Ruins of Fort Lancaster Reminder of Troubled Times
By Greg Fieg
A soldier once described war as three hours of sheer terror followed by 30 days of pure boredom. About two miles north of the confluence of the Pecos River and Live Oak Creek lie the ruins of Fort Lancaster, where soldiers who served saw engagements limited and few but whose greatest sacrifice may have been to stand up to the incessant lethargy, inactivity and baking heat. Not that the dangers of their Spartan existence weren't real, for no sooner than gold had been discovered near Sacramento in 1849, hostile Indians found easy pickings by raiding the resulting California-bound traffic.
The Army, responding to a need to provide a sanctuarial layover, escorts and patrols along the Butterfield stage trail across the desert in deep South Texas, commissioned Fort Lancaster in 1857. The skirmishes were few and the casualties fewer, with troopers encamped at the fort directing most of their hostile fire at wild rabbits and javelina to sweeten the stews suspended in Dutch ovens over the cooking fires in the company mess. But the armed escorts and patrols presented an intimidating presence and, along with those originating from Fort Davis, Fort Brown, Fort Ringgold, Fort Stockton and numerous others, were highly effective in subduing Indian transgressions.
Fort Lancaster was taken over by Confederates when Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, but the Rebels abandoned it in 1862 and it fell into disuse all through the war and beyond, with settlers hauling off stone and other building materials and leaving two barracks, two officers quarters and a hospital and kitchen in ruins.
When Kickapoo Indians began raiding the border and southern interior in 1871, the Army reoccupied the ruins with African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" to reestablish U.S. domain.
An Indian raiding party, herding stolen livestock to their camp, attacked the Fort in overwhelming numbers, scattering the Army's mule. Most of the animals returned to the Fort, where the troopers set up a skirmish line among the fallen stones that ringed the quadrangle and parade ground.
The Indians were fierce, brave and daring, and had not the slightest compunction about stealing whatever prizes they wanted, but they were not stupid. Though there was plenty of plunder to be had and the numbers in the fort were small, discretion proved the greater part of valor as they elected to stay out of range of the troopers' rifles, gather scattered livestock and retreat.
Still, the soldiers reported inflicting at least 20 casualties to the hostiles, whose numbers were believed to exceed 400. The bodies of two braves were recovered from the brush, and three troopers perished and were buried at the fort, their graves evident today by simple stone markers. Within two years, the Army abandoned the fort again.
Today the remains are maintained as part of the 120-acre Fort Lancaster State Historic Park, which is open year-around but closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Christmas. An exhibit building displays photographs, maps, uniforms and other memorabilia, along with numerous artifacts recovered by archeologists, ranging from expended bullets to rusted sardine tins. The fort is located on scenic Loop 290 between Fort Stockton and Ozona off Interstate 10.
Back to Texas Stories