The Flats: Texas’s First Boom Town

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

The Flats:Texas's
First Boom Town

Shackelford County, Texas

| Clear Fork | Flats | Fort Davis | Fort Griffin
Picture of Visitors to the Flats
Reynolds Company Cowboys, Frequent Visitors at the Flats
From the book, A Texas Frontier, by Ty Cashion

The following is from the book, The Frontier World of Fort Griffin, The Life and Death of a Western Town, by Charles Robinson III.

It was only natural for people to settle under the protection of the army. But it wasn't until the Indians had been permanently subdued that the town of Fort Griffin really got moving. With the plains cleared of hostile tribes, buffalo hunters were free to slaughter the great southern herd which blanketed west Texas. These people and their supporting cast-hunt outfitters, gamblers, saloonkeepers and ladies of easy virtue-were the first real settlers in Fort Griffin. They occupied a flat stretch of ground about half a mile wide, between the fort on Government Hill and the Clear Fork. Consequently, the town of Fort Griffin came to be known as the Flat. It was also called Hide Town, since the main industry was buffalo hides.

As the buffalo were hunted out, the cowboys came. The Great Western Trail ran through Fort Griffin and straight upcountry to Dodge City. For awhile, this ramshackle collection of tents and shacks on the Clear Fork was the transit center for Texas, threatening even Fort Worth.

Picture of Tonkawa Chief
Tonkawa Chief
From the book, Panhandle Pilgrimage,
by Pauline Durrett and R.L. Robertson

From Ty Cashion's book, A Texas Frontier:

In June 1872, at an aborted peace conference near old Fort Cobb, Indian Territory, Plains Indians condemned the slaughter then taking place in Kansas. They also complained bitterly of being confined to reservations so their enemies would be safe in the tribes; former homeland. Ten Bears wryly suggested that since the government had so little success in moving the Indians, perhaps it should try "moving the Texans."

[Henry E. Alvord Report, in the "Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, H. Exec. Doc. 1, 42d Cong., 3d sess., serial set 1560, p. 389; Nye, Carbine and Lance , 135.]

...Then, shortly after 1870, technology transformed the bison into a valuable commercial resource. According to Kansas hunter J. Wright Mooar, an English firm hoping to develop a practical tanning process had requisitioned five hundred bison hides for its experiment. The plainsman proposed to a partner, Jim White, that they consign their own samples to his brother John Mooar in New York City. The perplexed commission firm that received the hides forwarded them to a storage facility amid much fanfare; as the noisome shipment plied through a curious crowd on Broadway, two venturesome Philadelphia tanners intercepted the hides. On both sides of the Atlantic leather workers soon conducted successful experiments; shortly afterward several firms announced they would purchase the commodity in volume. The big hunt had hardly begun when New England gunmakers facilitated the slaughter by providing hunters with a large-caliber rifle, the Sharps "Big 50." Out of its long, octagon-shaped barrel the twelve-to-sixteen pound gun hurled a .50-caliber lead slug from brass shells containing 110 grains of powder. A competent marksman, Mooar asserted, could fell stands of bison from "incredible distances."

[James Winford Hunt, ed., "Buffalo Days: The Chronicle of an Old Buffalo Hunter, J. Wright Mooar," Holland's: The Magazine of the South 52 (Jan. 1933): 13, 24; Don Biggers, Buffalo Guns and Barbed Wire, 8-11; Robert L. Moore, "Fort Griffin and the Buffalo Sharps," The American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin, No. 52 (April 1985).]

...As herds on the great middle range neared extinction, hunters looked for new fields. The most promising territory lay beyond the No Man's Land that formed the Oklahoma Panhandle, but the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 had designated it off limits to whites. But according to Mooar, he and another man in July 1873 crossed "the neutral strip" into the Texas Panhandle, where they encountered "a solid herd as far as we could see." All day "they opened up before us and came together again behind us." Although excited over the discovery, Kansas hunters remained apprehensive, fearing that soldiers at Fort Dodge might confiscate their teams for violating the treaty. But when Mooar, at the head of a small delegation, met with Colonel Dodge, the commander reportedly satisfied their queries by declaring, "Boys, if I were a buffalo hunter, I would hunt buffalo where the buffalo are." Texas, never a party to the Medicine Lodge Treaty, extended its blessings to the Kansans with alacrity. By the end of the year hunters and skinners were hard at work on the Southern High Plains of West Texas, creeping ever closer to the Clear Fork country.

[J. Wright Mooar, "The First Buffalo Hunting in the Panhandle," WTHAY 6 (1930): 109-11; Hunt, ed., "The Second Chapter of the Chronicle of J. Wright Mooar," Holland's, 52 (Feb. 1933): 10,44.]

...Plains Indians looked upon the slaughter with horror and resolved to turn back the whites. During the middle of 1874, however, General Philip Sheridan received authority from the Department of the Interior to "punish these Indians wherever they might be found, even to following them upon their reservations." The new policy followed the moral bankruptcy of the Grant administration. No longer could Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano sustain his peace policy against the incessant hue and cry of settlers in Texas and other states and territories contending with hostile Indians.

["Report of the Secretary of War," H. Exec. Doc. 1, 43d Cong. 2d sess., serial set 1635, pp. 28, 40.]

...Once again, during 1881 and 1882, the bison provided a final resource rush. This time, however, it was not for the hides, tongues, and meat, but for the bones that had lain bleaching in the sun for half a decade. Fertilizer plants ground them into bone meal; refineries extracted the calcium phosphate to decolor sugar; manufacturers used the ash to produce bone china; and factories used the firmest remains to fashion buttons. Even before hunters had completed the slaughter, men had freighted bones to San Antonio and Dodge City. Seldom afterward did ranch hands go to market for supplies without hauling a load.

...In January 1882, Robson noted that every day "there are ten to fifteen wagons in town loaded with bones, all bound for the railroad." end Cashion

Picture of a Wagon Crossing the Clear Fork River Just Below the Flat
Wagon Crossing the Clear Fork River Just Below the Flat
From the book, A Texas Frontier, by Ty Cashion

As the buffalo were hunted out, the cowboys came. The Great Western Trail ran through Fort Griffin and straight upcountry to Dodge City. For awhile, this ramshackle collection of tents and shacks on the Clear Fork was the transit center for Texas, threatening even Fort Worth.

Fort Griffin Drawing
Fort Griffin, late 1870s, showing both the military post and the Flat. The large compound in the right foreground is Frank Conrad's emporium. Edgar Rye woodcut, courtesy Old Jail Art Center and Archive, Albany Texas.

    The Flat ran day and night. Having a full-time population of a few hundred, offset by several thousand transient parasites, it was no place for a tenderfoot, or a man who couldn't handle himself. Nothing has yet equaled the biblical Sodom, but Fort Griffin certainly tried. If you were slick with cards or fast with a gun, the Flat was the Promised Land.

    Picture of Dude Nance at Fort Griffin
    Local Merchant, "Dutch" Nance "turns dude" for a shot at a Griffin gallery.
    From the book, A Texas Frontier, by Ty Cashion

    This kind of environment was bound to produce some kind of side effect, generally permanent for the person affected. The trees along the Clear Fork were good and solid, strong enough to support two hundred pounds or so of dead weight at the end of a rope. And according to the old newspaper accounts, the trees were often decorated with former citizens and transients. The Clear Fork itself was sufficient to sink a body, and by the time it was found, it was so badly decomposed it couldn't be recognized. When a body doesn't have a name, there is no motive, and consequently, no suspect. The plains surrounding Griffin were wide and lonely and hid their share of secrets as well.

    Picture of Dutch Nance Standing at his Cabin with a Tonkawa Indian Scount
    "Dutch" Nance Poses Beside His Picket-Cabin at the Flat
    While a Tonkawa Indian Peers around the corner.
    From the book, A Texas Frontier, by Ty Cashion

The following excerpt is from the book, Along the Texas Forts Trail by B.W. Aston and Donathan Taylor:

The town of Fort Griffin quickly grew up around the fort and became a thriving trade center, with a reputation for crime and vice not altogether undeserved. During a period of twelve years thirty-five men were publicly killed there. The historian Carl Coke Rister wrote that "the revolver settled more differences than the judge," and added that straight shooting could promote long life more than fresh air and sunshine.

Business was generally good. Buffalo hunters, rich at least for a few hours after their arrival in town, made good customers. Cowboys and cattlemen found an oasis in the Bee Hive Saloon. ("In this hive we are All Alive; good whiskey makes us funny..."). Some visited other establishments that appealed to them.

In 1876 two major events happened to Fort Griffin. The first was the arrival from Fort Richardson of Lottie Deno, riding on top of the stage with the driver. Lottie took up residence in a Clear Fork shanty. An air of mystery developed about her, as she was seldom seen except when she visited the stores for supplies, or at night when she played cards at the Bee Hive or presided over the gambling room night after night. Her seclusion had everyone speculating. Some said she was kept by a prominent married saloon keeper. One day twenty-two-year-old Johnnie Golden arrived in Griffin. As the story goes Lottie fell for him and broke off her relationship with the salon keeper. Shortly afterward Johnnie was arrested for horse stealing, but he never made it to the jail as a mob took him from the officers and killed him. Some say the saloon keeper paid $250 to dispose of Johnnie. Whatever the case, Lottie soon left Griffin, leaving the people as puzzled about her as they had been before. (Rister 1956, 135–138)

After a while they went to the little shanty where she lived and broke in to discover an elegant collection of expensive furniture and letters indicating that she had a daughter whom she secretly supported, being brought up in Boston Society.

    Tonkawa Charley

Most of the tribes contributed warriors to scout for Ross' corps including Caddos and various Wichitas and even Southern Comanche. Whether it was because they were effective opponents or their reputed taste for human flesh, the tribe that most offended the Northern Comanche were the Tonkawas. Sometime after their arrival in Indian territory, an effort was made to exterminate them. The remainders, including Tonkawa Charley, escaped back across the Red River, eventually settling around the Clear Fork of the Brazos near Fort Griffin, and serving as scouts for Mackenzie's Fourth Cavalry in the final phases of the Comanche War. More

Join the discussion

Further reading

Recent Comments