Fort Leaton State Historic Site

By: Julia Cauble Smith

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: October 9, 2019

Fort Leaton State Historic Site is on Farm Road 170, the Rio Grande, and what has been called the Chihuahua Trail five miles southeast of Presidio in Presidio County. At various times Fort Leaton was called Old Fortin, El Fortin, and Fortin. Because the area around the fort has been continuously occupied since 1500 B.C., tradition has given it a romantic past. Fort Leaton has been named as the site of both El Apostol Santiago, a Spanish mission established in 1684 and rebuilt in 1773, and as Presidio del Norte de la Junta de los Rios, built in 1760. However, recent archeological investigations at Fort Leaton do not substantiate these claims and set the site's earliest possible human occupation as the 1820s. Indications suggest that the building was used from the 1840s to the 1920s.

The structure, called the largest adobe structure in Texas, was probably built by Juan Bustillos as his home in the 1830s. In August 1848 Ben Leaton, a Chihuahua Trail freighter and the first Anglo-American farmer in Presidio County, bought the property from Bustillos. Leaton established Fort Leaton as his home, trading post, and private fort. It was the first seat of the unorganized Presidio County. The L-shaped fort was built with the long side running east and west, parallel to the river, for 200 feet. The base of the building measured 140 feet. A crenellated parapet surrounded the rooms, allowing a stockade for animals and fortification for the site. Large doors gave access to teams and wagons.

Leaton died between January 1 and August 15, 1851, leaving his wife with large debts. The fort passed to John Burgess, who held the mortgage. Burgess's descendants lived at Fort Leaton into the 1920s. After the Burgesses left, the fort fell into disuse. In 1934 T. C. Mitchell and the Marfa State Bank acquired the old structure and donated it to the county as a historic site. Restoration work began under a county works project, but inadequate funding prevented its completion. A. C. Skidmore bought the property later and donated it to the state. In 1968 it became Fort Leaton State Historic Site. Archeological work done in 1969 revealed that the adobe walls were built in three phases. Excavations in 1971 uncovered nine new rooms, a ramada, a corral, various living floors, and the limits of the north wall. The site has been restored to conform with the archeological findings.

Leavitt Corning, Jr., Baronial Forts of the Big Bend (Austin: Trinity University Press, 1967). Daniel E. Fox, Traces of Texas History: Archeological Evidence of the Past 450 Years (San Antonio: Corona Press, 1983). Elton Miles, Tales of the Big Bend (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Julia Cauble Smith, “Fort Leaton State Historic Site,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 9, 2019