The Impact of Human Use Upon the Chisos Basin and Adjacent Lands
NPS Scientific Monograph No. 4
NPS Logo

Early Man's Use of the Mountains

One can only speculate on the history of early man in the Chisos Mountains and his effect upon the Chisos Basin and its vegetation. Man was certainly in the basin and nearby mountains prior to the invasion of the territory by the early 16th century Spanish explorers. Outstanding artifacts of early man are the mortars in Upper Juniper Canyon, middens at Laguna Meadow, and paintings at Stipa Flat in the basin, not to disregard the many stone points which have been found.

The "Big Bend Basket Makers," as they are usually referred to (Maxwell 1968), undoubtedly lived in caves, hunted game with darts, and used the native plants to weave baskets, sandals, and other objects. Their choice of Nolina (nolina) and Dasylirion (sotol) for weaving was probably the first major form of human impact upon the vegetation. Other fibers were probably used to a lesser extent. Certainly early man's effect upon the environment did not deviate significantly from that of the native fauna. Probably his activities were concentrated at or near springs, such as Kibbey Springs in the basin or at Boot Springs and Upper Juniper Springs higher in the mountains.

The earliest recorded report of man in the Chisos Mountains is that by the Governor of Coahuila, Don Pedro Rabago y Teran (Carroll), concerning his trip across the tip of Big Bend from Presidio del Sacramento to La Junta at the junction of the Conchos and Rio Grande rivers. In the report of crossing the Chisos Mountains in 1747, he tells of passing many Apache rancherias, both populated and abandoned. On 8 December 1747, his chaplain, Fray Manuel Neri, O.F.M., celebrated a mass in the mountains, and the party emerged from the Chisos Mountains on 14 December bound for Lajitas. Less than a week later Captain Fermin de Vidaurre, Commander of the Presidio of Mapimi, followed Rabago's route through the Chisos Mountains and into Mexico at Lajitas.

The Indians encountered were probably of the Chisos tribe of the Apaches which dominated the area. Earlier reports by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1550s) and Antonio de Espeja (1580s) of the Indians in the region indicate a cultural shift to settlements and cultivation of corn, wheat, beans, maize, gourds, melons, and pumpkins along the streams (Maxwell 1968; Raht 1963). This practice may have reduced pressure upon the native vegetation for food, but promoted the growth of human and introduced plant populations.

With the white man's encroachment upon the Indian lands of the continent, the life of the Indians in the Big Bend region became more unstable. A major cause was the annual plundering forays by the Comanches from their northern rancherias into northern and central Mexico. The eastern branch of the Comanche Trail rose into the Chisos Mountains before crossing the Rio Grande at the "Great Indian Crossing" near the Coahuila-Chihuahua, Mexico boundary. This ravaging continued until 1845, when the U.S. government began serious exploration into the region. Accounts of the Comanche reign and its effects upon the smaller tribes suggest that the local tribes moved higher into remote areas, thus shifting their survival habits to hunting and gathering. Accompanying the Comanche reign were the increased activities of the Latin-American and Anglo-Saxon American outlaw bandits.

By the 1850s the Comanches had been controlled, and the major influx of European influence began in Big Bend country. Names such as John Love, T.W. Chandler, N. Michier, and W.H. Emory are found directing or leading mapping parties into the region; they often gave their names and those of others to topographic features. These trailmakers and the military men who followed soon afterward gave us the last reports of the nomadic, plundering Mescalero Apaches. The tribe spent spring and summer in the Chisos, Davis, and Guadalupe mountains and retreated to the upper Rio Grande during the winter. Their last major fight for native lands was in 1881, when the Indian was finally conquered in Big Bend country.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 1-Apr-2005