Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989 Page: 25
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Sentinel of the Southern
Plains: Fort Richardson
and the Northwest Texas
Sentinel of the Southern Plains: Fort
Richardson and the Northwest Texas
Frontier, 1866-1878, Allen Lee Hamilton,
Texas Christian University Press, $14.95.
Local histories are difficult to write. The
general or universal themes of uncommon
interest are often hard to extract, and most
amount to family genealogies or local chronologies.
Allen Hamilton's Sentinel of the
Southern Plains is a fine exception. The
author grew up "within gunshot" of the
fort, and his love for the landscape of his
childhood is conveyed here in his love for
its history. He also has the sharp eye of an
historian, and the ability to relate the
material to broader regional issues.
Hamilton has command of the primary
documents of the history of the fort: military
records, municipal and newspaper
accounts from Jacksboro, and personal
memoirs. He writes a vivid portrait of life at
a military camp, from its privations to the
mental quirks of its officers. It's a wonder
that cavalry life had any attractions for the
common soldier. Rations of boiled beef,
bread, coffee and turnips along with the
anomie of the daily grind alternated with
rugged and dangerous horseback expeditions
into hostile Indian country. The only
respite was payday debauches at places like
Mollie McCabe's Palace of Beautiful Sin.
Fort Richardson was conceived as one
of the string of forts that would contain the
Comanche and Kiowa on the Southern
Plains. It had another function, however,
that has gone unsung in the annals of
frontier history. Hamilton points out that
the federal forts were established as an
alternative to the Texas Rangers, and was
an overt effort to contain the conquered
Confederate territory along with control of
Indian depredations. The War of Northern
Aggression was freshly over when the first
troops were posted in Jacksboro at the later
site of Fort Richardson.
Throughout its history, the fort served
as base of operations for some of the major
military offensives against the Plains Indians.
In fact, one of the notorious incidents
of the war against the Kiowa occurred not
far west of Fort Richardson. The Warren
Wagon Train Raid in May of 1871 ignited
the passions of Plainsmen and soldiers
alike, and eventually led to the imprisonment
of Satanta and Big Tree, and the
death of Satank, when the chiefs were
confronted by Sherman at Fort Sill shortly
after the massacre near Salt Creek prairie.
Ironically, Sherman and Col. Randolph
Marcy, the famous explorer of the west,
had passed along the same route only hours
before with a small detachment of guards.
They laughed at the potential for Indian
attack, but had been allowed to pass in
favor of seemlier prey. As Hamilton writes,
"The impatient warriors wanted to attack,
but Maman-ti reminded them that his
medicine allowed for successful attack only
on the second group of whites to pass. The
signal to attack was not given, and the
column moved across the prairie and disappeared
into the woods to the east.
Historians would later speculate that,
trusting experience rather than Mamanti's
medicine, the older warriors recognized
the formation of party, wagons and horsemen
in front as the way soldiers traveled,
and decided to wait for a less well-armed
prey. Whatever the reasons-magic, caution
or luck-two of the highest-ranking
officers in the United States Army escaped
annihilation that day at the hands of over
a hundred Plains Indians warriors.
Sherman's party journeyed on to
Richardson, unaware of their peril. Upon
arriving late that afternoon, Sherman
wrote: 'The road is across rather rough
country and water is very scarce. Of course
we saw no Indians..."'
Until 1871, Fort Richardson had served
as the home base of the luckless and inefficient
6th Cavalry under Colonel James
Oakes. Their greatest legacy was their
accumulated debts to local shopkeepers.
Few townspeople were saddened to see the
Yankees transferred to Fort Harker, Kansas.
They were replaced by companies from
the 4th Cavalry, led by Colonel Ranald S.
Mackenzie, who was to instill discipline
and a sense of purpose into the ranks of Fort
Richardson. Mackenzie was at the forefront
of all the subsequent battles to subdue
the Plains Indians, and was instrumental in
the defeat of the Comanche in his attack
on Quanah Parker's camp in Palo Duro
Canyon during the Red River War in 1874.
The demise of the enemy made Fort
Richardson a marginal post. Mackenzie's
troops were moved to Fort Sill or Fort
Concho, closer to the frontier, and Fort
Richardson began its slow slide into oblivion.
Its next and nearly last commander was
the honorable Lieutenant Colonel John
Davison of Company I, who "...is, without
a doubt, crazy at times. He says himself he
has had a sunstroke which seriously affects
his brain and I have noticed he
has...violent spells during which it is impossible
to tell what fool thing he will not
do. I must confess it ain't pleasant to serve
under a lunatic." And so the last years of
the fort witnessed the drab duty of protecting
the military telegraph line and patrolling
the line against rustlers and highwaymen,
with an eccentric at the helm
under the shroud of the hot Texas sun.
If there was ever any glory to cavalry life
on the frontier, Fort Richardson was at the
center of it for at least a few of its highlife
years. Author Hamilton has done a fine job
of narrating its history in the context of the
military, Indian, and frontier currents that
charged the region in the late nineteenth
Land of Bright Promise:
Texas Panhandle and
South Plains, 1870-1917
Land of Bright Promise: Advertising the Texas
Panhandle and South Plains, 1870-1917, Jan
Blodgett, University of Texas Press,
The cavalry performed more than one service
for the Southern Plains. Besides exterminating
the Indian, they made the last
frontier pregnant with promise for a new
generation of settlers. Jan Blodgett recounts
the hype and the hoopla as the
HERITAGE * WINTER 1989 25
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989, periodical, Winter 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45430/m1/25/: accessed October 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.