Park Pick: Mercenary Beginnings
A former trading post, Fort Leaton State Historic Site offers history plus nature.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
Pursued by Apaches, nearly out of provisions, Lt. William Whiting and his men — en route from San Antonio to El Paso — rejoiced as they approached an adobe compound near Presidio in March 1849. For several days, the group enjoyed owner Ben Leaton’s hospitality — and paid his outlandish prices.
“Leaton is very active and enterprising in his assistance,” Whiting penned in his diary. “His endeavors … to promote our success lay me under many obligations.”
Today, Fort Leaton State Historic Site preserves the frontier complex — believed to be the state’s largest adobe structure — that Whiting visited. However, its name is a bit of a misnomer.
“Many people think Fort Leaton was a military fort, but it was really Leaton’s home and trading post,” says manager Tony Manriquez.
Legends cloud much of Fort Leaton’s history, but most researchers agree that Leaton used unethical means in 1848 to obtain some existing adobe buildings and surrounding farmland. Leaton added more rooms, which allowed him to house as many as 100 people, among them dozens of farm and ranch hands.
Of the fort’s 45 or so original rooms, 23 have been restored, complete with whitewashed walls and 16-foot-high timbered ceilings. Now efforts are under way to outfit rooms, one section at a time.
So far, replica period pieces — reminiscent of a Mexican hacienda — sparsely furnish the kitchen, living area, dining room, sleeping quarters and Leaton’s office.
“A local carpenter built most of the wooden tables, benches and chairs,” Manriquez says. “He even used a chain to beat the wood and make it look old.”
Besides history, the 23.4-acre site offers picnic tables and a nature trail.
“The gravel path starts on a bluff, then winds through desert habitat with yuccas, mesquites and creosotes,” Manriquez says. “The trail ends in what was once a riparian area with grass, river cane and cottonwoods.”
Throughout the park, bird watchers have documented 89 different species.
No camping is allowed at the day-use-only site. But visitors can pick up camping and backpacking permits to nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. Heads up: The drive along River Road (FM 170) is considered to be one of the most scenic in Texas.
Fort Leaton State Historic Site is located 4 miles southeast of Presidio on FM 170.
For more information, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fortleaton
or call 432-229-3613.