Fort Richardson was officially established in February 1868 in order to provide protection against marauding bands of Comanche and Kiowa Indians on the North Texas frontier and named for Union general Israel Bush (Fighting Dick) Richardson. The unstockaded reservation occupied some 300 acres on Lost Creek, a tributary of the Trinity River, one-half mile south of Jacksboro, in Jack County. Eventually fifty-five stone, picket, and cottonwood-lumber buildings were constructed at an estimated cost to the government of $800,000. Located seventy miles from the Indian Territory and 120 miles from Fort Sill, Richardson was the northernmost army outpost in Texas and the anchor of a defensive line of fortifications that included forts Griffin and Concho. For a brief period from 1868 to 1873 Richardson was strategically the most important post in Texas, and in 1872 it had the largest garrison (666 officers and men) among military installations in the United States.
During its ten-year history the fort served as the regimental headquarters for the Sixth United States Cavalry (1868–71), the Fourth United States Cavalry (1871–73), and the Eleventh Infantry (1873–76), as well as home for various elements of the Tenth United States Cavalry and Twenty-fourth United States Infantry. The soldiers of Richardson maintained the post, helped local law officers keep the peace, pursued criminals and deserters, escorted wagon trains, oversaw elections, protected cattle herds, and, most importantly, patrolled for Indians. During the prime raiding months of April through September, scouting parties were in the field constantly. Although most of these excursions were fruitless, occasionally the soldiers had bloody encounters with bands of hostile Indians; in July 1870, for instance, Capt. Curwin B. McClellan and fifty-six officers and men of the Sixth Cavalry were ambushed near the Little Wichita River by a large war party of Kiowas and Comanches led by the Kiowa chief Kicking Bird (see LITTLE WICHITA RIVER, BATTLE OF THE). After a desperate fight McClellan and his men were able to hold off the Indians and retreat to safety. Thirteen men of the Sixth won the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action in the battle of the Little Wichita.
In May of 1871 Gen. William T. Sherman visited Fort Richardson as part of a fact-finding tour of the Texas frontier. While there, he received word that a freight-hauling wagon train had been attacked by a large party of Indians on the Salt Creek Prairie twenty miles from the fort (see WARREN WAGON TRAIN RAID). At Fort Sill, Sherman personally arrested the ringleaders of the raid and ordered them taken to Jacksboro to stand trial. The Kiowa chiefs Satanta and Big Tree were held in custody at Fort Richardson and in July 1871 had the dubious honor of becoming the first Indians to be tried in a Texas civil court. After sensational hearings that received nationwide publicity, the chiefs were found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang.
In response to these events, General Sherman authorized Fort Richardson's commanding officer, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, Fourth Cavalry, to begin offensive operations against any Indians not on the reservation. Over a fifteen-month period Mackenzie led four major expeditions from Richardson into the Panhandle of Texas. In late 1871 he fought a running battle with the Quahadi Comanches, led by their famous war chief, Quanah Parker. In the summer of 1872 Mackenzie explored the unmapped Llano Estacado, and late that year, on the North Fork of the Red River, he located and attacked the encampment of the Comanche chief Mow-way, killing fifty warriors and capturing 130 women and children.
During the Red River War (1874–75) Fort Richardson served as a major staging base for the columns of cavalry and infantry that swept the plains and inflicted final military defeat on the Comanche and Kiowa Indians. With the North Texas frontier secure, there was no longer any need for a military presence in Jack County, and in May 1878 the army abandoned the post. Most of the buildings quickly fell into ruins, but the city of Jacksboro maintained some of them, especially the hospital and one of the officers' quarters. On November 25, 1940, Battery F, 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Division (known as the Lost Battalion) of the Texas National Guard mobilized at the fort for active duty. The unit departed from San Francisco towards Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, but were at sea during the infamous attack. The Lost Battalion defended Java until being captured in March 1942, and performed forced labor for over three years. Most of the 63 deaths occurred while building the Burma-Siam Railway. In 1963 Fort Richardson was declared a national historic landmark, and in 1968 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department assumed control of the grounds and began extensive renovations. Fort Richardson State Historic Park opened in 1973.