The Ghost of Camp Colorado
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The Ghost of Camp Colorado
Published in The Texaco Star, April 1931,
though this is taken from the 2005 collection The End of the Trail: Western Stories
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldiers’ last tattoo;
No more on life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
—The Bivouac of the Dead
On the banks of the Jim Ned River in Coleman County, central West Texas, stands a ghost. It is a substantial ghost, built of square cut stone and sturdy timber, but just the same it is a phantom, rising on the ruins of a forgotten past. It is all that is left of the army post known as Camp Colorado in the pioneer days of Texas. This camp, one of a line of posts built in the 1850’s to protect the settlers from Indian raids, had a career as brief as it was stirring. When Henry Sackett, whose name is well known in frontier annals, came to Camp Colorado in 1870, he found the post long deserted and the adobe buildings already falling into ruins. From these ruins he built a home and it is to his home and to the community school house on the site of the old post, that the term of Camp Colorado is today applied.
Today the house he built in 1870 is as strong as if erected yesterday, a splendid type of pioneer Texas ranch-house. It stands upon the foundations of the old army commissary and many of its doors and much of its flooring came from the old government buildings, the lumber for which was freighted across the plains three-quarters of a century ago. The doors, strong as iron, show plainly, beneath their paint, the scars of bullets and arrows, mute evidence of the days when the Comanches swept down like a red cloud of war and the waves of slaughter washed about the adobe walls where blue-clad iron men held the frontier.
This post was first begun on the Colorado River in 1856, but was shifted to the Jim Ned River, although it retained the original name. Built in 1857, in the stirring times of westward drift and Indian raid, the old post in its heyday sheltered notable men—Major Van Dorn, Captain Theodore O’Hara, whose poem, “The Bivouac of the Dead” has thrilled the hearts of generations, General James B. Hood, General James P. Major, General Kirby Smith, and the famous General Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of General Robert E. Lee. From Camp Colorado went Major Van Dorn, first commander of the post, to Utah, in the days of the Mormon trouble. And from Camp Colorado went General James P. Major with the force under Van Dorn, and Captain Sol Ross, later Governor of Texas, on the expedition which resulted in the death of Peta Nocona, the last great Comanche war chief, and the capture of his white wife, Cynthia Ann Parker, whose life-long captivity among the Indians forms one of the classics of the Southwest.
When the clouds of Civil War loomed in the East and the boys in blue marched away from the post in 1861, their going did not end Camp Colorado’s connection with redskin history. For from the ranch-house and store built on the site of the post, Henry Sackett rode with Captain Maltby’s Frontier Battalion Rangers in 1874, on the path of Big Foot and Jape the Comanche, who were leaving a trail of fire and blood across western Texas. On Dove Creek, in Runnels County, which adjoins Coleman County on the west, the Rangers came up with the marauders and it was Henry Sackett’s rifle which, with that of Captain Maltby, put an end forever to the careers of Big Foot and Jape the Comanche, and brought to a swift conclusion the last Indian raid in central West Texas.
Of the original buildings of the post, only one remains—the guard house, a small stone room with a slanting roof now connected with the ranch-house. It was the only post building made of stone; the others, adobe-built, have long since crumbled away and vanished. Of the barracks, the officers’ quarters, the blacksmith shop, the bakery and the other adjuncts of an army camp, only tumbled heaps of foundation stones remain, in which can be occasionally traced the plan of the building. Some of the old corral still stands, built of heavy stones and strengthened with adobe, but it too is crumbling and falling down.
The old guard house, which, with its single window, now walled up, forms a storeroom on the back of the Sackett house, has a vivid history all its own, apart from the military occupancy of the post. After the camp was deserted by the soldiers, it served as a saloon wherein the civilian settlers of the vicinity quenched their thirst, argued political questions and conceivably converted it into a blockhouse in event of Indian menace. One scene of bloodshed at least, it witnessed, for at its crude bar two men quarreled and just outside its door they shot it out, as was the custom of the frontier, and the loser of that desperate game fell dead there.
Today there remains a deep crevice in one of the walls where two military prisoners, confined there when the building was still serving as a dungeon, made a vain attempt to dig their way to liberty through the thick, solid stone of the wall. Who they were, what their crime was, and what implements they used are forgotten; only the scratches they made remain, mute evidence of their desperation and their failure.
In early days there was another saloon at the post, but of that building no trace today remains. Yet it was in use at least up to the time that Coleman County was created, for it was here that the first sheriff of the county, celebrating the gorgeous occasion of his election, emerged from the saloon, fired his six-shooter into the air and yelled: “Coleman Country, by God, and I’m sheriff of every damn’ foot of her! I got the world by the tail on a downhill pull! Yippee!”
A word in regard to the builder of the house that now represents Camp Colorado might not be amiss. The Honorable Henry Sackett was born in Orsett, Essexshire, England, in 1851 and came to America while a youth. Building the house, largely with his own labor, in 1870, he lived there until his death a few years ago, acting as postmaster under seven Presidents, and as store-keeper for the settlers. The south side of the stone house, built into a single great room, was used as post office and general store. Henry Sackett was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, an upright and universally respected gentleman, a member of the Frontier Battalion of Rangers, and later Representative in the Legislature of Texas, from Brown and Coleman Counties. He married Miss Mary MacNamara, daughter of Captain Michael MacNamara of the United States Army. Mrs. Sackett still lives at Camp Colorado.
The countryside is unusually picturesue—broad, rolling hills, thick with mesquite and scrub oaks, with the river winding its serpentine course through its narrow valley. On the slopes cattle and sheep graze and over all broods a drowsy quiet. But it is easy to resurrect the past in day dreams—to see the adobe walls rise out of dusty oblivion and stand up like ghosts, to hear again the faint and spectral bugle call and see the old corral thronged with lean, wicked-eyed mustangs, the buildings and the drill grounds with blue-clad figures—bronzed, hard-bitten men, with the sun and the wind of the open lands in their eyes—the old Dragoons! Nor is it hard to imagine that yonder chaparral shakes, not to the breeze, but to crawling, stealthy shapes, and that a painted, coppery face glares from the brush, and the sun glints from a tomahawk in a red hand.
But they have long faded into the night—the reckless, roistering cavalry men, the painted Comanches, the settlers in their homespun and buckskins; only the night wind whispers old tales of Camp Colorado.
A half mile perhaps from the Sackett house stands another remnant of the past—a sort of mile-stone, definitely marking the close of one age and the opening of another. It stands on a hillside in a corner of the great Dibrell ranch—a marble monument on which is the inscription:
BREEZE 21ST 31984
BORN 1887 DIED 1903
MOTHER OF THE DIBRELL HERD
This monument marks the resting place of one of the first registered, short-horn cows of central West Texas. When Breeze was born, west Texas swarmed with half-wild longhorns, descendants of those cattle the Spaniards brought from Andalusia; now one might look far before finding one of those picturesque denizens of the old ranges. Fat, white faced, short horned Herefords of Breeze’s breed and kind have replaced them, and in the vast pageant of the west, the longhorn follows buffalo and Indian into oblivion.