Bird's Fort
Duane Gage, author, in 1970

Bird's Fort

Duane Gage served both as Chair of the Tarrant County Historical Commission and as an instructor of History at Tarrant County College, Northeast Campus during the 1970s and 1980s. Gage was a strong proponent of Community Archives, initiating the Heritage Room Archives on the campus where he taught, as well as helping to found the Tarrant County Archives.

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In 1936 the State of Texas, through its Commission of Control for Centennial Celebrations, allocated two official historical markers for placing at sites in Tarrant County that are significnnt in the history of the Republic of Texas. One of the sites that received a Centennial marker was the site of Bird's Fort, where in 1843 a treaty council led to the opening of much of North Texas to white settlement.1 During its nine years of existence, the Republic of Texas had a major Indian problem. The majority of Texans favored the use of military force for the purpose of extermination while an influential minority desired peaceful relations established through diplomacy and kindness. President Sam Houston's attitude was that of friendliness and good will; during his first term (1836 - 1838) he was able to avoid serious Indian wars.2

Texas' second president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, brought a drastic change in Indian policy by denying that Indians had possessory rights to the land and by inaugurating an aggressive frontier policy. Consequently Lamar's tenure (1838 - 1841) was marked by the bloodiest Indian wars Texas had known. Lamar called for the total expulsion of all tribes who had migrated from the United States, the creation of a strongor military force, and the establishmemt of a line of military posts along the frontier. Responding to Lamar's proposals, the Texas Congress passed laws providing for the establishment of a military road from the Red River southward and for the creation of ten companies of rangors.3

During the summer of 1839 Lamar's harsh Indian policy began to produce violent results. On July 16, 1839, the Cherokees were defeated in an engagement fought a few miles west of present Tyler. Most of the warriors were slain along with the aged Chief Bowles, a beloved friend of Sam Houston.4 Other tribes, some of whom had tried to be friends with the Texans, began to fear that they too would be driven from their homes. The Indians' fears and suspicions were intensified in March, 1840, when a Comanche chief and a number of warriors were slain at San Antonio, while in a council with representatives of the Republic.5 The Council House fight and many similar clashes during Lamar's administration brought even further Indian resistance and depredations. The advent of white settlements developing along the upper Trinity River seemed quite remote. In 1840 the furthest western settlement in North Texas was Coffee's Trading Post on Preston's Bend of the Red River, north of present day Denison; east of there, white settlements in Fannin and Red River counties were growing significantly but were still subject to Indian attacks.6

In response to reports that Indian atrocities in Fannin and Red River counties were perpetrated by Indian war parties from villages on the Trinity River, in the spring of 1841 General Edward H. Tarrant of the Texas Militia led an expedition that destroyed encampments on present Village Creek in Tarrant County7. On August 7, 1841, Tarrant commissioned Jonathan Bird, a native of Alabama, to organize a force of 150 volunteer rangers for a three-month expedition to build a fort at or near the site of the recent Battle of Village Creek.8 Bird was to establish a settlement there, under a Texas law that provided that lands be donated to men uho would establish frontier military posts. It was hoped that settlers would feel safe to move onto lands around such garrisons while ithe area was being won from the Indians.9

Jonathan Bird, who at the time of his appointment by General Tarrant was given the rank of Brevet Major, was in the service from August 7, 1841, until March, 1842.10 Apparently Bird had difficulty in recruiting a full company of 150 volunteers and left Bowie in Red River County in the fall of 1841 with about forty men.11 No reliable contemporary documents with details concerning the establishment and occupation of Bird's Fort has been found, but there are several secondary sources of interest and reminiscences of two or three of the participants which provide researchers with useful information concerning this effort to establish the first white settlement in present Tarrant County.12

In the autumn of 1841, Major Bird's troops arrived at a crescent-shaped lake slightly north of the West Fork of the Trinity River and west of the military road that reached from Preston's Bend to Austin. The site was approximately fourteen miles below the junction of the Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity. Inside the curve of the lake a fort was erected, consisting of a tall blockhouse and several cabins, three of which were enclosed in a stockade. The outer walls of the blockhouse were made of logs set on end, and a deep trench was dug around it. The fort nestled advantageously behind a semi-circular shield of oak woods, about forty feet from a spring which bubbled up at the end of the lake.13

Apparently the three-months volunteers experienced no serious Indian trouble while they were stationed on the West Fork of the Trinity. The company maintained Bird's Fort for about three months, hauling all their supplied from Bonham at Bird's personal expense.14 Many of the soldiers who served with Bird planned to build permanent homes nearby, and at one time there may have been as many as twenty families at the fort. One of the prospective settlers wrote enthusiastically that "it is the best range country that I ever saw to raise stock . . . As for land and range it can't be surpassed in any country . . . Timber is short and plenty of buffalo, deer, bear, and it has the appearance of the healthiest country that I ever saw in my life."15

One of the first families to move to Bird's Fort was that of John Beeman, a farmer from Illinois whho volunteered for Bird's company and was with the military contingent which built the fort. Beeman broke his arm in an accident on the way to the Trinity, but remained with the company until the buildings were completed. Then he returned to Bowie County for his wife and ten children. In late autumn John Beeman, his brother James Beeman, Wade Hampton Rattan, Captain Mabel Gilbert, and Solomon Silkwood and their families, with a few single men, were living at the fort, using the structures as headquarters and as protection from hostile Indian bands still occupying the Trinity valley.16

The most serious problem experienced by the Bird's Fort garison was a shortage of food. According to a 1902 interview of John Beeman's son, William H. Beeman—who was thirteen at the time of their occupation of Bird's Fort—the weeks spent at the outpost brought an unforgettable ordeal:

As an inducement to settlers, the Republic of Texas promised to feed them all the first year or until a crop could be made and gathered. In this, however, the Government failed utterly, and the pioneers had to rely on their own resources. On the way out the immigrants stopped at Fort Inglish (the present site of Bonham) where they met Major Bird who advised them to take out some corn and beef steers, "as the boys at the fort are pretty short of rations," he said. Major Bird negotiated with Mr. Bailey Inglish (who was general trader) for five beef steers and a lot of corn, giving his note $100 for the same. John Beeman and Hampton Rattan indorsed the note and Rattan getting killed by Indians, Beeman afterwards had to pay it in full.

When the party of immigrants arrivcd at Bird's Fort, they found the garrison entirely destitute of provisions, having had nothing to eat for a week. One of the Rangers, Riley Cole, had a few days before, picked up the foot of a calf that had been lying out on the prairie for six weeks (the calf having been butchered and eaten at that time) and he boiled these dry and discarded bones into a sort of soup, or jelly. This was greedily devoured by the starving garrison and was the last morsel they had until the Beemans and their companions arrived.17

In 1890 the Fort Worth Gazette published a similar account of the first attempt at making a permanent settlement on the upper reaches of the Trinity River. On arriving at Bird's Fort the pioneers were surprised to find that:

The Indians had burned off all the grass from all the surrounding country and no game was to be found. While a part of the men remained with tho women and children . . . the others returned with the teams to the settlements in Lamar County, more than 100 miles distant to provide supplies. In spite of the efforts of the hunters but little game could be secured for subsistence, and the men, women and children suffered severely from hunger. It seemed that starvation was to be their fate. Hawks, rabbits, and small birds afforded some relief . . . . .

On account of danger from the Indians, few men could be spared from the fort but in their extremity, Capt. Webb, a Mr. Silkwood, and Wade H. Rattan made an extended hunt some 15 miles or more towards the Elm Fork of the Trinity. On Denton Creek, or some tributary to it, these men found the signs made by a bear in ascending a large tree. Supposing the bear to be in the hollow of the tree, hibernating for the winter, they went to work to cut it down. While Rattan was cutting the tree the Indians from ambush fired on the men. Rattan was killed; the others made their escape and returned to the fort. Nine days afterward the body of Rattan was recovered by the returning friends who had gone to the settlement for provisions, and who had been acquainted with the disaster by friends who had met them from the fort. A faithful bulldog had remained with his dead master and preserved him from mutilation by buzzards and wolves. Rattan's remains were interred at the fort.18

Author James T. De Shields apparently interviewed Alex W. Webb, survivor of the Indian ambush, who was living in Mesquite, Texas in 1905, and learned that Rattan's death had occurred on Christmas day, 1841. About one and one-half miles southeast of present Carrolton, on the east side of the Elm Fork, Rattan, Solomon Silkwood and Webb had been attacked by Indians while trying to cut down a bee tree. Webb and Silkwood, after killing one of the Indians, escaped to the fort. Rattan's body was recovered on December 30, 1841. He was buried in "a rude coffin, made of an old wagon bed . . . At the time of the tragedy, snow was six inches deep and the weather intensely cold, and from the exposure on the trip, Silkwood sickened and died."19

The burial ground for Hamp Rattan and Solomon Silkwood is probably the oldest Anglo cemetery in Tarrant County.20 In 1926 a letter written from San Angelo, Texas by J. J. Goodfellow, former Tarrant County Surveyor, contained information as to the exact location of the old fortress and its burial ground:

My first visit to the graves was in 1866, at which time Col. B. Rush Wallace was the owner of the property covering most of Calloway's Lake and the Ground upon which the old blockhouse and the graves are located. The remains of the house were then plainly visible. They stood on the northeast bank of the lake at a point where a country club later built a swimming pool on the ground and destroyed most of the signs of these trenches. From this blockhouse a path led in a northeasterly direction, probably 250 or 300 yards through timber to the graves.21

Tarrant County Judge C. C. Cummings accompanied Goodfellow on at least two surveying trips to Bird's Fort and also verified the site.22

This first white cemetery in present Tarrant County, which has been lost for years and which may now be obliterated by gravel excavations, may have received additional graves in early spring, 1842, after a few new arrivals reportedly joined the Bird's Fort settlers who had survived the adverse winter. According to Fort Worth historian Mary Daggett Lake's writings in 1927, among the new arrivals were Jonathan Bird's father, William; William's daughter; and a man named Cartwright, who lived with the Bird family. All three of these individuals were reportedly killed by Indians one day as they were returning with water from the lake.23

In the early spring of 1842 some small attempts at farming were begun, but on account of the malarial conditions near the lake, the pioneers decided to quit the locality and hunt for a more suitable area. At about that time the Bird's Fort settlers were visited by John Neely Bryan, a 31-year-old Tennessee native who in 1841 had come through Arkansas by way of the Red River. About twenty miles below the fort, near where White Rock Creek flows into the Trinity, Bryan had built a lone cabin at a river crossing. Seeking the friendship and security of neighbors, Bryan invited the families at Bird's Fort to move onto the fertile lands near his new home. Captain Mabel Gilbert, John Beeman, and the widow of Solomon Silkwood decided to accept Bryan's invitation. Moving their families to lands along White Rock Creek in present Dallas County, they broke land early enough in 1842 for spring planting of the first peach seeds and corn in the Dallas area.24

The remaining survivors of the Bird's Fort settlement abandoned their dreams for establishing homes there and returned to the Red River settlements, or relocated on the East Fork of the Trinity River at a new settlement in what is now Collin County.25

Within a few months Bird's Fort again was to be used in an historic manner. In April, 1843, the Jacob Snively Expedition, a 170-man force sanctioned by the Republic of Texas, set out from Fannin County on the Red River in search of Mexican gold trains which they planned to capture as they passed along the Santa Fe Trail through Texas-claimed territory. The force was organized to retaliate against Mexico for the capture of San Antonio twice in the summer of 1842 by roving Mexican forces. Plagued by dissention and jealousy, the expedition split after a disappointing encounter with a force of 100 Mexicans on ground claimed both by Texas and Mexico. A short time later Snively and 76 men ran head on into a 200-man United States Army force led by Colonel Plillip St. George Cooke. The United States forces demanded that the Texans give up their arms, and Snively's men felt they had no choice but to comply. Following this humiliating experience, Snively and his men returned to North Texas and disbanded at Bird's Fort on August 6, 1843.26

Simultaneous to Snively's expedition along the border, President Sam Houston's peace policy during his second term (1841 - 1844) brought Texas officials and Indian representatives to Bird's Fort to negotiate the Indians' final removal from the Eastern Cross Timbers. In December, 1841, as soon as he was inaugurated for his second term, President Houston sent representatives to Indian council grounds and slowly re-established peace with most of the Texas tribes. Houston called for the establishment of permanent Indian reservations and the erection of trading posts beyond the frontier line where Indians could trade their goods for needed supplies. All the chiefs were invited to a council to be held on the Brazos River at the Waco village on October 26, 1842, where the Indians could exchange their white captives for Indian women and children whom the Texans had held as prisoners since the Council House Fight.27

Unfortunately heavy rains and flooded rivers kept the Indians away from the Waco council, but in the summer of 1843 another call went out for a grand council to meet at Bird's Fort at the full moon of August, with chiefs from all tribes in Texas. In August, while the Superintendant of Indian affairs, Joseph C. Eldredge led a party of Indian agents, interpreters, and traders far out on the northwestern plains in an effort to induce the fearsome Comanches to attend the Bird's Fort negotiations, President Houston went to Bird's Fort to begin the council discussions himself.28 Allegedly there was a man from England, E. Parkinson, who was a member of the party representing Texas and who kept a diary:

In the diary Parkinson tells of stopping in Dallas and visiting with John Neely Bryan, of their camping at White Rock Springs (now White Rock Lake), Cedar Springs, and then to Bird's Fort. Later the party went to Grapevine Springs to wait on the Indians which by this time were well overdue. The commissioner of Indians, as it turned out later, had been captured by the Comanche Indians and nearly scalped before they turned him free. General Houston, not aware of his capture, blamed the delay on Col. Joseph C. Eldredge, the commissioner, and so relieved him of his position and returned to the capitol, Washington on the Brazos, leaving Gen. Tarrant and Gen. George W. Terrell as his representatives to negotiate the treaty with the Indians.29

Journalist Tex Adams referred to the Parkinson diary in describing President Sam Houston's sojourn while waiting to sign a treaty with the Indians:

Houston left Crockett on July 4 with a large party who hoped to make the trip a buffalo hunt, as well. He arrived at Bird's Fort (some dozen miles southwest of Grapevine Springs on the Trinity West Fork) but found neither Indian chiefs or his commissioners.

After spending several days at the swampy fort, Houston withdrew in a rage to the higher ground at Grapevine Springs. There he fretted for almost a month before returning to Washington on the Brazos. Chronicled E. Parkinson, "They were some fine though rather monotonous days, only relieved by finding a bee tree or killing our beeves."30

Many of the tribes had gathered by mid-August. Eldredge's party was still out on the plains trying to coax the Comanches to come to the council. Not only did the Comanches refuse to come to Bird's Fort, the threatened to kill the Texas officials to avenge the massacre of their kinsmen at the Council House in San Antonio.31 By late August Houston decided to council with the tribes that were on hand32, and to leave General Tarrant and George Terrell to conclude the negotiation as soon as the Comanches arrived. Donned in a purple velvet suit, with a huge bowie knife thrust in his belt, and a folded Indian blanket draped over one shoulder to proclaim his brotherhood with the red men, Houston eloquently promised the chiefs that a favorable treaty line would be drawn beyond which the Indians could live unmolested by white men. Then he returned to the capital to attend to the affairs of the Republic.33

Not until mid-September did Eldredge's party ride into Bird's Fort with the message that the Comanches were not coming.34 Terrell and Tarrant then entered into begotiations with chiefs of nine tribes who were present. A treaty embodying the principles of Houston's peace policy was signed at Bird's Fort on September 29, 1843, and ratified by the Texas Senate on January 31, 1844. Placing their marks on the document were chifs of the Delaware, Chckasaw, Waco, Tawakoni, Kichai, Anadarko, Ionie, Biloxi, and Cherokee tribes. Both parties agreed to live in peace, protect all women and children, and respect the treaty line along which trading houses were to be established. Neither whites nor Indians were to cross the line without authority to do so; those who violated the treaty were to be punished.35

The Bird's Fort Treaty line was to run roughly from hunting lands north of present Fort Worth, to the present site of Menard on the San Saba River, and from the San Saba to San Antonio. Trading houses were to be established near the junction of the Clear Fork and the West Fork of the Trinity, at Comanche Peak near Granbury, and on the San Saba River.36

Following the negotiations, in early October 1843 General Tarrant and Captain B. Booth travelled to Clarksville, Texas, and related important details concerning the recently concluded treaty council:

Of the tribes who have treated, the first three were exceptionally wild, and wore no clothing, except the breech clout. The remnants of Cherokees who were there, were in a most distressed condition. The family of Bowles who were all there, would not come into the camp until the Commissioners purchased clothes for the women and children . . . The commissioners went out eight miles from the treaty ground, and met the Indians as they came in...37

The treaty council at Bird's Fort was the last official event to occur at the outpost during the years of the Texas Republic. Most of the Indians in North Texas remained northwest of the treaty line, but others disregarded it completely, in the same manner that many whites refused to acknowledge that the Indian lands were officially closed to them. Clashes between Indian raiding parties and white traders and settlers were to continue sporadically in North Texas for another thirty years. Land speculators and settlers interpreted the terms of the Treaty of Bird's Fort to mean that the lands of the upper Trinity River were officially ready for white settlement. A number of men who participated in the establishment of the fort and in the official negotiations at the site acquired lands under the Peters Colony contract and became known as important North Texas pioneers.38

The log blockhouse and the cabins at the outpost did not remain erect for very long. In 1853 an editorial correspondent for the Clarksville Standard visited the locality of Bird's Fort during a journey in which he visited many noted sites connected with the first settlements of the country "before every vestige of their primitive appearance was effaced by the hand of improvement." The correspondent reported:

We came upon the margin of a beautiful lake in the shape of a crescent, about three hundred yards wide in the centre, and coming to a point at either end. It is the handsomest sheet of water I have seen in Texas, large enough to admit of admirable sport in the way of sailing and fishing. As we got opposite the centre of the lake, we saw upon the other side, perched upon a limb, a bald eagle, which as we got near, extended its wings and went out of sight ... The lake is, in summer, three to four feet deep, but now from the Spring rains, perhaps seven or eight feet deep in the centre. It has a gravelly bottom, clear water, and abounds in fish. Within the area enclosed by the semicircular water, a high point of land puts in probably fifteen feet higher than the surrounding prairie. This land was originally all timbered, but close upon the lake the timber had been cut down by Bird's men, probably as a measure of protection as well as utility, and the land had been put in cultivation. Upon this a young growth has sprung up. None of the structures of the fortification remains now, but a new settler has put up a house, from which was absent when we were there. No land however is in cultivation yet, and the place looks much as tho' no one had been there to change the aspect which time has given it, since the first pioneers left it. Fire from the burning of the grass has effaced the houses and the picketing which enclosed them, but we could trace the places where they stood, and the line of enclosure, which was near the centre of the point, close upon the water. Bird is dead; died in Titus County, in peaceful country, and the place would now, years after its settlement, still repose in lonely beauty, but for the cabin lately put up.39

Since the time of its official use during the era of the Texas Republic, the property on which Bird's Fort was built has continued to have an interesting history. The site of the fort and the lake around it became part of the T. D. Newton 320-acre survey (Abstract #1165) when the land was designated for official settlement. In 1866 Col. B. Rush Wallace owned the property.40 Wallace died intestate in July, 1878 and in 1879 Tarrant County Tax Collector J. M. Henderson authorized the sale of the property for delinquent taxes to R. E. Maddox for $26.0041. In 1880 John R. Wallace, nephew of Col. Wallace and executor of his estate, purchased the land from Maddox for $56.00, in order to settle affairs with other heirs of Col. Wallace's estate. Later that year John R. Wallace sold the property—except thirteen acres covered by a part of and near to the Calloway Lake (including the fort site)—to Thomas P. Youngblood.42 Apparently by that date an agreement had been made (but not filed) with Dallas sportsmen for developing the thirteen acres into a hunting and fishing club. By 1886 Sam P. Shaffen owned the T. D. Newton survey land adjacent to the lake, and sold it to D. C. Trigg, Jr.43 The sportsmen's organization was called the Calloway Lake Hunting and Fishing Club; memberships were sold at $200.00 per share. In 1895 it was operating as the Silver Lake Hunting and Fishing Club and memberships were $250.00 each.44

In 1908 confusion concerning the ownership of Calloway's Lake resulted in a law suit in which the heirs of Thomas P. Youngblood sued Benedict Nessler, representing Silver Lake Hunting and Fishing Club, for control of the property. The jury awarded the Youngblood heirs 1/3 interest in the land then decreed that the suit should be settled by having the sportsmen's club pay the plaintiffs a cash sum and in return the club would attain full ownership of the lake and the improvements there, which had been developed by the sportsmen's organization.45

In the 1930s local historians became interested in the historic site and arranged to have an official Texas centennial marker placed at the edge of the sportsmen's club swimming pool, where it was believed the old blockhouse had stood, the swimming pool having been constructed supposedly where the fort's trenches had been located.46 The marker's inscription stated:

Site of Bird's Fort

Established in 1840 by Jonathan Bird on the Military Road from Red River to Austin. In its vicinity an important Indian treaty, marking the line between the Indians and the white settlements, was signed September 29, 1843 by Edward H. Tarrant and George W. Terrell, representing the Republic of Texas. The ragged remnant of the ill-fated Snively Expedition sought refuge here, August 6, 1843.47

When the marker was placed at the club's facilities the organization's charter was controlled by Percy Davis, Ellis Mitchell, Edward Armentrout, and Mrs. French Davis.48 Subsequently the property came under the ownership of Charles D. Armentrout and for several years the facilities were leased to the Arlington Sportsman's Club.49 In recent years the sports facilities have not been used. Gravel excavations on all sides of the site of the frontier outpost have seriously diminished its historical integrity and historical tours are conducted to it with difficulty. Consequently the Arlington Historical Society in 1979 sponsored a project to obtain an official Texas Historical Marker that would be placed on State Highway 157 immediately west of the site, so that future generations will be aware of the notable events that occurred when Texas pioneers attempted to secure and settle this land.


Armentrout, Charles Desmond, letter to Duane Gage, August 1, 1977.

Beeman, John S., letter to Samuel Beeman, October 30, 1841.

Bird, Jonathan, Addendum to affidavit by E. H. Tarrant, Nov. 7, 1843; Petition for Reimbursement, Nov. 19, 1842.

Clarke, Mary Whatley, Chief Bowles and the Texas Cherokees (Norman, Okla.)

Clarksville Standard, June 4, 1853.

Clarksville Northern Standard, October 14, 1843.

Dallas Morning News, January 26, 1902

DeShields, James T., Border Wars of Texas (Tioga, Texas) 1912.

Fort Worth Gazette, January 5, 1890.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 5, 1934.

Gage, Duane, "Bird's Fort in Notes and Clippings," a compilation housed in the TCJC Local History Center; "Village Creek," a documented narrative history application for an Official Texas Historical Marker, copy in TCJC Local History Center.

Garrett, Julia Kathryn, Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph (Austin: 1972).

The Grapevine Sun, March 15, 1913.

Handbook of Texas - Two Volumes.

Johns, C. R., Affidavit, October 7, 1843.

Joyner, Arista, Arlington, Texas: Birthplace of the Metroplex 1838-1910 (Waco, Texas: 1976)

Mid-Cities News Texan (Hurst) July 11, August 11, 1962; July ?, 1963.

Paddock, J. L., "Information on Bird's Fort," unpublished compilation, 1963.

Patterson, Michael E., "Abandoned Pioneer Cemeteries of Northeast Tarrant County, Texas: A Preliminary Survey," unpublished manuscript (1976).

Ray, Thelma, History of Birdville (1965). Privately printed.

Richardson, Rupert N., Texas: The Lone Star State (New Jersey: 1970).

Site of Bird's Fort Historical Marker.

Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXV, Vol. XXXIV.

Strickland, Rex Wallace, "History of Fannin County, Texas, II," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XXXIV (1930), pp. 33-68.

Tarrant County Deed Records.

Texas Indian Papers, 1825-1843 and Texas Indian Papers, 1844-1845, Dorman H. Winfrey, ed. Austin: Texas State Library, 1959.

Webb, Walter Prescott, "The Last Treaty of the Republic of Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXV (January, 1922) pp. 151-173.

Williams, Amelia W., and Eugene C. Barker, The Writings of Sam Houston, 1813-1863, Volume III, December 20, 1822 - January 31, 1844, Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1940.

Winkler, E. W. (ed.),. Secret Journals of the Senate, Republic of Texas, 1836-1845 (Austin, 1911).