Texas Mountain Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper

Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, engineer and military officer in the Tenth United States Cavalry, lived a remarkably successful life through the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in light of the fact that he was born a slave in 1856. His education began at the American Missionary Association, an opportunity available to him as a result of the Civil War, and concluded with membership in the 1877 graduating class of West Point, becoming the first African American to do so. As Lieutenant, Flipper served on the front lines of an expanding western settlement, commanding forces in two battles at Eagle Springs and serving as engineer surveyor, construction supervisor, quartermaster, and commissary officer. Flipper was stationed at posts across the frontier including Fort Davis, Fort Concho, Fort Sill in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Fort Quitman, and Fort Elliott. Later in civilian life, Flipper continued his success as civil engineer, author, translator, and surveyor, and occupied positions on the national stage including agent of the Justice Department, aide to Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and assistant to the Secretary of the Interior with the Alaskan Engineering Commission.  As an authority on mining and land laws of Mexico, Flipper worked with mining and mineral companies in northern Mexico and Venezuela and authored several works, including an autobiography called “The Colored Cadet at West Point” and a memoir titled “Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, first Black Graduate of West Point.”

While these accomplishments are laudable by any standard, they are all the more admirable considering the level of prejudice Flipper faced while tackling his aspirations. Flipper suffered a humiliating court-martial in 1882, the result of a manipulative subterfuge perpetrated by his commanding officer Col. William Rufus Shafter at Fort Davis and one that will reside in military history as a disturbing chapter where bigotry derailed an otherwise stellar career. Over a hundred years later, Flipper received a pardon, courtesy of President William Jefferson Clinton, exonerating him of the accusations and conviction that led to his court martial; a posthumous validation of his innocence, a position Flipper maintained his entire life. Today, his story is interpreted throughout the frontier fort history and across the Texas west, including museums at the Fort Concho and Fort Davis National Historic Sites, where his reputation is restored and his service is honored in perpetuity.

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