When the Republic of Texas became the 28th state in 1846, the responsibility for defending the vast frontier shifted from the undermanned and poorly resourced independent nation to the United States and its professional military. Indeed, one of the attractions for statehood was the security and federal protection the U. S. could provide. The previous three centuries of exploration and settlement had created dozens of French, Mexican, Spanish, Confederate and Texas Republic forts and presidios, but by the late 1840s the Texas frontier was shifting, and the War Department quickly sent troops to establish and secure a new frontier line.
Between 1846 and the late 1870s, the United States Army built or rebuilt dozens of forts across central and West Texas, starting with Fort Martin Scott near Fredericksburg in 1848 and ending with Fort Elliot between Pampa and Mobeetie in 1875.
Many of these frontier forts survive — some as impressive historic sites and museums — and five are managed by two state agencies: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the Texas Historical Commission (THC). These five state-managed sites are Fort Leaton near Presidio, Fort Lancaster near Sheffield, Fort McKavett near Menard, Fort Griffin near Albany and Fort Richardson in Jacksboro. Established as state historic sites in 1968 (though some have previous histories as public sites) all five were managed by TPWD. In 2008, the State Legislature re-assigned Forts Lancaster, McKavett and Griffin, along with many other state historic sites, to the Texas Historical Commission, where they remain today.
Five miles southeast of Presidio, Fort Leaton represents a hybrid site with a rich civilian as well as military history. Located on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, the current facility represents the home, store and private fort of Chihuahua Trail freighter Ben Leaton, erected on some old ruins of a Spanish fort. The site makes an immediate impression, greeting guests who have driven many challenging miles on Texas Route 170 that hugs the river. While never an official U. S. Army post, Fort Leaton appears on military maps of the pre-Civil War era. Today’s restored fort features many period interiors, nature trails and a visitor center within a stout, adobe-built facility.
Moving 225 miles northeast, one approaches Fort Lancaster, 30 miles west of Ozona in Crockett County. Established by the 1st U. S Infantry in 1855, Lancaster protected the “lower” San Antonio-El Paso Road. Take the US 290 cutoff from Interstate 10 from the Ozona side and you can appreciate the challenges any stagecoach driver or mule skinner had as you drop down very quickly into the lower basin. The U.S. Army’s “camel corps” experiment passed through here in 1857. Abandoned by the Army in 1861 to the Confederacy, the site was re-garrisoned after the Civil War. The Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry fought a major skirmish here against the Kickapoo and Comanchero raiders in 1867. Today’s site features many ghostly ruins, a new visitor center and a silence peaceful to today’s visitors but probably unsettling to those stationed there.
Maintain a steady eastward tack for 100 miles and you will find Fort McKavett at the headwaters of the San Saba about 20 miles west of Menard. Established by the 8th U. S. Infantry in 1852, McKavett represents both a pre- and post-Civil War fort, since this region needed a military presence until the post’s closure in 1883. General Sherman, who never had many compliments about the Lone Star State, tagged it as “the prettiest post in Texas.” Most guests will probably agree as the nearby San Saba, elevated location, refreshing breezes and lush (for West Texas) setting all create a pleasant visit. Many accurately restored and furnished buildings with a redesigned visitor center tell the site’s story.
Shifting north for 175 miles brings one to Fort Griffin, 20 miles north of Albany. Home to the state’s official longhorn herd, Griffin represents a post-Civil War post. The enlisted men’s quarters, now reconstructed, failed to shelter the men effectively from the cold winter northers that blasted across the open parade ground. Several stone buildings have been stabilized and rebuilt with excellent interpretative signs. An impressive new visitor center offers guest amenities, a gift store and educational exhibits.
March northeast for 75 miles and we end our journey at Fort Richardson, where famed commander Ranald MacKenzie spent some quality time in Texas. Like some other Texas forts (Concho and Stockton come to mind), Richardson supported a community in Jacksboro that survived and now thrives just north of the post. Fort Richardson’s post hospital has excellent period rooms that make you grateful for today’s medical care. A restored officers’ quarters and barracks were probably no more weathertight than Griffin’s. You’ll also find hiking trails and a convenient visitor center that covers the fort’s history. Both this site and Griffin have camping facilities nearby, so in the spirit of the frontier army you can establish base command here and go exploring.
All of these forts provide regular programs, but the pandemic has put most events on pause, so check schedules and hours before you visit. And be thankful you don’t have to travel on foot, horse or wagon as the troops did 140 years ago!
Fort Leaton State Historic Site
FM 170 E.
Presidio, TX 79845
Fort Lancaster State Historic Site
629 Ft Lancaster Rd.
Sheffield, TX 79781
Fort McKavett State Historic Site
7066 FM 864
Fort McKavett, TX 76841
Fort Griffin State Historic Site
1701 N. U.S. Hwy. 283
Albany, TX 76430
Fort Richardson State Historic Site
228 Park Road 61
Jacksboro, TX 76458
Though not a native Texan, Bob got to the state as fast as he could in 1982 to assume the education position at Fort Concho National Historic Landmark. Through both longevity and good timing, he was promoted to assistant director in 1995 and director/site manager in 1998. An original ex-officio member of the Texas Forts Trail board, he enjoys military history, baseball history and driving long distances across the great state of Texas.