Fort Belknap was founded in the summer of 1851 by Brig. Gen William Belknap, then commander of the Department of Texas, to provide support for the settlers against the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. It also served to protect traditionally friendly tribes like the Tonkowa against attacks from settlers and other area tribes. Belknap was also a waypoint on the Butterfield Overland Stage line that carried the United States Mail for a few years. It was the northern outpost in a string of forts established from the Rio Grande to the south to the Red River to the north. Located in Young County, it served the area for about 8 years.
It was named for General William Goldsmith Belknap. He and his guide Captain Randoph B. Marcy had originally selected another site some two miles north, but abandoned it in favor of the current location when the first attempted well dug by Fifth Infantry troopers under Captain Carter Littlepage Stevenson failed to find water after reaching a depth of sixty feet. Belknap and Marcy then selected a second site at the current location where water was later found. General Persifor Frazer Smith, commandant of the Eighth Military District, approved the new site and ordered that construction begin in 1851. General Belknap had taken ill in the meantime and died about 180 miles away while on a military excursion. It is unlikely that he ever saw the completed complex, located about a mile east of the Red Fork of the Brazos River.
General Belknap was born in New York in 1794. He served in the United States Army as a lieutenant in the War of 1812 and was wounded at Fort Erie in 1814. Belknap was promoted to the rank of captain of the Third Infantry in 1822 and major of the Eighth Infantry in 1842. He served under General Zachary Taylor and was noted for his gallantry in a battle of Rescala de la Palma and Palo Alto in the Mexica-American War. He continued to serve with distinction and is noted as having been decorated for his valor in the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847, after which he was brevited to the rank of brigadier general. He was posted as commandant of Fort Gibson in Indian Territory, now near Muskogee, Oklahoma from 1848 until the summer of 1851.
William Goldsmith Belknap and his wife Ann Clark were also the parents of another United States Army general with a similar name. Their son William Worth Belknap was a former secretary of war of the United States. The younger Belknap received his education at Georgetown University. He had practiced law in Iowa for a time where he was elected to the state legislature. At the outset of the Civil War, William Worth Belknap entered the Army as a major and fought in the battles of Vicksburg under General Ulysses S. Grant, later serving under William Tecumseh Sherman in his well known march to the sea. He was promoted to the rank of major general in 1865 and continued to serve in the Army until 1869 until he was appointed secretary of war by then President U. S. Grant. However, the younger Belknap resigned in the face of a scandal in which he was accused of having received part of the money paid by a government employee for having been appointed as post trader at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma. Impeachment hearings were held in 1876 after which the younger Belknap was acquited. The vote resulted with a majority voting for impeachment but less than the two thirds majority required for conviction. William Worth Belknap had previously resigned when impeachment proceedings were announced and largely dropped out of public view after the hearnings. He is later mentioned in newspaper reports having been found dead of unknown causes in 1890.
At one time, it was the largest compound in Texas and a town had sprung up around the fort. Within two years, Belknap served as the headquarters for the Fifth Infantry, had a band and a library. Captain Marcy was still posted there by 1854 and the presense of the fort seemed to stabilize relations between the tribes and the settlers. Some reservations were established for the tribes. There were fewer incidents at first, but it was not to last. In the late 1850s, hostilities began to increase due to incidents aggravated by both sides. The Indian Agent, Robert S. Neighbors, was assassinated on the streets of the town of Fort Belknap. A white settler was suspected of the crime, but the suspect was found dead before he could be tried, thought to be a victim of friends of the deceased agent. United States Army troops were withdrawn prior to the Civil War to be reassembled at or near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for the Civil War effort. The troop withdrawal is thought to have led directly to the increase in Indian attacks on the settlers in the months prior to the Civil War.
The Confederate Army and Texas Rangers also occupied Belknap for a short time. Rather than engaging Union troops, the Confederates served essentially as a frontier battalion engating the Indians and defending the area against the Comanche, Kiowa and Kickapoo attacks. The exact dates of the Confederate occupation are presently unknown, but they eventually abandoned it it themselves. It was again briefly used by Federal troops after the Civil War for five months in 1867, but by then the post had largely fallen into disrepair. All the federal troops were finally withdrawn in favor of more southern outposts such as Fort Griffin.
Federal troops garrisoned there included the Fifth Infantry under successors to Gen. Belknap, the Seventh Infantry, the Second U.S. Dragoons, the Second Cavalry, and the Sixth Cavalry. It’s maximum capacity was around four companies. There were a number of buildings once the fort was completed, but over the years following the U.S. Army use, all but two had either disintegrated in the elements or were dismantled and the materials removed to be used elsewhere. Some of the initial restoration occurred around the time of the Texas Centennial in 1936 and was funded by government grants. Unlike some other forts, Belknap had no high fixed fortifications, likely because it was used to stage attacks against tribes rather than to be used strictly as a defensive outpost. Over the years, the two surviving buildings were restored and many additional buildings were constructed on the foundations of the original structures, using as much of the original stonework as possible. Now over a half dozen buildings are standing on the grounds of the old fort and the location has been designated as a United States Historic Site.
The town of Newcastle, Texas grew up around the fort, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on November 3, 1951. Governor Allan Shivers spoke at the centennial ceremony, sponsored by the Fort Belknap Society, and the festivities were attended by former Texas state senator Ben G. Oneal and former Governor James V. Allred.
General Belknap himself had once written that he was skeptical that the area would develop much growth and commerce due to a lack plentiful ground water and local timber for construction. He doubted that white settlements would spring up in the forseeable future due to these deficiencies, and yet the area eventually developed a strong agricultural base.
The restored fort is quite scenic and includes a covered arbor for large gatherings, nearby camp sites and picnic areas. Approximately 15 acres of the once much larger compound are operated as a county park. Fort Belknap Park is located about two miles south of Newcastle in Young County. This Graham, Texas website shows the days and times it is open, generally year round. Admission is free.
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