Fort Concho and “Dead” Ellis

Howard often wrote proudly of his beloved Texas in his correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft. Here, in a letter dated February 11, 1936, he tells HPL about one of his favorite Texas towns:

San Angelo is a likable town of about 25,000 people, on the bank of the South Concho, amongst vast, rolling prairies. It is the biggest mohair market on this continent, and much more Western in air and viecrovwpoint than the hill-towns in this vicinity, as well as more cosmopolitan. This phrase, used in connection with such a small town, may seem incongruous. But it must be remembered that a town of 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 in the West is much more important in the pattern of things than an Eastern town of the same size. San Angelo is the largest town between Fort Worth and El Paso, and draws from an enormous trade territory extending for hundreds of miles in every direction, including vast, rich areas of farming land and cattle country. The streets are broad and straight, everything modern and up to date, the attitude of the people friendly and good natured, typically Western. Technically and mechanically West Texas is more highly developed than East Texas (of course excepting the cities of East Texas, such as Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, etc.) and it seems to me that general standards of education are higher — higher than in this Central hill-country, too, I believe. The contrasts of costumes on San Angelo streets are interesting: suits and dresses such as you would see on the streets of San Antonio or New Orleans contrasted with ten-gallon hats and spurred boots. San Angelo is, by the way, famous for its hat-shops and boot-shops. People living in San Antonio, Saint Louis, Santa Fe and other distant points often have their boots made there. I got just the sort of a hat I had been looking for, and unable to find, for some time. It’s a fast stepping town, and comparatively wide-open. As in any typically West Texas town there is plenty of drinking, fighting and love-making going on all the time. I believe you would find much of interest in the museum in the administrative building of old Fort Concho, established, as I remember, in 1868 and abandoned as a post in 1889. A public school now stands in the middle of the parade-square, but many of the old buildings are still standing, some of the officers’ houses now being used as residences.

In that same letter, Howard described his recent trips there to attend to his mother who was in a sanatorium and a hospital in San Angelo. Since he was spending a considerable amount of time there, he took a few breaks to do some sightseeing. One of the places he visited was a former frontier outpost known as Fort Concho.

Fort Concho was established in 1867, along the banks of the Concho River, the location was then at the junction of the Butterfield Trail, Goodnight Trail and the road to San Antonio. The site itself was chosen for its strategic location at the junction of the North and Middle Concho Rivers and because of the major trails in the vicinity. By March 1, 1870, several buildings had been completed, including a commissary and quartermaster storehouse, hospital, five officers’ quarters, a powder magazine and two barracks – all built of limestone. In 1873 units of the 10th Cavalry Regiment began relocating to the Fort to help quell the Indian uprisings.

The 10th Cavalry Regiment was formed as a unit of the United States Army. It was a segregated African-American unit and one of the original “Buffalo Soldier” regiments. In April of 1875, the 10th Cavalry moved its regimental headquarters to Fort Concho. Other Companies (later called Troops) were assigned to various Forts throughout the west Texas region. At various times from 1873 through 1885, Fort Concho housed 9th Cavalry Companies in addition to the 10th Cavalry Companies; some infantry Companies were stationed there as well.

There are a number of stories floating around about how the Buffalo Soldiers go their name — here is one:

In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G of the 10th Cavalry Regiment was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunters suddenly became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on them. The two civilians quickly fell in the initial attack and Randall’s horse was shot out from beneath him. Randall managed to scramble to safety behind a washout under the railroad tracks, where he fended off the attack with only his pistol until help from the nearby camp arrived. The Indians beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind 13 fallen warriors. Private Randall suffered a gunshot wound to his shoulder and 11 lance wounds, but recovered. The Cheyenne quickly spread word of this new type of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

The 10th’s mission in Texas was to protect mail and travel routes, control Indian movements, provide protection from Mexican revolutionaries and outlaws and to gain knowledge of the area’s terrain. The regiment was very successful in completing their mission. The 10th scouted 34,420 miles of uncharted terrain, opened more than 300 miles of new roads, and laid over 200 miles of telegraph lines. The scouting activities took the troops through some of the harshest and most desolate terrain in the nation. These excursions allowed the preparation of excellent maps detailing scarce water holes, mountain passes, and grazing areas that would later allow for settlement of the area. These feats were accomplished while the troops had constantly to be on the alert for quick raids by the Apaches. The stay in west Texas produced tough soldiers who became accustomed to surviving in an area that offered few comforts and no luxuries.

Santa Angela, or San Angelo was a village across the Concho River from the Fort and had established itself as place for “whiskey and sin” to separate the soldiers from their monthly pay. One of the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Fort Concho was a young cavalryman named Ellis, who was prone to crossing the river and going into the town to enjoy these illicit pastimes, especially imbibing copious amounts of liquor. Indeed, the young soldier had a problem knowing when to quit and frequently over indulged.

On one of his drinking binges, Ellis passed out in one of San Angelo’s many saloons. His friends quickly gathered him up and carried him back to the barracks, Exhausted from dragging his carcass back, they threw him on his hay-stuffed mattress before calling it a night themselves.

When the sound of reveille echoed through the barracks early the next morning, the hung-over soldiers reluctantly climbed out of their beds, dressed and assembled on the parade ground. Everyone was present except Ellis.

Enraged at his absence, the company’s sergeant went looking for the wayward soldier. Ellis’ sergeant was ready to kick the drunken trooper out of his bed and escort him to the stockade. But upon finding Ellis and discovering he was non-responsive, his rage turned to concern when the sergeant noticed Ellis had gone rigid. He was still warm, but did not appear to be breathing.

Word was sent to the post hospital to for a surgeon. The doctor soon arrived and examined the unconscious trooper. Unable to find a heartbeat or pulse, the surgeon pronounced Ellis dead from alcohol poisoning and ordered his body be removed to the small white frame house behind the hospital, a structure known as the Death House.

Remember, this was before refrigeration and the common practice of embalming, so the death house was a standard ancillary structure at most hospitals. Bodies went to the death house to be prepared for burial, a process on the frontier that did not amount to much more than cleaning up the newly departed and placing the body in a pine box for burial in the post cemetery the following day. The only other thing the post surgeon could do for Ellis was complete the necessary paperwork so that his family could learn of his demise while in the service of his country.

Ellis had several good friends, most of them having been present on his drinking spree the night before. In a final gesture of respect, his soldier pals gathered in the death house to sit with his body. To allay their sense of loss, his comrades took turns drinking from a jug of whiskey somehow slipped past the guards whose job it was find and confiscate contraband from those who passed between the Fort and San Angelo.

Sometime after midnight, some 24 hours after Ellis’ death, the mourners heard what sounded like a low moan coming from their departed friend’s coffin. Dismissing the noise as the prairie wind, the soldiers continued drinking and heard the sound again. It was a moan, no question about it. While readily prepared to fight hostile Indians, the soldiers had no interest in taking on inhabitants of the spirit world.

The troops dove through the nearest window or door, not caring how they got out as long as they exited that house and got away from Ellis’ ghost as quickly as possible. But, as the old saying goes, reports of Ellis’ death had been greatly exaggerated. In truth he had only been dead drunk, not dead.

Ellis’ friends had found the situation no less terrifying than Ellis, whose blood-alcohol level had finally dropped low enough to allow a return to consciousness. Realizing he lay in his dress uniform inside a wooden coffin just a few hours away from being buried alive, the soldier jumped from the box and crashed through a window to catch up with his fleeing friends.

The newly resurrected Ellis and his comrades soon recovered from their fright and returned to the barracks. The post commander ordered the formerly “dead” soldier to pay for the damage to government property and spend some time in the stockade as punishment for his drinking binge. But he also gained a nickname that lasted the rest of his long life: “Dead” Ellis.

Fort Concho was abandoned by the military in 1889, with the last company of soldiers marching off to San Antonio. The military reservation reverted to private property and the hospital was converted into a rooming house. Later, it became a hay barn. Due to the sturdy construction of the limestone buildings, most of them were re-purposed as residences for the locals.

By the late 1920s there had been several efforts to save the fort as a memorial to the 19th-century U.S. Calvary and pioneers. Ginevra Carson, an educator and businesswoman, started the Fort Concho Museum in the old Headquarters Building, which opened to the public in 1930. It was this museum Howard visited and referenced in his letter to HPL.

Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, Fort Concho includes most of the former army post and includes twenty-three original and restored Fort structures. Today the old frontier army post is a historic preservation project and museum which is owned and operated by the City of San Angelo.