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Historic site helps visitors interpret complicated past

Ft. Davis.jpg

Try to imagine this place as it must have looked more than a 100 years ago. This was Fort Davis, one of several outposts scattered along the Western Frontier. Soldiers huddled into way stations like these to protect settlers and merchants.

“It was originally established to protect the San Antonio to El Paso road, which was one of the major routes from east to west across the U.S.," said Barney Riley, superintendent of Fort Davis National Historic Site. “Prior to the railroad, everything came out there on a wagon, you know, freight wagons.”

The Fort Davis story starts in 1854, when soldiers from the 8th Infantry served here. When the Civil War broke out, and Texas seceded from the Union, the federal government abandoned Fort Davis. It was occupied briefly by Confederate soldiers.

“When the confederates get here it is abandoned," said Sebastian Flores, a park ranger. "The buildings were vacant.”

According to Flores, many of the buildings have been restored to capture life as it was then.

“You’re looking at what the troops at what the troops were actually looking at," Flores said. "This landscape hasn’t change for 150 years since the troops were actually stationed here. That’s what gives Fort Davis its ambiance.”

After the Confederacy was defeated, the fort was rebuilt in 1867. The new site included these stately buildings for officers. Some of the interiors are decorated exactly as they once were.

“And it really shows you the high-class Victorian society that officers lived," said Flores.

At one point, Fort Davis had more than 100 structures and was home to more than 400 troops. It was also home to the famed Buffalo Soldiers.

“You see the adobe bricks," said Flores. "Those are the original adobe bricks that soldiers themselves actually constructed to build this fort.”

The fort, the town and the county are all named after Jefferson Davis, who would go on to be the president of the Confederacy. Statues and monuments to Davis have become something of a sore subject with many as of late. The park service says the name comes from a time when Davis worked for the U.S. government.

“It’s never named Fort Davis because of the Confederacy," said Flores. "It was always Fort Davis because Jefferson Davis was the Secretary of War during 1854 when they first established it. It just ironically enough that it did become a confederate fort for a brief period.”

Riley added: “Typically, if we get any questions about the Civil War they’re typically surrounding why don’t you tell more of the Civil War story. We’re a Civil War fort so therefore we don’t have much of a story to tell. And we can’t interpret whole timeline really well so we pick a piece and we focus on that piece. And we focus on the Buffalo Soldiers.”

As for the fort, it was abandoned by the military in 1891, after it was deemed of no use. As for the park service taking over the fort, it became a National Historic Site in 1961 and today it serves as a teaching tool - a tangible reminder of a complicated history, for both this place and this country.

“There are other examples of Western forts out there," said Riley. "However this one has the most fabric left of any of the Western forts.”

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