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It is not probable that white settlements will be made here for a century to come, if ever.
-West Texas "beyond the treeline," U. S. Brig. Gen. William G. Belknap, 1851.

Map of settlements
Area of settlements at the edge of the western frontier circa 1849 to 1852 and the U.S. forts constructed to protected them. Within a short time, settlers moved beyond the lines of defense and into unprotected lands. Click to enlarge.
Comanche Camp
Comanche camp. Photo by William S. Soule, courtesy Wichita State University Library, A. A. Hyde Collection.
bison
Bison, traditional sustenance for the Plains tribes and later a rich commodity for Anglo hide traders, were to come perilously close to extinction by the end of the nineteenth century. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Brazos River
The fertile terraces of the Brazos River attracted settlers who began small farms in the Peters Colony of northwest Texas.
Indian attack
Western settlers being attacked by Indians. Small communities on the edge of the frontier suffered the brunt of Indian attacks in early years and served as a buffer for the larger towns. Detail from Harpers Weekly, ca. 1870, click to enlarge.
Butterfield schedule
Schedule of stops along the Butterfield Line from Saint Louis to San Francisoco. Note the stations at army forts across Texas. Click to enlarge.
child's grave
Diseases took as great a toll on settlers as they did on Indians in some years, particularly young children and the elderly. Gravestones, such as this one marking the death of a child in the 1850s central Texas community of Hoover Valley, are a poignant reminder of the harsh frontier conditions.

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 Comanchería 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.

Rio Grande City
Rio Grande City, circa 1853. This peaceful scene belies the violence that frequently erupted in this and other early Texas border towns. As the artist-soldier Capt. Arthur T. Lee wrote, Rio Grande City "could boast more crimes of murder, robbery, assassination, and outlawry generally, than all the rest of the Texas cities… ." Detail of painting, courtesy of the Rochester Historical Society. Click for full image.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 brought the promise of peace between the United States and Mexico. For many Tejanos, however, the treaty brought an alien legal system along with a change in citizenship. Some victims of the new economic and political order fought back outside the law. Treaty (page 1), courtesy the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

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.

American Progress
Hovering goddess-like above the westward moving pioneers, this allegorical female came to symbolize the virtue of taming the western frontier, what some considered America's "manifest destiny." Painting entitled, "American Progress," by George Crogutt, 1873. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
pushing further west
As settlers pushed farther west on the Texas frontier in the 1850s, new army posts were constructed to provide a measure of protection. Click to enlarge.
old stagecoach
"The Old Stagecoach of the Plains." The coming of the Butterfield stage line to Texas, with its series of passenger stops, provided further anchors for settlement along the frontier. Painting by Frederick Remington, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.
Henri Castro's house
Substantial houses of stone and plaster with a European flair were built in early settlements such as Castroville. The house shown is that of Henri Castro, founder of the 1840s colony west of San Antonio. Click to see full image.
raid
The threat of Indian raids was a constant source of anxiety for settlers on the Texas frontier, particularly after U.S. troops left Texas during the Civil War years. Painting by Nola Davis, courtesy of Fort Richardson SHS, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Perhaps no pioneers in the history of the American West experienced such trying conditions as those who remained on the Texas frontier during the Civil War years.

Fort Davis
Flag raising at Fort Davis, a community fort on the Brazos River. Settlers who "forted up" in family compounds during the Civil War years found time for celebrations amid worry over Indian raids and lack of supplies. Painting by Alice Reynolds, courtesy of Old Jail Museum, Albany. Click to enlarge.
longhorn cattle
Longhorn cattle, a hardy hybrid of Spanish criollo stock and English cattle," thrived on the Texas plains and prairies, giving rise to the occupation known as "cow hunting."

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.

"Forting Up"
"Forting up." As a measure of protection during the Civil War, settlers moved together into compounds, such as these family forts in northwest Texas. Click to enlarge. Map adapted from Donald Frazier in Cashion 1996.
Matthews
Clear Fork pioneers Judge J. A. and Sally Matthews. The bride, shown at the age of 15, was born on the westernmost edge of the Texas frontier as the Civil War broke out. Robert Nail Collection, courtesy of the Old Jail Museum. Click for more detail.
Map of the frontier post Civil War
After the Civil War, federal troops returned to man their posts on a frontier that had become more volatile during their absence.
The small north Texas town of Jacksboro, shown here in 1866, was charged with new life when Fort Richardson was established nearby and still thrives. Other towns that sprang up in the shadow of Texas forts—"Scabtown" near Fort McKavett, The Flat near Fort Griffin, and Mobeetie at Fort Elliott, did not survive long after the U.S. army's departure. Photo courtesy Lawrence Jones III.
cattle trails
Thousands of Longhorns were herded along the dusty trails across Texas during the latter half of the nineteenth century bringing herds from as far south as the Rio Grande to markets in Kansas and other points.
Lottie Deno
Notorious river boat gambling queen Lottie Deno parried her skills at the game into a profitable business at the Fort Griffin Flat. The town's poker tables hosted the likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and John Wesley Hardin, along with buffalo hunters,soldiers, and cowboys. Photo from Hunter 1959, Bandera Frontier Times Museum.
Tonkawa Indians, such as these young boys, were a common sight in the town of Fort Griffin, given its proximity to their village on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Tonkawa men served as scouts for the U.S. army against Comanche and Kiowa raiders. Photo courtesy Lawrence Jones III. Larger image.

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.

cowboys
Cowboys at the town of Fort Griffin found ample pleasures as well as an abundance of trouble in saloons such as the Beehive and nearby prostitutes' cribs. Robert Nail Collection, courtesy of the Old Jail Museum.
Tools of the gambling house
Tools of the gambling house. Selection of turn of the century poker chips, cards, and dominoes, courtesy Fort McKavett SHS, Texas Parks and Wildlife.
buffalo hunters
Texas buffalo hunters skin their kill. The hide trade reached its zenith in the 1870s and 1880s, bringing hordes of hunters and their wagons of hides into supply towns such as Rath City and the Flat. Photo courtesy the Texas State Library and Archives.
buffalo soldier
Minority visitors to frontier towns—Buffalo soldiers, Indians, and Hispanic cowboys-—were not always welcomed in frontier towns and at times suffered at the hands of violent criminals and prejudiced white juries. Photo from the Robert Nail Collection, courtesy the Old Jail Museum.
 
Cowboys
Cowboys in the Dust of the Drags. Photograph by Erwin E. Smith, Amon Carter Museum.
barbed wire
Hundreds of miles of barbed wire were strung across the state in the 1880s, forever changing the character of the frontier and bringing a measure of management to the cattle industry. Sketch by Al M. Napoletano, courtesy the Barb Wire Museum.
frontier family
Frontier settlers. While preserving some traditions of their homeland, settlers on the Texas frontier were transformed by their experiences, becoming "westerners."

On the range itself, cattlemen established massive ranches such as the Espuela (Spur) Cattle Company—a half-million-acre spread that covered parts of four West Texas counties. Until the mid-1870s the typical rancher grazed his cattle on state land and purchased only land that would guarantee a monopoly on water rights. A number of developments, however, quickly changed the nature of the business. Barbed wire, a nationwide depression following the Panic of 1873, competition from eastern and British capitalists, and a series of droughts and blizzards in the 1880s brought a measure of scientific management to the industry even before the frontier had passed.

With the Plains Indians confined to reservations in Indian Territory following the Red River War (1874-75), settlers soon crowded the frontier. A line of towns emerged at the edge of the treeline during the last half of the decade, some that would survive, others that were destined to become ghost towns. North-to-south beyond the Cross Timbers, they included Eagle Flats (Vernon), Oregon City (Seymour), Wiliamsburg, Throckmorton, Albany, Callahan City, Belle Plain, and Coleman.

By the end of the 1870s, the national economic depression had mostly run its course, and the long-awaited southern transcontinental route soon became a reality. The Texas & Pacific Railroad that had stood frozen between Dallas and Fort Worth since 1873, suddenly burst across West Texas in 1880 and 1881. By the time it connected with the Southern Pacific near Sierra Blanca, any number of tent and clapboard railroad towns sprang up along the tracks. Abilene, planned by the T&P as its market hub, signaled the beginning of a new era.

Certainly, frontier conditions still existed in the 1880s, and pioneers had much new ground to break in the 1890s. Yet by the time the Texas frontier had run its course, those who settled the land could point to a unique experience had turned the largely Southern population into westerners.


By the time the Texas frontier had run its course, those who settled the land could point to a unique experience had turned the largely Southern population into westerners.

Rail map
Planned route of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, ca. 1873. The long-awaited rail line burst across West Texas in 1880, sparking the growth of new towns and bringing a new era to the state. Map courtesy of the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

Credits and Sources

Texas and the Western Frontier was written by Ty Cashion, author and professor of History at Sam Houston State University (see Supporters and Contributors).

Print Sources

Cashion, Ty
1996 A Texas Frontier: The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma.

Quotations

Horton: Horton, Thomas F. History of Jack County (Jacksboro: Gazette Publishing Co., n.d.)

Slack: Adair, W. S. "Albany Found Real Frontier in Early Days." Dallas Morning News, June 1, 1930.

Sources for Main Image

Buffalo Hunters: Courtesy the Texas State Library and Archives.

Wagon Train: File Z-308) courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

Portrait of Satanta in Native Dress: (NAA INV 00672500) National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.