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The frontier forts the U.S. Army built in Texas between 1849 and 1870 helped secure the frontier for settlement and, through their architecture and planning, served as outposts of order and tradition in an unfamiliar landscape. At the end of the Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) required the United States to protect Mexico from hostile Native Americans. When the first line of posts was built along the frontier in 1849, the army not only fulfilled this duty but also encouraged new settlement by providing protection, maintaining a presence during border disputes with Mexico, and surveying land to find resources and strategic sites.The initial line of forts extended along the Rio Grande from Fort Brown (Brownsville) to Fort Duncan (1849) in Eagle Pass and northeast along the Edwards Plateau to San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth. Because this line of forts was more quickly passed by settlement than anticipated, a second line was constructed in in the 1850s. This second line, an irregular zone several hundred miles to the west from the Pecos River north across the South Plains, was demobilized at Secession in 1861 and reoccupied following the Civil War. They included Forts Mason (1851); Belknap, (1851); Phantom Hill (1851); Chadbourne (1852); McKavett (1852); and Clark (1852).The second phase was a period of intense construction. With a tight military budget and the potential abandonment of a fort as the line of settlement moved, a law passed in 1859 required all military buildings to be authorized by the U.S. Secretary of War and by Congress. Most forts were composed of temporary structures even when they should have been permanently constructed. Through the 1850s, one-fifth of the U.S. Army was stationed at a frontier fort, including personnel who later gained fame during the Civil War: Robert E. Lee, Earl Van Dorn, George H. Thomas, George B. McClellan, and many others.As an unusual provision of statehood, all land in Texas that was not claimed by private individuals was owned by the state, rather than reverting to the federal government as public lands. The U.S. Army thus had to lease from private owners any land it chose. The general locations of future forts were established by high-ranking army officials, but individual commanders were given the responsibility of scouting and choosing the exact location for their forts. Once a suitable site was selected, the commander drew a plan for the fort and began construction.Though an initial plan existed for every fort, necessity as well as general circumstances on the frontier prevented many plans from being completely followed. This was complicated by frequent change of command. Fort Concho, for example, was led by twelve different commanding officers between 1867 and 1871. Each commander had leeway to change the plan as he saw fit, and as most forts were not planned with expansion in mind, clear plans became rapidly jumbled. The constraints of limited funding often led to the construction of temporary buildings that were not always indicated on the initial plan and that became the basis of more permanent buildings as officers struggled to make the most of inadequate funds and local resources.The military need for forts along the Texas frontier has long since passed, but these forts continue to represent a balance between military order and the necessity of adaptation as settlement spread across the state.—JENNIFER BETSWORTH

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.



Gerald Moorhead et al., "FEDERAL FORT PLANNING IN TEXAS: HISTORY", [, Texas], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/essays/TX-02-ART418.

Print Source

Buildings of Texas

Buildings of Texas: East, North Central, Panhandle and South Plains, and West, Gerald Moorhead and contributors. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019, 418-418.

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