Fort McKavett – A Treasure Trove of History

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A Treasurehouse of History

By John Hallowell

Fort McKavett was established in March of 1852 by five companies of the U.S. 8th Infantry to protect West Texas settlers and serve as a rest stop for California-bound travelers in the years following the 1849 gold rush. The fort originally consisted of five infantrymen’s barracks, kitchens used temporarily as officers quarters, a hospital, and a quartermaster’s storehouse, all built of local logs and limestone around a square parade ground. Each company was responsible for constructing its own quarters, and those of its officers.

The post was improved substantially through the mid-1850s. Lumber for floors or doors was shipped from Fredericksburg, as was glass for windows. New construction included a two-story quarters for the commanding officer and a one-story barracks for other officers, an adjutant’s office, a guardhouse, a new bakery and kitchens, as well as quarters for the fort’s laundresses. A civilian “parasite” settlement of gambling dens, stores, and saloons grew up about a mile north of the post. It was known as “Scabtown,” and became notorious for violence and vice.

The activity came to an end in 1859, when Fort McKavett was abandoned; there had been a decline in Indian trouble and most of the California traffic was taking a more southerly route. With the military gone, most of the civilians scattered, and the fort was allowed to deteriorate for almost a decade.

During the Civil War, the emboldened Comanches made life very dangerous for settlers on the western frontier, and when peace had been restored between North and South, the U.S. Army reoccupied Fort McKavett.

Fort McKavett

It was the spring of 1868 when elements of the U.S. Army’s 4th Cavalry and 35th Infantry arrived at Fort McKavett. The post was 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 next year took on a historic significance with the arrival of the 41st Infantry and its commanding officer, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie. The 41st was one of only six regiments—four of infantry, two of cavalry—having black enlisted personnel and white officers. These so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” and their commanding officer would go on to become some of the foremost Indian fighters of the post-Civil War army.

According to the website, www.texasbeyondhistory.net, 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.

Sergeant Emmanuel Stance, of the 9th Cavalry, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions in two 1870 battles. A post schoolhouse was constructed in 1874 to provide an education for enlisted men, particularly those who had been slaves. Many of the men learned to read and write in classes, often taught by the post chaplain, held at the end of the work day at Fort McKavett.

Fort McKavett

The “parasite” community regrouped as the fort established itself as a major supply depot providing food and provisions for most of the military campaigns, scientific and mapping explorations and other forts in West Texas. Racism added to the trials of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” and in one notorious incident, three soldiers were murdered by some of the settlers they were protecting (reportedly because one had written a love letter to a white girl). Nevertheless, they did their jobs well (for the most part), and their accomplishments earned the respect of friends and foes.

By 1880, the Comanche threat had ended, 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.

Many of the civilians from “Scabtown” moved into the fort when the army left, and by the mid-1890s, Fort McKavett was a thriving commercial center with three churches, two hotels, a broom and mattress factory, a weekly newspaper, and eighty residents. The population peaked at about 150 in the late 1920s, but there were still people living in the old buildings of the abandoned fort in 1968, when Fort McKavett was designated a state historic site.

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. The 80th Texas Legislature transferred operational control of this site from Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) to the Texas Historical Commission effective January 1, 2008.