Eagle Pass, Texas
SOURCE: Viento Fronterizo/Border Wind, Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico - Ano 1 / No. 3 / Diciembre / 1994
"The town of Eagle Pass owes its existence to the establishment of Fort Duncan in 1849." Thus began the article in the Eagle Pass News Guide almost 50 years ago. Founded as part of a line of five frontier military outposts, Fort Duncan came into being March 27, 1849 at a site previously selected by Captain Robert E. Lee, so the story goes. It was Captain Sidney Burbank and companies A and F of the First Infantry, fresh from their founding of Fort Inge on the Leona River near present Uvalde two weeks previous who arrived at the Rio Grande.
The Maverick County area was probably traversed by more early Spanish explorers and settlers than was any other section of Texas, says respected Eagle Pass historian Ben E. Pingenot thus adding weight to the Spanish Colonial Era influence in both history and architecture. In 1665 Fernando Azcue led a punitive expedition from Monterrey pursuing Indians into this unexplored region. In 1675, the Fernando del Bosque-Juan Larios expedition crossed the Rio Grande near Monclova Viejo, between present Normandy and Quemado. Dorothy Ostrom Worrell says Eagle Pass got its name, from the ford below town known for many years previous to Indian and Spaniard as "Pass of the Eagle." Jesse Sumpter, Eagle Pass first soldier-citizen, states in the memoirs that for long years after he came here in 1849, an eagle's nest could still be seen in a huge old pecan tree where Rio Escondido empties into the Rio Grande.
When Captain Sydney Burbank and his men marched into the area on the Rio Grande March 27, 1849, they were actually coming to the place called "Camp near Eagle Pass" or "camp on the Rio Grande" according to Rosella R. Sellers work, "History of Fort Duncan." On November 14, 1849, the name of the post was changed to Fort Duncan to honor Colonel James Duncan, Inspector General, U. S. Army. When Brevet Lt. Colonel W. G. Freeman inspected Fort Duncan on July 27, 1853, he wrote that "from information furnished to me I am inclined to think that a better site for the post than the present one would be some 30 miles below where the Presidio road crossed the Rio Grande. This would bring the post about midway between Forts McIntosh and Clark, from which it is not distant 110 and 40 miles respectively, and nearly opposite the Mexican town of Presidio containing some 1,200 inhabitants. "This appears to be the Presidio del Notre, and the town present day Guerrero.
Prominent San Antonio banker Frederick Gross obtained the contract for building supplies to Fort Duncan in 1849, and imported seventy reliable Mexican families for freighters. This then formed the nucleus for the town's growth as a community, and many present day citizens trace their family lines back to those pioneer colonists. The 150 year celebration of that monumental series of events is scheduled to take place in 1999.
On the opposite bank, in 1850, Villa Herrera was built on the Rio Bravo. The town's name was switched to Porfirio Diaz in 1890, but changed following the demise of the dictator to Piedras Negras.
During 1850-51 numerous trains of Americans in covered wagons passed through Eagle Pass to Mazatlan, bound for the gold fields of California. Come of the forty niners crossed at Paso del Aguila but most camped just north of Fort Duncan's main gate because of the protection afforded. Dubbed "California Camp," the bustling array of tents and wagons soon rivaled the older Paso del Aguila settlement below the fort. Their southern route through Mexico passed through Parras and on to Mexico's west coast where the forty niners boarded seagoing vessels for the trip to San Francisco.
The first buildings erected at Fort Duncan, Colonel Matthew W. Crimmins wrote in the "Frontier Times" in 1938, were the Commissary Store House and the Hospital, and then the Commanding officer's quarters, which was the last house at the western end of the officer's line.
Jesse Sumpter, Griff Jones and William Stone are traditionally recognized to be the first three Anglo-American citizens of Eagle Pass. Not surprisingly. they were stationed at Fort Duncan with the first detachment of troops. Mrs Worrell says, and all remained in Eagle Pass after they were mustered out, and established families. Jesse Sumpter's unpublished record of his reminiscences has been used as source material by many students of frontier life in Texas. William Stone became the first Maverick county judge, elected in 1875.
The U. S. Civil War period in eagle Pass was quite unique. Of the 83 votes cast at the outbreak of the Civil War, three favored secession and eighty opposed it. The three who voted for secession were William Stone, Jeff Malby and J. W. Light.
"There were four men especially marked by the Confederates as being strong Union sympathizers, "Jesse Sumpter wrote. "Alex Oswald (who kept a hotel where the Dolch Hotel now (1915) stands, Charles Groos (brother of Frederick Groos the San Antonio banker) Green Vann and myself." Sumpter narrowly escaped being murdered on one occasion. Oswald was not so fortunate, according to Ms. Worrell's 1949 article in the Eagle Pass News Guide.
Eagle Pass became tremendously important to the confederacy during this period, since it was the only port open for the export of the Confederacy's cotton, due to the federal blockade of the southern seaports. It was the chief source of income of the Southern cause. "At one time in 1864," wrote the collector of Customs here, "the whole river bottom from the bank of the river to the edge of the town was covered with cotton." Fort Duncan was said to be the last Confederate outpost to surrender to the Union.
After the Civil War, when Union troops again reoccupied Fort Duncan in 1868, "the building were found in very bad condition," wrote Colonel Matthew L. Crimmins in the Frontier Times in 1938, "all windows, doors and portable property had been carried off or destroyed." But the problem of marauding Indians persisted. "The redskins were so adept at covering their tracks," wrote Rosella Sellers, "that regular army scouts could not trail them. Almost in desperation, the command at Fort Duncan asked for, and received permission to induct Seminole Negro Indians from Nacimiento Mexico into the United States army as scouts. On august 16, 1870 they were first enlisted as a body. By 1872, eighty Seminole Negro Indians lived there (Fort Duncan) and furnished scouts for our punitive expeditions against the Lipans, Kickapoos, Comanches and Apaches, under Lieutenant John L. Bullis and others."
Parras-based Francisco Maderi in 1910 launched a revolution to unseat Mexican President Porfirio Diaz. Madero entered Mexico where he joined with other conspirators to form and organize an attack on Ciudad Porfirio Diaz (Piedras Negras). Although Madero's initial November 19 effort was a failure, he was ultimately successful as Diaz was overthrown the following spring. but the revolution continued for nearly ten bloody years. By 1916, the fighting had spread until the entire border was aflame, and Fort Duncan suddenly became a garrison with 16,000 troops. Warring factions threatened Piedras Negras several times, and hundreds of Mexican refugees fled to the United States.
With the United States entry into World War I, Fort Duncan continued as a military installation and training camp. After 1920, however, only caretaker detachments were assigned to the post, and according to a News Guide 1938 article, was abandoned in 1912. By 1938, the U. S. government sold the 155 acre Fort to the City of Eagle Pass for recreational purposes.
Those old Fort Duncan buildings harbor many never-to-be-forgotten memories of early day Eagle Pass. They betoken the time when the morning sun was greeted by the martial flare of the bugle, the roar of the cannon salute, and the raising of the Stars and Stripes. Their walls resounded to the thud of marching troops, the clatter of wagon trains, the sharp commands of the officers. They saw Robert E. Lee riding on his big white horse, and General John J. Pershing sweep by in his glistening automobile. They saw Indians, frontiermen, Seminole scouts, gamblers and cattle thieves, some taking their last march before the firing squad. Indeed, Fort Duncan can truly be termed, "The Mother of Eagle Pass."