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Texas and the Western Frontier

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Anglo Texans greeted the end of the U.S-Mexican War in 1848 with the hope that federal troops would at last put an end to violent encounters with Indians and Mexicans along the state's western and southern borders and open the vast frontier to settlement. All too quickly the lure of nearly free and unbroken land attracted a multitude of pioneers. So rapidly, in fact, that it thrust some white settlers far beyond the protection of the eight new military installations established at war's end, running from Fort Worth in North Texas to Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande.

In response, the U.S. Army in 1851 began establishing a new line of forts a hundred miles beyond the original vanguard. Others were located in the Big Bend country along the Rio Grande and in extreme South Texas.

 

For Hispanics and Indians, who also claimed much of this wild land as their home, the years of early statehood left them struggling merely to survive. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the late war cast many Tejanos into a perilous future, with their new citizenship shadowed by an alien legal system and powerful economic forces. Some would fight to hold what they had, and find their recourse outside the law.

 

The situation for the Comanches was even more ominous. The effects of contact had visited the Penateka (southern) bands with lethal consequences. Dependence on the material goods of Anglos and a taste for alcohol broke both tradition and will. Epidemics of smallpox and other diseases passed along by California-bound Argonauts and other trespassers onto Comancherķa left these once-fearsome Penatekas staring hard at the prospect of extinction. Ecological changes, moreover, upset the annual migration of the great bison herds, a condition that would persist into the years of the Civil War.

 

If that were not enough to spell the Penatekas' doom, traditional Indian enemies—Lipan Apaches, Tonkawas, and others—took advantage of this turn of fortune to settle old scores. Still others—recent arrivals such as Kickapoos, Delawares, and Shawnees—were swept onto the West Texas frontier by the advance of Americans far beyond the new state's borders. Armed with superior weaponry and well tutored in double-dealing, they further contracted the kingdom of these one-time Lords of the Plains.

 

To Anglos, so many unrestrained Indian tribes and disgruntled Tejanos posed a psychological threat illuminated by the very real prospect of actual raids. Northern Comanches, joined by Kiowas and individuals from other tribes, splashed across the Red River from the Indian Territory and often probed the length of the frontier line, keeping settlers on constant alert. Additionally, the usual run of rootless and lawless whites took advantage of frontier conditions to prey upon the livestock of isolated settlers.

 

On balance, the Texas frontier, like so much of America's westward expansion, held promise in one hand and peril in the other. Settlers bet their lives and property on the wager that chaos would quickly give way to order. In the estimation of these plucky newcomers, the prospective rewards were certainly worth the risks. Like their predecessors, the Spanish colonists who in the 1700s had settled the borderlands along the Rio Grande, they learned that all manner of hardships might be survived with a bit of luck and the support of neighbors, though often far afield.

 

As the 1850s unfolded, signs of progress offered encouragement. However meager, any number of villages sprang up between the first and second line of U.S. posts from Gainesville near the Red River, to Uvalde and Brackett above the Rio Grande. The Peters Colony, established by the Republic-era legislature in part to attract Ohio Valley families as a buffer against the Penatekas, beckoned farmers who, on the grant's western edges, tilled virgin soil along the fertile creek banks and bottomlands of the Brazos and Trinity rivers. This expansive watershed came to be known as Northwest Texas.

 

In the Hill Country area, German and Alsatian emigrants continued to adapt their small-farming techniques to Texas' expansive spaces. Settlements such as Fredericksburg, New Braunfels and Castroville provided a bit of European culture on the frontier in spite of continued threats of Indian attacks.

 

In 1858 the Southern Overland Mail, better known as the Butterfield stage, began cutting a path across the plains and prairies between its terminals at Saint Louis and San Francisco. From Sherman to El Paso a series of stations presented anchors around which communities seemed surely to emerge.

 

Other newcomers to northern Texas learned that the Western Cross Timbers, a veritable "cast iron forest," provided natural fencing. Indeed, many names later associated with the great post-Civil War cattle empire—Hittson, Goodnight, Slaughter, and others—seeded their first herds on the tall grass of these rocky, but fertile prairies closed in by the dense forests.

 

Just when it seemed as if the frontier was beginning to join the mainstream of Texan society, Anglo-Indian conflicts and the Civil War reversed most of this material progress. Warrior bands—mostly from the Indian Territory—had never ceased to probe the defensive gaps along the line of the settlers' advance. For their part, the state and federal governments were often at odds, flip-flopping between policies of peace and war.

Adding to the sense of anxiety, the federal government in 1854 leased four leagues of land for an Indian reservation along the Brazos River below Fort Belknap. A second reservation upstream was added for the Penatekas near Camp Cooper, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos.

Many settlers expressed their admiration for the Indians' efforts to take up farming and stock raising, but others—more outspoken in their criticism—would not be satisfied until the native peoples were either exterminated or run out of Texas for good. While the rest of the state was preoccupied with rumors of slave insurrections, frontierspeople were stirred into the same kind of frenzy when a Jacksboro weekly, The White Man, embarked on a sensational campaign that preyed on settlers' fears and turned every rumor to fact.

 

The pioneers' sense of dread was somewhat allayed in 1858 by news of two signal victories over their Plains adversaries. That spring, Texans led by ranger captain Rip Ford reported the defeat of over 300 determined warriors at the Battle of the Washita, in Indian Territory. Not far from there, near Wichita Village, U.S. Captain Earl Van Dorn routed about 500 Comanches and Kiowas that fall.

 

Meanwhile, The White Man grew ever more vocal. Words grew into deeds, climaxing in the Reservation War of 1859 that pitted militiamen of Northwest Texas against the Indians on both reservations. While no pitched battles ensued, the affair resulted in the expulsion of the native peoples.

 

At last it seemed as if Anglo Texans had gained control of the frontier. The Civil War intervened, however, proving that the worst of the settlers' troubles was only beginning.

The Civil War cost pioneer folk both the protection of the federal troops and much of its home guard, as many militiamen took up arms and marched east to defend the South. Indians, revitalized by feelings of revenge, took advantage of the situation and attempted to reclaim their former homeland and hunting grounds.

 

Perhaps no pioneers in the history of the American West experienced such trying conditions as those who remained on the Texas frontier during these years. While markets in the interior went begging for goods to send to the Confederate army, there was little the pioneers could produce in bulk. The scarcity of supplies and hard currency, moreover, left them to their own ingenuity.

 

The one commodity they enjoyed in abundance was beef. From the brush country of South Texas to the grassy rolling plains of Northwest Texas, the lean, hardy breed of longhorn cattle proliferated. "Cow hunters," as the early-day cowboys called themselves, at last found a use for this land that Brig. Gen. Belknap has declared unfit to inhabit.

 

Most observers of the Civil War years claimed the Comanches and Kiowas rolled back the frontier a hundred miles in places; certainly the population thinned considerably. Even so, cow hunters actually extended their reach, adapting to the unfamiliar environment, even against the mortal peril of Indian raids. One outfit, near old Camp Cooper, was reportedly tending a herd of 25,000 head of longhorn when warriors forced them to flee.

Most of the war parties were small in number, and the raids were short and sharp, but not all one-sided. An overburdened state cavalry and what was left of the local militias sporadically patrolled the frontier and kept their adversaries on guard.

 

"Forting up" also offered a measure of security. At places with names such as Fort Spunky, Owl's Head, and Picketville, families and ranching outfits established citizen posts for mutual protection.

The single most serious incident during these years came in the fall of 1864. The "Elm Creek Raid" in Young County reportedly involved a party of between five hundred and a thousand Comanches and Kiowas who raided the middle Brazos, virtually denuding the range of cattle and horses and besieging the citizen post Fort Murrah. If not for some of the home guard and a few isolated but well armed settlers who engaged the warriors, the death toll of the

Texas pioneers would have been much worse. Along with the livestock, the war party returned to Indian Territory with almost a dozen women and children captives.

 

The next year, 1865, brought an end to the Civil War, raising pioneers' expectations that the days of relative security would return. The federal government, however, placed Texas in a Reconstruction district with Louisiana and at first seemed little disposed to help their late foes with Indian problems they believed were of the Texans' own makings. Moreover, they forbid frontierspeople to raise arms and organize. The raids continued, bringing so many reports of depredations that their very scale created disbelief.

 

By 1866, however, a line of federal forts approximating the antebellum configuration arose anew on the Texas frontier. Some, like Forts Richardson and Bliss, breathed life into towns such as Jacksboro and El Paso, respectively, while entirely new communities sprang up alongside other federal posts. Of these, a few survived their tumultuous frontier beginnings, such as Saint Angela (now San Angelo, alongside Fort Concho) and Fort Stockton in the shadow of the post that bore the same name. Others, such as The Flat below Fort Griffin, Scabtown near Fort McKavett, and Mobeetie beside Fort Elliott, enjoyed only a brief heyday, eventually losing their populations to other regional centers.

 

As long as the soldiers patrolled the frontier, however, all the "fort towns" thrived by providing goods and services to the military. Most of those who settled near the posts were earnest pioneers who came west to take advantage of legitimate business opportunities. From the surrounding countryside they provided forage for army horses and mules and foodstuffs for the soldiers. In the towns themselves resided butchers and bakers, physicians and undertakers, preachers and schoolteachers, hide dressers and saddle makers, tailors and shoemakers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights, investors and carpenters, and hotelkeepers and livery operators.

A smaller element composed of gamblers, whiskey peddlers, prostitutes, and desperadoes also came west to prey upon the adventurous and gullible. For the most part, townspeople successfully segregated them. Yet along the main street or district to which they were confined, the scene could be one of bedlam, especially when buffalo hunters and trail drivers hit town.

 

Beginning in the middle of the 1870s a resource rush for bison hides turned The Flat, Saint Angela, and Rath City into veritable boomtowns. From the winter of 1874-75, when the great hunt began in earnest, until the time it petered out during the winter of 1878-79, the end of each season always ended in a "spree" that boosted the coffers of every frontier saloon from Fort Worth and Denison to San Antonio and El Paso. At the same time, north-and-west-bound trail drivers crossed much of the same land over the Western (or, Dodge City) Trail, and the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Often, these cowboys would signal their arrival by "taking the town," a tradition that involved racing their horses down the main road between the false-fronted, picket, and adobe business houses, guns ablazing.

Occasionally, the wide-open atmosphere resulted in bloodshed. These frontier villages contributed collectively to a legacy of violence that left and indelible imprint upon the state's, and even the world's, imagination.

 

It was a reputation that was only partly deserved. Wildness was tolerated, indeed encouraged, because reckless behavior normally translated into reckless spending. Jacksboro man Thomas Horton, for example, recalled in his twilight years a scene from his childhood; it was shortly after payday at Fort Richardson: "I am not exaggerating when I say I have seen the time when I could have walked on soldiers lying drunk along the road from the south side of the Square to the creek and not touch the ground." Like Horton's, the memories of others grew with the passing of time. A half-century after his brief stay at Fort Griffin's Flat, R. A. Slack declared: "A killing was one of the ordinary, expected events of the night…on which the comments were over, and the incident closed by the time the blood had been mopped up from the floor."

 

On the contrary, the layers of law enforcement typically included town constables, county sheriffs and their deputies, and officers of the court at every level from the justice of the peace to county and district judges. Texas Rangers and the federal troops themselves also involved themselves in civil affairs on many occasions. Most of the time the law was diligent and performed admirably, despite the trying frontier conditions.

If justice lacked, it was normally in cases involving minorities. On several occasions at various frontier towns, both soldiers and private citizens literally got away with murdering Indians who happened to cross their path at the wrong time. In other cases, buffalo soldiers and other African-Americans as well as Tejanos who became victims of violent crimes could never count on the impartiality of white juries.

 

The other exception regarded vigilante movements. Horse and cattle thieves always ran the risk of being hanged on the spot if caught on the open range. In the Mason County War (or, Hoodoo War as it has also been called) and in the Fort Griffin country, organized mobs were responsible for upwards of two-dozen hangings and shootings. Even though Texas Rangers intervened in both movements, not a single vigilante ever suffered a murder conviction. Partly as a result, stockmen in the Cross Timbers organized the Northwest Texas Cattle Raisers Association.

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