Updated: Jun 20, 2019
Fort Elliott was the United States Army outpost in the eastern Texas Panhandle from 1875 to 1890. Though never involved in a major military engagement, it helped transform the Panhandle from Indian hunting territory into a settlement area. Troops from Fort Elliott patrolled the borders of Indian Territory to the east, policed cattle drives headed north to Kansas railroad depots, and in other ways protected and encouraged settlement of the region.
In 1874 the army undertook a major offensive to clear the Panhandle of Indians after a Cheyenne attack on a camp of white buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls. In December 1874 Col. Nelson A. Miles decided to establish an advance supply post for his forces from Camp Supply on the North Fork of the Red River. It was to be near a point where troops led by Lt. Col. George P. Buell had found a good campsite in September. By late January 1875 the camp was provisioned and garrisoned by 422 officers and men of the Fifth Infantry and Sixth Cavalry under the command of Maj. James Biddle. Within a month the Panhandle campaign ended, but the army ordered Biddle to select a site for a permanent post from which surveillance of the western boundary of Indian Territory could be maintained. He chose a low plateau overlooking Sweetwater Creek, twenty-seven miles west of the 100th meridian. Maj. H. C. Bankhead confirmed the choice in May when he relieved Biddle with 263 men of the Fourth United States Cavalry and Nineteenth Infantry. The new site was occupied in June. At first known simply as Cantonment on the Sweetwater, the post was renamed Fort Elliott the following February, in honor of Maj. Joel A. Elliott, who had died at the battle of the Washita.
Construction of permanent facilities began in July 1875. Stables, storehouses, and the guardhouse were built with cottonwood posts, adobe, and thatch available locally, but for more substantial buildings lumber had to be brought by wagon from Dodge City, 196 miles to the north. The post commander's residence, six sets of officers' quarters, five company barracks, a twelve-bed hospital, the post headquarters, and a combined chapel and school, all one-story frame buildings on stone foundations, were erected by 1878. There was little additional construction, although the headquarters was replaced after it burned in 1879 in the post's only serious fire. Enclosing the post within a stockade was not considered necessary.
Except during its first months, when more than 400 troops were stationed there, Fort Elliott's strength was normally slightly fewer than 200 men. After 1883 a company of forty Indian scouts was also stationed at the post. In 1879 a company of the black Tenth United States Cavalry was assigned to the garrison, and between 1880 and 1888 other black units, companies of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry and Ninth United States Cavalry, served there. From November 1881 until February 1884 all of Fort Elliott's troops were black. The commissioned officers were all white, however, with the exception of Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point.
Troops from Fort Elliott patrolled both the Panhandle and western Indian Territory. Their main task was to stop small hunting parties of Indians from entering the Panhandle, but on several occasions during the late 1870s they pursued bands seeking to escape the reservation. By the mid-1880s the garrison's attention had shifted to policing the range cattle industry, keeping Panhandle stock off the reservation, and supervising southern Texas herds being driven north through Indian land.
The fort provided for the Panhandle not only security but also economic stimulation. Under its protection, numerous large ranches were quickly established, and by 1880 nearly 300,000 cattle grazed the Panhandle. Settlement was clustered near Fort Elliott. Civilians were employed in the fort's construction and thereafter as teamsters or skilled laborers. Post supplies were, whenever possible, purchased locally. Sweetwater City, a buffalo hide dealer's trading post one mile from the fort, grew into Mobeetie, with a population of 150 by 1880. Wheeler County, in which the post office stood, was the first among the twenty-five Panhandle counties to have a large enough population to organize its own government, and for several years it administered the other counties as well. The census of 1880 showed 512 of the Panhandle's 1,379 residents in Wheeler County.
In 1887, when the first railroad to enter the Panhandle bypassed Fort Elliott eighteen miles to the north and provided a new source of security and prosperity, the fort's central role in the region's growth ended. In 1890 the army decided to close the fort, and an outbreak of typhoid that summer speeded its abandonment. On October 2 most of the garrison departed, and on the twentieth the fort was formally closed. In the next sixteen years the Interior Department sold the buildings and land. Little remains today of the post that helped transform the Panhandle from a frontier into a settled region.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Q. Anderson, "Fort Elliott, Texas, Last Guard of the Plains Indians," Texas Military History 2 (November 1962). David E. Kyvig, "Policing the Panhandle: Fort Elliott, Texas, 1875–1890," Red River Valley Historical Review 1 (1974). James M. Oswald, "History of Fort Elliot," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 32 (1959).
Handbook of Texas Online, David E. Kyvig, "FORT ELLIOTT," accessed April 24, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qbf18.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.