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Crossing Rio Pecos

Crossing Rio Pecos

by Patrick Dearen

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The Pecos River flows snake-like out of New Mexico and across West Texas before striking the Rio Grande. In frontier Texas, the Pecos was more moat than river—a deadly barrier of quicksand, treacherous currents, and impossibly steep banks. Only at its crossings, with legendary names such as Horsehead and Pontoon, could travelers hope to gain passage. Even if


The Pecos River flows snake-like out of New Mexico and across West Texas before striking the Rio Grande. In frontier Texas, the Pecos was more moat than river—a deadly barrier of quicksand, treacherous currents, and impossibly steep banks. Only at its crossings, with legendary names such as Horsehead and Pontoon, could travelers hope to gain passage. Even if the river proved obliging, Indian raiders and outlaws often did not.

Long after irrigation and dams rendered the river a polluted trickle, Patrick Dearen went seeking out the crossings and the stories behind them. In Crossing Rio Pecos—a follow-up to his Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier—he draws upon years of research to relate the history and folklore of all the crossings—Horsehead, Pontoon, Pope’s, Emigrant, Salt, Spanish Dam, Adobe, “S,” and Lancaster. Meticulously documented, Crossing Rio Pecos emerges as the definitive study of these gateways which were so vital to the opening of the western frontier.

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Texas Christian University Press
Publication date:
Chisholm Trail Series , #16
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5.97(w) x 8.95(h) x 0.56(d)

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Crossing Rio Pecos

By Patrick Dearen

TCU Press

Copyright © 1996 Patrick Dearen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87565-561-1


River of the West

The story of the Rio Pecos in frontier Texas is really the story of its crossings, for generally these vital "gateways to the west" harbored man's only intimate contact with a deadly river otherwise walled by barrier banks.

The crossings frequently flowed red with blood and echoed with the sounds of the mythic Old West—the war cry of the Indian, the blast of the cowboy's six-shooter, the crack of the stage driver's whip, the thunder of the stampeding longhorn. At the very time that documented history was painting dreary existences for pioneers in many other locations, the Pecos and its crossings stirred with color and drama and nurtured the stuff of legend. Indeed, the modern perception of the mythic Old West comes closer to fruition in the frontier Pecos country than virtually anywhere else.

Formed one-half to one million years ago, the Pecos originates at 11,300 feet in the Sangre de Cristo range in northern New Mexico, a pristine stream splashing down through alpine forests and flower-spangled meadows. To the west of its headwaters, barely thirty air miles, flows the south-trending Rio Grande. Yet, the muddying Pecos sets a course to the southeast that will not see it intersect the Rio Grande for 926 sinuous miles. At the point where the Pecos enters Texas, it splits a parched land 300 miles wide and thirsting in vain for a sister river.

Drawn by the life-giving Pecos waters, the so-called Clovis people may have camped on its banks and taken shelter in its lower canyon overhangs by 9000 B.C. These nomadic hunters, the first New World culture identifiable through archaeology, included or were close ancestors of Midland Man, whose eleven thousand-year-old remains surfaced in Midland County, Texas, fifty miles east of the Pecos in 1953. By 8500 B.C., the Clovis culture had disappeared, and a new people, the Folsom, had emerged to leave their defining spear-point style in a mass buffalo kill in Mile Canyon near the mouth of the Pecos.

With the retreat of glaciers and the seasonal migration of buffalo to northern ranges by 7000 B.C., Folsom descendants chose to occupy the Pecos and live off the land. For the next 8,000 years, the lower canyon rockshelters nurtured these hunter-gatherers, who banded into family groups of up to thirty persons. Venturing throughout the Pecos country of Texas, these Indians hunted with the atlatl and spear, the bola (a thong with stones at either end), the curved rabbit stick, and, after its introduction in about A.D. 900, the bow and arrow.

Late-prehistoric Indians of Texas, whether facing the river's lower canyons or upriver flats, coveted natural fords such as Salt Crossing near modern Imperial. U.S. Army Brevet Captain John Pope, upon crossing the Pecos in March 1854, explained why:

The river below the thirty-second parallel [the Texas-New Mexico line] changes its character from a rocky bed, with occasional rapids, to soft mud bottom and banks. Fording-places below this parallel are very rare, and present in all cases a depth of water which, at any other than the dry season, absolutely prevents the passage of wagons or wheeled vehicles.... The banks are perpendicular, about ten feet high, and falling into the stream constantly—the deep water being uniform from one shore to the other.

Even for buffalo, the epitome of strength and endurance, the Pecos was a barricade. In 1684, Spaniard Juan Dominguez de Mendoza and his party killed more than four thousand head east of the river but reported only a few bulls west of it.

At the beginning of recorded history, the Pecos remained a magnet, luring Jumano Indians to its adjacent buffalo range and to nearby salt beds such as Juan Cordona Lake. This fringe Puebloan culture, dominant along the Rio Grande from the Rio Conchos to near El Paso, was an odd blend of gardeners and nomads, either content in their fields or restless for the chase. North and east of the Pecos, meanwhile, scattered bands of Tonkawas and Lipan Apaches trod a wilderness yet to see a modern horse.

It was into such an empire, drained by a lone river, that the Spaniards pushed in the sixteenth century, driven by dreams of conquest, converts, and consummate wealth. Cabeza de Vaca came first, crossing this "great river coming from the north" in his epic 1535 trek from the Texas Gulf Coast to Sonora, Mexico. In 1583, Antonio de Espejo followed the coils of the "Rio de las Vacas"—the River of Cows—or Pecos, from Cicuye pueblo near its headwaters to modern Texas. Probably at Salt Crossing, he met three Jumano hunters, who pointed his expedition and its horses and mules southwest to the Jumano settlements. Seven years later, Gaspar Castano de Sosa, terming the Pecos the "Salado" or "Salt," struck it near its mouth and forged upstream to Cicuye. Although Spaniards later would refer to the river as "Puerco"—pig-like or dirty—by 1599 the name Pecos—a word of indeterminate origin—had come into use.

Finding no precious minerals along the Texas stretch and few Indians willing to be proselytized, Spain retained little interest in the river. Soon, the Pecos and its desert gained a reputation that would endure until the late nineteenth century–as a forbidding land through which to hurry, not tarry.

With 7,000 horses, including breeding stock, introduced to the Southwest in 1598 by future New Mexico Governor Don Juan de Oñate, Indians gradually acquired the animals through straying, thievery, and trade. As early as 1659, Apaches north of the Pecos headwaters were a horse people, raiding New Mexican settlements, and within a few years the Comanches had become horse warriors without peer. In 1705, Comanches took to plundering Spanish settlements near the upper Pecos, and by the middle of the century, they had wrested the Southern Plains from the Apaches (who had absorbed the Jumanos into their culture) and driven the Lipans to the lower Pecos and Mexico. For the next 125 years, the Pecos River in Texas marked the southwestern boundary of Comancheria. Even the Comanches shunned its banks and elected instead to establish their rancherias far to the northeast and to push down each fall to cross at Horsehead Crossing and raid deep into Mexico.

On into 1821, when Spain's dominion ended, and on through Texas's fifteen years as a province of Mexico and a near-decade as an independent nation, the Pecos remained little known to white men. Snaking through a hostile wilderness far from settlements, it drew few pioneers other than carreta freighters, who claimed Juan Cordona Lake as the principal salt supply for northern Mexico.

The river's reputation as a gateway west began in 1849, four years after the United States admitted Texas to the Union and immediately after news of a California gold discovery filtered back east. Spawned by military and emigrant needs, three routes quickly opened up across the Pecos country—the Lower Road, which crossed at the Indian ford of Lancaster Crossing sixty-five air miles above the river's mouth; the Upper Road, which crossed another fifty-five miles upstream at Horsehead Crossing; and the Emigrant Road, which crossed at newly developed Emigrant Crossing, a little less than sixty miles below the New Mexico line. Within another decade, the U.S. Army opened a fourth ford, Pope's Crossing, immediately south of New Mexico, and this uppermost crossing quickly assumed much of the Upper Road traffic. Finally, in 1868, the U.S. Army rerouted the Upper Road to cross thirty miles below Horsehead and near a point that, with the laying of a bridge in 1870, became Pontoon Bridge or Crossing.

Horsehead, Lancaster, and Pope's ultimately gained renown above and beyond emigrant and military use. The Lower Road marked the route of the San Antonio-Santa Fe mail of 1851, the Texas-California Cattle Trail of the early 1850s, and the San Antonio-San Diego Mail of 1857. The Upper Road was even more famed, sharing its ruts with the Comanche war trail, the Butterfield Overland Mail of 1858–1861, and the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail of the mid-1860s. The Chihuahua Trail, a trade route between San Antonio and Chihuahua City, Mexico, touched or traced stretches of both roads, as well as the Jumanos' old trail to the Pecos.

To guard the roads, the U. S. Army set up posts in the Pecos country: Fort Davis in 1854, ninety miles southwest of Horsehead Crossing; Fort Lancaster in 1855, four to five miles east of Lancaster Crossing; and Fort Stockton in 1859, thirty-four miles southwest of Horsehead. But in 1861 Texas seceded, and the U. S. Army relinquished the region to the Confederacy. The consequences to the Pecos were severe, not because of civil war but because the strife deprived the Texas frontier of a meaningful military presence for the next six years. Unchecked, Indians so terrorized the Pecos and eastern settlements that, by 1866, four of every five frontier ranches lay in ruins.

At war's end, three million cattle grazed Texas ranges and could be purchased at $3 to $5 a head, while markets to the north and northwest promised much greater prices. As other herds traced trails from the breeding grounds of Texas to the fattening ranges of the Great Plains, thousands of cattle forged up the Pecos corridor to New Mexico and beyond. By 1885, 5.7 million Texas beeves had made their way to other regions.

Reestablishing on the Pecos in 1867, the U.S. Army waged a final seven-year conflict with the Comanches, who stubbornly resisted reservation life. Meanwhile, buffalo outfits on the South Plains undertook their own war against the great herds on which the tribe was so dependent. The Comanches fell first, yielding their long dominion over the region to the army and its superior firepower in Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle in 1874. Nevertheless, the Indian threat was not over. Mescalero Apaches, with their hated enemies the Comanches gone, swooped down from their Guadalupe Mountains stronghold and New Mexico reservation to plague open-range ranches that sprang up along the Pecos in the 1870s.

The buffalo held on until 1879, when the last significant kill in Texas occurred at Mustang Springs, seventy miles northeast of the river that had long thwarted the animals' southwestward migration. Ironically, on into the 1880s, the Pecos nurtured a small remnant herd that ranged close to Horsehead Crossing on the TX cattle outfit, which in 1879 took in forty miles of riverfront on either side.

By early 1881, the Mescalero danger had ended. But the ranching tradition endured, eclipsing even a thriving farming industry that, with the first major diversion of Pecos water by 1877, had created Spanish Dam Crossing a dozen miles above Pontoon Crossing.

As the Texas & Pacific Railroad, in 1881, and the Southern Pacific, in 1883, opened up the region to an entire continent, the Pecos was spawning a breed of cowboy unlike any other. F. S. Millard, who punched cattle on the Pecos in the 1880s, recalled a fellow cowhand saying that "he reckoned the Pecos boys were the most ex-pert cowboys in the world," and another responding, "Yes—with the ex left off."

The Pecos hands, said Millard, would "dash out, round up about 7 or 8 miles of the river, brand out, and go again [and] make about 4 roundups a day getting the cattle that were close to the water. But cattle went further from water in the Pecos country than any place I ever saw or heard of. There was big steers then, and they would go back 20 and, a few, 25 miles."

"They'd water every other day ...," recalled Cliff Newland, who hired on with a Pecos country outfit about 1900. "I've been down there to that Pecos River [with the] morning clear, and in the foothills you could see the dust on the rise. That's when them old-time cattle would start in to get a drink of water, and the dust a-risin'.... There never was what you'd call a real fat cow or horse come off that Pecos River and drank that river."

With the currents depositing quicksand at many watering points, reliable cowboys paired up to "ride bog" for mired cattle, a task that may have led to the expression, "He'll do to ride the river with."

"One of us would put a rope on them—around her horns so she wouldn't choke—and the other one would get down and tromp beside their legs ...," recalled Jim Witt, who took up cowboying around Emigrant Crossing in the 1920s. "There's a helluva suction in that ol' mud, and you break the suction that way—what you call 'trompin' them out.' Sometimes you could just pull them out without trompin' them out, but if the ol' cow was kind of weak, well, you might have to tromp her out."

Sometimes such efforts came too late.

"The Pecos was a graveyard for cattle, because of quicksand," remembered Barney Hubbs, who joined his father in homesteading a ranch fifty-five miles above Emigrant Crossing in 1908. "You'd water your cattle there, and at night they'd bog down in that river and then die, freeze to death. And then the next morning, why, you'd drag them out and skin them."

Although such trials gave birth to the saying that cowboys feared only two things, rattlesnakes and the Pecos, experienced hands saw an advantage in the river's crooks.

"Of a night, we would put our herd in a bend and [have] one man watch the gap at a time," said Millard. "It would not be over 30 feet wide and sometimes less, and I never knew of the cattle getting out.... Sometimes we would throw a small roundup in a bend and rope and brand our calves."

But the Pecos offered pitfalls that were out of its cowboys' hands—lawlessness, cattle drift, and drought.

"There is said to be a great many outlaws congregated on the Pecos, from Lancaster up to the Seven Rivers [in New Mexico]," reported Texas Ranger Sergeant L. B. Caruthers in 1880. "A good many of them are between the New Mexico line and Horsehead Crossing and have been compelled to leave New Mexico.... They not only steal horses, etc. from the rancheros, but from the emigrants and freighters."

The river's reputation as the "bad man's hell" even gave rise to terms such as Pecos swap, meaning to steal, and the verb pecos, meaning to murder a man and throw his body in a river such as the Pecos.

In 1885 came the "Big Drift," when a seething mass of cattle, a hundred thousand strong, swept hellbent out of the far north-northeast with a blizzard nipping at their flanks. "It was impossible," said one cowboy who watched their passing, "to think of holding them back." As with the great buffalo herds before them, they never stopped until they reached the barrier Pecos. There they grazed the land bare and died by the thousands, even as wagon outfits from as far away as the Canadian River worked to return them to their home ranges. As late as 1902, a remnant of the Big Drift still tramped the Pecos banks.

The unprecedented roundup of 1885 was over by July, but by the end of August, drought had taken a devastating hold on the Pecos. It spread like a blight through the rest of Texas and on into eastern New Mexico, southern Arizona, and northern Mexico. "It never rained a drop from the fall of '85 till May '87," said Millard, who rode the Pecos throughout the lingering pestilence. By the spring of 1886, cattle again were dying on the river by the thousands, from a point in New Mexico 200 miles above the T&P Railroad to Lancaster Crossing a hundred miles below.

"The plains west of here are parched and dry, and the carcasses of thousands of cattle are to be seen in every direction ...," reported a Big Spring, Texas, correspondent on May 18. "Fully 20,000 carcasses cover the plains. The stench as one passes along the Texas Pacific west [toward the Pecos] ... is terrible."

Inspecting a brief stretch of the Pecos in New Mexico that spring, one rider found 200 to 300 head of dead cattle bogged in the quicksands. Before the drought had broken, J. V. Stokes stood on the bank in Texas and watched forty cattle carcasses an hour float by. "Just imagine what a time we had," said cowhand W. C. Cochran, "working that country and drinking that water off those dead cattle in the spring of 1888."

When the rains came, the ranch industry gained a reprieve that endured three decades before another drought crippled the river and the state. In the eighteen-month period between November 1, 1916, and May 1, 1918, the west-bank town of Pecos, eighteen miles above Emigrant Crossing, received a mere 2.90 inches of precipitation. The plague was even more paralyzing east of the river, where Billy Rankin and his father ranched the Midland-Upton county line.

"In '16, '17, '18, altogether in the two years and eight months [of drought], it did not rain enough on that property to wet you one time in a light summer shirt," the younger Rankin remembered.

The barren range forced some Pecos River ranchers to ship their cattle to holdings as far away as Arizona, while others could only sell or watch their beeves die.


Excerpted from Crossing Rio Pecos by Patrick Dearen. Copyright © 1996 Patrick Dearen. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Patrick Dearen is the author of six books, including Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier, Portraits of the Pecos Frontier, and When Cowboys Die, a novel. Formerly an award-winning reporter for two West Texas daily newspapers, he lives in Midland with his wife and son.

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