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The XIT Ranch of Texas
And the Early Days of the Llano Estacado
By J. Evetts Haley
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1967 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
During the middle eighties the XIT Ranch was established. It was the largest ranch in the cow country of the Old West, and probably the largest fenced range in the world. Its barbed wire enclosed over 3,050,000 acres of land in the Panhandle of Texas, patented by the state to a Chicago firm in exchange for the capitol at Austin. From 100 to 150 cowboys, with combined remudas of more than 1,000 cow ponies, "rode herd" upon approximately 150,000 cattle that wore the XIT brand. This story is concerned with the development of this pastoral enterprise and its relation to the history of Texas.
The XIT brand was conceived by an old Texas trail driver named Ab Blocker, who placed it upon the first cow. She was not an animal of high pedigree, but a Longhorn from South Texas. Her color, gauntness, and perversity were historic. Nearly two centuries before, with the initial Spanish expedition into the province for the purpose of founding a settlement in 1690, there came a similar Mexican cow. She walked streaming from the waters of the Río Grande, cropped the first grass on the northern shore, switched her tail at a persistent fly, and felt at home. Long of horn and leg, variegated in color, and belligerent of disposition, she was prophetic of the millions and millions of others to fatten upon the grasses of the border state.
As she pushed north and east with the expedition of Governor Alonzo de Leon and Father Massanet, the tallow thickened over her ribs, a little bit, and she became smooth and glossy. She sprang of hardy and wily stock. As she fled to the nearest pool or mud hole to escape the attentions of the heel fly, as she fought off the wolves by night and outran the thieving Indians by day, she built up a spirit of independence and of resourcefulness that made her a companion of the wilderness and a fighter of the frontier.
By the time the East Texas missions were abandoned in 1693, this Longhorn had broken the ties that bound her to her native range, and when the soldiers and missionaries returned to Mexico, she stayed in Texas. The Mexican cows matched wits with the wilderness, met claw and fang with horns and cow-sense, and when the Spaniards came again, twenty-three years later, Longhorn cattle grazed the East Texas grasslands. Since that first memorable day Texas has never been without cattle. For more than two centuries livestock has formed one of its chief sources of wealth. Wherever "Texas" is heard, steers are thought of, and the head of the Longhorn is as emblematic of Texas as is the lone star. Texas and cows are almost synonymous.
In 1836, nearly a century and a half after this first expedition into Texas, the Anglo-American pioneers wrested the state from Mexico and pushed the last soldier of the southern republic from her borders. There remained, fortunately for the Texans, a phase of life and an industry suited to the frontier—an industry essentially Spanish in origin and methods. Ten years later the Congressional struggles were ended, and Texas entered the Union with the important provision that she retain all her public lands. Texas then possessed vast millions of acres unmeasured by surveyor's chain and prairie lands untrod by white men's feet. Her first bid to international attention was made through land. As the most effective utilization of the soil by a limited population lay in the frontier pursuit of grazing, it was natural that among her first claims to economic consideration were herds of Longhorn steers trailed to other states.
A scattered and meager population lived in East and South Texas, occupying but a small portion of the state. Texas had more land than people, and there was much truth in the time-worn saying that she was land poor. However, in large measure, it was upon that so-called poverty that her public school system was built, that her state university was founded, that her generous homestead policy was adopted, that large ranches secured their holdings, and that the state capitol was built.
The Texas State House was built in exchange for three million acres of land set aside by an act of the Texas Legislature in 1879. The tract lay along the western border of the Panhandle. At that time scarce a score of people were upon it. Not a plowshare had broken the sod, and not a wire fence had enclosed an acre of its grass. These three million acres were converted into the XIT Ranch pending the arrival of the farming settler. The history of this ranch is a story of cows, horses, and cowmen. Further, it is the story of the pioneer farming settler in the Panhandle-Plains country of Texas, a story of the struggle of men with the soil.
Very little was known of the Panhandle by the legislators "down in the skillet" when this land was set aside. Therefore they congratulated themselves upon rare business judgment when they traded three million acres of "arid" land for a great building, and their sectional partisanship still smouldering in the heart of Texas may be seen from their pride in driving such a hard trade with a "bunch of Yankees."
The satisfaction felt by the legislators is understandable, because the earliest descriptions of the country, filtering back to the settlements from uncertain sources, marked the region as arid land—a part of "the Great American Desert." In the absence of accurate information, legend supplied the deficiency, and this popular myth clung with pertinacity. So persistent was the belief in aridity that in the Census Reports of 1880 a man of some vision, who was said to have "carefully explored the Panhandle and adjacent Texas," reported that "not more than 7,000,000 acres of the Llano Estacado within the state of Texas can be regarded as an absolute desert...." Even among the ebullient natives, unfortunate seasons since have sometimes revived his original impression.
But the men who contracted to build the capitol were more optimistic than the man who reported for the Census. A state commissioner surveyed the lands, rejecting those portions he felt unfit for either farming or grazing purposes, and published his report. It was accurate and truthful. The fact that the land was accepted without being seen bespeaks the confidence of the contractors in the report, even though such was not indicative of sound business policy.
The tremendous influx of English, Scotch, and Eastern capital into the West was just beginning, and the wild and furious scramble of syndicates after cattle and land may have made them a little less cautious. In reality, they looked to a day nearly fifty years ahead, though hardly aware it was that far distant, when the land-hungry settlers who lived by the plow should stampede across the plains of Texas and cause the XIT lands to enhance in value many fold. In part it seems that the action of the Texas Legislature was dictated by that foe of sound administrative policy—expediency. The action of the other party to the contract was in part impelled by a vision of settlement. But the results have been mutually beneficial.
Though settlement of this region did not begin until the middle seventies, some little knowledge of the area had been gained from explorers. Undoubtedly the first white man to look across the Staked Plains and marvel at its vast expanse was a Spaniard. Just twenty years after Hernán Cortez captured the city of Mexico and shattered the kingdom of the Montezumas, another conqueror in armor pushed far to the north, into New Mexico, to disturb the aborigines. His name was Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and he was searching for the "Seven Cities of Cibola," which were supposed to be "situated on a great height. Their doors were studded with turquoises, as if feathers from the wings of the blue sky had dropped and clung there. Within those jeweled cities were whole streets of goldsmiths, so great was the store of shining metal to be worked." It was a gilded prospect, but beyond these cities lay others of even greater splendor. Disillusioned in New Mexico, Coronado's spirit flamed forth again as he heard of another El Dorado called Gran Quivira, a wonderful city across the plains to the east.
The chief of that country took his afternoon nap under a tall spreading tree decorated with an infinitude of little golden bells on which gentle zephyrs played his lullaby. Even the common folk there had their ordinary dishes made of "wrought plate"; and the pitchers and bowls were of solid gold.
Coronado impatiently awaited the arrival of the spring of 1541, when he set out for this essentially treeless but belegended land. By June he was in western Texas, crossing the future Capitol Reservation. Just where he went from here is a matter of some confusion, but the most competent students now agree that he reached the Palo Duro Canyon and headed northward, toward Kansas. But one thing sure is the fact that he found no spot anywhere among its scattered Indian villages or even in the fantasies of its mirages, where "... sparkling sails floated like petals on the clear surface of an immeasurable stream. No lordly chief drowsed to the murmur of innumerable bells. The water pitchers on the low entrances of their grass thatched huts were not golden." Yet Coronado, with that fire that consumed his kind, pushed on in hopeful but fruitless quest. His guide, induced by the Pecos Indians to lead the Spaniards out upon the plains, lose them, and allow them to perish of thirst, was suspected and put to death. And so Coronado returned to New Mexico with no more gold than that which glinted from his own armor.
About 1593 an unauthorized Spanish expedition into New Mexico under Bonilla and Humana crossed to the buffalo country of the Panhandle. But after Coronado's explorations the Texas plains were rarely disturbed by white men for nearly three hundred years. Only a few explorers penetrated the region. Don Juan de Oñate, as every other conquistador of New Spain, heard of the marvels of Gran Quivira, and in June, 1601, set out from Galisteo, New Mexico, to find this city for himself. He reached the Canadian and followed it eastward nearly to Antelope Hills. His men caught fish from the Canadian, killed buffalo upon the plains, and gathered wild plums and grapes in the valleys. Oñate turned northward, evidently reached the Arkansas River, found an Indian town of over five thousand inhabitants, but not a street crowded with goldsmiths. From the vicinity of Wichita, Kansas, Oñate and his men back-trailed to San Gabriel. History presents no explorers comparable to the conquistadores of New Spain; even legend reveals no more zealous searchers after treasure.
Finally peace with the Comanches made feasible the opening of a route connecting San Antonio, Texas, with Santa Fé, New Mexico. In 1786, Pedro Vial, a Frenchman, was commissioned by the governor of Texas to explore a route. Vial came north, passing east of the plains to the Red River, somewhere near Ringgold. He turned up the stream, crossed to the Canadian, pushed through what came to be known as the Alamocitos country of the XIT Ranch, and reached Santa Fé in May, 1787. A few months later José Mares crossed the Panhandle by a more southerly route upon a like exploration. But three centuries passed from the time of Coronado before much was known of this country. Then a few explorers from the United States began to trace the river courses.
The Red River of Louisiana claimed the attention of several early exploring parties. In 1806 Captain Richard Sparks, in the service of the United States, attempted to ascend the river to its source. He was stopped far short of his goal by a detachment of Spanish cavalry. Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike ascended the Arkansas River the same year with instructions to cross to the source of the Red and follow down the stream. He first mistook the Arkansas and then the Río Grande for the Red. He never reached Texas from the west, as the Mexicans cut short his explorations by placing him under arrest. Then came Major Stephen H. Long, in 1820, bent upon the third effort to discover the source of the stream. He came south from the Arkansas and followed down the Canadian until near its mouth before he discovered his mistake. During 1823 John H. Fonda crossed the Panhandle on his way to Santa Fé from Fort Towson, Indian Territory. He is reputed to have traveled up Red River to its source before turning north to the Canadian.
The ill-fated Texan-Santa Fé Expedition, which represented the only attempt of the young republic to share in the profits of the caravan trade with the New Mexican settlements, wandering aimlessly through the breaks and across the plains of the Panhandle, probably came to the source of the river in 1841, but left no accurate topographical data. In 1852 Captain R. B. Marcy crossed the Panhandle from east to west, explored the Palo Duro Canyon, and claimed the distinction of being the first thoroughly to explore Red River to its source. Before this noteworthy exploration the "commerce of the prairies" had made a contribution to topographical knowledge.
The Santa Fé Trail, stretching from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fé, New Mexico, had become an institution of the Southwest. Essentially a highway of commerce, it came into prominence in the decade following 1820 and continued to be an important thoroughfare for many years. Along its rutted course cling memories colorful and romantic, drab and tragic. One branch of this trail looped to the south and crossed the Panhandle, but the Comanche hazard was always too great to make it an enticing gamble, and it was used but little.
Among those to travel the southern route was Josiah Gregg, who in 1831 as a physical weakling and convalescent set out from Independence seeking health more than profit. He soon recovered his health, became intrigued with the romance of the trade, the freedom of prairie life, and the spirit of the trail, and actively engaged in the business for several years. In 1839 the French were blockading Mexico. Gregg saw great profit in supplying shut-in Chihuahua with needed goods. He resolved to make an early start and go by way of Santa Fé. In the region farther south an earlier spring meant earlier grass. Therefore, Gregg shipped $25,000 worth of goods up the Arkansas River to Van Buren, five miles below Fort Smith. Here the earlier season enabled him to embark ahead of the Independence caravans. The outcome of the venture is not of particular interest to this story, but his observations and experiences as he crossed the Panhandle are.
The last outpost was Camp Holmes, in Indian Territory, where Auguste Pierre Chouteau had built a fort to trade with the Plains Indians. From this point the course across the Panhandle was unbroken and unknown. Gregg wrote:
We had to depend entirely upon our knowledge of the geographical position of the country for which we were steering and the indications of a compass and sextant. This was emphatically a pioneer trip, such a one as had, perhaps, never before been undertaken—to convey heavily laden wagons through a country almost wholly untrod by civilized men, and of which we, at least, knew nothing.
At Chouteau's fort he met and talked with a Comanche chief, Tabba-Quena, or the Big Eagle. The Indian informed Gregg "that the route up the Canadian presented no obstacles according to his mode of traveling." Since the Indian traveled wherever a saddle horse could pass, this was small comfort to a man with heavy wagons. Big Eagle drew a map which Gregg declared "a far more accurate delineation of all the rivers of the plains, the road from Missouri to Santa Fé, and the different Mexican settlements, than is to be found in any of the engraved maps of those regions."
The caravan traveled in accordance with the practice of the trail. While crossing the Indian country, the wagons moved in double file, so that they could be "corralled" more quickly in case of an attack and all stock turned inside the enclosure. Gregg stopped to smoke the pipe of peace with a war party of Comanches who were on their way to fight the Pawnees; again to trade blankets, looking-glasses, flints, tobacco, beads, and other trinkets, for mules. Generally the traders avoided any barter with the Indians through fear of their duplicity. But Gregg passed through the Panhandle without serious mishap and followed up the Canadian into New Mexico.
In 1841, two years after Gregg's trail-blazing trip from Fort Smith, the Texan-Santa Fé Expedition crossed the Panhandle. Its uncertain course was a trail of woe. It moved out from the Texas settlements to a bugle call, with men in high spirits responding to the charm of camp life, sped on their journey with the well-wishes of President Lamar of the Republic. Weeks later, lost among the canyons and breaks along the eastern edge of the plains, provisions gone, game scarce, and water uncertain, the party was in a sorry plight.
Prairie dogs killed for food proved "exceedingly sweet, tender, and juicy," and the wild horse furnished excellent meat. But both became scarce and starvation faced the party. Hackberries were picked from the trees, and a wretched but hopeful life was eked out upon tortoises, snakes, and "every living and creeping thing" which might be seized upon for food. Occasionally a skunk, peculiarly and most effectively protected from almost every animal of prey, "would reward someone more fortunate than the rest." A few of the men were killed by Indians, articles of trade were burned by a prairie fire, and the entire force was arrested by Governor Armijo and sent to Mexico City and to prison. Thus the venture turned out the most abject tragedy of the long list of tragedies of the Santa Fé trade.
Excerpted from The XIT Ranch of Texas by J. Evetts Haley. Copyright © 1967 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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