The Chihuahuan Desert hugging the Rio Grande in far West Texas was a killing field for Spanish explorers, Apaches, Comanches, white scalp hunters, and freighters daring to travel between San Antonio and Ciudad Chihuahua. Apache and Comanche raids into Mexico—killing
hundreds, stealing thousands of livestock and capturing women and children—resulted by 1835 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora offering a bounty for scalps. The prices ranged from $100 for braves to $50 for squaws and $25 for children under fourteen. Once the scalp dried, it was difficult to tell whether it had belonged to an Indian, a Mexican, or a white person, which encouraged the wholesale slaughter of anyone caught in the region. The financial panic of 1837 left miners in Northern Mexico and pioneers moving west in need of money. Scalp hunting brought in more cash than most men could make in a year.
The Indian raids decreased during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as U.S. soldiers chased Indians when the army wasn’t busy fighting the Mexicans. However, after the war, the Indian attacks increased and the price per scalp inflated to $200—a quicker profit than heading to the California gold fields.
In 1848, after the Rio Grande was officially marked as the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, Ben Leaton, a freighter who had been augmenting his income by working as a scalp hunter, realized that a trading post on the Rio Grande would be a prime location on the Chihuahua Trail. Jefferson Morgenthaler, author of The River Has Never Divided Us writes that Ben Leaton selected a site for a trading post three miles downriver from Presidio del Norte (present Presidio) and by bribing local officials, he produced forged deeds to the land where Mexican peasants had farmed for generations.
Leaton, at the point of a gun, ran the Mexican farmers off of a tract of farmland that was five miles long and over a mile wide. Their protests to Mexican authorities went unheeded because the land was no longer part of Mexico. Then Leaton set about building a fortification that would serve as his home, trading post, and corral. He constructed his forty-room fortress with eighteen-inch thick adobe walls that paralleled the river for 200 feet and formed an L-shaped stockade. Walls and parapets, topped by a small cannon, enclosed the structure. Giant wooden doors opened to admit teams and wagons to the fortress that became known as Fort Leaton, the only fortification between Eagle Pass and El Paso. While Fort Davis was being built eighty miles to the north, the U.S. Army used Fort Leaton as its headquarters and continued over the years to use the site as an outpost for its military patrols.
Morgenthaler writes that the first group of Texans to reach the new trading post was a seventy-man expedition in October 1848, under the leadership of the famed Texas Ranger Jack Hays. The group was charged with opening a trading route between San Antonio and Chihuahua. Depending on an inaccurate map and an incompetent guide, the entourage had gotten lost and arrived half-starved. Leaton welcomed them while they regained their strength, and he sold them horses and supplies for the remainder of their journey. Although they returned to San Antonio without completing the expedition, the Chihuahua Trail soon opened to a steady stream of freighters passing Fort Leaton.
No record survives of any Indian attacks on Fort Leaton. Ben Leaton’s critics claimed he avoided attacks because he traded rifles, bullets, swords, tobacco, and whiskey with the Indians in exchange for stolen livestock, church ornaments, housewares, and Mexican captives. Leaton also served as a welcoming host, for a hefty price, to traders heading to Mexico and forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of California.
Leaton died in 1851 before charges could be brought by the Inspector of the Military Colonies of Chihuahua of “a thousand abuses, and of so hurtful a nature, that he keeps an open treaty with the Apache Indians . . . .” His widow married Edward Hall who continued operating the trading post. Hall borrowed money in 1864 from Leaton’s scalp hunting partner John Burgess. When Hall defaulted on the debt, he was murdered, and the Burgess’ family moved into the fort. Then, Leaton’s son murdered Burgess in 1875. The Burgess family remained at Fort Leaton until 1926.
A private citizen bought the fort and donated it to Presidio County; however, inadequate funding kept the old structure from being properly maintained. Eventually, the structure was donated it to the state, and it was restored and designated in 1968 as Fort Leaton State Historic Site.
Sitting among the lechuguilla, ocotillo, creosote bush, and candelilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, the old fort welcomes visitors seven days a week, except Christmas.