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Big Bend National Park


Sunset at Mule Ears, Big Bend National Park

Sunset at Mule Ears, Big Bend National Park
Courtesy of the National Park Service and Glennon Simmons

The human history of Big Bend National Park in West Texas along the Mexican border dates to over 10,000 years ago and tells a story of adaptation and survival. A constant flow of people and cultures have moved through this region of mountain, desert, and river environments just as the Rio Grande River has flowed through and carved its lands. Visitors to Big Bend National Park can experience the park’s wild landscape, flora, and wildlife, and learn about the American Indians, Spanish explorers, Mexican settlers, and American citizens, and about relations between Mexico and the United States. All are part of the story of this wild place.

Traces of human interaction with the diverse, and once much cooler, landscape of present-day Big Bend date to 8000 B.C. Nomadic hunters and gatherers first inhabited the area about 10,000 years ago, subsisting on large and small game and plants used for food, clothing, and shelter. While little is known about this Paleo-Indian period, it appears the population was able to survive successfully for nearly 7,500 years by employing nomadic practices. Around 1000 A.D., in the Late Prehistoric period (ca 1000 – 1535 A.D.), the American Indians of Big Bend began to farm and establish more permanent settlements, thereby changing their lifestyle and eliminating the need to constantly travel to find food.

The Historic Era (1535 A.D. – Present) details a period of growth in populations and settlements in the Big Bend region, a period also significantly marked by conquest and displacement. The Chisos, the Mescalero Apaches, and the Comanche Indians hunted, farmed, traveled, and battled throughout the Big Bend area. While their origin is unknown, the mostly nomadic Chisos Indians were linguistically associated with the Conchos Indians of northern Mexico and were in the Big Bend region from roughly 1535 through 1850. In the early 1700’s, the Mescalero Apaches, also nomadic hunters, but singularly expert warriors, invaded the Big Bend region and displaced the Chisos. The Comanche began to appear in the area around this time as well. Throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s, the Comanche, skilled horsemen who mastered the terrain of the Southwest, traveled through Big Bend along the Great Comanche Trail while making advances into Mexico, interacting with both the Apaches and the Spanish.

Comanche feats of horsemanship, a painting by George Catlin, 1834. Catlin, North American Indians, II

Comanche feats of horsemanship, a painting by George Catlin, 1834. Catlin, North American Indians, II
Public Domain

The Spanish began exploring the Big Bend region around the middle part of the 1500s, colonizing large portions in the 17th and 18th centuries. To protect colonies and trade routes against raids, the Spanish built missions and presidios (forts). Two Spanish presidios in the Big Bend vicinity, Presidio de San Vincente near present day San Vincente, Coahuila, and Presidio de San Carlos close to present day Manuel Benavides, Chihuahua, both in Mexico, were isolated and difficult places for soldiers and their families to live. The Spanish quickly abandoned these presidios because they were expensive to maintain and did not effectively ward off attacks from the Comanche. Traveling south from the Great Plains (what is now Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle) to the Mexican interior, the Comanche targeted the Spanish frontier settlements that were easy to raid, while avoiding the spread out Spanish presidios (forts).

After capturing livestock and prisoners, the Comanche marched their “booty” northward along the Great Comanche Trail through the Persimmon Gap mountain pass, a pass commemorated in the park today. These long and bloody marches created a distinct, physical impression on the landscape. Although the trail is practically invisible today, a small stone and steel plaque at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center is a reminder of the historic trail. The Comanches retained a tight grip on the land, despite the U.S. winning possession of the lower Rio Grande in 1848 in the Mexican war. Ongoing hostilities with the Comanches and Apaches meant that the land remained sparsely settled until the Comanche were defeated by the U.S. government in 1875 and the Apaches in 1880. Once seemingly more secure, the area was opened to ranchers, miners, farmers, and the railroad.

With the imminent Apache and Comanche threat lessened, sheep, goat, and cattle ranches, American and Mexican farmers, and cinnabar mine workers filled the Big Bend area. In this border society, American and Mexican families often traded and conducted business together. Such security was short-lived, however, as hostilities associated with the Mexican Revolution led to major turmoil along the U.S.-Mexico border. One casualty of such hostilities was the near-destruction of the small U.S. village of Glenn Springs. The village had grown due to the candelilla wax factory built in 1914 by “Captain” C.D. Wood and Mr. W. K. Ellis near the Glenn spring. The factory employed 40 to 60 Mexican workers in addition to Anglo workers. While the two groups of workers lived in separate parts of the village, on the west side “Mexican Glenn Springs” and on the east side “Anglo Glenn Springs,” both groups felt the effects of the near-destruction of their borderland community.

Wax factory at Glenn Springs, 1916

Wax factory at Glenn Springs, 1916
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Although the U.S. had arranged as early as 1911 for troops to protect the Big Bend region, the nine U.S. cavalrymen in the area were too few to successfully defend Glenn Springs against a larger Mexican force. Mexican bandit Captain Rodriguez Ramirez led the raid on Glenn Springs on May 5, 1916. The Mexicans killed four people, seriously injured four others, looted the Glenn Springs store, and burned two of the major factory buildings. The town never fully recovered. Today, visitors to the park can see the remains of this young border village along the primitive dirt Glenn Springs Road. Despite the relatively small size of the village, the raid received national attention prompting government officials to commission permanent and temporary military camps along the Rio Grande to protect farms, ranches, and settlements.

Camp Santa Helena, located in the southwest corner of Big Bend National Park, was established in 1916 as a direct result of the Glenn Springs raid. Impermanent structures served the troops stationed at the camp for the first three years, with construction of permanent buildings finished in 1920. The end of the Mexican Revolution in 1921 reduced the threat of additional Mexican invasions causing the US Army to withdraw and leave behind the new barracks, officers’ quarters, a latrine, a granary and tack shed, and a stable. Not vacant for long, however, the empty army buildings were quickly adapted for a new, public use.

The La Harmonia Company Store is still in operation today and still plays a central role in the Big Bend community.

The La Harmonia Company Store is still in operation today and still plays a central role in the Big Bend community.
Courtesy of Michelle Garrett, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Howard Perry, founder of Chisos Mining Company, and his partner Wayne Cartledge created a farming, ranching, and storekeeping partnership at Camp Santa Helena, now known as Castolon. They named their enterprise “La Harmonia Company” hoping the name would encourage harmony between peoples and borders in the area. The company began its prolific involvement with trading and farming in the region by purchasing the Castolon Store in 1918. Initially established by Cipriano Hernandez in 1902, the store was housed in the east end of the large adobe building, formerly Hernandez’s house. The building, now known as the Alvino House, is the oldest known adobe building in Big Bend National Park and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors to the park can still see the Alvino House today. La Harmonia also repurposed the old Camp Santa Helena barracks building as a new frontier trading post in 1921. The building served the same function for the next eighty years.

The La Harmonia store provided a multitude of services to the Americans and Mexicans living in the area. At different times, the store served as a trading post, consulate, sheriffs’ department, post office, notary public, bank, and a source of medical hardware and ranch supplies. Cartledge served as not only the storekeeper, rancher, farmer, and trader to the Mexican and America residents in the area, he was also a respected friend, employer, banker, broker, postmaster, lawman, and counselor. Cartledge also acted as the middleman in candellia and fur trades, working between suppliers in Mexico and buyers as far away as New York. The La Harmonia Store fostered a sense of community, harmony, and respect between its American and Mexican patrons and played a key role in promoting positive relations on the border between the United States and Mexico throughout most of the 1900’s.

The La Harmonia Company Store is still in operation today. While it now caters to visitors and travelers more than farmers and ranchers, the store is still the center of activity for the southwestern tip of Big Bend. The store is open from 10am to 6pm daily but closed for lunch. Prior to the closure of the border crossings in the park in 2002, many of the people from the village of Santa Elena, Mexico shopped and received their mail at the La Harmonia Store. Today, visitors can take self-guided tours of the Castolon Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, by purchasing the Castolon Historic District Guidebook available for $1.00 at the visitor center or from the La Harmonia Store.

The park also contains other sites that represent the region’s border history. Luna’s Jacal is a good example of a primitive Mexican house-shelter characteristic of early pioneer settlement in the Big Bend area. Gilberto Luna was a pioneer Mexican farmer and enjoyed peaceful relations with the Comanche and Apache throughout the mid to late 1800’s. Luna died in 1947 at the age of 109, and his house stands as a testament to his impressive ability to adapt to the harsh environment of the region and to his diplomatic skills in a frontier and border society.

The Hot Springs Store & Post Office

The Hot Springs Store & Post Office
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Visitors may also take in the historic tourist spa and cross-border community at Hot Springs. "Hot Springs" or "Boquillas Hot Springs” as they were known at one time, have a long history of human use. For years, American Indians and other inhabitants of the region used the hot springs for their healing and medicinal qualities. J.O. Langford, a Mississippi man of poor health, acquired the springs in 1909 and developed the area as a health and recreational resort. When Langford and his family first arrived to their newly acquired land, they discovered Cleofas Natividad, his wife, and their 10 children already living and farming the land. Langford debated about what to do about these “squatters,” but ultimately decided that the Natividad’s had probably farmed the land for generations and he left them be. This was a wise decision, for Natividad proved to be a very reliable neighbor in this borderland community. Langford operated the “Hot Springs” until 1942, except for a 14-year period between 1912 and 1927 when border unrest made the area unsafe. The large influx of visitors to the area, a direct result of Langford’s resort, was largely responsible for the push to establish a national park in the area, which came to fruition on June 12, 1944.

Another stop in the park that represents the historically fluid nature of the U.S. – Mexico border is Mariscal Quicksilver Mine & Reduction Works. Protected within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park are the abandoned mine-works, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The well-preserved historic structures are some of the best illustrating the mercury mining industry in the United States. From 1900 to 1943, Mariscal Mine produced 1,400 seventy-six pound flasks of mercury, totaling nearly one quarter of the total mercury produced in the United States. Between 1919 and 1923, Mariscal Mine employed 20 to 40 Mexican citizens who had fled to Texas to escape the Mexican Revolution. The only Americans at the mine were the manager, foreman, and brick-kiln specialist. Most of the ruins visible today are one to three room houses, built between 1919 and 1923.

The distinct natural and cultural diversity of Big Bend National Park on the border with Mexico is surely to leave a memorable impression upon any visitor.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located south of Marfa, Alpine, and Marathon in Southwest TX. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places files: Castolon Historic District: text and photos; Luna Jacal: text and photos; Hot Springs: text and photos; Mariscal Quicksilver Mine: text and photos. Park entrances are open 24 hours daily, all year. Entrance fee stations have variable seasons and hours. Click here for information on the five visitor centers throughout the park. For more information, visit the National Park Service Big Bend National Park website or call 432-477-2251.

The Big Bend National Park is featured in the National Park Service South and West Texas Travel Itinerary. The Mariscal Quicksilver Mine & Reduction Works has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. The Castolon Historic District has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey and is the subject of an online lesson plan Castolon: A Meeting Place of Two Cultures. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.

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