on-line book icon

table of contents

National Historic Site
NPS logo

First Fort Davis, 1854-61

Lt. Col. Washington Seawell
Lt. Col. Washington Seawell, 8th Infantry, built Fort Davis in 1854 and commanded it for most of the years before 1861.
F. Hairston Seawall, Norfolk, Va.

CONSTRUCTION OF FORT DAVIS began immediately. A scouting party discovered a fine stand of timber in the mountains about 25 miles distant. Colonel Seawell set up a timber camp, and muledrawn wagons hauled pine logs over a rough road to the site of the fort. Here a Page Circular Sawmill powered by 12 mules cut the logs into slabs. A quarry of building stone was opened a mile from the post; but since Seawell hoped to build a permanent fort on another site in the future, very little was used. With no attempt at lasting construction, the buildings rose rapidly.

The troops of the 8th Infantry were first housed in six rude shelters, one for each company, extending in a line across the mouth of the canyon. They were built of oak and cottonwood pickets thatched with grass, and each was 56 by 20 feet. By 1856 six stone barracks with thatched roofs and flagstone floors, each 60 by 20 feet, had been erected in a line immediately to the west. Aside from the stone bakehouse, blacksmith shop, and warehouse, these were the only substantial structures built on the site of the first fort. The original barracks served thereafter as kitchens and messrooms.

The rest of the buildings were scattered at random up the canyon to the west. Built of pine slabs set vertically in the ground, they had plank or packed-earth floors, roofs of thatched grass or canvas, and glazed windows. Officers lived in 11 sets of quarters. The commanding officer enjoyed the luxury of a two-room house with exterior weather boarding. Completing the physical layout were a hospital, the adjutant's office, 13 houses for married soldiers and their families, a stable, sawmill, the sutler's store and "billiard room," storehouses, a corral, a wagonyard, and a woodyard.

By 1857 the slab buildings had deteriorated badly. Installed green, the slabs had warped, shrunk, and rotted. The houses of the officers, testified the post quartermaster, "are altogether very uncomfortable and insufficient quarters." The hospital, held together by wooden pins because the supply of nails had run out, was "in a very rickety condition." The flimsy wooden frames covered with canvas that served as storehouses provided scant protection to supplies when new and in 1857 were about to fall down. In 1858—59 a stone warehouse was erected to provide a measure of relief. One carpenter, sometimes two, were kept constantly occupied repairing the buildings of Fort Davis.

There were compensations, however, for Fort Davis had advantages of scenery and climate that made it the envy of tenants at many other frontier posts. Limpia Creek provided fresh, clear water; for drinking purposes, it was superior to that at the spring east of the fort. The spring provided a good site for the post garden. Its vegetables and melons varied the diet of the garrison and delighted travelers on the sterile road to El Paso and San Antonio.

The main item of food was beef. The troops at 5,000 pounds each month, purchased by contract for 15 cents a pound. Beans at $2.48 a bushel and flour at 12-1/2 cents a pound came from Mexico, although after 1858 Simeon Hart supplied the flour from his mill at El Paso. All other subsistence stores—pork, bacon, coffee, sugar—as well as quartermaster and ordnance supplies were furnished from the military depot at San Antonio. Corn for stock forage was obtained under contract from Mexico and fuel for $6.50 a cord from timber in the Davis Mountains.

Elements of the 8th Infantry occupied Fort Davis throughout the decade of the 1850's, and, except for occasional absences, Colonel Seawell commanded the post for most of this time. He doubtless dreamed of the model fort he hoped one day to build on the prairie east of the canyon. Not until after the approaching Civil War, however, was his dream realized.


top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Fri, Oct 18 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home