An Old Texas Fort

Age of Discovery

Spanish Coat of Arms

Spain began its age of discovery and conquest with the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.[1]  From that moment when Columbus accidentally stumbled into the American continent, Spanish explorers and conquistadors began building an empire so large that it nearly defies one’s imagination.  The reality of Columbus’ discovery was not immediately apparent.  Still, it wasn’t long before Spanish ships began making regular trips to the new world, returning to Spain with vast treasures in gold and silver, gemstones, and foods never before known in Europe.  With the addition of priests to the ships’ passenger manifests, it became a quest for God, Glory, and Gold.

Native people were already living in this new land.  Some were curious, others distrustful, and some were outright hostile to the foreigners arriving from across the water.  If the Spanish could not coax the natives into giving up their land, they would have to subdue them by force — and to soothe the natives, it would be an ideal arrangement to bring them into the fold of Christendom — hence, the mission of priests.

These were the old days — perhaps today, we might consider them as ancient times.  There was no such thing as rapid communications.  Sending messages and letters back to Spain took months and double that if the writer expected a reply.  The distance and time factor made it impossible for the Spanish Crown to make timely, informed decisions about matters of importance, and so the King of Spain appointed men as his deputies to govern these far-distant territories in his name and by his authority.  They were called Viceroys, and their responsibilities were to manage a place named New Spain.  The new world was one less thing the King of Spain had to worry about once the Viceroy was in place.  The Viceroy could make critical and timely decisions.  Granted, making decisions was still slow, but not as before.

The challenge was considerable, for not only did the Spanish have to seize these new lands, but they also had to keep them, maintain them, and transform them into a profitable enterprise.  It was more than a matter of subduing the natives; the Spanish also had to defend these territories from French and British interlopers.  For Spain, it was an expensive undertaking.  There was only one line of communication between the old and new worlds: the sea, which forced the Spanish to construct hundreds of seaworthy vessels, some of which to transport cargoes of untold wealth, and other ships to protect them from the interlopers.

Competition

The King of Spain and his new world viceroys were well-aware of the intentions of France and Great Britain.  They wanted a piece of the new world for themselves.  Remember that Spain (which in 1492 had only recently emerged from eight hundred years of domination by Islamic Moors) was as determined to protect its newfound territory as the French and British were in carving out pieces of it for themselves.  This competition set into motion numerous armed conflicts, both in the old world and in the new, that involved the additional expense of maintaining large navies and land armies.

There was never any question in the minds of the Spanish about what the French and English were doing in North America.  As time progressed, particularly after the Seven Years’ War, the Spanish realized that it would only be a matter of time before the British American colonies challenged Spain for control of New Spain’s territories in the present-day western United States.  If this was not altogether true in 1763, when France turned over New France to the British, it was absolutely true after American President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territories from Napoleon’s France.

Revolution and Evolution

Mexico Coat of Arms

But then, almost as if the Spanish Crown and his Viceroy weren’t paying attention to its own house, Mexico declared its independence from Spain (1810-1821), and three hundred years of Spanish territorial domination in North America came to an end.[2]  In that final year of the revolution, 1821, an enterprising fellow named Moses Austin offered a proposal to the newly created Mexican government — a way of populating its northern province of Tejas with immigrants from the United States.  The proposal would solve one of New Spain’s/Mexico’s more perplexing problems — settling Tejas and making it into productive land.  Of course, those migrating Americans would have to become citizens of Mexico and convert to Catholicism, but that was a minor issue compared to the benefit of purchasing large tracts of land for a mere twelve and a half cents an acre.

After the Mexican revolution,  Mexicans themselves began struggling with the question of the best form of self-governance.  The challenge was deciding whether to develop semi-autonomous states, such as those found in the United States under federalism, or a more centralized (authoritarian) system of government.  In 1821, when Americans began migrating to Tejas, Mexican provinces enjoyed the provincial/state government freedoms.  Within a few years, however, Mexican governance became more centralized, stripping away the right of Mexicans within states to govern themselves.  The Texians determined that they would not live in a totalitarian state; they would not abide a tyrant.

The Texas Revolution began in 1836 when Texians (including the Mexicans who lived in Tejas) declared their independence.  Tejas wasn’t the only province to rebel, of course, but it seems the only rebellion people remember today.  Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna, as commander-in-chief of Mexico’s armed forces, led an expedition to put down the rebellion in Tejas.  He initially had a few successes but was ultimately defeated, captured, and eventually sent home.

Despite Santa Anna’s surrender document, which acknowledged Texas’ Independence, Mexico’s legislature repudiated the Treaty of Velasco and claimed it was an invalid instrument.  They argued that Santa Anna was under duress when he signed the document and that, in signing it, he did so without the advice and consent of the legislature.  Not only was this an excellent argument, but it was also the basis of continuing conflicts between the Texas and Mexican armies through 1844.

Expansion

It was always the intention of (General and later President of Texas) Sam Houston to petition the United States government for the admission of Texas to the United States.  These negotiations began informally in 1837.

The Mexicans knew about this, of course, and it irritated them considerably.  Spanish/Mexican officials had been expecting such trickery since Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of French Louisiana.  Many Mexican officials believed that the Americans had always been pirates — a conclusion that was not entirely without merit.  American filibusters had been stirring up trouble in Mexico for more than a few decades.

In 1844, President John Tyler dispatched General Zachary Taylor to Fort Jesup, Louisiana as a “guard” against any possible attempt by Mexico to reclaim Texas.  James K. Polk assumed the US presidency in March 1945.  President Polk was an unapologetic expansionist; he wanted statehood for Texas, which, by November 1845, was well underway.  There was one sticking point, however: Texas’ southern border.[3]  Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico City with two offers.  First, Slidell was authorized to pay Mexico $25 million in exchange for Mexico’s recognition of the Rio Grande as Texas’ southern border.[4]  Second, Polk authorized Slidell to pay an additional $25-30 million for Alta California.  Before leaving on his mission, Slidell suggested that Mexico might require, in addition to substantial payment, some military inducements.

President Polk ordered General Taylor to proceed to Texas.  In compliance with his instructions, Taylor established his headquarters at Corpus Christi and ordered regular patrols within the Nueces Strip.   

Mexican officials rebuffed Slidell, citing national honor  — but the fact was that Mexico could not have accepted President Polk’s offer because, at that time, Mexico was undergoing a period of political turmoil.  Between 1844-45, Mexico had four presidents, six war ministries, and sixteen finance ministries.  Undeterred, the United States admitted Texas as its 28th State on 29 December 1845, and its southern border was the Rio Grande.  A war between Mexico and the United States was only a matter of time — and it wasn’t going to be a long wait.

In early 1846, Mariano Paredes assumed the presidency of Mexico.  In his inaugural address, President Paredes declared that he would uphold the integrity of Mexican territory to the Sabine River — Mexico’s original northeastern border with the United States.  Afterward, President Polk directed Taylor to establish a more prominent military presence along the Rio Grande.  On 24 April 1846, Mexican General Mariano Arista, commanding Mexico’s northern division (a force of about 5,000 men), officially notified General Taylor that a state of war existed between Mexico and the United States.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican/American War, reduced the size of Mexico to around 800,000 square miles (from 1.7 million square miles).  Based on the Texian’s previous experience with Mexican treaties, no one quite trusted the Mexican government to abide by the treaty’s provisions.

About Fort Gates

US 8th Inf

Another issue between 1848-50 was a significant increase in native American hostilities.  As a safeguard against Mexican treachery and Indian depredations, the United States established military forts from the Rio Grande to the Red River.  The forts were named Fort Worth, Fort Graham, Fort Croghan, Fort Martin Scott, Fort Inge, Fort Duncan, and Fort Gates.

The U. S. Army established Fort Gates on 26 October 1849, known initially as Camp Gates.  The fort was named in honor of Brevet Major Collinson Reed Gates of New York, an officer who distinguished himself at the Battle of Palo Alto, the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, and the Battle of Molino del Rey.

The Battle of Palo Alto was the first major battle of the Mexican/American war, fought on 8 May 1846, five miles from modern-day Brownsville, Texas.  Around 3,700 Mexican troops of General Arista’s division engaged US troops numbering around 2,300 under General Taylor.  While Arista deployed his forces competently, he was defeated by overwhelming US artillery, forcing Arista to withdraw to Resaca de la Palma.

Taylor pursued Arista’s remaining forces, engaging them on 9 May.  Arista established a defensive position along a resaca, then known to Mexicans as Resaca de Guerrero and the Americans as Resaca de la Palma.[5]  Arista positioned his force within the twelve-foot deep, two-hundred-foot wide resaca some three miles from the Rio Grande.  He placed most of his men in the ravine, which was thickly vegetated on either side to lessen the effect of Taylor’s artillery.  When the battle joined, the fighting was disorganized and uncoordinated due to the dense chaparral and intense Mexican artillery.  After Captain Robert C. Buchanan’s 4th Infantry outflanked the Mexican artillery battery and successfully defended against Arista’s counter-attacks, the Mexican force panicked and fled back across the Rio Grande with many of the soldiers drowning in their attempt to escape.

Major Gates was the son of Brigadier General William Gates[6].  Although participating in numerous battles from Florida to Canada and during the Mexican/American War, the 33-year-old Gates passed away from cholera while stationed at Fort Martin Scott.

Fort Gates was located on the north bank of the Leon River (five miles east of present-day Gatesville, Texas.  The Leon River has three primary forks, which meet near Eastland, Texas, and then run for about 185 miles to the Lampasas River and Salado Creek, forming the Little River near Belton.

The initial garrison at Fort Gates included four companies of the US 8th Infantry Regiment.  The fort reached its peak strength of 256 enlisted men and 45 officers in April 1851.  The fort had four officer’s quarters, two headquarters buildings, three laundries, a hospital, a stable, two storehouses, a guardhouse, a bakery, and a blacksmith shop.  Its commanding officers were Captain William Reading Montgomery (1849-1850), Captain James G. S. Snelling (1850-51), Captain Carlos Adolphus Waite (1851-52), and Captain Horace Haldeman (1852).

The Army promoted Captain Montgomery to Major in 1852, but in 1855 he was dismissed from the service due to allegations of inappropriate financial conduct.  Historians now believe that Major Montgomery had run afoul of pro-slavery elements in Kansas, which sought to discredit him for his anti-slavery views.  With the outbreak of the Civil War In 1861, the Army offered Montgomery command of the 1st New Jersey Regiment of Volunteer Infantry.  Montgomery advanced to Brigadier General following the First Battle of Bull Run.

One of the officers serving under Captain James G. S. Snelling in 1851 was First Lieutenant George Pickett (1825-1875).  Virginian by birth, he began pre-law studies with Andrew Johnson, an uncle, in Quincy, Illinois, but at the age of 17, he obtained an appointment to the USMA at West Point.  Pickett was appointed to West Point by Congressman John T. Stuart, a friend of his uncle’s and the law partner of Abraham Lincoln.

At West Point, George Pickett was popular among fellow cadets but had no interest in academics beyond doing the least amount of work necessary to graduate.  He had no ambitions toward class standing, and as a result of this lackluster performance, George Pickett graduated last of 59 students in the class of 1846.

In January 1851, George Pickett married Sally Harrison Minge, the great-great grandniece of President William Henry Harrison and the great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  In November 1851, Sally died during childbirth — at Fort Gates, Texas.

Not long after the opening of Fort Gates, dozens of families from Milam County relocated to the area surrounding the fort.  The fort’s presence significantly decreased the number of hostile Indian raids in the area, its intended mission.  Having accomplished that mission, the Army transferred the garrison to Fort Phantom Hill in 1852.  A small caretaker staff maintained the fort until February 1853.

A Time of Remembrance 

In 1853, Mr. O. T. Tyler, an early settler near Fort Gates, petitioned the Texas House of Representatives to establish a new county.  Governor Elisha M. Pease signed the legislation on 4 February 1854, creating Coryell County, Texas — named in honor of Texas Ranger James Coryell (1803-1837).  Whether Mr. Tyler knew Jim Coryell is unknown.  Fort Gates became the Coryell County seat since renamed Gatesville.

Jim Coryell was the son of Lewis and Sarah Voshall Coryell.  At around the age of 18, Jim left home and migrated to Texas.  He resided in San Antonio in 1831 and joined the expedition of James Bowie to the San Saba region in search of silver mines.  Afterward, Coryell made his way to the Robertson Colony in 1834.  He made his home with the Cavitt family near Sarahville/Fort Milam.[7]  In 1835, James accompanied the Leon River country with Cavitt and applied for a land grant in the area that is now Fort Hood, Texas.  In 1836, Coryell enlisted as a private in the Texas Ranger company under Captain Sterling C. Robertson.  Later that year, he transferred to Captain Thomas H. Barron’s ranger militia to protect settlers in Sarahville.

In 1837, Jim Coryell and rangers Ezra Webb and Michael Castleman hunted for honey when attacked by several Caddo Indians.[8]  The best thing to do under those circumstances was “hightail it,” which is what Webb and Castleman did.  Coryell, who was in poor health and unable to run, was punctured with arrows and scalped.  A few hours later, a party of men from the fort returned to the site and found Coryell badly wounded, though still alive.  He died from his wounds two days later and was laid to rest nearby.  No one in the rescue party thought to record the exact location of the grave.  The Fort Milam Ranger Company disbanded in 1837.  

In 1853, Churchill Jones established a plantation near old Sarahville and established a cemetery for his slaves, called Bull Hill — about a mile or so northwest of the old settlement.  The Jones plantation eventually declined, but many of his emancipated slaves remained in the area and continued to use Bull Hill as their final resting place.  The graveyard finally closed.  By the 1960s, many tombstones had weathered away, and no one quite knew who was buried where.  In 2006, Churchill Jones III sold the property to Summerlee Foundation of Dallas.  Jones informed the new owner, John Crain, of the old graveyard but couldn’t say where it was.  Crain invited the Texas Historical Commission to conduct an archaeological investigation.  From the oral history of Mr. Ned Broadus, a former slave, the THC learned of Bull Hill’s location and a grave “said to belong to Mr. Jim Coryell.”

With the assistance of the Smithsonian Institution, THC located and excavated the James Coryell gravesite.  A forensic examination of the remains revealed an individual who had been wounded by an arrow, scalped, and whose head wound had been bandaged in cotton with a tobacco poultice.  The body was an adult male, 35-40 years of age, who stood 5’5” tall.  Investigators claimed in 2019 that they had found the body of Texas Ranger James Coryell, 182 years after his death.

My last home in Texas was 31 miles southwest of Old Fort Gates on Texas Route 116 in a small town named Copperas Cove, established in 1870, eleven miles due west of Killeen.

Sources:

  1. Bauer, K. J.  The Mexican War, 1846-1848.  University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  2. Borneman, W. R.  Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.  Random House, 2008.
  3. Crimmins, M. L.  The First Line of Army Posts was Established in West Texas in 1849.  West Texas Historical Association, 1943.
  4. Gordon, L. J.  General George Edward Pickett in Life and Legend.  University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  5. Hyman, C., and Toni S. Turner: James Coryell, 1803-1837.  Handbook of Texas, 1952, 2020
  6. McKinley, S. B.  Old Rough and Ready: The Life and Times of Zachary Taylor. Vanguard Press, 1946.
  7. Morgan, R. J.  A Whig Embattled: The Presidency Under John Tyler.  University of Nebraska Press, 1954.
  8. Scott, Z.  Fort Gates, Texas.  Handbook of Texas, 1952, 2019.
  9. Warner, E. J.  Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders.  Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

Endnotes

[1] Columbus, of course, was looking for a shorter, more direct route to Asia.  When he arrived off the coast of Hispaniola, he thought he’d found it.  When he returned to Spain, therefore, Señor Columbus had no clear idea about where he’d been, nor of what he’d discovered.

[2] The sequestration of the Spanish royal family by Napoleon Bonaparte and the abdications of Bayonne gave rise to rise to liberalism throughout the Spanish Empire; Mexico’s revolution was but one of several in the Americas.

[3] The Treaty of Velasco designated the southern border of Texas at the “Rio Grande del Norte.”  In Texian speak, that meant the modern-day Rio Grande.  But Mexico didn’t call it the Rio Grande — they called it the Rio Bravo.  To Mexicans, Rio Grande del Norte was the Nueces River.  The land between these two river systems was called the Nueces Strip.  When Congress approved the annexation of Texas, there was no mention of the southern border, but President Polk claimed the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo as the southern border of Texas.

[4] John Slidell (1793-1871) was an American politician, lawyer, and businessman.  He was a native of New York but moved to Louisiana and served as the New Orleans district attorney, state representative, member of the House of Representatives, and US minister to Mexico.  He was afterward elected to the US Senate from Louisiana and served as a pro-Union moderate.  Slidell resigned from the senate at the beginning of the Civil War.  As an appointed diplomat to France representing the Confederacy, he, and fellow Confederate diplomat James M. Mason (Virginia), were taken into captivity by the US Navy from the British ship RMS Trent and held at Fort Warren, in Boston.  Lincoln subsequently offered an apology to the British for having assailed a British flagged ship and released Slidell and Mason … thus averting a war with Great Britain in 1861. 

[5] A resaca (channel) is a type of oxbow lake found in southern Cameron County, Texas.  They are former naturally formed channels of the Rio Grande having no inlet or outlet.   

[6] William Gates (1788-1868) graduated first in his class of eleven at the USMA in 1801.  He was a veteran of the War of 1812, Seminole Wars, the Mexican/American War, and the American Civil War.  He outlived his son by 19 years.

[7] Sarahville, also known as Sarahville de Viesca, also known as Bucksnort, is now a ghost town at the falls of the Brazos River four miles southwest of present-day Marlin.  The town, named after Sterling C. Robertson’s mother and Agustin de Viesca, a governor of Coahuila y Tejas, was established in 1834, abandoned in 1837.

[8] The Europeans were but one in a long line of interlopers in Caddo traditional territory, pushed westward by stronger Indian tribes.  Their “new” territories included present-day East Texas, Arkansas, western Louisiana, and southeastern Oklahoma.  Given their history, the Caddo traditionally challenged any “foreigner” in their homeland.


About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Antebellum Period, British Colonies, Civil War, Colonial America, History, Indian Territory, Mexican American War, New France, New Spain, Pioneers, Revolution, Texas, Texas Rangers, Westward Expansion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Old Texas Fort

  1. Andy says:

    Thanks Mustang for another excellent essay, broad in nature well-written.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Informative and readable as always.

    Like

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