Postcards: Reliving History at Fort Leaton
Though never used as a military installation, this West Texas
trading post saw its share of drama
By E. Dan Klepper
Living in the Big Bend, among the remnants of Texas’
frontier past, it’s easy to imagine life here a hundred years ago. Little has
changed across this hardscrabble desert, and, fortunately for history
enthusiasts like me, many of the relics from Big Bend’s pioneer days have been
rescued and restored. One of my favorite haunts, Fort Leaton State Historic
Site, presides over southern Presidio County from its perch above the Rio
Grande river valley. The sprawling adobe building with some 40 rooms lies on
22.5 acres off FM 170, three miles east of Presidio. Managed by the Texas Parks
and Wildlife Department, the site serves as the westernmost entrance to Big Bend
Ranch State Park. It also provides the
When I heard that Fort Leaton had almost completed a three-year project that involved adding reproduction 19th-Century furnishings to the historic living and working quarters, I made plans to visit again. While the site had been restored years ago, the rooms had been empty until now. I timed my trip with the “unveiling” that took place last December, in conjunction with La Posada, the fort’s annual Christmastime celebration. Luminarias lining the top of the adobe walls along the fort’s perimeter greeted me upon arrival that evening. More luminarias flanked the walkways, and inside the structure, candles illuminated the newly furnished rooms, just as they had in the fort’s heyday. The festivities—including music and theatrical performances—were in full swing, but my sights were set on exploring the fort itself.
Built in the mid-1800s, Fort Leaton served as the region’s major trading post for some three decades. Many people assume that it was a U.S. Army post and part of the military expansion that occurred during the same period across West Texas; however, the massive structure was constructed for business rather than fortification. Its recorded history—a concatenation of events ranging from boisterous to downright sordid—begins with the arrival in 1848 of trader Ben Leaton and Juana Pedrasa in Presidio del Norte from, most likely, Chihuahua. Leaton and Pedrasa never married but already had three children when they reached the state’s western Rio Grande borderlands, a region known at the time as La Junta de los Rios. Edward Hall, a teamster employed by Leaton, and two other traders named John Burgess and John Spencer, accompanied the family.
In need of property for a new trading post venture, Leaton bribed the local alcalde (presiding government official) to supply counterfeit titles to parcels of farmland, including the future Fort Leaton site. After evicting the Mexican farming families already living and working on the land, Leaton built his rambling trading post, dubbed it Fort Leaton, and set up shop.
I began my self-guided tour in the trading-post office. The newly renovated office features an accounts book, used to record the purchase and sale of goods, sitting open on a rustic reproduction of a period-perfect desk. The entries, written in ink and lit by candlelight, include whiskey, lard, goats, and dried pumpkin. Crates and barrels designed to ship goods like nails, doorknobs, soap, fabric, and ceramics line the floor of the room. Several of the lids had been pried open. The entire setting suggests that a clerk had just made an entry in the ledger and left the room. (Leaton couldn’t read or write, so he kept several clerks on the payroll.) But it was the large warehouse around the corner from the office that really gave a sense of the full-scale traffic of goods that passed through the post, symbolized by the stacks of large crates and barrels displayed just inside the imposing wooden doors and labeled with faraway origins such as Cincinnati and St. Louis.
The furnishings clearly define the former life of this place. Cabinets, trunks, day beds, blankets, mirrors, sconces, personal items, and decorative arts such as retablos and religious symbols adorn the rooms.
Next, I examined the living quarters. The new furnishings illustrated the simple but comfortable conveniences that a house of means could provide its occupants at the time. As I moved from room to room, I could see how this collection of residential spaces truly functioned. The furnishings clearly define the former life of this place. Cabinets, trunks, day beds, blankets, mirrors, sconces, personal items, and decorative arts such as retablos and religious symbols adorn the rooms. A team of curators, interpreters, artists, and craftsmen, under the direction of TPWD’s chief curator, Joanne Avant, had transformed the dining room, sitting room, family parlor, formal parlor, and kitchen into echoes of their past.
The new additions create a sense of activity and occupation within the rooms but maintain a respect for the beauty of the adobe’s minimalist architecture. The furnishings complement the austerity found in large, open spaces of whitewashed, handcrafted earthen bricks; generous windows and doorways sheltered by hand-carved shutters; and soaring ceilings with rope-hanging iron chandeliers.
The kitchen features copper pans and ladles, a metate (grinding stone), ceramic pots, and an adobe oven. The room is surprisingly small for the number of residents it served. In addition to an extended family of adults and siblings, 18 servants and laborers were counted as household inhabitants in an 1870 census. The dining room, with its long wooden table set for the evening meal, suggests that half a dozen family members and guests might have eaten here at any given time.
As I entered the grand, spacious formal parlor, also known as the ballroom, I began to think about the events that unraveled around the fort after Leaton’s death. The fort may stand as a testament to Leaton’s business acumen, but his perfidy and the treachery of the men who followed in his steps are also part of the history of these rooms. I confess that the darker aspects of this period in West Texas history attract me as much as its triumphs, and a visit to Fort Leaton never fails to draw some of the ghosts from the shadows. With La Posada festivities proceeding noisily in the courtyard just beyond the adobe walls, the candle flames from the ballroom’s chandeliers seemed to illuminate the duplicity once concealed within the rooms’ dark corners.
After constructing the trading post, Leaton made several trips to San Antonio during the late 1840s and early 1850s in order to file, and hopefully legitimize, his fraudulent land titles. In 1851, on his third trip and accompanied by his family and Edward Hall, he died of an “unidentified illness,” leaving his property and possessions to Pedrasa and their three children. Pedrasa married Hall in 1852, and they returned to the fort sometime between 1856 and 1859 to reopen the trading post. Needing money, possibly to pay gambling debts, Edward Hall secured a cash loan from John Burgess, using the fraudulent Fort Leaton mortgage as collateral. But when Hall defaulted on the loan, he refused to relinquish the property. Burgess managed to acquire clear title to the property and sent a group of men to evict the Halls. At some point during the encounter Edward Hall was shot and killed. Burgess was able to move his family into the fort afterwards, but in 1876, an angry William Leaton, the youngest son of Ben Leaton and Juana Pedrasa, shot and killed Burgess. Despite Burgess’ untimely death, his family continued to occupy Fort Leaton for the next 50 years.
The tiny sitting room, located within the heart of the compound, was the last stop on my tour. The candlewicks in the chandelier were almost spent, and melted wax drooped like icicles from the iron rim. The room’s appointments—a wooden chair, a toy, a crucifix atop a small writing desk—cast long, odd shadows against the darkening walls. For a moment I thought I caught a glimpse of someone in the mirror that hung along the far wall. But just as I imagined the profile of a young woman settling into the glass, a sudden puff of wind blew through the window and snuffed the last candle out.
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From the September 2011 issue.