Van Horne, Jefferson (1802–1857)

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 26, 2017

Jefferson Van Horne, first commandant of the garrison that became Fort Bliss, son of Isaac Van Horne and Dorothy Johns Marple, was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1802. His father was an officer in the Continental Army, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1796 and 1797, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1801 to 1805. After this, the family moved to Zanesville, Ohio, where Isaac Van Horne was appointed receiver of the local land office by President Thomas Jefferson; he also served as Adjutant General of the Ohio Militia from 1810 to 1819.

On July 1, 1823, Jefferson Van Horne he was appointed from Zanesville, Ohio, to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated on July 1, 1827, ranking thirtieth in his class of thirty-eight, and was brevetted a second lieutenant with the Third Infantry. During the first eighteen years of his military career Van Horne served in Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana, the Indian Territory, and Florida. He was promoted to first lieutenant on April 1, 1836, and to captain on December 1, 1840. Van Horne served in the military occupation of Texas in 1845 and 1846 and on recruiting duty in 1846 and 1847. During the Mexican War he saw action in skirmishes at Tolome and Ovejas in June 1847 and at Ocalaca on August 16, 1847. He was brevetted major for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, on August 19–20, 1847, and participated in the capture of Mexico City on September 13–14, 1847. He was briefly stationed in Mississippi in 1848 before being transferred to frontier duty in San Antonio. In July 1848 Secretary of War William L. Marcy recommended the establishment of a military post on the north side of the Rio Grande, opposite El Paso del Norte (present Juárez), Mexico. Van Horne was ordered to implement General Order No. 58, and left San Antonio in late May of 1849, commanding six companies of the Third Infantry, 275 wagons, and 2,500 pack animals. Originally he had intended to head west by way of Fredericksburg, but he went instead by way of Camp Leona (Fort Inge), Castroville, Quihi, Vandenburg, and Rio Frio in order to confirm the practicality of the more southerly route explored by William F. Smith and William H. C. Whiting. Van Horne arrived in the area of present El Paso on September 8, 1849. He stationed two companies at the old San Elizario Presidio and four at Coon’s Rancho, designating the latter the "Post Opposite El Paso [del Norte]." Van Horne favored San Elizario as the site of a permanent military installation, in part because of the high rents charged by Benjamin Franklin Coons, but James Wiley Magoffin led a protest by the local merchants, and Capt. Thomas L. Brent of the Quartermaster Corps said that the San Elizario site was subject to flooding. The subject became moot in 1851 when federal cutbacks forced the abandonment of the Post Opposite El Paso. Van Horne and his troops were transferred to Fort Fillmore, near Mesilla, New Mexico, although a small detachment stayed behind to guard Magoffin's livestock until the autumn of 1852. The post was reestablished at Magoffinville in January 1854 and officially named Fort Bliss in March of that year. In 1849 Van Horne also found himself in the middle of a jurisdictional dispute between Texas and New Mexico. The El Paso area was part of the Ninth Military District, headquartered in Santa Fe, but was also included in Texas's proposed Santa Fe County and the Texas boundary act of 1836. Both the Texas and New Mexico governments claimed the right to collect taxes on the collection of salt from deposits in the area, and Van Horne was called upon to settle the issue. He was ordered by superiors to sustain the civil jurisdiction of New Mexico until Texas should formally assume civil jurisdiction, or until the boundary between Texas and New Mexico had been finally determined. When Robert S. Neighbors, who had been charged by the Texas government with organizing El Paso County, arrived in San Elizario in February 1850, Van Horne promptly (and no doubt gratefully) surrendered civil jurisdiction to Texas. He served on recruiting duty from 1852 to 1854, then was posted to Fort Stanton and Albuquerque, New Mexico, from 1855 to 1857. Shortly before leaving for this post he married Mary S. Gilbert at Zanesville, Ohio, on November 28, 1854. Jefferson Van Horne died on September 28, 1857, in Albuquerque, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Zanesville.

A. B. Bender, "Opening Routes Across West Texas, 1848–1850," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 37 (October 1933); cont. as "The Texas Frontier, 1848–1861: Government Explorations in Texas, 1851–1860," ibid. 38 (October 1934). William Campbell Binkley, "Question of Texan Jurisdiction in New Mexico, 1848–1850," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 24 (July 1920). George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York (8 vols., New York [etc.]: D. Van Nostrand [etc.], 1868–1940). Kenneth F. Neighbours, "The Taylor-Neighbors Struggle over the Upper Rio Grande in 1850," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61 (April 1958). W. H. Timmons, "American El Paso: The Formative Years, 1848–1854," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 87 (July 1983).

  • Exploration
  • Explorers (American)

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

Martin Donell Kohout, “Van Horne, Jefferson,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 26, 2017