Another Visit to the Quadrangle

My daughter and I with Wee Jamie had cause to visit Fort Sam Houston this week, to pick up some prescription refills and make a run through the commissary – but before we did, we went by the historic old Quadrangle, so that my grandson could pester the deer and the peacocks and admire the enormous koi goldfish in the little landscaped fishpond. Yes, the historic limestone Quadrangle, the original structure and oldest building at Fort Sam houses a kind of petting zoo in the courtyard in the middle of three block-long ranges of buildings. That is, it would be a petting zoo if the current herd of nine deer were slightly more tame.

The Quadrangle was originally constructed to replace the Alamo, which had been the original military HQ in this part of Texas, serving sequentially the Spanish colonial army, the Mexican army, the Texian militia and army, the US Army, the Confederate Army, and the US Army again over the space of 200 years. (The Quadrangle is now HQ 5th Army, and home to the post’s historical museum.) In it’s last decades as a military installation, the Alamo was basically a central supply depot for the US Army in the Southwest, and the plaza before it a wagon park. When city sprawl swamped it all in the 1870s, the Army took the opportunity of some donated land out north of town to build a brand-new post with plenty of room for quartermastering activities – to park wagons, pasture horses and mules, warehouse supplies, and to establish a proper garrison for training and housing troops and officers.

Originally constructed for defense against attack by hostile Indians, the Quadrangle was first built without doors and windows along the outside walls. This was a somewhat remote reality by the time that the Quadrangle’s cornerstone was laid – but not entirely out of the question, and certainly not outside of living memory by troops and ordinary citizens then. About the only activity in the Quadrangle involving hostile or formerly hostile Indians came in the mid-1880s, when the Apache war leader Geronimo and the survivors of his war band were captured and interned there for a month before being moved to Florida. The legend is that the deer and birds were brought in to serve as meals on the hoof for the Apache prisoners … but that is an oft-debunked legend. According to some accounts, the presence of the deer predated the Apache internees.

Which does bring up the question – why? Why is a herd of semi-tame deer and a flock of peacocks and waterfowl kept on an active military post? They must be maintained at some expense and trouble, after all – there are pens for the deer and sheltered quarters. Presumably deer chow has to be gotten from somewhere, not to mention veterinary care. The first obvious answer is – military tradition! Like the Barbary apes at Gibraltar, and the ravens in the Tower of London. They are there, because they always have been there, and caring for them is enshrined in custom since time immemorial, or at least in this case, since the 1870s. But why – and since when? I began to wonder about this during our visit and did a little research when I got home … and it turns out that … no one really knows for certain. A local historian ventured the supposition that having a few peacocks and tame deer around the place was a popular domestic thing to do in the late 1800s. I have my own theory about the deer herd, though. I suspect that sometime after troops and families came to live at Fort Sam that someone rescued an orphaned deer fawn and made a pet out of it … and the best place to keep it when it was grown was in the confines of the Quadrangle, which seems to have become a park very early on. Could have been an officer’s wife or family member … or equally – a soldier. The deer fawn became a unit mascot – goodness knows that other unlikely animals have since become beloved and honored unit mascots – bears and horses, among them. Within a few years, having the deer at Fort Sam was an established custom, and everyone forgot about who and under what circumstances the deer herd had been established.

Discuss as you will – and share any theories that you might have.

7 thoughts on “Another Visit to the Quadrangle”

  1. Sgt. Mom–

    There’s a very entertaining book about the ravens in the Tower, “The Ravenmaster” by Christopher Skaife. If you haven’t read it, I think you’d enjoy it.

    And there is a sort-of parallel to Fort Sam. All of the yeomen warders–popularly known as Beefeaters–have to have a record of 25 years of unblemished military service just to qualify to apply for the job. Skaife’s book is a mix of his own military service, English history, and fascinating descriptions of the birds’ unique personalities.

  2. Thanks for reviving a wonderful memory from my 1950’s childhood. As an Army brat and almost life-long resident of San Antonio, I vividly remember petting the does and watching the peacocks strut their stuff. It was a Thanksgiving weekend tradition for us. There would be other families there, too, so maybe the does were more tame. The buck or two would never let us get close.

    I’m going to stick with the idea of them being there for the Chiricahua to kill, even though giving a weapon to an imprisoned enemy made no sense to a six year old. Thanks, again.

  3. I remember visiting the Quadrangle many times while in town visiting my Grandmother. She lived in a duplex at 910 Mason Street, just a few blocks away. I would walk there and climb on the M-60 tank on display. I took my kids there decades later to visit when I was in town for a convention. Wonderful place and wonderful memories.

  4. Hi, TM – haven’t read the book, will look around and see if I can find it. I have visited the Tower of London, twice … seen the ravens, looked at the Crown Jewels and all the rest of what was there to offer. I did know about the Tower guards, though – and being retired soldiers of good repute. The first time I was there, I think was a year or two after a terrorist incident at the Tower and believe me, the calculating manner in which they looked at visitors … old and grey they may be, but they are as tough as nails, still.
    I’ve seen the apes at Gibraltar, too – one of them sat on the hood of my car and ate an apple there. I think we had the scraps of it cooked to the paint on the hood for weeks…
    I thought it was kind of interesting that no one really knows how the ravens OR the apes got to be such a significant and official part of those places, just as the deer have been at Fort Sam.
    There is a very funny novel about the apes at Gibraltar, during WWII, when they (according to the plot) were reduced to a single unlovely, bad-tempered specimen named Scruffy.

  5. I have Skaife’s book on the ravens. was somewhat disappointed by it. Been a while since I read it so I may have some things wrong. IIRC, it had less history and few tales and/or legends. But it did have a lot about how they’re cared for, the history of the Ravenmaster position and how he got it.

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