Fort Shirley and the Flat Creek Community
Myths and legends are often difficult to separate from truth and fact and the story of the silent sentinel which stands a few miles north of De Leon bears witness to the accuracy of that statement.
Over the years, this stone tower was said to date back to the time of the Norsemen in America. It was claimed that it marked the location of hidden Spanish silver or even a gold mine. Others said that it was an Indian meat curing plant but the metal trowel marks disprove that theory. An often repeated story was that during the Civil War setters would drop molten lead from the top and that the lead would form rounded shot by the time it reached the bottom. Of course, there were few settlers in this area during the Civil War as most of them had returned to east Texas since there men or troops available to defend this part of Texas. Besides, the distance of this then frontier location to any place in need of shot made it an impractical place for a “munitions plant”. Most people believed that it marked the site of Fort Shirley and that the portholes seen in the photos were to allow settlers to shoot at marauding Indians. The claim that ruins of the fort actually existed appeared in the Texas Almanac for a number of years. Later in the late 1960s, that claim coupled with the fact that the Lt. Governor of Texas was from De Leon probably landed the town and Highway 16 on the Texas Forts Trail.
The reality was is that the tower was the smoke stack of an old saw mill located at or near Fort Shirley.
Officially, the United States never had a Fort Shirley nor for that matter a Fort Blair along the Indian frontier but, both forts did exist and they were built as protection from the Indians. Over the years a string of forts that were intended to protect settlers and people heading to the gold fields of California were established along the Texas frontier. These included Fort Gates near Gatesville, Fort Belknap near Newcastle in Young County, Fort Graham near Whitney, Fort Phantom Hill near Abilene and Fort Griffin near Albany. But, those forts were too distant to react with speed to numerous and repeated Comanche Indian attacks in this part of Texas. A company of 60 Rangers were assigned to protect Comanche County but they were stationed at Fort Gates. Family forts began to spring up in this section. Fort Shirley and Fort Blair were two of those forts.
Fort Blair was established in 1860 when the C.C. Blair family moved to Eastland County. That fort is believed to have stood in what is now the middle of FM Road 8 on the east side of Hog Creek (across the creek from the present Desdemona school building) in what became downtown Desdemona.
Mrs. C.C. (Meeky) Blair, in the May 15, 1914 De Leon Free Press, recalled that in 1860 Indian troubles forced their family to relocate from Fort Blair to Fort Shirley which was located on Flat Creek a tributary of the Leon River about five miles north of De Leon. The location is near present day Victor Cemetery. She indicated that the distance from Fort Blair to Fort Shirley was eight miles and described the fort as having a watch tower surrounded by a ten foot high picket fence. At Fort Shirley, C.C. Blair signed on as a Texas Ranger. She mentions that at a later date, her husband “in the company of Mr. Shirley” ran into a band of Indians. So there is confirmation that there was indeed a Fort Shirley but was the stone tower part of the fort? Well, maybe.
The question of what the stone tower actually had been may have first appeared in print in the 40th Anniversary issue of the De Leon Free Press, June 28, 1929. The answer appeared in the August 16th issue.
A Mr. B. (Berry-see article below) Reeves wrote in telling the editor that his father Joseph Reeves, had moved to Comanche County in 1869, setting south of what is now De Leon on the McGuire lands. When Joseph later moved to Blanket, the younger Reeves moved to Lowell, a community in Erath County north of De Leon and east of Fort Shirley.
He indicated that he and a Mr. Powers were hired by the owner of a sawmill to construct the tower. The mill had been operating since 1870 but a storm had destroyed the metal smoke stack. A replacement stack would had to have been shipped by ox team from Jefferson in far east Texas so the owner had decided to have a stone stack built.
In the fall of 1873, Berry and Powers constructed the rock tower apparently with the help of a William Gannon and a James Thomas.
Gannon declared in a sworn statement in the District Court in Comanche that he was employed as a mechanic and laborer during the fall of 1873 by L.B. Wood of Comanche County. He claimed that he had worked thirty-two and one half days for Wood on the construction of a steam saw and grist mill situated about 25 miles northeast from the town (Comanche) on the east side of Flat Creek. He indicated that he assisted in digging the foundation, quarrying rock, burning lime, preparing other material, and in the building of this mill which he said was known as Woods Mill. The work was said to have been completed on December 24, 1873.
A mechanics and materialman’s lien was placed by James Thomas against Lawrence B. Wood and his steam mill “Situated in the county of Comanche in the North East corner of said county, and on a tract of five acres of land a pre-emption survey granted to a Wm. Arthur situated on Flat Creek.” Thomas claimed that on September 20, 1873 and on other days afterward until September 4, 1874, he performed various services and furnished assorted materials for Wood under an agreement which included labor costs and ten cents per pound for all iron furnishing in repairing a certain steam mill. He won a judgement at the February Term of the District Court in 1875.
Reeves explained that the portholes in the tower were where the end of the scaffolding was placed as construction progressed upward. The tower was built of native stone with the flue from the boiler entering the stack at a large rectangular opening at the base of the stack. At the time of the article, Reeves noted that part of the foundation of the fort was visible only a few yards from the tower. Mr. Reeves lived in the area for over fifty years.
Mr. Reeves’ story was confirmed by Claude Pair who as a boy of 15 or 16 had spoken with him about constructing the tower. Pair also stated that Elbert Arthur had talked about the sawmill and had shown Mr. Pair some rawhide lumber that was said to have been cut at the mill. Reeves had indicated that a beam in the then home of W.L. Brown had been cut at the mill and he also displayed a yoke made from lumber from the mill.
Lowery Easley, who did significant research, documentation and restoration at the site, confirmed that Berry Reeves was in the area at that time and that the land on which the tower stands is within the Arthur Survey. He pointed out that Reeves’ initials can be seen in the mortar on the tower.
Around the time the tower was built, a small settlement existed at the site called Flat Creek. It lasted for five or six years and consisted of a small school, a store, blacksmith, a grist mill and a still. G.W. Nolan who was the round house foreman for the MKT in Rotan in 1929 visited the Flat Creek area that year and recalled that when his family moved to the Flat Creek area when he was seven years old (ca: 1876), there was also a post office at the community however no record of that post office has been located. He indicated that he was one of three students at a school on Flat Creek near Docum in Erath County.
Flat Creek was said to have rivaled Bibb and Hazel Dell as a frontier hangout for outlaws. Since Indian raids continued in Comanche County until sometime after 1874, it is probable that the tower was located within what was Fort Shirley but certainly was within the village of Flat Creek.
L.B. Wood was later involved in a mill and gin in Sipe Springs. Two little girls were killed by Indians around 1860, at least one of which appears to have been a Wood but whether or not she was related to L.B. Wood is not known.
Excerpts from the History of Texas
In the mid 1890s a salesman called upon families throughout Central Texas offering for a sale, a book to be published containing Texas history and biographical sketches of those families who were willing to spend $20 to be included. The 830 page book was published in 1896. In addition to a thorough history of Texas, dozens of family histories from communities basically west of Fort Worth and north of Austin were included. The History of Texas was published by the Lewis Publishing Company of Chicago.
While the family stories were perhaps a little self indulgent by today’s standards, those same stories usually provide an outstanding starting point for genealogist researching a family tree. Only a few families have been lucky enough to retain a copy of this book. Today the book sells at book shows for about $450 if you can find one.
The Reeves family settled south of what is now De Leon before moving to the Blanket area. Their son Berry, helped build the old stone tower. Additional information on the family has been included at the end of the sketch.
[Joseph Reeves is] “Among the prominent and respected pioneers of the Lone Star state…and one of the most valued citizens of Brown county.
Mr. Reeves was bon in Walton county, Georgia, October 6, 1817, and was educated and reared the state of his nativity until seventeen years of age, when he accompanied his parents on their removal to southern Alabama, where they remained for nine years. On the expiration of that period he returned to Georgia. His parents were Jonathan and Batany (Mayfield) Reeves. His father was born in South Carolina, in 1788, and was of Irish extraction, the original American ancestors having come to this country in the early days when America was a province of Great Britain: he died in 1844. Mrs. Reeves was also a native of South Carolina, born in 1793, while her death occurred October 22, 1854. Her husband survived her several years and passed away June 30, 1860. Their family numbered eight children, the subject of this review being the fourth in order of birth.
Joseph Reeves…became a resident of Texas in 1854 and for fourteen years made his home in Parker county, after which he went to Comanche county. He now makes his home in Brown county, near the Comanche line, some twelve miles west of the city of Comanche. Here he has resided for twenty-two years…..
On Christmas day of 1849, while in Georgia, Mr. Reeves was united in marriage to Miss Sarah M. Duke, a native of that state. Their home was made bright and happy by the presence of seven children, namely: Berry, Elijah, Malachiah, Nancy B., wife of John Knuteson [actually Knudson], John, Luke and Mark. Their eldest son Jonathan died in 1860.
In political views, Mr. Reeves has always been a stanch Democrat. For many years he has been associated with the Missionary Baptist Church and in both church and education interests he has borne his part. For a number of years he served as a member of the school board, and has ever been a public-spirited man deeply interested in the welfare of the community. In 1836 he served in the Seminole War in Florida, aiding in subduing the Seminole Indians, one of the hardest tribes to bring under subjection. He is now seventy-nine years of age but is well preserved both mentally and physically…..”
Additional notes: Berry Reeves married Nancy Blair on May 10, 1874 in Comanche County. Joseph Reeves died on November 15, 1909 at the age of 92. His wife Sarah was born on August 25, 1829 and died on February 1, 1913. Both are buried in the Logan’s Valley Cemetery in far western Comanche County. The cemetery is reachable from FM 1467 north of Blanket. Many of his children and their spouses are also buried there including, sons Luke, John, and Nancy. Nancy J. Blair Reeves, wife of Berry is also buried there (January 11, 1857-May 3, 1892). The burial site of Berry Reeves is unknown.