Fort Davis, at the eastern base of the Davis Mountains, was founded in response to War Department interest in a route through the Southwest with available water. It was established by order of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1854 on Limpia Creek, on land leased from John James, a San Antonio surveyor. The army post guarded the Trans-Pecos segment of the southern route to California as the key member of a line of forts reaching from San Antonio to El Paso, and played a significant role in the defense and development of West Texas. In its history thirteen regiments were headquartered at Fort Davis, including nine infantry and four cavalry.
Westward expansion to the Pacific was assured with the end of the Mexican War in 1848, when a vast territory comprising the present states of New Mexico, Arizona, and California was added to the United States, and with the discovery of gold in California in 1849. Thousands of migrants and, later, mail and freight wagons avoiding the snows and mountainous terrain of northerly routes pushed their way west over southern trails. The San Antonio-El Paso road was an important part of the most southern of these routes. Indian trails leading southward to Mexico intersected the El Paso road, however, and Apache and Comanche raiders preyed on travelers until the Civil War. By 1854 military authorities found it necessary to construct a fort in West Texas.
In October 1854 Bvt. Gen. Persifor F. Smith, commanding the Department of Texas, personally selected the site of Fort Davis for its "pure water and salubrious climate." Smith named the post after Jefferson Davis. Six companies of the Eighth United States Infantry under Lt. Col. Washington Seawell, ordered to build and garrison the post, arrived at Painted Comanche Camp on Limpia Creek on October 7 of that year.
With the beginning of the Civil War, United States troops evacuated Fort Davis under orders from Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs, commander of the Eighth United States Military District, and were quickly replaced by Col. John R. Baylor's Confederate cavalry forces in April 1861. Confederate troops occupied the post for almost a year, then retreated to San Antonio after failing to take New Mexico. For the next five years Fort Davis lay abandoned, and Indians used the wood from its buildings for fuel.
Federal troops, led by Lt. Col. Wesley Merritt, reoccupied Fort Davis in June 1867 and began construction of a new post. By the mid-1880s Fort Davis was a major installation with quarters for more than 600 men and more than sixty adobe and stone structures. From 1867 to 1885 the post was garrisoned primarily by units composed of White officers and Black enlisted men of the Ninth and Tenth United States Cavalry regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth United States Infantry regiments, who compiled a notable record of military achievements against the Apaches and Comanches.
In September 1879 Apache chief Victorio and Mescalero Apache warriors began a series of attacks in the area west of Fort Davis. Col. Benjamin H. Grierson led troops from Fort Davis and other posts against the raiders. After several hard-fought engagements, Victorio retreated to Mexico, where he and many of his followers were killed in a battle with Mexican troops in October 1880. After the Victorio campaign, life at Fort Davis settled into a quiet routine, and large numbers of cattlemen moved into the area. The soldiers were kept busy drilling on the parade ground, patrolling the surrounding area, and repairing roads and telegraph lines. The military usefulness of Fort Davis had come to an end, however, and the post was ordered abandoned in 1891. See also FORT DAVIS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE.