Man’s prehistoric occupation of the Big Bend is generally divided into five periods: Paleo-Indian, Early Archaic, Middle Archaic, Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric. Throughout the Paleo-Indian Period (10,000 – 6500 B.C.), the Indians depended primarily on large game for food, clothing, and shelter. As the climate changed at the end of the last ice age becoming warmer and drier), large game animals like bison declined, ushering in a move toward hunting smaller game. Indians of this new era – the early to late Archaic Periods (6500 B.C. – 1000 A.D.), began relying more on plants they gathered for clothing, shelter, and food. By the end of the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 700 –1535), Spanish mission priests traveling through the area reported small bands of nomadic peoples they called the Chizo living in the high mountains. This society marks the beginning of the Historic Era (AD 1535 to Present) and it’s for them that the Chisos Mountains are named. By the 1700s the Chizo Indians were either absorbed or forced out of the region all together by the Mescalero Apaches, who were then themselves displaced from Big Bend by another American Indian group—the Comanche. Even though the Comanche did not make their homes in the region, they maintained a strong presence here for nearly 100 years. Throughout the 1800s, reports were continually heard of a well-worn trail cutting across the landscape toward Mexico. The Comanche Trail, as it was known, served as a major thoroughfare back and forth between the two countries. By 1875 even the mighty Comanche could not stem the tide of American settlers moving into the region and they too were eventually forced from the Big Bend.
The Historic Era began around AD 1535 with the first Spanish explorations into this portion of North America. The expedition of Cabeza de Vaca passed near the Big Bend. Other expeditions followed in search of gold and silver, farm and ranch land, religious converts and Indian slaves. In an attempt to protect their northern frontier, the Spaniards established a line of “presidios,” or forts along the Rio Grande in the late 1700s. These were soon abandoned because they could not effectively stop Indian raids into Mexico. Less study has been made of the Mexican occupation of the Big Bend after the abandonment of the presidios, but when Anglo settlers began arriving in the 1800s, they found Mexican families who had occupied the area since the late 1700s, still farming the floodplains of the Rio Grande. In 1848, with the resolution of the war between Mexico and the United States, the border between the two countries was clearly defi ned and American occupation of the Big Bend began in earnest.
The Modern Era
In the 1880s, ranchers migrated into Big Bend to raise livestock in such numbers that the land was soon overgrazed. By the late 1890’s with the discovery of mercury (also known as quicksilver), mining operations replaced ranching as the main economic force of the region. Settlers were enticed to the area by work in the mines or by work in support of the mines like farming or cutting timber for the smelters. Some communities like Terlingua developed directly around the mine sites, while other settlements like Castolon sprang up on the fertile Rio Grande floodplain. These settlements were mainly small groups of families living and farming in the same area and they were only as successful as the land would allow. By the 1930s, however, many people began to agree that this area of contrast, beauty, and solitude was worth preserving for future generations. To that end, the State of Texas created the Texas Canyons State Park in 1933, and began developing facilities with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 the federal government passed legislation to establish a national park. Subsequently, the State deeded the land to the federal government and on June 12th, 1944 Big Bend National Park became a reality.
Protect Our History
Big Bend National Park is dotted with old buildings and ruins of past settlements. By visiting these sites and ruins, you can get a glimpse of early life in what seems like an uninhabitable environment. Many of these sites are one-of-a-kind because they occur only in the area of Big Bend National Park. What might seem like rusty, old trash to you has cultural signifi cance and has value because it helps tell the story of Big Bend. Please help the park protect these important resources by leaving them where you find them.
Last updated: April 17, 2020