FORT WORTH. Fort Worth began life literally as a U.S. Army outpost on the frontier running through Central Texas. Contrary to popular lore, it was never called “Camp Worth.” (That name belonged to the U.S. Army installation at San Antonio.) Fort Worth was the northernmost of a defensive line of posts constructed starting in late 1848 to separate Indians from white settlers. The posts were manned initially by members of the U.S. Second Dragoons regiment. Fort Worth was the fifth of eight forts to be constructed on that defensive line. In May 1849 Brig Gen. William S. Harney, temporarily commanding the Eighth Military Department following the cholera death of Maj. Gen. William Jenkins Worth, ordered Bvt. Maj. Ripley Arnold to take troops north from Fort Graham on the Brazos River and find a suitable site for an outpost on the upper Trinity.
Arnold rode out from Fort Graham on May 15 with a detachment of some twenty troopers of Company F, Second Dragoons, headed north. They stopped at Johnson’s Station (present-day Arlington, Texas) to pick up Middleton Tate Johnson and some other civilians who knew the area well enough to guide them. They rode on for another day to a bluff overlooking the Clear Fork of the Trinity. The site was perfect: an elevated view of the surrounding country, water, timber, and cooling breezes. They raised the flag and took possession of the site on May 18. Then, leaving fifteen men behind, Arnold returned to Fort Graham. He gathered up the rest of his command and headed north once again. Two days later, on June 6, 1849, they rejoined the group left behind. Arnold named the post for their recently-deceased department commander William Jenkins Worth, even though his orders had come from Brigadier General Harney. In all subsequent official correspondence, Ripley Arnold referred to his new station as “Fort Worth,” never Camp Worth. He had forty-three men with him that summer. They established their first camp in the nearby river bottom while they began constructing the post, but the unhealthy atmosphere there (“bad air”) convinced Arnold to move the men to the blufftop.
The site, while bearing the impressive-sounding name Fort Worth, was never intended to be an independent fort so much as an “outpost” of Fort Graham. As such it was manned by a handful of soldiers living in improvised quarters and was always short of both commissioned officers and non-coms. Sometimes, Major Arnold was the only combat officer present, filling commissary and quartermaster duties as well as commanding officer duties. The garrison’s assigned area to patrol was north to Fort Washita on the Red River and south halfway to the Brazos, a total range of about 170 miles. To cover this area Arnold never had more than about forty mounted men. The arrival of occasional replacements barely kept up with sickness, discharges, and desertion. The purpose of the post was to send out regular “scouts” to the north and south, not defend against hostile attack. For that reason, the “fort” had no stockade, merely a rope staking out the perimeter.
The post that went up was made of rough-cut timber hauled out of the river bottom and thrown up jacal-style (palisades) with no foundations and with mud filling in the chinks between the logs. For the first four months, the garrison lived in a mixture of tents and buildings. By the end of the year, however, some structures had been framed out, and most of the men had moved out of tents. They also laid out a parade ground with a cottonwood flagpole in the center.
In the later part of 1849 Major Arnold’s wife Catherine arrived with their children while construction continued on their living quarters. She was the officer’s lady and the only woman at the post not counting an unknown number of laundresses (“camp followers”). The Indians did not pose a serious threat, so fatigue duty and drills occupied the garrison’s time. With few settlers nearby and the only town (Dallas) thirty miles away, the men did not have many pleasures, and it did not help that Arnold was a martinet who could inflict harsh punishments on troublesome soldiers.
Company F of the Eighth Infantry marched in on October 6, 1849, to bring the total garrison up to about ninety men. Arnold remained in overall command of both the dragoons and infantry. For the rest of Fort Worth’s existence, infantry and mounted troops shared garrisoning duties. While the foot soldiers minded the fort, cut wood, and drilled, the dragoons rode “scouts” up and down the frontier. Fort Worth, which could have been in a position of vulnerability, given such a porous frontier, benefitted from the fact that the Comanches and their Kiowa allies did not push that far east. According to local lore, a band of hostile Tonkawa approached in 1851 but did not attack. Another, more fanciful story told years later by longtime resident Howard Peak, says the garrison once drove off a Comanche raid, but that account has even less credibility.
The post began to really take shape in the fall of 1849, driven at least partly by concerns about the approaching winter. The men built barracks, cookhouses, officers’ quarters, and a hospital to go with the existing stables, guardhouse, and storehouses. The stables and corral were purposely situated near the living quarters to discourage horse-stealing, but that arrangement also made the flies and stench almost overpowering at times. They dug a well in order not to be dependent on the river for their fresh water. Before the end of the year Catherine Arnold and the children were able to move into a two-room, framed cabin with a dogtrot connecting the two rooms. On orders from the War Department, the men planted a vegetable garden the following spring. Despite all the improvements, the post was still far from permanent-looking. In 1851 on an inspection tour, Col. Samuel Cooper estimated the whole place, every stick of wood, was not worth more than $4,000. A good strong wind would have blown Fort Worth off the bluff, but the post was never intended to be permanent.
For the next four years, Ripley Arnold, the commanding officer most associated with Fort Worth, was frequently gone and for long stretches at a time, always on orders. Catherine and the children spent the summer months back east to escape the North Texas heat, but during the family’s stay at the post, two of their children, Willis and Sophie, died due to illness and were buried in the post cemetery. When Arnold was gone, command passed to Bvt. Lt. Col. James V. Bomford, infantry; then Maj. Hamilton Merrill, dragoons, late in 1852. Company B, Second Dragoons, came in with Merrill and replaced Company F.
By 1853 the frontier had moved west about a hundred miles, and Fort Worth was no longer needed. Moreover, the place was practically falling down. Everything had been built in haste with green lumber, and upkeep had been minimal. The U. S. government had no interest in sinking money into it. The army lived on the bluff for four years as squatters and never owned clear title to the land. In August, the army ordered the post abandoned; they could not sell what they had never owned. Ripley Arnold had already returned to Fort Graham and never saw Fort Worth again. On September 16, 1853, Major Merrill, leading sixty dragoons, rode out of Fort Worth on the way to Fort Belknap. Nine men stayed behind to close the fort down.
The army was barely out of sight when the locals moved in and took possession of the empty buildings, twenty-four in all; not all of the structures were livable. The three officers’ quarters, the hospital, the barracks, the stables, and the sutler’s store were in the best condition, but even they all had leaky roofs. Besides the buildings, also left behind to mark the army’s four-year stay were the graves of eleven soldiers (along with Arnold’s two children), buried in what became Pioneer’s Rest Cemetery. None had died in hostile action, so they were quickly forgotten. Fort Worth died as it had begun, without fanfare or anything to mark the occasion. Until 1917 a piece of the old parade ground was still empty property, but efforts to preserve it as a memorial park lost out to those who saw only its value as real estate. That last piece of land became the site of the Tarrant County Jail and Criminal Courts building in 1918 (northwest corner of Belknap and Houston streets).
The location of the fort’s parade ground is commemorated by a granite marker with bronze tablet erected by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1921 and located on the southwest corner of the grounds of the Criminal Courts Building (as it was known in 2019). Meanwhile, local historians will always debate the exact location of the fort’s various buildings, because only the roughest sketch of the layout was ever made. Everything else is speculation.
Ray Miller, Ray Miller’s Texas Forts: A History and Guide (Houston: Cordovan, 1985). Clay Perkins, The Fort in Fort Worth (Keller, Texas: Cross-Timbers Heritage Publishing Co., 2001). Richard F. Selcer, The Fort That Became a City: An Illustrated Reconstruction of Fort Worth, Texas, 1849–1853 (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1995). Richard F. Selcer, Fort Worth Characters (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2009). “Texas Writers’ Project, Research Data: Fort Worth and Tarrant County, Texas,” Fort Worth Library Unit, 1941 (Fort Worth Library, Central Branch, Local History, Genealogy & Archives Unit).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Richard F. Selcer, "FORT WORTH," accessed July 12, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qbf54.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on May 13, 2020. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.