Bridges: Fort Worth namesake was distinguished war hero
The City of Fort Worth, a beloved Texas city sometimes known as “Cowtown” or “Where the West Begins,” has a storied past that has helped shape the history of the state. However, the name behind the city was a legend in its own right. Gen. William Jenkins Worth was a distinguished officer and war hero who fought for the Texas and the nation.
Worth was born in the small community of Hudson, New York, in 1794. His parents were devout Quakers, and his father made a comfortable living as a merchant ship captain. When the War of 1812 erupted, the younger Worth enlisted in the army. Though Quakers are typically pacifists, Worth nevertheless decided for a life of adventure and service to the country in the army.
Worth earned a commission as a first lieutenant in March 1813 and was immediately assigned to serve as an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott became an important mentor and close friend as the two spent years together serving the nation. Worth fought in a number of fierce battles against the British as American forces pushed into British territory in Canada. At the Battle of Lundy’s Lane in July 1814, he and Scott were both wounded in what was the bloodiest battle of the war. Worth’s leg injury almost proved fatal, and he never fully regained use of the leg.
However, Worth was still determined to serve in the army. So impressed with his bravery and determination, he was named Commandant of Cadets at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 1816 as a major. As commandant, Worth instilled the lessons of duty and honor into the aspiring young officers. He taught the importance of never excusing a dishonorable act in another officer and the necessity of integrity in all matters, to keep one’s word no matter what. His essays on honor are still required reading for West Point cadets.
In 1838, he was promoted to colonel and given command of an infantry regiment. He fought in the Second Seminole War in Florida as tribes and settlers clashed. He was promoted to brigadier general afterward.
After Texas was admitted in 1845, Mexico threatened war with the United States over its former possession. Worth was assigned to patrol the border with Gen. Zachary Taylor when war erupted in mid-1846. He negotiated the surrender of the Mexican city of Matamoros in September and pushed his forces steadily southward toward the capital. After another year of heavy fighting, Worth and his men swept aside the last defenses of Mexico City with the victory at Chapultepec. Worth himself was commended for his bravery in this battle. When Mexico City was captured, Worth personally replaced the Mexican flag with the American flag at the Capitol building.
After the end of the Mexican War, Worth was given command of the army’s Department of Texas in 1848. He realized that fighting between settlers and frontier tribes would continue and devised a system of protecting the Texas frontier. This plan materialized in a string of forts acting as a barrier between tribal lands and the farms and towns settlers of Central and North Texas. Though10 forts were planned between Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande and the Trinity River, only seven were built, including Fort Graham, Fort Duncan, and Fort Lincoln.
In the spring of 1849, as Worth’s career continued to ascend, San Antonio was struck by a deadly cholera epidemic. Worth contracted the disease and died at the age of 55. Gen. William Harney then ordered that the last fort, near the Trinity River, be named in honor of Worth as Fort Worth.
Worth was later buried in a tomb at what is now Worth Square in New York City, where a street is also named for him. Several other cities and counties were later named for him. Lake Worth, a small Texas suburb nestled next to Fort Worth, is also named for the famed general and is a thriving community of around 5,000 residents.
Worth’s most famous namesake, Fort Worth, is now the fifth largest city in Texas with more than 900,000 residents.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.