FORT LEATON. Fort Leaton (Old Fortin, El Fortín, Fortin) is on Farm Road 170 five miles southeast of Presidio in southern Presidio County. The fort sits on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande and what has been called the Chihuahua Trail. Fort Leaton was listed as the first seat of Presidio County in 1850. It was the private citadel of a Chihuahua Trail freighter and the first Anglo-American farmer in Presidio County, Ben Leaton. Leaton built on the ruins of a Spanish fort founded in 1773 and known as El Fortín de San José at La Junta. After El Fortín was abandoned in 1810, the structure stood unoccupied until Juan Bustillos took it as his home in 1830. By August 1848 Leaton had bought El Fortín from Bustillos and established Fort Leaton as his home, trading post, and private fort. During that month an expedition led by John C. (Jack) Hays to find a practicable road from San Antonio to Chihuahua via El Paso spent ten days at Fort Leaton.
The fort was built in an L-shape with the long side running east and west for 200 feet, parallel to the river. The measurement across the base of the structure was 140 feet. The walls were made of adobe bricks, eighteen inches long, five inches thick, and twelve inches wide. By laying the bricks crosswise, the builders made the walls eighteen inches thick. A stockade for animals was made at the base of the L. Large doors allowed teams and wagons to drive inside the structure. A crenellated parapet surrounded the rooms and fortified the structure.
Because of its desolate location and the constant threat of Indian attack, Fort Leaton offered much-needed frontier defense. The private bastion was the only fortification on the American side of the Rio Grande between Eagle Pass and El Paso before and during the building of Fort Davis (Jeff Davis County), and the United States Army made Fort Leaton its unofficial headquarters. Even after the completion of Fort Davis, eighty miles to the north, the army used the private fort as an outpost for military patrols. Military maps of the 1850s listed Fort Leaton along with official army posts.
There is no record of any Indian attack on Fort Leaton. The reason may be found in an accusation made by the Mexican inspector for the military colonies at El Paso del Norte, Emilio Langberg, who accused Leaton of trading guns to Indians for horses they had stolen in Mexico. Such illegal trading with the Indians might have gained him their favor and protected his fort from attack. Before any legal charges could be brought against him, Leaton died in 1851.
Leaton's farm, with eight to ten American workers and a gravity irrigation ditch, produced vegetables, wheat, and livestock to supply the fort's inhabitants and needy travelers. At his death his widow faced large debts. Eventually, the fort was acquired by John Burgess, who had held the mortgage. Burgess lived there until Leaton's son Bill killed him in 1875. The fort then fell into disuse. In 1934 and 1935 some restoration work was completed there under a government project. In 1967 the state acquired a five-acre tract around the old fort, and the partially restored structure became Fort Leaton State Historic Site.
Leavitt Corning, Jr., Baronial Forts of the Big Bend (Austin: Trinity University Press, 1967). Virginia Madison and Hallie Stillwell, How Come It's Called That? Place Names in the Big Bend Country (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1958). Elton Miles, Tales of the Big Bend (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535–1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985).