No one knows exactly when the first people came to the Guadalupes, but archaeological evidence dates back over 10,000 years ago. The earliest inhabitants were hunter-gathers who followed available game and ripening vegetation, and lived in and among the many caves and alcoves common throughout the range. Scattered evidence of their existence, including projectile points, baskets, pottery, and rock art has been found throughout the park.
Since then, many different groups have moved in and out of the area, including the Spanish who arrived by the mid 1500’s. There is little evidence of any attempts on their part to penetrate the Guadalupes, and no large-scale settlements have been located. Their influence was significant though, because they introduced horses into the area. For the bands of Apaches who roamed freely over much of southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico, horses quickly became an invaluable asset to their nomadic lifestyle. The Mescalero Apaches followed game, much as the earlier peoples had done, and they also harvested the agave (or mescal) for food and fiber. Mescalero is name given to them by the Spanish, and it means mescal-maker. Agave roasting pits and other remains of Mescalero campsites are common in the park.
Prior to the mid 1800’s, the Guadalupes remained an unchallenged sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. But newly established transportation routes, and the end of the Civil War, encouraged droves of pioneers, homesteaders, miners, and numerous others to head west. In the 1840’s and 1850’s, explorers were commissioned to look for possible emigrant routes to the west, and the proposed transcontinental railroad expected to follow one of these. Although these surveying expeditions would never lead to a railroad through Guadalupe Pass, they did provide the first extensive studies of the Guadalupe region. In 1858, the Pinery (a horse-changing station), was constructed near Pine Springs for the Butterfield Overland Mail. To protect their investments, the stage line and settlers in the area demanded protection from the military. Several cavalry troops, including the Buffalo Soldiers, were intermittently ordered in and out of the area to halt Indian raids and secure settlements along the stage route. In the winter of 1869, troops lead by Lt. H.B. Cushing penetrated the Guadalupes and destroyed two primary Apache camps. These aggressive actions were devastating to the Mescaleros who were already facing food shortages within their increasingly limited land base. They were eventually driven out of the Guadalupes, and by the late 1800’s, nearly all of the surviving Mescalero Apaches in the U.S. were living on reservations.
Permanent settlements in the Guadalupes were not common though, even after the final displacement of the Mescaleros. The Butterfield stage route through the Guadalupes was abandoned in less than a year for a more favorable course along a string of army forts to the south. Most settlers found the range (and its limited water sources) too rugged and inhospitable. Historical evidence shows that one of the first settlers who stayed was Felix McKittrick who worked cattle in the area in the 1870’s. McKittrick Canyon is thought to be named after him. The first permanent ranch house was constructed in 1876 by the Rader brothers. Now called Frijole Ranch, it served as residence for several families through the years. And, as the only major building complex in the region (for several decades), it served as a community center and regional post office from 1916-1942. Today, the Frijole Ranch House has been restored and operates as a cultural museum. In 1908 another ranch site was built in the Guadalupes below the western escarpment. Later, it became known as Williams Ranch after one of its inhabitants, James Adolphus Williams. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Judge J.C. Hunter from Van Horn, Texas consolidated most of the smaller ranches in the area into a large-scale operation called the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch. In order to sustain livestock, primarily sheep and goats, Hunter established a complex pumping system to send water into the highcountry. Concerned for the preservation of fragile habitats, such as the riparian canyons, he concentrated grazing in the northern part of his ranch. He also introduced elk into these mountains.
Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become reality until Wallace Pratt became involved. A geologist for the then tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon); Pratt was one of the early explorers of oil in the Permian Basin. In 1921, he was captivated by the geology and beauty of McKittrick Canyon and shortly after began buying land in the canyon. He built two separate homes in the canyon, the Pratt Cabin, located at the confluence of north and south McKittrick canyons, and Ship-On-The-Desert located on higher ground near the mouth of the canyon. Both of these locales were used as summer homes by Pratt and his family up until 1960. Shortly after, his generous contribution of nearly 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon became the nucleus for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Another 80,000 acres, owned by J.C. Hunter Jr., was purchased by the government to complete the parcel. Congress passed the necessary legislation in 1966, and by 1970 the land transfer was complete. In September, 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park was dedicated and formally opened to the public.