Before the military post of Fort Stockton was established, Comanche Springs, the source of Comanche Creek, had long been a source of water for the Native Americans. It was first documented by white men in 1849 when U.S. Army Captain William Henry Chase Whiting, leading a reconnaissance party, reached the springs and was described as an Indian campground on the Comanche Trail to Chihuahua, Mexico.
When the U.S. Army wanted to establish a fort in the area, Comanche Springs provided an ideal site for its abundant water. First called Camp Stockton; the post was established in 1859 to protect the many travelers along the area trails, including the Comanche Trail, San Antonio-El Paso Road, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and the San Antonio-Chihuahua freight-wagon road.
The post was named for Robert Field Stockton, a United States naval commodore notable in the capture of California during the Mexican-American War. The camp was first built by troops of the 1st and 8th Infantry at a site southwest of the present location, near Fort Stockton’s present Courthouse. When it was complete, it was first garrisoned by Company H of the First U.S. Infantry.
When the Civil War broke out, U.S. troops were withdrawn from the post, and Confederates briefly occupied it until they also withdrew. By the end of the Civil War, little remained of the first post. In July 1867, Colonel Edward Hatch, Commander of the 9th Cavalry, re-established Fort Stockton at its present location, about ½ miles northeast of the former camp. The new fort, designed to be much larger and stand more permanently, was re-established by four Companies of the 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Encompassing 960 acres of leased property, the troops would construct some 35 buildings, one of the first was a guardhouse, completed in 1868. Two of the buildings were constructed of limestone, while the rest were built of adobe.
When the 9th Cavalry was moved to New Mexico in 1875, Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s 10th Cavalry took over the duties of protecting the westward migration and trade routes. Between 1867 and 1886, 87% of all the soldiers garrisoned at Fort Stockton were Buffalo Soldiers, who surmounted harsh living conditions, low pay, and racial prejudice while also gaining a reputation for tenacity and bravery, playing a significant role in the settlement and development of America’s western frontier. The fort also provided employment and revenue for freighters, laborers, farmers, stockmen, and merchants during this period.
The settlement that grew up around the fort would also eventually take on the name of Fort Stockton, but not in the beginning. As the new post was being built, several settlers came to the area. Still, it wouldn’t be until several San Antonio entrepreneurs were convinced that water from Comanche Springs, nearby Leon Springs, and the Pecos River could be used for irrigation would begin to grow. The investors purchased large tracts of land for agricultural development, and in 1868, another investor named Peter Gallagher bought the land on which Fort Stockton and Comanche Springs were located. Gallagher then platted 160 acres for a townsite that he named Saint Gaul. He also established two stores at Comanche Springs and purchased more property along Comanche Creek.
By 1870, the area population was about 420 residents, most of whom had come from San Antonio. At this time, farmers were using water from the Pecos River for irrigation, and the land utilized for farming was about 7,000 acres. When Pecos County was organized the following year, Saint Gaul became the county seat. By 1875, about 1,100 people were living in the county. The name Saint Gaul was never popular with the residents, and on August 13, 1881, it was changed officially to Fort Stockton.
After the threat of Indian attacks was over, the military post of Fort Stockton was closed on June 30, 1886, and left abandoned. The closure of the fort and being bypassed by both the Texas and Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroads caused an immediate slump in the area to lost trade and employment.
The city of Fort Stockton, like other frontier towns of Texas, would not be immune to violence. In 1889, in walked a newcomer who would make quite a name for himself over the next several years. Most often called A.J., Andrew Jackson Royal moved his family to Pecos County after he was reportedly accused of murder in Junction, Texas. Establishing a ranch and running the Gray Mule Saloon, Royal was said to have killed one of his employees after getting into a dispute.
Despite a reputation as a quick-tempered, quarrelsome, and intimidating man, he was elected as Pecos County Sheriff in 1892. During his two-year tenure, Royal, along with the infamous deputy, Barney Riggs, aggressively intimidated community citizens. As his re-election neared in the fall of 1894, an all-out war almost began between political rivals. Royal lost re-election in October and was assassinated a few weeks later. However, his deputy, Riggs, stayed in the area, killing two men in Pecos in 1896, before he, in turn, was killed by a family member in 1902.
However, by the turn of the century, the town had mainly settled down, and the population was increasing due to cattle and sheep ranching. 1926, the opening of the nearby Yates Oil Field brought on an economic boom for Fort Stockton and several area towns.
In 1936, a county bathhouse, a swimming pool, and a pavilion were constructed at Comanche Springs by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). However, by 1861, the springs had ceased flowing due to irrigation, and numerous wells had been dug in the area. Today, the spring flows only intermittently. A historical marker designates the site. The park is located southwest of the historic fort.
Tourism and discoveries of petroleum and natural gas helped the economy in the area in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 the largest gas field in the county was opened on the M.C. Puckett and Son Ranch, south of Fort Stockton. Tourism was boosted in 1956 when U.S. 290 linked Fort Stockton to the Big Bend National Park.
In the 1980s, the economy of Pecos County continued to be based on farming, ranching, oil and gas production, and tourism, and the town was called home to almost 9,000 people.
Today, Fort Stockton continues to be the county seat of Pecos County, though, because of the decline in oil production, its population has dropped to about 7,800 people.
At the historic fort, only four of the original buildings remain, including three of the eight Officers’ Quarters and the guardhouse. However, several other buildings have been rebuilt, and the site also includes enlisted men’s barracks, officer’s row, and a museum and visitor’s center. Listed on the National Register of Historic Sites, the fort is located on the east side of town at 301 East 3rd Street.
The city has several historic sites. A driving tour guides visitors to 16 points of interest, including the Historic District; the Annie Riggs Museum, housed in a turn-of-the-century adobe hotel; the 1912 Pecos County Courthouse, 1883 Jail, the old fort cemetery, and more. Be sure to stop at the world’s largest roadrunner — Paisano Pete, a 22-foot long statue on Main Street, for a great photo opportunity.
Fort Stockton Chamber of Commerce
1000 Railroad Avenue
P O Box C
Fort Stockton, Texas 79735
Historic Fort Stockton
300 East Third Street
Fort Stockton, Texas 79735
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
A.J. Royal – One Bad Pecos County Sheriff