A Trip in Time: Exploring Fort Davis National Historic Site Part 2
Welcome to part two of my exploration of the Fort Davis national historic site. As I mentioned in part one, it’s very important for my readers to understand ahead of time that when I write about any of my travels where I explore history, it in no way constitutes an agreement with or endorsement of the choices, ideals, or actions of our forefathers. Discussion of the environmental, cultural, and social implications of their actions is far beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, I strive to share glimpses of history that I hope will inspire readers to get curious about what life was like for those who lived before us—their joys and sorrows, their grit and tenacity, and how their lives and ours are alike, yet so very different.
Travel with me back to 1849. Imagine yourself beside US army Lieutenants William Farrar Smith and William Henry Chase Whiting, engineers charged with a monumental task. They were assigned to survey a military route through the wilderness of West Texas. The route had to be manageable for people traveling west to California from San Antonio. They were also looking for suitable sites for frontier military posts. After graduating from West Point in 1845 (Whiting was first in his class, Smith was fourth), both men headed west to begin their assignment. It involved several years’ worth of dangerous, challenging travel.
After many months of scouting and evaluating, the men found themselves west of the Pecos River. Their priority? Finding a source of clean water. As they climbed ever higher in the mountains, the pair finally came upon a small creek brimming with clear, cold water. It ran through a box canyon for several miles. Giant cottonwood trees adorned its banks, and beyond the trees, they found plenty of flat grassland for grazing between the creek and the surrounding mountain peaks. This wasn’t the first time this land had felt the presence of man; the cottonwood trees and the walls of caves and overhangs in the canyon were covered in Native American pictographs.
Whiting named the creek Limpia which means “clean” in Spanish, and for a time, the mountains were called by that name as well. The canyon he dubbed Wild Rose Pass for the explosion of blooms that perfumed their passage, and he gave their camp the name Painted Comanche for its artwork. Both engineers moved on to survey other regions, but their discovery set the wheels in motion for the birth of many forts and camps across the wild frontier of Texas, including what would become Fort Davis.
By 1854, the army had stationed six companies of the Eighth Infantry in this idyllic spot. They busily constructed buildings for each company as well as officers’ quarters, a bakehouse, a blacksmith shop, an infirmary, and other necessary works to support a post of this size and importance. It was named Fort Davis after US Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.
In the years between 1854 and 1861, the Eighth Infantry spent most of their time pursuing the Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche and serving as protectors of westbound travelers.
All that activity suddenly stopped when Texas seceded from the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War. Fort Davis lay deserted for five years after briefly being occupied by Confederate Soldiers. By June 1867, Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt and four companies of the Ninth Cavalry took up residence and moved the camp out of the canyon to its current location in front of the Sleeping Lion Mountain. It was a mammoth undertaking. Over the next dozen years, they constructed over 100 buildings, including officers’ quarters and barracks to house 400 men, some of whom had families.
After many campaigns, the Comanche were defeated in the mid-1870s, but the Apache continued to raid and make travel unsafe through 1881. In a two-year series of engagements, Apache chief Vittorio and his tribe were driven into Mexico where they perished at the hands of the Mexican army. It was the last time US troops engaged Native Americans in the region.
Fort Davis continued to be an important outpost until June 1891, patrolling in search of bandits, offering safe passage to railroad survey crews and telegraph repair crews, and keeping the roads in a safe condition. Seventy years later, in 1961, it was added to the United States National Register of Historic Places in the National Parks Department.
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References for learning more about the Fort Davis national historic site: