The earliest military presence in the area was former Camp Goodwin, constructed in 1864 and named for Arizona’s first territorial governor, John N. Goodwin. The camp was abandoned after a short time due to failed buildings and malaria from a nearby spring. In 1876, the current site of the community was chosen as a “new post on the Gila,” selected to replace Camp Goodwin. Initially, the site was named Camp Thomas in honor of Civil War Major General George Henry Thomas. Until 1882 the area would be known by several names including Clantonville, Camp Thomas, Maxey and finally Fort Thomas.
At its peak, the fort consisted of 27 buildings, all constructed by the occupants of the fort and made of adobe. Malaria remained a problem throughout the occupation of the area, and led to Fort Thomas being called the “worst fort in the Army.” The fort also had no government funding until the year 1884. After the capture of Geronimo in 1886, the Army gradually removed the troops stationed there until the fort was handed over to the Department of the Interior in 1891.
The early town had a poor reputation, and was home to several houses of prostitution and saloons. In 1895, the community grew significantly when the Southern Pacific railroad’s construction in the area was halted due to native Apache people refusing to let the railroad continue construction through their reservation.