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January 2007 Park of the Month
Fort McKavett State Historic Site

Feel Of Texas Frontier Lives on at Fort McKavett State Historic Site

Time seems to stand still atop the bluff overlooking the San Saba River Valley at the farthest reaches of the Edwards Plateau, where the skeletal limestone remains of old Fort McKavett and rebuilt structures stand as a silent tribute to Texas' frontier past. Inhabitants of this stony expanse of West Texas still raise sheep, goats and cattle as did their forefathers more than 150 years ago, but today the fort serves as an interesting piece of history drawing thousands of visitors each year.

TPWD Photo © Rob McCorkle
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The U.S. flag flies over rock ruins and
reconstructed whitewashed limestone structures
that mark the location of Fort McKavett, one of
dozens of 19th century forts built to protect the
frontier as it expanded west into Indian Territory.

Such was not the case in the 1850s when western civilization pushed west into the land of the Lipan Apache and Comanche, attracted by California gold and the wide-open frontier. To protect migrating settlers, merchants and adventurers, the U.S. military established a string of strategically-placed forts arcing along the western reaches of the frontier from the Red River to the Rio Grande. Five companies of the 8th Infantry established the fort, originally called Camp San Saba, in March of 1852, building structures of locally quarried limestone and hand-cut oak and pecan.

Later renamed for Capt. Henry McKavett, a casualty of the U.S.-Mexican War, the fort was abandoned in 1859 by the military after Indian hostilities subsided and turned over to the landowner. However, as the Civil War dragged on, Indian activity in the area picked up again, culminating in an 1866 raid on the compound that resulted in casualties, including the death of William McDougal. He is buried in the Fort McKavett Cemetery, which today still contains the remains of 38 soldiers who served at the fort.

The U.S. Army returned in 1867 to rebuild dilapidated structures and expand fort facilities. Company A, 4th Cavalry, led by Col. Eugene B. Beaumont, arrived on April 1, 1868 to resurrect the military installation, no small task. As post surgeon N. D. Middleton put it: "The post was found to be one mass of ruins, only one house was habitable, and the whole command was compelled to go under canvas."

During its occupation until 1883, Fort McKavett saw all four African-American regiments in the U.S. Army - the 24th and 25th Infantry and 9th and 10th Cavalry - stationed there. Among the vaunted Buffalo Soldiers was trooper Sgt. Emanuel Stance, who became the first black Medal of Honor winner for his service during the Indian Wars.

Other famous Americans and Texans would walk the fort's hallowed parade grounds during the next 15 years. Among them were famous Indian fighter Ranald MacKenzie, who led the decisive defeat of the last warring tribes at the 1874 Battle of Palo Duro Canyon; Lt. Adolphus W. Greely, who went on to found the National Geographic Society; and Col. Abner Doubleday, who is credited with inventing the game of baseball while studying at West Point.

Historic photos of a number of famous soldiers who served at Fort McKavett grace the walls of the extensive exhibits in the 1870 hospital, which houses the State Park Store and museum that helps tell the story of the fort’s role in Texas history, archeological excavations and its restoration in the 1960s. Don’t miss the dozens of well-preserved fort artifacts, such as antique coins, bottles, pipes, weapons, belt buckles and ammunition, recovered during archeological excavations of what Gen. William T. Sherman called "the prettiest post in Texas."

TPWD Photo © Rob McCorkle
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The post hospital, completed in the early 1870s,
serves as the Visitor Center, museum and administrative
offices at Fort McKavett State Historic Site near Menard.

The handsome hospital is but one of a handful of buildings open to the public on self-guided tours of the site’s 81 acres. In all, the fort includes 17 restored rock buildings. Step through the portals into the bakery, the Dead House, School House, barracks and post headquarters. Many other buildings are accessible only during special events or pre-arranged tours. During your stroll, see if you can spot the words etched into a limestone wall in 1853 commemorating the 8th Infantry’s B Company.

Every spring, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department hosts a living history event featuring more than 100 costumed re-enactors portraying members of the infantry, cavalry, officer’s wives, Native Americans and other frontier characters. Mounted cavalry maneuvers, cannon firings, blacksmithing and soapmaking are just part of the activities to be enjoyed during West Texas Heritage Days, March 23-24. A star-gazing party will be held the previous week on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. There is no event fee but the regular admission ($3 for persons 13 and older and $2 for seniors) will apply. The historic site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Monday only.

Although Texas boasts more than a dozen historic frontier forts, few can match Fort McKavett for its dramatic and isolated setting that enchants visitors from as far away as Australia and Russia to soak up Texas’ Old West heritage.

"You really have to want to come here," says lead ranger Alfredo Munoz, "because you have to drive 26 miles off Interstate 10 to reach us. But people like the way it feels when they come out here, the open, remote feeling that makes it easier to imagine what it must have been like as a frontier soldier stationed here."

Unlike those stationed at many frontier forts, Fort McKavett's soldiers rarely suffered from scurvy and other nutritional deficits brought on by the lack of "greens" in their diet. They simply ate water cress growing in the nearby spring-fed creek, when vegetables weren’t in season. To hark back to frontier days, take an easy hike down the half-mile Fort McKavett Nature Trail that leads past the old limestone kiln to the still-flowing springs and scenic Government Creek. Picnic tables under the lives oaks at the trailhead invite visitors to linger.

Fort McKavett State Historic Site is located on FM864 off U.S. Highway 190 about 24 miles west of Menard. It is one of 113 state parks, historic sites and state natural areas that make up the Texas State Park System. For more information visit the Fort McKavett State Historic Site web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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