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Family Life at the Forts

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Texas History Features

 

Frontier forts, despite their primitive environments and military purposes, were not exclusively male enclaves. A surprising number of women and children shared forts with the U.S. Army's troops.

Some women were wives of officers or enlisted men. The officers' households often included female servants: governesses, housekeepers, maids and cooks. The military also employed laundresses, and a few post hospitals hired female nurses when male stewards were in short supply. This is a glimpse of these women's lives on the Texas frontier.

Some army officers who were posted to Texas, believing that frontier life would be intolerable to their gently bred Eastern wives, left their families behind. But some army wives with a strong sense of duty – or those who were ignorant of what awaited them – packed up households, children, servants and pets and headed southwest, following their husbands from post to post, determined to create as comfortable a home for their families as possible.

Alice Grierson
Alice Grierson accompanied her husband to Ft. Concho and Ft. Davis. National Park Service.

Before railroads arrived in the southwest, getting to her husband's post was the army wife's first challenge. From the late 1840s to the Civil War, the best route to Texas from the East was by ship to New Orleans and by wagon or coach from there to the fort. Stagecoaches were uncomfortable and were tempting targets for bandits. One of the most popular conveyances was called an ambulance: a two-wheeled light carriage pulled by two or four mules. One soldier's wife had her rocking chair fastened to the floor of the ambulance, traveling to her husband's post sitting in the back of the wagon amid her belongings. Others preferred to travel in a heavier, roomier four-wheeled Studebaker wagon, about 10 feet long and three-and-a-half feet wide.

Those traveling across Texas in summer were often roused from sleep to start their day's journey by 2 a.m. so they could avoid the heat of the day. At night, travelers were often forced to sleep in tents on the bare ground. When rains came, wagons bogged down in the mud and travelers risked flash floods.

The Environment

The environment that awaited army families varied greatly. In letters to her family, Helen Chapman, wife of the first quartermaster of Fort Brown, described houses in Brownsville and neighboring Matamoros as being shaded by pomegranates, lemons, oranges, figs and oleanders, with mesquite, acacia and ebony trees growing wild. She assured her mother, "You must remember there are other posts far worse and that he might have been ordered to Santa Fe, Oregon or California."

Forts Croghan (Burnet), Martin Scott (Fredericksburg), Graham (west of Hillsboro) and Bliss (El Paso) won praise from army wives for their pleasantness and beauty. Winters at forts Duncan (Eagle Pass) and McIntosh (Laredo) were mild, but summers were blistering, with the temperature sometimes hitting 107 degrees in the shade. Ringgold Barracks (Rio Grande City) was also miserably hot, while Fort Davis was mild and pleasant in summer. At Fort Concho in 1868, hail beat down every tent, stampeded the horses and left two inches of ice covering the parade ground.

The post surgeon at Fort McKavett (near Menard) reported that the area's animal life included gray wolves, coyotes, bears, deer, jackrabbits and wild horses, along with rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, tarantulas and centipedes. Frontier families learned to shake out bedding before "hitting the sack." Fleas often caused more distress than snakes, however, for which fort residents used the old frontier remedy of putting a tin of water under each leg of the bed before retiring.

Housing

At the forts, families found a great diversity of housing. At times they were greeted with tents, in which they lived until other housing was built.

Picket houses were often used as a transition between tents and permanent structures. Picket construction involved digging a rectangular ditch one to two feet deep along the perimeter of the building. A large post was upended in the trench at each corner of the house. Smaller wooden posts were set upright between them, with their lower ends in the trench (rather than horizontal, as in a traditional log house). Wood salvaged from packing crates was fashioned into window and door frames, and spaces between the logs were chinked with wood chips, mud and lime. Roofs of canvas and straw were anchored to wooden frames laid across the tops of the walls.

Since the picket houses were intended only as temporary housing, they were rarely maintained. However, they were commonly used well past the time when they should have been replaced. As the green logs dried, they shrank and the chinking fell out, allowing rain and snow to pour through the cracks.

At Fort Richardson in 1871, housing was so scarce that officer Robert G. Carter fitted together a complex of tents at the east end of officer's row for himself and his bride. A norther arrived in November 1872 while his wife was giving birth to their first child; soldiers had to hold down the guy ropes and picket pins to keep the tent from blowing away.

After the Civil War, forts Richardson, Lancaster, McKavett, and probably Fort Griffin used Turnley Portable Cottages while awaiting permanent buildings. Invented by Quartermaster Parmenas Taylor Turnley, this early day manufactured housing could be transported on army wagons and erected in about four hours by three men. The structures came in two sizes: small, which could house two officers, and large, for use as barracks, hospital or storehouse; both had canvas roofs and came complete with locks, keys, sashes and blinds.

Commanding officers' quarters had up to six rooms, porches front and back, and a kitchen, which was often separate from the house because of the threat of fire. Other officers' families commonly were allowed two rooms plus a kitchen; single officers had one room each.

Forts were usually laid out with a central parade ground, with officers' quarters along one side and enlisted men's barracks on the other. Married enlisted men's and laundresses' tents, jacales, or picket houses were usually stuck away in the least desirable area of the fort, commonly called "Suds Row" or "Sudsville," and other structures, such as the commissary, hospital, bakery, powder magazine, carpenter's shed, smithy and stables were scattered around the post.

Food

Foods available to men and their families were as variable as the housing. Alice Grierson, whose husband, Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, was the commanding officer at Fort Concho and Fort Davis, lamented the lack of fresh eggs, milk and vegetables, while Helen Chapman at Fort Brown spoke glowingly of her varied diet of "game, beef, vegetables, tea, butter and good bread." In mid-winter one year, she bought radishes, cabbages, carrots, lettuce and green peas from local farmers. Up river at Ringgold Barracks, supply boats couldn't operate on the Rio Grande when the river was low, so military families had to make do with the commissary's moldy flour and rancid pork. The most isolated posts subsisted on beef, bacon, bread, coffee, dried potatoes and beans. The bread was often made from only flour, salt and water. At posts with settlers living nearby, army wives could sometimes buy eggs, fresh milk and chickens.

Gardening was tried at some posts. It failed miserably at forts Duncan and Clark. At Fort McKavett in the 1870s, troops laid out a garden, irrigated it from the San Saba River, and produced onions, beets, cabbage, radishes, corn, lettuce, squash, parsley, turnips, okra, cucumbers, string beans, peas, tomatoes, melons and pumpkins. Gardening efforts at Fort Davis yielded similar bounty.

Health

Post hospitals served the families of the troops and often were the only medical service available to civilians in surrounding settlements and on neighboring ranches. At various times, the forts were subject to epidemics of diarrhea, constipation, dysentery and cholera. Typhoid fever killed Alice Grierson's 13-year-old daughter Edith while the family lived at Fort Concho. At Fort Brown, Helen Chapman reported cases of yellow fever and cholera in 1849 and dengue fever in 1850. Regimental surgeons commonly treated cases of snakebite, scurvy, common cold, bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia and tuberculosis – and the ever-present venereal diseases.

THE WOMEN'S DAILY LIVES

Officers' Wives

The commanding officer's wife functioned as post hostess, as moral standard-bearer, and often as a "den mother" and sympathetic ear for the younger officers and sometimes enlisted men, as well. They and other officers' wives led efforts to set up schools and church services, organized dances and planned entertainments. In a letter home, Helen Chapman expressed her awareness of the value of feminine presence at the frontier forts: "Ladies with all their faults, do certainly exercise a most favorable influence over men in softening their natures, preserving their gentlemanly habits and checking their excesses." However, Alice Grierson grew tired of the responsibility of housing, feeding and entertaining visitors and newly arrived officers' families while coping with frequent pregnancies and caring for her growing family.

Servants

Household help was scarce and unreliable. Female servants brought from the East often returned home after getting a taste of the isolation and boredom of frontier life. Others found husbands among the troops and quit domestic service. Helen Chapman for a time employed a 12-year-old Irish orphan, who worked a full day around the house and sewed in her spare time.

Ft. Davis hospital
The hospital and stewards quarters at Ft. Davis in the 1880s.

Nurses

Because of a shortage of male stewards for the hospitals, some medical officers hired women nurses for the forts' hospitals. In the 1840s and '50s, female nurses could not live among a garrison of men at frontier forts without being considered morally loose, but women nurses gained acceptance during the Civil War. The forts' nurses helped doctors with the patients, cleaned the facilities and washed the hospital's linen.

Laundresses

The army hired three or four laundresses per company to do laundry on a piece-work basis. The army furnished lodging and food; each soldier paid the laundress for her services. Typical of army laundresses were those at Fort Duncan between 1850 and 1860: All were foreign-born, hailing from Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and Mexico. Many were wives of enlisted men. The black units – the Buffalo Soldiers – generally had black laundresses. Despite a shortage of soap, they apparently did a good job of cleaning garments on rocks or scrubboards in rivers or creeks. A hardworking laundress could earn between $30 to $40 per month (compared to $16 per month paid to an enlisted man). Some laundresses worked as prostitutes to earn extra money, which prompted the assistant surgeon at Ringgold Barracks to suggest that troops wash their own clothes, since half the patients in his hospital were there because of venereal diseases transmitted by the laundresses.

Schools

If a teacher was not available in the fort, mothers often taught their own children. Sometimes subscription schools were set up, with each family paying part of the teacher's salary, or the chaplain might teach school in addition to his pastoral duties. Classes were not limited to children: Some teachers also held classes for soldiers, many of whom were illiterate. At Fort Concho in 1879, Chaplain Dunbar was holding one class for white children, one for black children (37 children in all), and a third for 55 soldiers. At Fort Griffin, children from neighboring ranches attended classes at the post with the army children. Some officers sent their children away to boarding schools when they were old enough.

Nearby Settlements

Shortly after the establishment of nearly every fort, a civilian settlement sprang up beside it. At the larger posts, this town sometimes included legitimate businesses that served not only the fort's residents, but also the surrounding civilian population: hardware stores, general stores, and the like. But many businesses, drawn to army posts like leeches to blood, were there simply to part the soldiers from their pay: saloons, gambling dens, seedy dance halls and brothels. Particularly large and rough was "The Flat," the town that developed between Fort Griffin and the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Its customer base was broader than at other forts because it included not only the fort's residents, but also, in the 1870s and '80s, bison hunters and cowboys coming through with cattle drives. Although a town's general store often could supply wares that army wives could not find at the post sutler's store, most women would not venture into town without a male escort.

Entertainment

Any excuse was used for a diversion: holidays, birthdays or no reason at all. Many forts had post bands that played daily mini-concerts and for weekly or semi-weekly post dances. Dances were also held to celebrate weddings and to welcome newly arrived officers. Fort Richardson had a glee club as well as a post band, the Jolly Blues, that played for post dances and for civilian events in Jacksboro.

Men and their wives, with children in tow, went on hunting or fishing excursions, which were often overnight or two-day trips in wagons packed with picnic hampers, tents, and other equipment and driven by servants or enlisted men. Picnics and, in Central Texas, pecan-gathering trips were popular one-day expeditions.

Many posts had libraries, but they varied greatly in quality and quantity of reading material. The library at Fort Richardson contained 500 books in 1869; when the post closed nine years later, it boasted more than 1,800 volumes. The Fort Griffin library, by contrast, was started in 1869 with a few volumes donated by the post surgeon: texts on medicine, science, physics, chemistry, pharmacology, and such titles as "Treatise on Diseases of the Ear." Fort Concho had 720 books in 1875, built around classics by such writers as Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. By 1879, it also had subscriptions to daily newspapers from Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville and New York, as well as to 27 magazines, such as Harper's Weekly, Illustrated London News, Scientific American and Atlantic Monthly.

Army families kept a wide assortment of pets, ranging from the usual dogs, cats and ponies to mockingbirds, orioles, a parrot, doves, chickens, prairie dogs, a fawn, a squirrel and a bison calf.

Mail was always welcome. Scheduled to arrive once or twice a week, it was often delayed. Along with letters from family members and friends, officers and their wives sometimes received magazines and catalogs. Alice Grierson made her stay at Fort Concho more tolerable by ordering merchandise from the Altman's and Doyle catalogs.

Some posts had their own newspapers, ranging from the hand-written Little Joker at Fort Belknap, which was passed from person to person, to Fort Richardson's 1869 The Flea, which included advertisements for Jacksboro merchants: J.L. Oldham's store advertised dry goods, groceries, boots, hats, hardware, cutlery, woodware, tinware, "Yankee notions," hosiery, gloves, and "a General Assortment of Goods suited to the necessities of Frontier Life."

Life on the primitive frontier was a rude shock for army wives who had been accustomed to relative comfort. But for the most part they faced their trials with fortitude and good will, attempting to create a happy, safe home for their families. As she departed Ringgold Barracks in the 1850s after coping with hot wind, dust storms, red ants, muddy drinking water and spoiled meat, Teresa Vielé wrote that her stay ended "with as much pain as pleasure. I left behind me warm hearts, and brought with me sweet memories, and new and enlarged views of life as it really is."

— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 2004–2005.

 

 

Texas Almanac

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