Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria
Camp Cooper was established as an army outpost attached to the Comanche reservation. All other tribes were on the lower reservation to which Fort Belknap was attached. This was a particularly important post to be designated as a camp which explains why Robert E. Lee was given command there during the 1850s.
Ruins of house at Camp Cooper. The post, established in 1856, was situated on a bend of the Clear Fork near the heart of the Upper Reserve. The site is now on private land. Photo by Bob Stiba.
Ty Cashion covers Camp Cooper's development in A Texas Frontier.
Herder John G. Irwin, John Chadbourne's father, secured a contract-signed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee himself-to supply beef. He even dropped roots, building a house close to the river where he had found a large spring. Tennessee farmer Hugh Harper, lured west by a Peters Colony grant, abandoned his plow for a job as post sutler at Cooper. Such a position was potentially lucrative; sutlers not only outfitted the soldiers, but also were prepared to supply westering pioneers as the area grew. Harper's business, if not brisk, nevertheless enabled him to hire a clerk-a Polish man- with whom he shared his residence. The families of a few officers were also among his customers. The women, besides lending an air of domesticity to the garrison, added a measure of diversity to this male-dominated society.
Robert E. Lee
Life on the Clear Fork, however, was unceasingly austere and often harsh. In an 1856 letter to his wife, Lee complained that the atmosphere was "like the blast from a hot-air furnace," adding that "our hopes for a few cabbage-plants and roasting ears have passed away." The next year he reported that the temperature had climbed to 112 degrees "in the Hospital Tent, the coolest place we have."
Lee nevertheless believed that his place held a unique promise for future settlers. Perhaps he also realized the high price in human lives that would ensue from imprinting an Anglo society at this place. Twice he officiated at funeral services for the young sons of his men, victims of heatstroke.
...Passing from the Salt Fork to the Clear Fork of the Brazos on one of his explorations., Captain Marcy called the change in the land "almost magical." In a day's ride he found "all that is rude, barren, and uninteresting in nature, in close proximity to that which is most pleasing and beautiful." Rainfall in this section normally sufficed to sustain cattle. It also did not evaporate so quickly as in areas farther west, so streams flowed longer and the tall gramma and buffalo grasses grew more lushly. The region's nearness to places such as Weatherford and Fort Worth appealed to immigrants who saw the potential for stock raising.
The first to pursue this endeavor was an unlikely rancher, a Hoosier with no background to prepare him for herding on the open range. Newton Curd Givens, of the U.S. 2d Dragoons, served at each of the three antebellum frontier posts in Northwest Texas. Commissioned a lieutenant in the Mexican War, he was among the first federal officers sent to the Texas frontier and was the last commander at Old Phantom Hill.
...When the army sent Givens to Camp Cooper, he executed a grander design. In 1855 he had purchased land along Walnut Creek, which flowed into the Clear Fork about seven miles west of the military encampment. Within three years, along the picturesque banks of this intermittent stream, arose his Stone Ranch, consisting of a house, an auxiliary building, a five-foot-tall fence enclosing about half an acre, another three-foot-tall corral, and a spring house-all built of native stone. The "dog-run" style of the unusually high-walled main house-that is, two units separated by a hallway with a roof over both-belied its majesty for such a desolate place. All the stone was finely masoned, and double doors enclosed the open hallway in the winter. On Army freight wagons came materials that detailed the house on every side: large windows north and south, chimneys east and west, and a transom over every door. Even the outbuilding was finer than any other structure within a day's ride.
After the Civil War the army built Fort Griffin to assume the duties once delegated to Fort Phantom Hill and Camp Cooper. About this time, the Reynolds brothers moved their headquarters into the Stone Ranch. More
John Chadbourne Irwin earned his middle name by being the first child born in Fort Chadbourne. In his old age, standing by the old forge from Camp Cooper, which has been shot full of holes by buffalo hunters. 1930s photo from Ben O. Grant, Early History of Shackelford County. Courtesy Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, and Dean Lawrence Clayton.
The following story is from the book, Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman, by J. Evetts Haley.
"Jack" Baylor, as the frontier knew the belligerent old Colonel, was in charge of two hundred and fifty men who set out in January, 1861. With grim facetiousness, the frontier alluded to them as 'buffalo hunters.' They left in high spirits, Baylor leading them westward to strike the Pease, apparently in his search of the trail Goodnight had discovered a month before. His horses suffered severely in the alkali country, and soon were drawn 'gaunt as hounds' from crossing a hundred miles of range eaten clean by buffaloes. Tom Stockton, scout and guide, did not go to the old camp and take the trail from there, but cut southwestward toward the head of the Colorado. Most of the buffaloes were farther south, and the wily Indians farther north. The expedition, hungry and half afoot, straggled back down the Wichita and into the settlements, where the 'buffalo hunt' was reported upon by Baylor, the 'Colonel, Commanding Anti-Base Line Rangers.'
There was one hero for even this story of utter failure. Upon this scout went Isaac Lynn, the breeder of good horses, but walking, as usual, and burning with lust for a terrible vengeance upon the murderers of the Masons. He carried his rifle across his shoulder, walked to the source of the Pease and scouted the butts of the Plains to the breaks of the Colorado, never mounted even to ford the icy streams. Horses played out and were left behind, and men half-starved upon scant rations of buffalo meat, but old man Lynn, spurred by consuming bitterness, hunted with a zeal born of blood and nurtured by hate, and walked back to his ranch on the Keechi, apparently none the worse for several hundred miles of starving and scouting. In that day of horses and horsemen he was deserving of scalps.
U.S. General David Twiggs surrendered all United States military posts to the Texas Commission of Public Safety
In the meantime the Union was broken. The Secession Convention met at Austin on January 28, and almost at once General Twiggs surrendered Federal posts, arms, and munitions in Texas.
Upon his surrender the military situation immediately passed into the hands of three colonels designated by the Convention, 'Old Rip' Ford, Ben McCulloch, and his brother, Henry E. McCulloch. The frontier was divided into three sectors, the first of which, on the south, was assigned to Ford, the second, extending from near Fort Duncan north to Fort Chadbourne, went to Ben McCulloch, and the northern district, extending to Red River, was placed under his brother. Later, the middle and northern districts were combined under Henry McCulloch, who had already taken charge of Camps Colorado and Cooper.
McCulloch placed Buck Barry and forty men at Camp Cooper, and authorized a patrol of a hundred men between there and Red River. The Secession Convention authorized each of the thirty-seven frontier counties to organize companies of not more than forty Minute Men, with patrols in constant action, while L.P. Walker, Confederate Secretary of War, commissioned Ben McCulloch to raise a regiment of mounted men. He passed the charge on to his brother, and companies of mounted volunteers were organized and sent to posts at Camp Colorado, Fort Chadbourne, and Camp Cooper.
The following is from the book, Lambshead Before Interwoven, by Frances Mayhugh Holden.
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