Fort in the Road
Alongside U.S. 290, as it shoots through a flat, scrubby spot in the Texas Hill Country a few miles south of Fredericksburg, sits a collection of five old, single-story buildings fronted by a gravel drive.
A stone wall out front announces in modern metal letters that this is Fort Martin Scott, and placards on wooden posts planted in the hard dirt tell the fort’s history, or a version of it. A door to a building at the back of the site hangs open, revealing a 19th-century cannon inside.
From the road, it’s hard to tell that this forlorn patch of ground holds a significant place in Texas history, or that a pitched battle is being fought over it today.
In late September, ground will be broken on the Texas Rangers Heritage Center, a museum and educational complex created by the Former Texas Rangers Foundation to celebrate the history and cultural contributions of the Rangers. The foundation has been fundraising and planning for the center since 2001, first in Kerrville and now in Fredericksburg.
The Rangers, who operated out of Fort Martin Scott from its founding in 1848 through the close of the Civil War, have legendary stature in Texas lore. First established in 1821 by Stephen F. Austin to protect Texas settlers and fight Cherokees and Comanche on the Texas frontier, the Rangers live on today as a special investigative division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
In a strange echo of the Rangers’ adversarial history with Native Americans, the new heritage center will be built on a now-vacant lot next to the fort, a space that until recently hosted Comanche powwows.
I visited Fort Martin Scott in mid-July to meet Randy Rupley, a Fredericksburg native who’d agreed to show me around. Rupley traces his ancestry back to early German settlers in the area and helps organize a loose coalition of Fredericksburg residents called the Fort Martin Scott Museum Association, mostly through the group’s website and Facebook page. He and others involved with the group are dead set against construction of the Rangers Center. Rupley tells me that 15 to 20 members of the Museum Association show up at each Fredericksburg City Council meeting to protest.
Rupley wears his hair in a ponytail tucked under a baseball cap, which features a circle of stick figures holding hands around the words “Treaty of 1847” and a feather. The words “No Broken Ground, No Broken Promises” trace the logo’s outer edge.
The hat refers to the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty between early German settlers and Native Americans at the dawn of white settlement in the area. It also refers to a contemporary disagreement.
Since the mid-1990s, the Chappybitty and Quassycheeky Comanche have annually traveled 400 miles from their homes in Lawton, in Comanche County, Oklahoma—once home to a Comanche reservation—to hold powwows next door to Fort Martin Scott.
In 2010, after a two-year break from staging the powwows, the Comanche families responsible for the events were gearing up for a return to Fredericksburg when the city told them they would no longer be able to hold the powwows on the site. The Former Texas Rangers had signed a lease on the property with the city. Many Comanche, as well as allies such as Rupley, believe that lease violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1847 treaty.
“It’s the same old story,” says Charlotte McCurtain, who I called a few days after my visit. She’s a spokesperson for the Comanche families who hold the powwows. “We’re promised something, and it doesn’t come true,” she says, referring to plans, drawn up in 2002, for a permanent powwow arena on the site. McCurtain says the families moved their powwow from Oklahoma to Fredericksburg in 1997 at great expense in honor of the treaty and the site’s unique history.
For the past few years, the families have held the powwows at privately provided locations in Fredericksburg, but McCurtain says each location is tenuous, and not the same as holding the events at the fort.
The site lies on a historic Comanche route through Texas to Mexico, she tells me. “It’s an important trailway. And we made friends with the Germans along the way,” she says. “They respected us, we respected them. There was an agreement.”
McCurtain says the first Fredericksburg powwow, marking 1997’s 150th anniversary of the treaty, drew about 1,000 people, and the event grew from there. After the first year, the powwows became more popular, drawing thousands of spectators, hundreds of dancers, and up to 150 vendors annually. The events attracted German tourists and representatives from the German consulate in Houston.
The powwows, which celebrate Comanche heritage and culture, are part social gathering and part dance competition, in which dancers are judged on the vibrancy and authenticity of their costumes as well as athleticism.
Casual gourd dances are held in the afternoon. The more competitive social dances are held later in the evening.
“It’s nice for people to see,” McCurtain says. “People develop favorites and competition brings out the best. But there’s a lot of camaraderie too—it’s not just competing.”
Back at the fort, walking the grounds, Rupley speaks quickly, gesturing energetically as if to draw the history he’s relating back onto the landscape.
Some of what he tells me is generally agreed upon by historians; some is controversial. It’s accepted that the Germans settling the area in the mid-1840s were well-educated, liberal-leaning sorts. They were fiercely independent and may have considered creating their own sovereign colony. They quickly befriended the Comanche and Apaches, making lucrative trade agreements.
Somewhat more contested is Rupley’s belief that Fort Martin Scott was built not to protect the Germans, but to control them. Pointing to the cannon stowed away in the dusty back building, Rupley claims that, having just annexed Texas in 1845, the U.S. Army sought to shore up its power in the region by keeping tabs on the Germans and running the Comanche out. There to help the Army, Rupley says, were the Texas Rangers.
That Ranger role constitutes a sharp contrast to the peaceful coexistence the Germans and Comanche had brokered, Rupley tells me. “The powwows celebrate the treaty,” he says. “It’s really important to us locals, and to the Comanche Nation. To anyone who knows about this history, it’s important to preserve the dignity of the only treaty with Native Americans that has never been broken.”
I hear this claim about the treaty’s unbroken status throughout my time in Fredericksburg, from people with a variety of viewpoints. It’s an attractive idea—that Fredericksburg marks an exception to the otherwise tragic and violent history between white settlers and Native Americans. But what exactly the treaty means in modern terms is difficult to pin down, and it depends on whom you talk to.
After getting Rupley’s version of the site’s history, I was eager to hear from the City of Fredericksburg, which owns the property, and from representatives of the Former Texas Rangers Foundation. I headed from the fort to an appointment at City Hall with Juli Bahlinger, Fredericksburg’s communications officer.
I entered the building through a small lobby, where a bronze statue of German settlement leader John O. Meusebach, kneeling to present a peace offering to a sitting Comanche chief, sits on a pedestal. A plaque names the statue “Lasting Friendship.” Other artifacts commemorating the 1847 treaty line the room.
Bahlinger, carrying an armful of neatly organized documents about the fort, meets me in an upstairs conference room along with James McCrae, who sits on both the Fort Martin Scott Committee and the Former Texas Rangers Foundation’s Board of Directors. We’re just settling in when two surprise guests saunter into the room.
One is Bob Bailey, a professional re-enactor of Texas Ranger history.
The other is Grant Gillespie. He’s the great-grandnephew of Robert Addison Gillespie, for whom the county, of which Fredericksburg is the seat, is named. Robert Gillespie was a captain in the Texas Rangers who fought the Comanche in the 1840s before perishing in the war with Mexico.
Both Gillespie and Bailey are excited at the prospect of doing Ranger re-enactments at Fort Martin Scott in conjunction with the Rangers Center. Bailey says he’s been doing such performances for 15 years. “We’re not drugstore cowboys,” he tells me. “We’re very professional.”
He says he and his group are meticulous about accuracy, right down to his impressive, old-style mustache. “Today’s Ranger can’t have facial hair,” he jokes, “but back then, ya kinda had to.”
Re-enactors will be able to teach the history of the fort and draw crowds, Bailey says. “People are always looking for something new when it comes to history. They love history, but they’re scared of history. ‘I don’t know this,’ they say. Well, okay, let us tell ya.”
Educating people about the site’s history is what the Rangers Center will be all about, according to McCrae. He explains that the Fredericksburg facility, unlike the artifact-centric Texas Ranger Museum in Waco, will be highly interactive. Designers for Walt Disney and Universal Studios are involved in developing the exhibits.
“Upon entering, you’ll go into our Legacy Theater, where you’ll be approached by a rider on horseback in holographic form,” he tells me. “The guy will get off his horse and talk to the group. And from then on, it gets better and better as you go through.”
Bahlinger says the city is excited about the project. “Fredericksburg is fast becoming more than an Oktoberfest destination. We have some really important things coming into focus.”
She mentions the Rangers Center, the Museum of the Pacific War, and a culinary institute opening soon. “We’re becoming a place not just to come for a weekend, but a place to spend a week. History is one thing that we’re really well known for. The Rangers Center fits absolutely like a glove with the kind of community we’re proud of being.”
Fredericksburg today exudes a distinctive small-town feel, hanging its economic hat on German heritage tourism. Half a dozen biergartens and German restaurants line the extended downtown strip, alongside shops selling turquoise jewelry and Texas-themed bumper stickers. Historic buildings in a smattering of 19th-century European styles line the town’s broad main street. One building, home to an art gallery, features tall wrought-iron decorative touches on its roof like a rusty crown over the elephant reliefs carved out of its limestone façade.
McCrae agrees with Bahlinger that the center fits perfectly with Fredericksburg’s character. He also says that a Rangers Center could well save the fort by drawing renewed attention to the site, and thus donations for restoration. “We’ll have this wonderful edifice next door, interpreting the history of the Texas Rangers, which is inseparable from the history of the state of Texas—they’re one and the same—which are both inseparable from the history of Fort Martin Scott.”
He says the fort and the Rangers were there to protect both settlers and travelers on the busy road west toward California and the gold rush, functioning as “an early version of the DPS.” It’s a distinctly different narrative from Rupley’s.
Both McCrae and Bahlinger are dismissive of the disagreement over the powwows.
“Back when my kids were little, I used to bring them out to the powwows. They had them for many years, and at one point there was discussion, no promise or anything firm, of making a permanent powwow arena,” Bahlinger tells me. After a couple years of not holding the event, the powwow returned to the city, according to Bahlinger, but the agreement with the Rangers Center had already been signed. “They allege this breaks the treaty,” she tells me. “But there’s nothing in the treaty about providing a powwow arena.”
In Bahlinger’s view, the city recognized the treaty by holding a reaffirmation ceremony with the Comanche Nation in 2011, organized by former Mayor Tom Musselman. The city invited Comanche leaders to Fredericksburg and presented them with a buffalo robe as a sign of peace in a ceremony at the fort.
As for Rupley’s Fort Martin Scott Museum Association, Bahlinger tells me the group is not recognized by the city. “Unfortunately, they have a Facebook page and a website, and we’re just choosing to let that be and not contest anything,” she says. “Because it’s our fort. But we’re not making any issue of it, and going on with our positive plans.”
After the meeting, I wanted clarification about the various versions of the fort’s history I’d heard. I decided to call Joe Luther, a retired history professor who recently published a book about the site titled Fort Martin Scott: Guardian of the Treaty. Calling the fort “an underappreciated part of Texas history,” he tells me the question of why it was built continues to fascinate him.
Like Rupley, Luther believes the fort was intended at least in part to help drive out the Comanche and keep the Germans under close watch. That role extended well beyond the fort’s official decommissioning in 1853, after which it became an especially potent “intimidation factor,” Luther tells me, when it fell under Confederate control during the Civil War.
“By and large, Germans were abolitionists,” he says. “They didn’t want to be sent off to Virginia to fight for the Confederacy.” Under the command of a Confederate Captain named James Duff, rebel soldiers are estimated to have killed hundreds of Germans who refused to pledge loyalty to the Confederacy. Many of the raids were launched from Fort Martin Scott. Aiding the soldiers were “partisan Rangers,” Luther says, i.e., Texas Rangers fighting for the Confederacy.
With that knowledge, it starts to become clearer why some, like Rupley, interested in their German settler ancestry, might take exception to the Rangers Center. It’s an uncomfortable history shared by Comanche and Germans alike. “My feeling, personally, is that Rangers were there to eliminate Comanche,” Charlotte McCurtain tells me. “I have nothing against this bunch, but that history is there.”
Luther acknowledges this history, but says he sees nothing in the 1847 treaty to suggest that the Comanche Nation has any special rights to hold powwows on the disputed lot. Despite the Rangers’ less than savory role in the area, he supports the Center.
McCrae himself acknowledges the sometimes-painful local history, but ultimately sees the Texas Rangers as a force for good, and originators of Texas values. And the early German settlers needed protection, he says.
“Those people were being raided,” he tells me. “And with all deference to modern times, and being sympathetic, those were the times and good people did bad things. And good people were American, Texan, Comanche, and they all did bad things. That’s just the way it is, and that’s history. And we’re going to tell it that way.”
Rupley, McCurtain, and other powwow advocates are determined to tell their version of the fort’s history as well. They’ve scheduled a protest at the site for September 1, a human chain in front of the fort and neighboring field that will demonstrate local resistance to the Rangers Center.
“I hope it stretches from here to downtown,” Rupley tells me.