Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
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The Spanish Missions and the Origins of the Cattle Industry in Texas*
Dan Kilgore, Author
President of the Texas State Historical Association, 1976-1977
Corpus Christi, Texas

*Dan Kilgore's fifteen minute presentation at the Conference highlighted the main ideas in this article which he wrote for The Cattleman magazine (January, 1983). The article is included in its entirety courtesy of The Cattleman, Fort Worth, Texas.

Christopher Columbus landed the first cattle in the Americas, probably fewer than one hundred head, on the island of Hispaniola in November 1493, during his second voyage. Very few additional shipments arrived before 1503, when Queen Isabella ordered all ships sailing for the Indies to carry livestock.

Because of the enormous difficulty of transporting large animals on long ocean voyages, fewer than a thousand head were brought to the West Indies before 1512, and only minimal shipments arrived later. The natural increase of these limited imports stocked the Spanish colonies on both American continents.

The herds of Hispaniola, Spain's original base for settlement of the Western Hemisphere, reproduced phenomenally on the island's year-round growth of vegetation. By 1512 the herds had attained sufficient size to supply Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. This amazing reproduction continued and the four islands provided the foundation stock for Mexico as well as Central and South America. In the succeeding centuries, millions of descendants of these few hundred head ranged from Argentina to Canada.1

The first cattle shipped from the islands to Mexico around 1521 were utilized exclusively as draft animals. Large exportations to Mexico did not start until 1527, when Nuño de Guzmán, governor of the Province of Pánuco, issued licenses to his settlers to capture Indians to exchange as slaves for livestock from the islands.

Although island officials then banned the export of cattle and horses, the desire for slaves on the islands equaled the demand for cattle on the mainland and a brisk trade developed in the two commodities. Indians rounded up and branded as slaves by Guzmán were shipped from Tampico at the mouth of the Pánuco River and traded for cattle rounded up and branded on Hispaniola and Cuba. An early rate of exchange was eighty Indians for one cow.2

The Spanish cattle found the same ideal climatic conditions on the mainland and enormous herds proliferated on Mexico's eastern coast. A contemporary observer, referring to the coastal zone from the Pánuco River south to Vera Cruz, remarked, "Cattle are being born and multiplying unbelievably. You cannot exaggerate their numbers."3

The explosive multiplication of livestock in the New World is one of the most astonishing biological phenomenon ever seen by modern man. Herds nearly doubled in fifteen months, overrunning the countryside and destroying Indian cornfields.

Stock raising expanded widely during the period of silver mining, which dominated Mexico's economy in the century following the conquest. Farming and ranching developed to supply the mines with food and draft animals and giant haciendas grew from these auxiliary operations to the mines.4 But the early settlement of northern Mexico and the consequent growth of ranching was confined to the high central plateau, while the herds first to enter Texas in any numbers multiplied and roamed wild on the low Coastal Plains to the east.

No precious metals were discovered along the northern Gulf shore, and except for one aborted effort, settlement of these Coastal Plains was delayed for over two centuries. Luis de Carvajal initiated this single attempt at settlement north of the Pánuco River after he received a royal commission in 1579 to conquer and colonize a vast region two hundred leagues or approximately six hundred square miles. His enormous grant encompassed much of northern Mexico and southern Texas with its southeast corner fixed at the mouth of the Pánuco River and its northeast corner in the vicinity of San Antonio.

Carvajal, a converted Portuguese Jew, had pursued the Indians of the Coastal Plains and taken many as slaves to be sold in Mexico City. One allegation is that he purchased his grant from the king with the proceeds of his slaving expeditions. To finance the development of his grant, he continued expeditions as far north as the Rio Grande for several years, each time returning with 800 to 1,000 enslaved Indians.5

Around 1583 he located and settled his capital city of León, now the town of Cerralvo, near the geographic center of his grant, thirty-five miles southwest of the present town of Mier on the Rio Grande. Around 1590 he founded the town that is now Monclova about one hundred twenty miles west and slightly south of Laredo. Carvajal's grand venture terminated there with his arrest by the Inquisition for his failure to denounce his sister as a Jew. He died in prison penniless and unmourned in 1591, and the Indians drove his colonists back to civilization.6

Carvajal, like Cortéz and many other conquistadors, was a rancher and operated one ranch near Tampico and two others near the town of Pánuco. Stipulations of his grant obligated him to introduce cattle in his colony and he was the first to establish livestock near the lower border of Texas.7 The first cattle to wade the Rio Grande into southern Texas probably grazed down the Rio Alamo from herds he left behind at Cerralvo.

While some of Carvajal's abandoned cattle may have entered Texas, the earliest livestock to come in large numbers derived from extensive herds that developed on the nearly 300 miles of the Coastal Plains from the Pánuco River north to the Rio Grande. This part of Carvajal's grant lying east of the central plateau remained unsettled until explored and colonized by José de Escandón in the late 1740s.8

This region, now the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, is the great breeding ground where natural selection produced the variety of cattle known today as the Texas Longhorn. The dramatic multiplication of the original imports south of the Pánuco River is well documented and certainly was repeated north of the river. In an ideal environment, with few natural enemies other than Indians, large numbers of feral cattle had several centuries to reproduce virtually unmolested.

Even domesticated cattle of early Mexico ran at large and herds considered to be under control might never encounter human beings except at an occasional rodeo or roundup. But those between the Pánuco River and the Rio Grande reverted to a completely wild state. These feral animals retreated deep into the densest thickets and ventured out only at night to graze on the prairie, as described by a witness in 1875.

"South of San Fernando (some 85 miles south of Brownsville) cattle become wild and have to be shot as other wild animals. In some places they remain in the thickets during the day and come out at night. In that country they are hunted at night. It would be impossible to steal and drive these animals as they would not leave the thickets alive."9

As the herds proliferated, competition for grass pushed them northward from the tropic zone toward Texas. Extensive semi-arid plains along both banks of the lower Rio Grande created a barrier, but a route to the north lay open along the coast. Although no permanent stream beds cross the southern tip of Texas, rainfall from the Gulf provides waterholes and grass along the shore sufficient to sustain migrating cattle. North of the desert region, Texas rivers served as sheltered and well-watered highways that the wild cattle traveled along on their way into the interior.

Cattle entering southern Texas from Mexico found shelter in existing thickets which at that time grew primarily along the stream beds. Only a few scattered trees stood on the endless plain. As long as the native grasses remained undisturbed, the mesquite, huisache and other thorny plants that now cover much of South Texas did not encroach on the prairies.

As the wild cattle multiplied in the thickets, they overgrazed the nearby forage and their hooves trampled and damaged the brush-resisting turf. Like all cattle, they fed as near as possible to their water supply and placed the greatest stress near the thickets where they hid.

While they primarily grazed the prairie, they also browsed on seed pods of the brushy plants. The seeds they consumed, which were softened by passing through their digestive tracts, were deposited on the damaged turf in an ideal condition to germinate.

Some of the dropped seeds sprouted and took root in areas where the ground cover was destroyed. The effect of increasing numbers of cattle enabled the brushy plants to extend their range. The record they created on the land indicates that substantial numbers of wild cattle settled beyond the Rio Grande much earlier than the Spanish who introduced them in Mexico.10

Localities where wild cattle concentrated should be indicated by the spread of extensive thickets along the streams and outward onto the plains. Journals of the early Spanish entradas into Texas provide evidence of heavy stands of brush where the original developing herds caused an increase in the density and extent of their shelters.

The coasts of northeastern Mexico and southern Texas were virtually unexplored until the late 1680s and Texas might have remained unsettled much longer, had not the French explorer, La Salle, established Fort St. Louis near Lavaca Bay in 1684. News of his landing aroused the Spanish to search for the French intruders and also establish missions in East Texas.

In the summer of 1686, General Alonso de León led an expedition from Monterrey to determine if La Salle had located at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The expedition struck the river near present Rio Grande City, then followed its course to the Gulf. During most of the twelve-day journey down river De León encountered dense thickets of thorny brush along its south banks. The thickets often extended from nine to 12 miles out and were so impenetrable that at times he rode miles to find access to water. In some places he could reach the river only by faint paths through the thorny jungle.11

On the expedition three years later which finally located La Salle's fort, De León reported heavy brush on the Nueces River. He crossed the Rio Grande above present Laredo in April, 1689, then discovered and named the Nueces when he reached it near present Cotulla. To cross the river, his men had to detour a mile and a half and then cut a passage with cutlasses and axes for almost three miles through a dense thicket of prickly pear and mesquite.12

In the following year, De León drove the first cattle herd across Texas on his expedition to establish the mission San Francisco de los Tejas among the Indians living near the Neches River. Most of the 200 cows authorized for the expedition were probably consumed along the way, since he left only twenty head for use by the mission at its consecration on June 1, 1690. These few head appear to be the first herd intentionally established in Texas.13

Domingo Terán de los Ríos brought an unknown but probably larger number of cattle on an expedition to the mission in the summer of 1691.14 But this mission was doomed when the Indians refused to attend services, threatened to drive away or kill the priests, and raided the cattle and horses. The priests finally burned the mission and fled in October of 1693, abandoning many possessions, including their cattle.15

The mission was abandoned for over a quarter century until reestablished by the Spanish because of another French intruder, this time in the person of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. When St. Denis arrived in East Texas in 1714 he reported much of the country literally covered with cattle and horses.16 The old legend that De León left a "bull and a cow, a stallion and a mare" at each river he crossed does not explain the source of this livestock.17 La Salle had found horses there in 1686, well before De León's visit, and traded with the Indians for five of these horses.

It is clear from accounts of La Salle's expedition that the East Texas Indians acquired the animals from the Jumano Indians of far western Texas who had begun trading with the Spanish in the 1650s. By the 1670s the Jumanos regularly visited the East Texas Indians at annual trade fairs to barter livestock and merchandise obtained from the Spanish. La Salle's five horses came through one of these fairs.18

From the best evidence, La Salle brought no cattle to Texas and there are only inconclusive indications that he found wild cattle. Henri Joutel, who kept the most reliable journal of his visit to Texas, wrote that La Salle brought hogs and poultry but no cattle.19 The expedition did enbark with at least one head, as the hide of a cow they had killed was aboard ship when they arrived on the Texas coast.20

Joutel refers to boeufs, which translates as beeves, throughout his journal and while he is referring to buffalo, he may have used the word with reference to cattle in one instance. La Salle and several of his men, departing Texas for Canada, encountered Indians from a village in the Neches-Angelina area hunting boeufs with dogs in a river bottom. The dogs chased the animals close enough to the French for them to shoot one.21 Since it seems unlikely that buffalo would remain in a river bottom in an area highly populated by Indians, these boeufs may have been wild cattle.

Farther along the journey, La Salle's brother, Jean Cavelier, wrote that they saw "a great number of domesticated oxen and cows, which they milk as they do in Holland" at an Indian village near the Red River.22 The more reliable Joutel said the Indians had "no domesticated cattle," and while the tale of Indians milking cows appears to be one of the earliest recorded Texas yarns, the statement does raise the possibility of the presence of wild cattle in eastern Texas in the 1680s.23

Another indication of feral cattle in the area is contained in the report of Domingo Terán de los Ríos on his return in January of 1692, from the mission San Francisco de los Tejas. The Father Superior of the mission had refused his request for thirty cows for provisions, and Terán's meat supply ran out before he reached the Trinity River. He ordered four scouts to try to obtain meat without returning to the Indian villages and five days later his men returned driving some cows from an unidentified source.24

St. Denis said that the thousands of cattle and horses he found came from the natural increase of animals left behind when the mission was abandoned twenty-one years earlier, and this seems a logical explanation. However, his belief that the Indians had preserved them and had refused to kill any out of veneration for the Spaniards and hope for the restoration of the mission does not appear justified. Instead, the enormous increase demonstrates the remarkable capabilities of the animals to survive and reproduce.25

Whatever their origin, the country of the Tejas Indians in East Texas was literally covered with cattle and horses in 1714, according to the testimony of St. Denis. He entered Texas with a permit from the French governor at Mobile to obtain a supply of cattle and horses from Texas for Louisiana. But without asking permission from the Spanish, he organized the first cattle drive out of Texas.

He arrived in early 1714 with twenty-four men and spent six months among the Tejas Indians, trading them guns, beads, knives and cloth for buffalo hides, horses and cattle. From his testimony it appears that twenty-one of his men returned to Mobile with the hides and driving "many cattle." Since the cattle were traded for, rounded up, and then driven by his men, the animals must have been under some degree of control by the Indians.

With his remaining three men, along with twenty-five Indians and their chief, he left the Tejas villages for the Spanish presidio of San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande. At the Colorado River his party encountered and soundly defeated 200 hostile Indians, said to be from the coast, who were accustomed to raiding the Tejas and stealing their livestock.26

The entry of St. Denis with his French permit to purchase cattle and horses was directly reponsible for the occupation and settlement of Texas by the Spanish. When he arrived at San Juan Bautista in 1714, Spanish authorities realized his ultimate design of obtaining a free trade treaty between the French and Mexico. They reacted to his visit as they had to that of La Salle and immediately prepared to forestall French encroachment by occupying Texas.

An expedition under Domingo Ramón in 1716 reestablished the mission San Francisco de los Tejas in East Texas, and a larger expedition under Martín de Alarcón in 1718 founded the permanent settlement at San Antonio. Journals of these and other Spanish entradas of this period contain the first specific references to the sighting of wild cattle in Texas and establish that wild cattle roamed well beyond the vicinity of the Tejas villages.27

In 1716, two men lost from the Ramón expedition survived by killing a fat cow as they wandered deep in dense thickets near present Rockdale, northeast of Austin. The two reappeared twelve days later, praising the Lord for providing the meat that sustained them. During the interval both they and the main party had traversed the Monte Grande, known today as the Cross Timbers, forty to fifty miles of impenetrable thickets of oak, brush and grapevines extending eastward to the Brazos River. So dense were some thickets that axes and knives were necessary to hack a passage for the expedition.28

A party of both French and Spanish, retracing Ramón's route from the east in 1717, found boeufs sauvages, literally "wild cattle" but the term used by the French for buffalo, at the Brazos River. Dense brush scratched their horses badly in the thickets of the Monte Grande, and at its western edge they came upon the "tree with thorns that the Spanish call mesquite." They also reported much thorny brush between the present towns of New Braunfels and San Antonio.29

Wild cattle were observed again the following year by members of the Alarcón expedition during two short inspection tours out of San Antonio. For three days in May of 1718, they saw many tracks thought to be those of buffalo, but then encountered a "black Castilian bull" in a thick wood below present San Marcos. This convinced them that all the numerous tracks were made by cattle rather than buffalo. In September, a small party exploring the Guadalupe River west of present Gonzales sighted two more bulls and killed a bull the following day.30

In 1722, soldiers of the Aguayo expedition, on their journey to East Texas, discovered "footprints left by Castilian cattle" north of the San Marcos River but failed to hunt down any animals. They also found heavy mesquite thickets near the San Marcos River and between San Antonio and present New Braunfels.31

The numerous hoofprints reported indicate the presence of much larger numbers of cattle than the few head seen, since wild cattle tend to hide during daylight hours. How large an area the cattle occupied is not known as all the reports originated near the road from the Rio Grande to East Texas, the only part of the state traversed by the Spanish from 1716 to 1722. Evidence that they roamed a much wider area during this same time is in the report of a French visit to the lower Texas coast only a few miles north of the mouth of the Nueces River.

In the autumn of 1720, a French vessel from Louisiana under Captain Jean Beranger found Aransas Pass, the channel between St. Joseph and Mustang Islands. Beranger explored Aransas Bay and Live Oak Peninsula near present Rockport and wrote that the surrounding country was stocked with boeufs or "beeves." While ashore he found uncorne du boeuf d'une grosseur prodigleuse, "an ox horn of enormous size." Since buffalo have small horns, his discovery appears to be the first specific reference to cattle with long horns in Texas.

In the following year, Beranger visited a bay to the north, probably Galveston Bay, and wrote that boeufs sauvages, literally wild cattle but the common French term for "buffalo," were abundant there. He had spent several years in America and his distinction between boeufs and boeufs sauvages along with his discovery of "an ox horn of enormous size" is strong evidence that the animals he reported on the Texas coast in 1720 were cattle.32

Reports of these various expeditions prove that many wild cattle roamed Texas before the founding of the first permanent settlement in southern Texas at San Antonio de Bexar in 1718. Some probably originated from herds abandoned in East Texas in 1693, but their presence near San Antonio and on the lower Texas coast indicates that others entered the state from the south.

The isolated and unsettled Coastal Plains of northeastern Mexico provided an ideal breeeding ground where the animal known today as the Texas Longhorn developed as a distinct type of the Spanish cattle imported to the Americas. Dense stands of brush reported by Spanish explorers indicate that by the late 1600s wild cattle had grazed along the lower Rio Grande for many decades and could have been established on the Nueces River. By the early 1700s they inhabited much of that part of Texas known to the Spanish.

During more than three centuries of natural selection, these Texas cattle acquired hardiness, fertility and the instinct to range wide for forage. Yet the horns that made them the symbol of the Ameican West, along with their cat-hams and slab sides, caused them to be bred away and brought nearer to extinction than the buffalo.

1 Rouse, John E., The Criollo, Spanish Cattle in the Americas. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1977. pp. 21-43

2 Chipman, Donald E., Nuno de Guzman and the Province of Panuco in New Spain, 1518-1533. The Authur H. Clask Company: Glendale, 1967. pp. 198-210.

Reyes, Candelario, Apuntes para la Historia de Tamaulipas en Los Siglos XVI & XVII. Mexico 1944. p. 26.

3 Chevalier, Francois, Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda. University of California Press: Berkley, 1970. p. 94.

4 Brand, Donald D., "The Early History of the Range Cattle Industry in Northern Mexico." Agricultural History, vol. 35 (July, 1961). pp. 132-134.

5 Chevalier, op cit, pp. 156-157.

6 Liebman, Seymour B., The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame and the Inquisition. University of Miami Press: Coral Gables, 1970. pp. 141-151.

7 Reyes, op cit, p. 33.

Duaine, Carl L. (translation and commentary), Caverns of Oblivion. Privately printed: Corpus Christi, Texas, 1971. p. 54.

8 Reyes, op cit, p. 55.

Gerhard, Peter, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1972. p. 213.

9 Texas Frontier Troubles. 44th Congress, 1st Session, H. of R. Report No. 343. Washington, 1876. p. 103.

10 Bogusch, Edwin R., "A Bibliography on Mesquite." The Texas Journal of Science, vol. 2, No. 4 (December, 1950). pp. 533-535.

Dobie, J. Frank, The Longhorns. Little Brown and Company: Boston, 1941. pp. 11, 288-289.

Tharp, Benjamine C., The Vegetation of Texas. The Texas Academy of Science bythe Anson Jones Press: Houston, 1939. p. 10.

Vigness, David M. (ed.), "Nuevo Santander in 1795; A Provincial Inspection by Felix Calleja." Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 75, No. 4, (April, 1972). p. 473, 476.

11 Duaine, op cit, pp. 188-195.

De Leon, Alonso, Juan Bautista Chapa, and Fernando Sanchez de Zamora, Historia de Nuevo Leon, con noticias sobre Coahuila, Tamaulipas, y Nuevo Mexico. Biblioteca de Nuevo Leon: Monterrey, 1961. pp. 193-202.

12 Bolton, Herbert E. (ed.), Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706. Barnes & Noble, Inc. New York, 1952. pp. 390-392.

13 Ibid, pp. 367, 383.

14 Hatcher, Mattie Austin (trans.), The Expedition of Don Domingo Teran de los Rios into Texas. Preliminary Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1. Texas Catholic Historical Society: Austin, 1932. pp. 7, 19.

15 Dunn, William, E., Spanish and French Rivalry in the Gulf Region of the United States 1678-1702; The Beginnings of Texas and Pensacola. The University of Texas: Austin, 1917. pp. 139-143.

Clark, R. C., "Louis Juchereau de Sant-Denis and the Re-establishment of the Tejas Missions." The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, vol. 6, No. 1, (July, 1902). p. 2.

16 Pichardo, Jose Antonio (Trans. by Charles Wilson Hackett, Charmion Clair Selby, and Mary Ruth Splawn: Ed. and ann. by Charles Wilson Hackett), Pichardo's Treastise on the Limits of Louisiana and Texas. (4 Vols.) The University of Texas Press: Austin, 1931-193. Vol. 4 p. 308.

17 Dobie, J. Frannk "The First Cattle in Texas and the Southwest Progenitors of the Longhorns." The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (January, 1939). pp. 175-176.

18 Joutel, Henri, A Journal of the Last Voyage Perform'd by Monsr. de la Sale, To the Gulph of Mexico, To Find out the Mouth of the Mississippi River. London: 1714 (Readex Microprint reprint, 1966). pp. 74, 92.

Pichardo, op cit, Vol. 2, pp. 522-527.

Swanton, John R., Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 132. Smithsonian Institution: Washington, 194. pp. 35-42.

19 Joutel, op cit, p. 77.

20 Ibid, p. 22.

21 Ibid, p. 91.

22 Delanglez, S. J. (Trans. and ann.), The Journal of Jean Cavalier, The Account of a Survivor of La Salle's Texas Expedition, 1684-1688. Institute of Jesuit History: Chicago, 1938. p. 119.

23 Ibid, Note 81, p. 147.

24 Hatcher, op cit, pp. 39-40.

25 Pichardo, op cit, Vol. 2. pp. 526-527, Vol. 4. p. 308.

26 Ibid, Vol. 1. pp. 218-222.

Clark, op cit, pp. 7-9, 12.

27 Ibid, pp. 7-9.

Pichardo, op cit. Vol. 1. pp. 218-222.

Williams, J. W., Old Texas Trails. Eakin Press; Burnet, Texas, 1979. p. 74.

28 Foik, Paul J., (trans.), Captain Don Domingo Ramon's Diary of His Expedition into Texas in 1716. Preliminary Studies, Vol. 2, No. 5. Texas Catholic Historical Society: Austin, 1933. pp. 15-17.

Tous, Gabriel, (trans.), Ramon Expedition: Espinosa's Diary of 1716. Preliminary Studies, Vol. 1, No. 4. Texas Catholic Historical Society: Austin, 1930. pp. 15-17.

Williams, op cit, p. 50.

29 Margry, Pierre (ed.), Decouvertes et Establissments de Francais Dans L'Quest et Dans Le Sudde L'Amerique Septentrionale. Paris; 1871-1880. (6 vols.) Vol. 6. pp. 204-207.

Allen, J. A., "History of the American Bison." Ninth Annual Report of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories: Being a Report of Progress of the Exploration for the Year 1875. Government Printing Office: Washington, 1877. pp. 455-456.

38 Celiz, Francisco, Translated with Introduction by Fritz Leo Hoffman, Diary of the Alarcon Expedition into Texas, 1718-1719. The Quivira Society: Los Angeles, 1935. pp. 50, 52, 60.

Hoffman, Fritz L., (trans.), "The Mezquia Diary of the Alarcon Expedition into Texas, 1718." Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4, (April, 1938). pp. 319, 321.

31 Forrestal, Peter P., (trans.), Pena's Diary of the Aguayo Expedition. Preliminary Studies, Vol. 2, No. 7. Texas Catholic Historical Society: Austin, 1935. pp. 20-22.

32 "Memories de la Louisiane: A Collection of Memoirs Concerning French Possessions. 1702-1750." MS No. 293, Edward E. Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library. pp. 63, 69, 7.

M. de Villiers and P. Rivet, "Les Indiens du Texas et les Expeditions Francaises de 1720 et 1721 a la Baie-Saint Bernard." Journal de la Societe de Americanistes de Paris, Nouevelle Serie, T. XI, (1919). pp. 409, 411.

Dan Kilgore, President
Texas State Historical Association, 1976-1977 Corpus Christi, Texas
Photo courtesy Dan Kilgore

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011