the parade grounds to the ruins of Barracks Number Three.

Ninety-nine years would pass between the arrival of the Spaniards in 1753 and an American military commitment to the region represented by the establishment of Fort McKavett in 1852, which would offer protection to westward-bound travelers and residents of the area.

Left: Exterior view of Barracks Number Four, Right: Interior view of Barracks Number Four at Fort McKavett

At Fort McKavett, every soldier and resident pulled their own weight. Nothing was handed to them, and there were no luxuries. Brutally hot summers of drought followed winters and springs that could be fraught with flash floods, while the settlers endured the constant danger of coyotes, cougars, and panthers, and abundant poisonous snakes and scorpions. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no TV or radio, no telephone, no hot showers. The solders worked from 6 in the morning until lights-out at 9:15 at night. Their duties included quarrying limestone, making mortar, chopping wood, growing vegetable gardens, and hunting food, as well as offering safe passage to travelers and guarding the locals against Indian attack.

A soldier’s monthly wage didn’t go far: a Private earned $13 a month, and the commanding officer a mere ten dollars more. Fully half of a soldier’s wage went to pay for laundry services performed by the wives of senior enlisted men. Indeed, the only provision for a woman to be with her husband at his posting was to earn her own keep. Laundresses were paid ten to twelve dollars per month, plus room and board, and were paid additional money by the soldiers for each piece of clothing they laundered.

Photo of a display at Fort McKavett illustrating the role of laundresses at the fort.

If we lived in that era, after paying for our laundry and other expenses, we would have only about $6.50 left for the whole month. This is a good situation for us to consider today. What would you spend your hard-earned money on? Note paper and envelopes cost $1.20 but offered the only means to keep in touch with distant family and friends, playing cards cost 40¢ per pack, a jar of pickles 75¢, books 25¢ each, potatoes 50¢ each, chocolate 75¢, and beer 65¢ per bottle. Enlisted men did extra manual labor whenever possible to earn extra money and improve their financial station in life, and they were also encouraged to learn a skilled trade. Even learning to play an instrument made a difference: both black and white enlisted men could earn 50% more pay each month by joining in the Fort McKavett band.

Schoolhouse exterior and interior at Fort McKavett.
Schoolhouse exterior and interior at Fort McKavett.

It seems so foreign to folks living in this day and age—when comforts are abundant and expected—to think of people willingly traveling by foot, horse, or wagon hundreds or thousands of miles from loved ones to scratch out an existence in untamed parts of the world, the wild frontier. Why did so many succumb to the draw of the West? It was the fact that any man or woman could be successful if they were willing to show up and work hard. No matter how humble or troubled one’s origins, the opportunity to imagine something better and then work hard to make that something come true was available to all. Self-sacrifice, a strong work ethic, patience, and the honor of one’s word and good name were the recipe for success. And although some feel those values are old-fashioned and unnecessary in our digital age, we would do well to re-introduce such concepts to the next generation.

A collection of common items that might have been owned by an army family during the late 1800s at Fort McKavett, including corn husk dolls, frozen Charlotte dolls, toy pistols, chapter books, a child's shoe, clay marbles, a wooden top, a pocket knife, and more.
A collection of common items that might have been owned by an army family during the late 1800s at Fort McKavett, including corn husk dolls, frozen Charlotte dolls, toy pistols, chapter books, a child’s shoe, clay marbles, a wooden top, a pocket knife, and more.

In part 2, A Trip in Time: Exploring the Great Frontier, the Westward Railroad, we’ll visit the Railroad Museum in San Angelo, Texas, and learn a little about the role the railroad played in the great westward expansion of the frontier.

References:

Abundant thanks to Kevin Malcom, our knowledgeable and hospitable tour guide at Ft. McKavett, and to Clifford R. Caldwell, author of Fort McKavett and Tales of Menard County ca. 2012.

http://www.thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/fort-mckavett-state-historic-site

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