TEXAS TRAILS

Fort Griffin

Also known as the Little River Fort, Forth Smith, and the Blockhouse Fort

With the earliest settlers to what is now Bell County seeking farmland near the current town of Little River-Academy, a fort became necessary to protect them from Indian attacks. The original fort was constructed in November 1836, near the junction of the Lampasas River, the Leon River, and Salado Creek, which combine at the nearby Three Forks to form the Little River. Occupying half an acre of land, the fort was built by a company of Col. Robert M. Coleman’s Rangers under the command of Thomas H. Barron, with the construction supervised by Sgt. George B. Erath.

 

The fort consisted of a nine-foot high stockade and about half a dozen cabins, one of which included a sixteen square-foot blockhouse that overlooked the stockade walls. Initially called Fort Smith after Maj. William H. Smith, its name was later changed to Little River Fort to link it with the nearby farming settlement, named for the Little River. The settlement was located up the Colorado river from Bastrop—and far from the nearest settlements—on some the oldest surveyed parcels of land on the Blackland Prairies north of Webberville.

 

During its approximately five years of operation, the fort was first commanded by construction supervisor Sgt. Erath and later by Lt. Charles Curtis and Capt. Daniel Monroe. Throughout that time, its complement of rangers remained small at only about twenty, and these hardy men had a tough time of it. The land was wild, and raids on the farms by a variety of tribes meant that there are many stories of farms, individuals, and groups being attacked by overwhelming numbers of Indians. From the north and west came the Penateka Comanche; from the east, the Caddoes, Wichitas, and Pawnees; and from the northeast, the Cherokee, Kickapoo, and Delaware.

 

The rangers engaged in several battles with these tribes, who often banded together to attack the settlers moving into their territory. The skirmishes tended to be hit-and-run, with few casualties on either side. However, during its years of operation, the fort was abandoned and reoccupied on several occasions when its garrison was called on to help defend forts and larger settlements to the east, such as Milam and Nashville. Without the rangers’ protection during those gaps, the farming settlements were left vulnerable to Indian raids and also were abandoned.

 

During the fort’s operation, the intermittent garrison participated in three significant battles with the Indian. These were the Elm Creek Fight, the Stone House Fight, and Byrd’s Fight, all in the late 1830s. In all cases, the battles were a loss for the rangers or a draw, with few casualties on either side and with the surviving rangers retreating. During those retreats, the Little River farmers were forced to leave as well.

 

The Elm Creek Fight, also called the Elmwood Creek Blood Scrape, took place in January 1837, not long after the fort was built. It occurred at Elm Creek, a few miles east of the fort and about eight miles from Cameron, when fifteen rangers under Sgt. Erath attacked a hundred Indians whose tribal affiliation is not known. Two rangers and ten Indians were killed. This particular Elm Creek Fight is not to be confused with the more famous Elm Creek Raid that happened in 1864 in Young County.

 

The Stone House Fight, which took place the next October, began when a band of Kichai—people of a Caddo-Wichita tribe—raided Little River Fort for horses then headed north to their homeland. A company of rangers under William Eastland pursued them but lost their trail. The ranger company split into two groups, and the one commanded by Lt. A. B. Van Benthusen continued to pursue the Indians. Before they caught up with the guilty party, they ran across a group of Cherokee and Delaware near Fort Belknap. The group was led by a Kichai, whom the rangers killed. The rest of the band then declared friendship with Texas, and the rangers continued north, accompanied by the Cherokees and Delawares.

 

In November, the rangers finally came upon the guilty Kichai band near Windhorst. The Kichai were waiting for the rangers to attack, and though the Delawares and Cherokees tried to intervene, that proved fruitless when a ranger killed a Kichai for his tobacco pouch. The remaining Kichai attacked in what is now called the Battle of Stone House. Eight of the seventeen rangers survived. William Bollaert who traveled extensively in Texas in 1842 to 1847, marked the location of the fight on a surviving copy of the Arrowsmith map of Texas. (See below.)

 

The third battle centered on Little River Fort was the Bird Indian Fight, which took place on May 26, 1839. After a small band of Indians was discovered skinning a buffalo near the fort and chased away, a group of 34 rangers under Capt. John Bird pursued them. The rangers came upon a group of about thirty Indians and chased them, only to find that they were being led into a trap where some 200 to 300 Caddo, Kickapoo, and Comanche were waiting for them.

 

Seriously overwhelmed, Bird’s company attempted to retreat to Fort Milam, but the Indians mounted several charges, both on horses and on foot, and the rangers were forced to take refuge in a ravine carved by a small creek, where they made their stand. In the fight, Bird was shot through the heart by an arrow fired from an incredible two hundred yards. Some say he was shot off his horse while ordering his men to dismount, and others that he exposed himself above the rim of the ravine while encouraging his men to fight. Four of his men also were killed. The deaths on the Indian side are estimated to have been between 30 to as many as 100, and included one of their chiefs, Buffalo Hump, so named for the buffalo horns he wore on his headdress. The Indians retreated, and the surviving rangers made their way to the Little River Fort, at the time called Fort Smith, reaching it on the afternoon of the following day. Today, the creek that carved the ravine is named Bird’s Creek in honor of Capt. Bird.

 

A Texas historical marker, located at ?????, commemorates the event. It reads:

 

MARKER TEXT HERE

 

In January 1840, Capt. James P. B. January's Company F of the First Infantry Regiment of the Army of the Texas Republic came from Camp Caldwell to garrison the Little River Fort, but they were not properly supplied and were forced to leave the garrison only a month later. A second attempt to garrison the fort occurred six months later, but the troops were recalled when the Army of the Republic of Texas disbanded in March 1841.

 

Despite the fact that the fort had been abandoned by the Texas government, scattered Indian raids were still occurring, making the fort a continuing necessity for the local settlements. It was taken over and maintained by a local civilian named Moses Griffin, and during his tenure, the fort was known as Fort Griffin—not to be confused with three similarly named forts in Texas: Fort Griffin on the banks of the Brazos River, Fort Griffin in Shackelford County, and Fort Griffin in Jefferson County.

 

Griffin eventually demolished the fort a few years after he took it over, and today, nothing survives of it except the nearby Fort Griffin Cemetery, where several of the Rangers killed in Bird’s Fight are buried. A historical marker at the intersection of West Main Street (County Road 436) and Wilson Valley Road reads: 

 

Site of a picket fort on Little River commonly called Fort Griffin; also known as Fort Smith and Little River Fort. Erected by Geo. B. Erath and 20 Texas Rangers in November, 1836 as a protection against Indians. Abandoned as a military post before the Santa Fe Expedition camped here, June 24-29, 1841 but used by settlers many years as a place of defense against the Indians. (Historical Marker 5027001986)

 

 

 

CAPTIONS

 

Arrowsmith Map with William Bollaert’s annotations. The location of the Little River fort is not shown correctly, but it was just below the second "t" in the Little River name. Bird's Fight battleground is shown towards the top left. Little River was part of Sterling Robertson’s Nashville colony, the capital Nashville is shown on the bottom right.

George Bernhard Erath

George Bernard Erath (1813-1891) was born on January 1, 1813, in Vienna, Austria. Following studies in English and Spanish at the Vienna Polytechnic Institute, he emmigrated to the United States. He landed in New Orleans in 1832 and then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, but by 1833, he’d moved to Texas.

 

Initially a surveyor, he soon joined John H. Moore’s rangers to help deal with Indian attacks. Soon after, he joined Edward Burleson’s First Regiment of Texas Volunteers and saw action at the Battle of San Jacinto. After the Texas Revolution, he rejoined the rangers, and in 1837, he commanded the ranger unit that constructed the Little River Fort, which he subseqently commanded for a short time—notably during the Elm Creek Indian Fight. After the Indians had largely been driven out of the area of Bell County, he remained in the Texas army but returned to surveying, platting the town of Caldwell in 1840.

 

During the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth congresses of the Texas Republic (1843-1845), he served as a member of the House of Representatives for Milam County, where he was a strong supporter of annexation of Texas by the United States. After annexation, he served in the First Legislature, but in 1846, he returned to surveying, platting the towns of Waco and Stephenville. Another stint in government followed in congress followed when he was elected to the Senate of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Legislature (1857-1860).

 

During the Civil War, Erath organized a company for Col. Joseph W. Speight’s Fifteenth Texas Infantry, but ill health forced him to return home to Waco. Erath served one last time in the Senate in 1874, representing the Ninteenth District in the Fourteenth Legislature. At age 73, blind and in poor health, Erath died on May 13, 1891. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Waco. Erath County is named for him. His memoirs, published in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 1923 and later in book form by the Texas State Historical Association, are a rich source of first-hand information on the Texas Revolution and the pioneer days of Central Texas.

(The photograph above is from a composite photograph titled Veterans of San Jacinto, by P.R. Rose, 1879.)

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