The beginning of “Where the West Begins”

A five-minute history of how Cowtown came to be.


Bronze tablet commemorating the site of Camp Worth.

Photo courtesy of the TSHA.

Table of Contents

As we look forward to another year, we thought we’d take a few minutes to look back to the beginning of Cowtown and how a little fort became the city we know today. Here’s our five-minute history of Fort Worth.


Gen. William J. Worth lived from 1794 to 1849.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The founding of Fort Worth

Way back when

The fertile area around the Trinity River had long been a hunting ground for Native American tribes when Jonathon Bird established a settlement in 1840.

In 1843, Gen. Edward H. Tarrant and George W. Terrell met with chiefs from nine differing tribes to parley a peace agreement after the Comanche Wars lead by Republic of Texas president Mirabeau Lamar. The Bird’s Fort Treaty created a line through the future site of Fort Worth — Native Americans on the west and settlers on the east, giving the town its famous slogan “Where the West Begins.”

“This is my post”

In 1849, the US Army established a protected frontier with forts every 100 miles from the Rio Grande River to the Red River. Maj. Ripley Arnold was sent to an empty spot in the defensive line along the Trinity River — the bluff where Heritage Park sits today.

In May 1849, Ripley raised “Old Glory” and began constructing Fort Worth, named after the late Maj. Gen. William Jenkins Worth, veteran of the Texas-Mexico War.

Off to the races

The settlement grew to a whopping 350 souls before the fort was vacated in September 1853 when the frontier pushed toward the Pacific.

The settlers set about building a town, converting military buildings to municipal ones. In 1873, Fort Worth was incorporated by the state and Dr. WP Burts was elected the first mayor.


In the late 1800’s, land owners began crossing off routes with barbed wire, effectively closing the Chisholm Trail.

Photo courtesy of UTA Libraries

Cattle drives and cowboy confrontations

Hitch up for the Chisholm Trail

From 1867 to 1884, cowboys drove longhorn cattle up from the Rio Grande Valley through Fort Worth to Kansas on a route known as the Chisholm Trail. Although only used for a short time, over five million cattle and one million mustangs were driven over the Chisholm Trail in the “greatest migration of livestock in world history.”

“A rough town”

The cattle drive — and the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1876 — brought all kinds of folk to town, who stirred up a fair bit of trouble.

Fulfilling the town’s Wild West status, several blocks in downtown picked up the nickname “Hell’s Half Acre” for their particularly rambunctious nature. The red-light district bustled with saloons, brothels, and gambling dens, frequented by cowboys, ruffians, and outlaws.

The area — also known as the “Bloody Third Ward” — saw the likes of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and many others just itchin’ for a fight. Acre’s notoriety dwindled around the state’s first prohibition campaign in 1889.

The spirit of the Chisholm Trail and Hell’s Half Acre can still be seen in Fort Worth today, but with a little less risk. Next time you’re commuting on the Chisholm Trail Parkway, imagine all the cars are cattle, and if someone insinuates that Dallas is better than Fort Worth, rein in your inner outlaw and shrug it off. They’re just jealous.


The arrival of the railroad sparked a boom in population and business in Fort Worth.

Photo courtesy of UTA Libraries

The railroad comes to Panther City

Close but no cigar

In the early 1870s, construction of the Texas and Pacific Railway (T&P) was rocketing across the state from east to west, reaching from Longview to Eagle Ford, a town just west of Dallas.

The Panic of 1873 hit and Jay Cook & Co., the Philadelphia-based investment firm financing the railroad, went under. It took another three years to build the 30 miles of tracks to Fort Worth.

The stalled railroad project swept the feet out from under the burgeoning Fort Worth and left the streets empty — prompting the sleeping panther joke that gave our city its nickname.

A group effort

Cowtown residents, including John Peter Smith, banded together to form the Tarrant County Construction Company and pooled money, labor, and supplies to restart the railroad construction in 1875.

Confederate veteran Major K. M. Van Zandt led the charge, using 320 acres of (then southside) land donated by himself, Ephraim Daggett, Thomas Jefferson Jennings, and other local landowners.

The crews worked day and night to construct the railroad before the state’s land grant ended in 1876 — and they succeeded, completing the last two miles between Sycamore Creek and downtown in five days.

The first trained rolled into town on July 19 at 11:23 a.m., blowing the whistle on a new era for Fort Worth.

Still chugging along

The railroad is still an important part of our town today as Fort Worth is home to the headquarters for BNSF Railway, one of the largest freight railroads in North America. Just take a peak over the Hulen Street overpass to see the lines in action.

The rest is history

Stay tuned for more historical — and current-day — tales as Cowtown enters its 170th year.

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