Exploring Fort Davis, What Came Before

A Trip in Time: Exploring Fort Davis Part 1, What Came Before

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When I was a kid, nothing captivated me more than stories about the westward exploration and expansion of this nation. The time period was singular in that adventure, exploration, exposure to new cultures, new terrain, and new forms of life were open to any who had the spirit to embark on the journey. The price of admission was stamina, a willingness to leave familiar comforts (and people) behind, and boundless courage to face the Great Unknown. So you can imagine that when I had a chance to travel to West Texas last year, I was excited to have the opportunity for exploring Fort Davis and the areas surrounding it. It is a beautiful, but occasionally desolate area.

Davis Mountains near Fort Davis
Davis Mountains near Fort Davis.
Photograph copyright Elizabeth Winn

I like to imagine myself living somewhere back in time and then to compare it with what I know about life today.

For example, today, for the most part, getting lost is a thing of the past. We have phones that can ping our exact location thanks to communication with satellites. So it might be difficult to imagine that just a couple of hundred years ago, once a person traveled any farther west than New York, Philadelphia, or Richmond, maps consisted of nothing but blank space. Very few intrepid souls had ventured past the thirteen colonies, and even fewer returned to tell their tales and describe what they had seen.

The terrain wasn’t the only unknown. Explorers faced hazards at every turn. Hundreds of fascinating and previously unknown species of animals, insects, and reptiles filled the west. Often, a person’s first brush with an unrecognized life form was their last. There was little, if any, frame of reference. Lack of medical care made westward expansion even more dangerous.

Lots of hazardous plants in Alpine, Texas.
Lots of hazardous plants in Alpine, Texas.
Photograph copyright Elizabeth Winn

In contrast, in our lifetime, easy identification of flora and fauna is just a click away on your phone. If you want to make sure you won’t need a bottle of calamine lotion later in the day, you can snap a picture in any of dozens of apps to rule out poison ivy. Or if you need to know about the poisonous possibilities of a spider or snake, a quick question to Siri or Google provides you with an instant response.

Reviewing the history of this time period is a fun hobby of mine, as is traipsing around the remnants of towns, forts, and encampments long abandoned by those who came before us. However, before I continue, it’s important for my readers to understand that my explorations of the past in no way constitute an agreement with or endorsement of the choices, ideals, or actions of our forefathers. Discussing the environmental, cultural, and social implications of their actions that still send shock waves throughout society today is far beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, I strive to share facts from history that I hope will inspire readers to get curious about what life was like for these pioneers—their joys and sorrows, their grit and tenacity, and how their lives and ours are alike, yet so very different.

Wilderness vista near Marfa, Texas.
Wilderness vista near Marfa, Texas. Photograph copyright Elizabeth Winn.

The westward expansion in Texas took its biggest leap forward during the mid-nineteenth century, after gold had been discovered in California. Once people were bitten by the gold bug, they couldn’t get across Texas fast enough, and the Trans-Pecos Trail was born. Stretching from San Antonio to El Paso, the Trans-Pecos Trail was also crisscrossed in multiple places with much older trails going north and south between Mexico and the so-called “Indian Country,” which in this case was located in the Texas Panhandle and parts of Oklahoma.

In the eighteenth century, the Comanche and Kiowa peoples often traveled south to Mexico to trade buffalo hides for corn and other dietary staples. To the east and west, their routes were bordered by Apache land. The Lipan Apache had the territory to the east of Comanche and Kiowa country, and the Mescalero Apache laid claim to the territory of West Texas, stretching west from near the Davis Mountains to what is now El Paso.

For about two hundred years before this, the Spaniards had been on a quest to capture as much wealth and land for their crown as possible. They had embarked on ambitious campaigns all over South and Central America, Mexico, and the southern United States.

In addition, outlaws and highwaymen scouted for commonly used trails where they could lie in wait for passersby. No matter what a person’s heritage might be, everyone back then traveled with the supplies they needed to survive as well as any valuables they might possess, and that made travel of any sort risky due to the danger of robbery.

With so many people competing for survival and primacy, the US government made a plan to make travel safer for people moving west. And as anyone who has been to West Texas knows, water is in short supply. So it was a natural and strategic choice to establish camps and forts in areas where springs, creeks, and rivers provided water and offered grazing for pasture animals. All the older travel routes—no matter who had blazed them—went from water source to water source, making them the places where travelers needed the most protection.

Photo of the sun shining through the branches of a tall live oak tree that grows near water in the Davis Mountains. Finds like this make exploring Fort Davis and its surrounding areas very enjoyable.
Huge trees near the waterways provide shelter in the Davis Mountains.
Photograph copyright Elizabeth Winn

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article about exploring Fort Davis. In part two of this series, we will take a look at Fort Davis, one of the best-preserved forts remaining from that system of forts and camps built by the US government for the protection of travelers venturing westward.

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References for learning more about exploring Fort Davis: