A key post in the defense system of west Texas, Fort Davis played a major role in the history of the Southwest. From 1854 until 1891, troops stationed at the post protected emigrants, freighters, mail coaches, and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. Today Fort Davis is one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post. It is a vivid reminder of the significant role played by the military in the settlement and development of the western frontier.
The fort was established on the eastern side of the Davis Mountains, in a box canyon near Limpia Creek, where wood, water, and grass were plentiful. It consisted of primitive structures and was located behind the present-day Officers' Row. (The foundations of several buildings from this earlier fort can still be seen today.) Named after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the fort was first garrisoned by Lt. Col. Washington Seawell and six companies of the Eighth US Infantry. From 1854 to 1861, troops of the Eighth Infantry spent much of their time in the field pursuing Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches who attacked travelers and mail stations. With the onset of the Civil War and Texas's secession from the Union, the federal government evacuated Fort Davis. The fort was occupied by Confederate troops from spring 1861 until the summer of 1862 when Union forces again took possession. They quickly abandoned the post, and Fort Davis lay deserted for the next five years.
Few of the fort's structures remained when Lt. Col. Wesley Merritt and four companies of the newly organized Ninth US Cavalry reoccupied Fort Davis in June 1867. The building of a new post, just east of the original site, began immediately. By the end of 1869, a number of officers' quarters, two enlisted men's barracks, a guardhouse, temporary hospital, and storehouses had been erected. Construction continued through the 1880s. By then Fort Davis had become a major installation with over 100 structures and quarters for over 400 soldiers.
Fort Davis's primary role of safeguarding the west Texas frontier against the Comanches and Apaches continued until 1881. Although the Comanches were defeated in the mid-1870s, the Apaches continued to make travel on the San Antonio-El Paso Road dangerous. Soldiers from the post regularly patrolled the road and furnished escorts for wagon trains and coaches. The last major military campaign involving troops from Fort Davis occurred in 1880. In a series of engagements, units from Fort Davis and other posts, under the command of Col. Benjamin Grierson, forced the Apaches and their leader Victorio into Mexico. There he and most of his followers were killed by Mexican soldiers.
With the end of the Indian Wars in west Texas, garrison life at Fort Davis became more routine. Soldiers occasionally escorted railroad survey parties, repaired roads and telegraph lines, and pursued bandits. In June 1891, as a result of the army's efforts to consolidate its frontier garrisons. Fort Davis was ordered abandoned, having "outlived its usefulness."
The Indian Challenge
By the 1820s, raiding the villages of northern Mexico had become a way of life for the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches. It provided a source of food and animals and a means of attaining rank and status in the tribe. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, the United States pledged to halt these raids. As a result, the US Army engaged in open hostilities against these highly mobile, lightly equipped, and courageous warriors. The Indian resistance gradually declined due to growing settlement and development of the region.
This proud and aggressive leader of the Warm Springs Apaches resisted efforts to confine his people to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. His refusal to accept reservation life led to conflicts with US and Mexican soldiers in 1879-80 and to his final defeat and death on October 15, 1880, in the Battle of Tres Castillos (Three Peaks) in Mexico.
Officers and Enlisted Men
Both officers and enlisted men at Fort Davis spent far more time constructing roads, buildings, and telegraph lines than they did in pursuing Apache and Comanche raiders. For the enlisted men, low pay and harsh discipline prevailed, while officers and their families often suffered from monotony.
Yet, Fort Davis was regarded by a majority of the men stationed here as one of the most pleasant posts in the West. A temperate climate and impressive landscape made living at this somewhat remote fort relatively enjoyable. Hunting, fishing, picnics, and baseball games were some of the popular pastimes enjoyed by all.
Although they were separated professionally, socially, and often by race, the officers and enlisted men nevertheless maintained a respectable esprit de corps frequently not found at other posts on the western frontier. They left a proud record of accomplishments.
In July 1866, Congress passed an act to increase the size of the Regular Army. The act stipulated that of the new regiments created, two cavalry and four infantry units "shall be composed of colored men."
In 1869 the four black infantry units were consolidated in two regiments. Troops of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry regiments along with the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry regiments served on the southwestern frontier. Some historians think Indians named these troops "Buffalo Soldiers," comparing their hair to buffalo hair and finding them worthy adversaries.
Garrison and Field Duty at Fort Davis
Buffalo Soldiers served at Fort Davis from 1867 to 1885. Routine garrison duties included drilling, tending animals, constructing and repairing buildings, and planting gardens. They rode or walked thousands of miles pursuing the elusive Comanches and Apaches. Under officers like Wesley Merritt, Edward Hatch, William Shatter, Zenas Bliss, George Andrews, and Benjamin Grierson, they contributed notably to the settlement of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico.
Fort Davis and the Indian Wars
Few Indians lived in the Trans-Pecos region of western Texas, but many tribes regularly passed through it. Kiowas and Comanches came from the Plains to the north and the Apaches from the mountains of southeastern New Mexico. Their raiding lifestyle led to conflicts with travelers and settlers.
Fort Davis soldiers spent much of their time scouting and patrolling and on escort duty but they rarely engaged in open hostilities with Indian groups. The Indian Wars in west Texas ended shortly after the defeat of Victorio in 1880.
By 1885, when soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry serving at Fort Davis were sent to Arizona to campaign against Geronimo, most Indians in the Southwest were living on reservations.
Second Lt. Henry O. Flipper
Henry O. Flipper of the Tenth US Cavalry was the first black graduate of West Point. He served at Fort Davis in 1880-81. Tried in a controversial court-martial, he was dismissed from the army in 1882.
In 1976, after reviewing his case, the Army posthumously gave him an honorable discharge. Lt. Flipper received a full presidential pardon in 1999.
Exploring Fort Davis
About Your Visit
Fort Davis National Historic Site, on the northern edge of the town of Fort Davis, can be reached from north or south via Texas highways 17 and 118 and from the west via Texas highways 505, 166, and 17. The park is open daily 8 am to 5 pm central time. Check our website or call for holiday closures. A small entry fee is charged, but persons 15 years and under, educational groups, and those presenting approved passes are admitted free.
Accessibility We strive to make our facilities and services accessible to all. For information go to the visitor center, ask a ranger, call, or check our website.
The elevation of Fort Davis is 4,900 feet. Summer is hot with occasional showers, while fall is mild. Winter is cool and windy, and strong winds prevail in the spring. The 523-acre site has several hiking trails.
Accommodations There are no overnight accommodations in the park. Camping is available locally and at the adjacent Davis Mountains State Park. Gas, food, and lodging are available in the town of Fort Davis.
Preservation Help us preserve Fort Davis for future generations by observing the following: • Pets are not permitted in public buildings and must be leashed. • Please stay on the established paths, and do not walk on the parade ground. • Do not walk, stand, or sit on the foundations. Your adherence to these rules will help protect the historical and natural resources of the site. • It is illegal to collect anything or to disturb artifacts, animals, plants, or rocks; all are protected by federal law.
Touring Fort Davis
Begin your tour at the visitor center; allow one to two hours to see the fort. During times of peak visitation, rangers and volunteers dressed in period-type clothing present programs and interpret some of the restored and refurnished quarters.
A Word of Caution
Enlisted Men's Barracks
The north end has a squad room and an orderly room. It offers a glimpse of summer 1884, when it was occupied by Buffalo Soldiers of Troop H, Tenth Cavalry. Iron bunks, footlockers, carbine racks, clothing, and accoutrements in the squad room help to tell the story of the men who served here. The orderly room was the office for the troop's first sergeant.
Officer's Kitchen and Servant's Quarters
The post surgeon rarely performed surgery. Soldiers suffered mainly from diseases and accidental injuries, not from battle wounds. The building has a central walkway with interpretive signs and interactive exhibits.
The Commanding Officer's Quarters
Shared Lieutenants' Quarters
First Fort Davis
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Special Place, A Sacred Trust: Preserving the Fort Davis Story (HTML edition) Intermountain Cultural Resources Center Professional Paper No. 58 (Michael Welsh, 1996)
Historic Handbook Series #38: Fort Davis National Historic Site (Robert M. Utley, 1965)
Historic Resource Study, Fort Davis National Historic Site (Jerome A. Greene, November 1986)
Historic Structure Report (Architectural Data Section): Building hb-21 (Frank S. Gerner, December 1981)
History of Fort Davis, Texas Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers Number 34 (Robert Wooster, 1990)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Fort Davis (Robert M. Utley, December 16, 1958)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Fort Davis National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CHDN/NRR-2014/892 (Kimberly Struthers, Patricia Valentine-Darby, Nina Chambers, Robert E. Bennetts and Kirsten Gallo, December 2014)
Post Hospital Restoration Program 2008: Fort Davis National Historic Site Completion Report (Douglas Porter, James Duggan, Ana Gonsalves and Ioannis Avramides, July 2009, revised 2009)
Terrestrial vegetation and soils monitoring at Fort Davis National Historic Site: Status report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/CHDN/NRTR-2013/753 (Cheryl L. McIntyre and Sarah E. Studd, June 2013)
The historical vegetative aspect of Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas (James T. Nelson, August 1981)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 02-Dec-2021