The forts of America varied in type, from military posts to fortresses established by fur trading companies to private enterprises built solely to protect the pioneers within.
When we think of forts, we often imagine a high stockade-type wall of sharpened logs surrounding several buildings. Inside these walls were hardy pioneers and soldiers, valiantly defending themselves from hostile Indians on the outside. Western films have perpetuated this idea, and sometimes forts were built in a stockade-type manner. However, the purpose and style of forts varied widely, and this “typical” scenario was the exception rather than the rule.
However, many forts were erected long before the American West, or even the United States, began. The Spanish erected presidios in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana; in the southwest in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; and along the Pacific Coast in California.
These early forts were seldom solidly constructed stockades with numerous permanent buildings. Sometimes, they were little more than a couple of blockhouses and were temporary. Traders constructed other types of fortifications, and early settlers protected their businesses and homes.
Contrary to the myths perpetuated by western films, most military forts of the American West were not established to protect the settlers from Indians; instead, they were built to maintain peace among the tribes and between Native Americans and white emigrants.
As more and more settlers moved west in the 19th century, Army posts were established based on anticipated use, sometimes to keep the Indian tribes from waging war with each other and, at other times, to keep white settlers from encroaching upon native lands.
It was generally only when white settlers insisted on encroaching upon native lands, especially during the many gold and silver rushes, that the Indians retaliated. Only then did the forts’ primary purpose change to protecting the settlers. As westward expansion continued, threatening the Indian’s livelihood, the war between the whites and Indians intensified, resulting in the push of Native Americans onto reservations. Once the Indians were placed on reservations, some forts served as Indian agencies and distribution points for annuities given to tribes under treaty agreements.
When the many trails began to open, such as the Santa Fe Trail in the 1820s and the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, traders and pioneers often met with opposition from the tribes and road agents interested in relieving them of their money or their goods. In response, more forts were established to protect commerce along the trails.
When establishing a new fort, the soldiers would sometimes occupy existing buildings, but more often, they were required to construct the new fort from materials available in the area. In forested areas, wood was usually used, adobe in the desert, and stone, where available. The typical frontier fort consisted of officers’ quarters, barracks, stables, storehouses, and headquarters buildings, grouped around a central parade ground. Most forts did not have walls surrounding them because attacks were generally unlikely.
Many army posts were referred to as “camps” when only a few people were assigned to the location or when the site was temporary. To be considered a “fort,” a full contingent of troops had to be permanently assigned to it. The U.S. Army utilized both forts and camps during the Frontier Campaigns.
Reacting to the quickly changing needs of the vast west, the Army would set up a post and then abandon it when no longer needed.
Though the original intent was not to establish military forts to fight the Indian Wars, this changed when the U.S. government failed to protect tribal territorial rights and uphold treaties. Increasingly upset with treaty violations and travelers, settlers, and railroad crews encroaching on their lands, the Indians were retaliating in full force by the mid-1800s
As a result, the U.S. Government began a series of frontier campaigns to “tame” the Indians, force them onto reservations, and convert them to “civilized” life.
Life was difficult and often monotonous for the soldier at these many frontier outposts. Most recruits saw little or no combat and spent their time doing manual labor. Many forts were so isolated there were no nearby towns for single enlisted men to relieve the monotony or meet women. The typical “dull existence” of frontier life was too much for many troops, and desertion rates were high.
Today, many of these forts have been preserved, restored, or rebuilt as monuments to our heritage and can still be seen as museums and national or state parks.