Saturday, November 8, 2014

Fort Griffin

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

 On Saturday, October 11, the new visitor center and museum at Fort Griffin was opened with a public ceremony. I first saw the ruins of Fort Griffin in 1964. The site was undeveloped, and there was no visitor center. A few years later the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began to develop the site, stabilizing the remains of the stone buildings: headquarters, bakery, magazine, and sutler’s store, along with the big well in the center of the parade ground. Walking paths were laid out, markers designated the identity of stone foundations, and a visitor center was erected. On January 1, 2008, Fort Griffin was turned over to the Texas Historical Commission. Among the improvements planned by the THC was a new visitor center, which opened last month. THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe was present to address the crowd, and a number of other THC officials and members were there.
Visitor Center (new construction at right)

I’ve been to Fort Griffin numerous times through the years, but I was unable to attend the opening. Two days later, however, I drove from Carthage to Lubbock to participate in a teacher instruction event sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association at the Region 17 Education Center. I took a detour to Fort Griffin so that I could see the new visitor center. It has been built alongside the old center, and the architectural styles are similar so that the two centers combined offer a great deal more space. The new exhibits are excellent, and include interactive displays. I was given a tour through the facility by Jane Lenoir, a longtime employee at Fort Griffin State Park.

Jane Lenoir
Texas military forts were abandoned by the U.S. Army at the start of the Civil War. With little military resistance, Comanche and Kiowa raiders struck hard during and after the war. Although the Union Army returned to Texas when the war ended, they came as occupation troops, not as frontier soldiers. Finally in 1867, the military moved back to the frontier. A number of the old forts were reoccupied and expanded, and three new outposts were built: Fort Concho, Fort Richardson, and Fort Griffin.
On July 31, 1867, Lt. Col. Samuel D. Sturgis and four companies of the Sixth Cavalry established the new post on a high plateau above a bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Fort Griffin was placed beside a Comanche war trail which war parties followed all the way into Mexico. The troops at Fort Griffin saw considerable action, and during the 1870s there were campaigns against the warlike tribes. The army’s best Indian fighter, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, campaigned out of Fort Griffin, and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was a visitor.

Interactive Display
Meanwhile, a town named after the fort boomed on the “Flat” below “Government Hill.” Buffalo hunters used the stores – and saloons – on the Flat as a jumping-off place to venture onto the range of the southern bison herd. Also the Western Trail, by which cattle herds were driven to Dodge City, passed through Fort Griffin. Buffalo hunters, cowboys, gamblers, soiled doves, troopers, rustlers, and gunfighters contributed to a wild and colorful frontier town. Doc Holliday and his consort, Big Nose Kate Fisher, were in Fort Griffin, and so were Wyatt Earp, John Selman, Bat Masterson, and Lottie Deno,“The Poker Queen.”  There were shootings in the saloons and gambling halls, and sometimes off-duty soldiers from Fort Griffin were among the combatants.
Mess Hall

But the Comanches and Kiowas were confined to their reservations by the mid-1870s, and the buffalo herds disappeared about the same time. By the mid-1880s the Western Trail was abandoned. In 1881 the military left Fort Griffin. The ramshackle structures on the Flat slowly disappeared, and the buildings on Government Hill deteriorated. There had been an experiment in military architecture at Fort Griffin. Most of the troopers were housed not in barracks but in small frame huts with a stone fireplace and bunks for six men. When the planks warped, wind and rain penetrated the cabin. In recent years two of these little structures were rebuilt on foundations. More recently frames were put up on a few other foundations, and a mess hall was rebuilt. I shot photos of everything, and the hike across Government Hill was a welcome respite in a long day of driving. As I drove off the hill to the highway, I faced the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Also on the park property is part of the state herd of longhorns. It was a pleasure to see the new visitor center – and to have an excuse for an outing at Fort Griffin.

For more information:
Headquarters Building
Post Bakery
Powder Magazine
Sutler's Store

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