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The Post on the San Saba

Fort McKavett
Ruins of the commanding officers quarters at Fort McKavett outlined against a backdrop of blue sky and a field of bluebonnets. Gen. William T. Sherman characterized Fort McKavett as"the prettiest post in Texas" on his inspection tour of Texas in 1871. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
San Saba River
It's banks lined with pecan, oak, and black walnut trees, the spring-fed San Saba river winds lazily through the hill country, connecting the sites of the Spanish Colonial mission and presidio to the nineteenth-century army post, Fort McKavett. Photo by Susan Dial.

Click images to enlarge  

tools of the surveyor
Tools of the surveyor. U. S. Army engineers mapped routes across the state for travelers, and placed garrisons in strategic locations to help protect them. This selection of period surveying equipment and maps is displayed at Fort Concho NHL, San Angelo.
Government Springs
The clear waters of Government Springs provided an ample water supply for the fort, then as now. Photo by Susan Dial.
Amid brightly blooming cactus, limestone cobbles—a hallmark of the Edwards Plateau—reflect the sunlight. The white stone was quarried by soldiers for building post structures. Quarry area is visible in the distance. Photo by Susan Dial.
officer's quarters
Built in 1856, the commanding officer's quarters stands in ruin today. In addition to providing residence for the commanding officer, his family, and servants, it served as guest quarters for visiting officers, including William T. Sherman, general of the army, and Gen. Phillip Sheridan. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. View 1936 photo of building before it burned.
A cornucopia of supplies. A typical officer's field pack weighed 76 pounds when full and included "hard tack" biscuits, canned goods, hunting knife, "mucket," and a cone of brown sugar. John Cobb collection.

Although it was falling into ruin by the mid-1800s, the abandoned Spanish presidio on the upper San Saba River occupied a prominent place in the strategies of American soldiers planning the defense of the Anglo-Texan frontier.

Albert Sidney Johnston, secretary of war of the Republic of Texas, had proposed placing a garrison at the "old Spanish fort" as part of his plan for a line of military posts running from the Red River to the Nueces. Texas never implemented Johnston's plan, but officers of the United States Army would later look favorably on the presidio's central location on the Edwards Plateau.

The end of the United States' war with Mexico in 1848 brought two issues of military strategy to convergence in the Hill Country. The first was the protection of the frontier settlements from raids by Comanche and Kiowa Indians. The second was the protection of westering travelers headed for the gold fields of California by way of El Paso.

The discovery of gold in California set off a flurry of exploration for transcontinental travel routes. Overland passage from St. Louis required crossing the uninhabited Great Plains—or Great American Desert, as the region was denominated on maps of the time—with their twin dangers of Indian attack and winter blizzards. The sea route, around the southern tip of South America, looked on paper to be even more time-consuming than it was in practice, and was expensive in any event.

Travel from New Orleans to Austin or San Antonio seemed easy enough. Passage from there, through El Paso to southern California, would be free of snow. The only thing lacking was development of a route that was safe from hostile Indians.

The veteran ranger and surveyor Jack Hays conducted an ill-fated exploration west from San Antonio in 1848 that was followed the next year by the more successful venture of Hays' fellow ranger, John S. "Rip" Ford, and U.S. Indian agent Robert Neighbors. Their effort began north of Austin and proceeded west, following the Concho River from its confluence with the Colorado, into the Trans-Pecos region, then west to El Paso. The Ford-Neighbors expedition returned by way of the Concho, San Saba, and Llano rivers, then through Fredericksburg and into San Antonio.

The U.S. Army was following the same train of thought, and almost the same schedule, as the civilian explorers. Departing San Antonio, lieutenants W.H.C. Whiting and William F. Smith traveled through Fredericksburg to the San Saba River, then west through the Trans-Pecos. When they returned, Whiting recommended locating a garrison of mounted troops at "old Fort San Saba." In 1851, Brevet Major General Persifor Smith, commanding U.S. Army forces in Texas, ordered the construction of a post on the San Saba "at the headsprings of that river near the El Paso road."

Selection of an 8th Infantry headquarters on the San Saba proved unsatisfactory. The regiment arrived at the headwaters in March, 1852, and established camp as ordered. The site was on a small hill near a pond of "permanent" water. Although construction was begun on a lime kiln and bakery, the camp was soon moved two miles downstream when the pond became stagnant.

The new location was at first referred to as the "Camp on the San Saba" or "Post on the San Saba." In October, it was renamed Camp McKavett—and thereafter Fort McKavett—in honor of Captain Henry McKavett of the 8th Infantry, who had served meritoriously in the Mexican War and been killed at Monterrey in 1846.

Five companies of the 8th Infantry initially were assigned to the post, and they set about constructing permanent buildings: five infantrymen's barracks, kitchens used temporarily as officers quarters, a hospital, and a quartermaster's storehouse. These were erected around a square parade ground. Each company was responsible for constructing its own quarters, and those of its officers.

Limestone was quarried nearby for building foundations and walls, and was burned—probably in the kiln at the original location—for mortar. Oak and pecan logs were used for construction of some buildings in the jacal, or picket, style. At first, there was no lumber for floors or doors, nor glass for windows. The required materials were transported from Fredericksburg in later years.

The post was improved substantially through the mid-1850s. The new construction included two-story quarters for the commanding officer and one-story barracks for other officers, adjutant's office, guardhouse, new bakery and kitchens, and laundresses' quarters.

Military operations at and around Fort McKavett reflected the evolution of the army's strategy of frontier defense in the 1850s. On an inspection tour in August, 1853, Colonel W. G. Freeman found Fort McKavett garrisoned by one company of mounted infantry—46 men with only 30 serviceable horses, "wretchedly equipped." The company's request for needed equipment had been properly rejected, said Colonel Freeman, because, "it is now everywhere conceded that the experiment of mounting infantry has not been successful."

Lt. W. H. C. Whiting
Lt. W. H. C. Whiting of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with Lt. William F. Smith, surveyed the route for the "lower road"for emigrants traveling from San Antonio to El Paso and on to the gold fields of California. To protect those traversing the" upper road" through Fredericksburg, he recommended locating a garrison of mounted troops on the San Saba river.
The proposed location for the fort indicates its strategic location near an Indian trail as well as the upper road to San Antonio, marked on the map as Lt. Whiting's route. Map courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Sketch of Ft. McKavett
Sketch of Fort McKavett, with river winding below, circa 1861. Image courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Kiln to make lime, used in plaster for the buildings as well as in privies at the fort. Limestone rock was placed in the kiln and heated from a wood fire below. The three- to four- day reduction process included burning, cooling and slaking the material before the powdery lime was ready for use. Photo by Susan Dial.
The second post hospital, completed in 1874, replaced a smaller structure from the 1850s. The new structure, set well apart from other buildings at the fort to curtail windborne germs and odors, housed the offices of the surgeon as well as a wing for patients. The building to left is the dead house, or morgue. Photo by Steve Dial.
school house
The post schoolhouse (on right) was constructed in 1874 to provide an education for enlisted men, particularly the freed slaves who enlisted in the Army after the Civil War. Taught frequently by the post chaplain, the men learned to read and write in classes at the end of the work day. On left are lieutenants' quarters.
shoulder plates
Artifacts from archeological excavations at Fort McKavett. Above are brass scales, or shoulder plates, used to support the epaulettes on officer's uniforms.
hotchkiss shell
Hotchkiss shell, a three-piece round for cannon, used during and after the Civil War
Standard soldier's canteen, somewhat worse for wear.
interior of barracks
This enlisted men's barracks was constructed during the Army's first occupation of Fort McKavett, in the 1850s, but was used in the post Civil War period as well. Mattresses filled with straw are shown rolled up on the beds, with blankets folded on top. Photo by Steve Dial.
Leanna Biles
Officer's wife in the family quarters (as interpreted by Leanna Biles during Fort McKavett Heritage Day events in March). Officer's wives brought a touch of refinement to military life on the frontier. Photo by Susan Dial.
painting of Ft. McKavett
Fort McKavett was described as "one mass of ruins" when the army reoccupied the post in 1868, and soldiers were set about the task of rebuilding the fort and adding new structures. Painting courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Fort McKavett SHS.
Col. Ronald Mackenzie
Col. Ranald Mackenzie, commander of the 41st Infantry at McKavett in the late 1860s, would go on to become of the foremost Indian fighters of the post-Civil War army. Photo courtesy the Panhandle-Plains Memorial Museum.
Officers of the 24th Infantry
Officers of the 24th Infantry at Fort McKavett, ca. 1870. The 24th was one of the army's regiments having black enlisted personnel and white officers.
Brass insignia of Troop F, 9th Cavalry, one of the all-black Buffalo soldiers units stationed at McKavett.

The alternative was one of the army's regular mounted service units, either the dragoons or "Mounted Rifles". Colonel Charles May, commanding the 2nd Dragoons, arrived at Fort McKavett in February, 1854. Within two months, departmental commander Persifor Smith ordered into the field all of the "disposable force" of dragoons at forts Chadbourne and McKavett and the Mounted Rifles at Fort Inge. Detachments of 15 men each were directed to patrol a line from the Nueces River to Fort Chadbourne. The contingent at Fort McKavett was assigned the stretch between the Concho River and the Llano. The only reported result of any of these patrols is a battle in the south Texas brush country involving troops from Fort Inge.

The army's strategy and tactics became more aggressive, and more productive, in 1856. The newly arrived 2nd Cavalry garrison at Fort Mason quickly became one of the most active in Texas. For two years, the 2nd's patrols hit parties of Comanche and Lipan wherever they could find them. In February, Sergeant Walter McDonald and a detachment of Company D from Camp Verde pursued Comanche raiders to Kickapoo Creek near the south fork of the Concho River. There, an attack left two soldiers and two Indians dead. The weary cavalrymen reached Fort McKavett after midnight, and there a wounded trooper by the name of John Martin died before dawn. The column left for Camp Verde at first light.

The Penateka Comanche withdrew from the Hill Country in the late 1850s, to either the Clear Fork reservation or the Indian Territory beyond the Red River. Menard County was organized in 1858. With relative peace on the Edwards Plateau, Fort McKavett was ordered abandoned in February, 1859. The post buildings were appropriated by civilian families living in the area.

The Civil War years were a period of turmoil in the region, although this owed as much to the discord and violence between German unionists and Anglo rebels as it did to Indian raids. But by war's end, the Indian troubles were recurring.Fort McKavett was reoccupied by elements of the U.S. Army's 4th Cavalry and 35th Infantry in the spring of 1868. The post apparently was in an advanced state of dilapidation, being described as "one mass of ruins" with only one habitable house, the former commanding officer's quarters. The troops lived in tents while repair and new construction were undertaken.

The spring of 1869 brought dramatic and historic developments to the post with the arrival of the 41st Infantry and its commanding officer, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie. The 41st was one of the army's six regiments—four of infantry, two of cavalry—having black enlisted personnel and white officers. It would be the first such unit to be headquartered at Fort McKavett, and its commander would go on to become one of the foremost Indian fighters of the post-Civil War army.

The 41st Infantry was a well-drilled regiment when it arrived at Fort McKavett, but was new to frontier warfare. Army reorganization resulted in consolidation of the 41st and the 38th—also a black regiment with white officers, but one with substantial western service—to form the new 24th Infantry. Mackenzie imported five civilian carpenters and six stonemasons who, together with the soldiers of the 24th , began substantial improvement and expansion of the post, soon to be considered one of the best in Texas.

Mackenzie launched several expeditions from Fort McKavett during the time he commanded the post. He personally led only one, a joint venture of the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry. The 9th was another regiment of black enlisted men and white officers. A company of the 9th usually was stationed at Fort McKavett throughout Mackenzie's tenure, and he had additional companies at his disposal as commander of the army's Subdistrict of the Pecos.

Mackenzie was on leave of absence from the post for most of 1870, leaving Lieutenant Colonel William "Pecos Bill" Shafter in command. It was during this time that diminutive 9th Cavalry Sergeant Emanuel Stance, leading patrol from Fort McKavett, directed his detachment of 10 troopers in two engagements with Indian raiders on successive days. Stance led three charges, two of them in the same action and all of them successful. He had fought in a total of five engagements in two years, a rarity for any soldier of the frontier army at that time, and a record that earned him the Medal of Honor.

In the late 1870s, Mackenzie became the regimental commander of the 4th Cavalry, and McKavett's troops supported expeditions to the Great Plains in 1871, 1872, and 1874 and his and Shafter's forays across the Rio Grande in 1873, 1877, and 1878. In its later years, the fort probably was most valued for its quartermaster stores, as it was the intermediate post on the army's road from San Antonio to the more distant Fort Concho.

Captains Row
An Army supply wagon is parked in front of "captains' row" during a living history event at Fort McKavett. This row of officers quarters was constructed during the Army's occupation of the fort after the Civil War. They are generally more spacious, and have better ventilation, than the pre-war quarters. During the post-war occupation, the pre-war quarters typically were assigned to lower-ranking officers, and are referred to as "lieutenants' row." Photo by John Cobb.
Doll parts
Dolls parts, small reminders of playtime left behind by children of soldiers or civilians in the nineteenth century.
Bird's-eye view of Ft. McKavett
Bird's-eye view of Fort McKavett, drawn in 1878 after a substantial program of rebuilding and construction.
Otis Williams
Living history interpreter Otis Williams holds the gun that belonged to his great uncle, Pvt. Charles Williams, a 9th Cavalry trooper posted to Fort McKavett in the late nineteenth century. His portrayal is somewhat of a sacred trust he holds seriously. "I feel like I need to be 150% correct in everything I do," Williams says. "I'm representing not only Texas Parks and Wildlife but my family as well." Photo by Susan Dial.
Scabtown, a civilian "parasite" settlement of gambling dens, stores, and saloons, was notorious for violence and vice. Nothing remains today of the ramshackle town that entertained soldiers during the fort's later years. Photo courtesy the Menard County Museum.
A succession of bottles, wine, beer, and snuff, mark off-duty moments of the past. Photo by Susan Dial.
Scabtown saloon
Residents of the Fort McKavett community line up at a Scabtown saloon. Photo courtesy Menard County Museum.

As was the case with many Texas frontier posts, Fort McKavett had attached to it a civilian "parasite" settlement. Known locally as "Scabtown," the collection of ramshackle buildings across the river from the post made available those vices that the fort's "sutler" (post trader) was not permitted to provide. In such settings, altercations between soldiers and civilians were bound to occur, and racism was never absent wherever black troops mixed with white settlers. Scabtown probably was no worse than most other such locales, but it was the setting for the notorious murders of three black soldiers by prosperous local rancher John M. "Humpy" Jackson and accomplices, none of whom were ever convicted by civilian authorities.

By 1880, most of the Indian threat on the Edwards Plateau was gone, and Fort McKavett no longer had a military mission. The post was ordered abandoned in 1882, but the large quantity of supplies stored there required extension of the order for a year. The last garrison, a company of the 16th Infantry, was transferred to Fort McIntosh on the Rio Grande.

As they had in 1859, civilians moved in after the army left. The more stable of the Scabtown merchants began occupying the abandoned fort, while the "camp followers" moved on, many probably to Fort Concho and Santa Angela. By the mid-1890s, the civilian community of Fort McKavett was a thriving, though small, center of the sheep and goat-raising industry of the Edwards Plateau.

But time and the railroads passed the town by, and the community's population peaked at about 150 in the late 1920s. Today it still has a post office, but most of the surviving buildings from the military era are located within Fort McKavett State Historic Site, operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The site includes more than two dozen structures, many of which are preserved or restored, and is the planned home of the department's Buffalo Soldiers Program archives.

"Tools" of the gambler. Period cards, die, and poker chips from the Fort McKavett Museum.
swallowtail flag of 1883
The swallowtail guidon, carried by cavalry troops until 1883, marks the year Fort McKavett was finally abandoned by the military. Photo by Susan Dial.
Fort McKavett circa 1890
Fort McKavett, circa 1890, after civilians had moved into the buildings of the abandoned post and established a town named after the fort. The photograph appears to have been taken from atop the two-story commanding officer's quarters. The building in the center of the photo is on the end of "lieutenants' row," the main parade ground is beyond, and the post headquarters building is in the upper right corner. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.