Big Bend
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Creating a Border: The Cultural Landscape of the Big Bend

As with most units of the National Park Service (NPS) in the American West, Big Bend National Park entered the NPS system before its managers could inventory the extent of its natural and cultural resources. Encompassing over 700,000 acres when the state of Texas in 1944 deeded the land to the federal government, and expanding by 2001 to 801,163 acres, the desert, mountain, and river valley terrain that comprised the nation's fifteenth-largest park challenged the mandate that Congress gave the NPS in 1916 to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Yet the park service, no less than its predecessors in a world that the Spanish would call el despoblado (the unpopulated land), encountered the same conditions of beauty and harshness, cultural interaction and conflict, that made the Big Bend country worthy of inclusion in the nation's park system. [1]

Now that the park service has managed the vastness of Big Bend for five decades and more, a clearer picture emerges of the interplay of natural and human forces that defined the region. Said Arthur R. Gomez, NPS historian and author of a 1990 historic resources study of Big Bend, "according to local legend, after the making of heaven and earth was accomplished, the Creator took all the remaining stone and rubble and tossed it into the remote corners of West Texas." Despite the apocryphal nature of this tale, its meaning suggests the value of linking folklore with scholarship to define the essence of a land ranging from 7,825 feet in the Chisos Mountains (Emory Peak), to a mere 1,800 feet along the banks of the Rio Grande. "No other national park," wrote Frank Deckert in 1981, "has this combination of size and remoteness coupled with the romance and mystery of the Mexican border." Deckert, the chief naturalist at Big Bend from 1975 to 1980, and later superintendent of the park, noted that millions of years ago Big Bend lay below a huge ocean: "The skulls and skeletons of sea creatures piled one upon another until they formed layers of limestone thousands of feet thick." Yet modern visitors to the park, no less than the Native and Spanish travelers of long ago, often marvel at the spectacle of warm-water creatures fossilized in the stones where less than 17 inches of precipitation fall in the mountains, and a mere ten inches or less in the desert. [2]

Nature's power, and its ability to rearrange itself over millennia, became a theme of substantial historical research in the late twentieth century. Scholars have recognized that nature realigns itself many times through phenomena like fire, wind, rain, erosion, and volcanic and tectonic upheaval. Sometimes the change is incremental; sometimes violent. Yet the physical forces present in Gomez's story of Big Bend's creation were but the precursor of human use of the landscape that follows a similar pattern of modest and dramatic change. Over time erosion carried boulders and rocks down such streams as Tornillo and Terlingua, which respectively constitute the eastern and western drainage basins of present-day Big Bend National Park. Volcanic forces also shaped the Chisos Mountains north of the Rio Grande during the Tertiary Period (from 28 to 45 million years ago). Then the cutting action of the Rio Grande (named the Rio Bravo, or "wild river," by the Spanish in the sixteenth century) through the limestone layers formed the signature canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas, as well as the sharp turn of the river from which the park and the region get their name. [3]

Whoever first set foot in the future Big Bend National Park noticed these conditions and thought of strategies to bend the earth to their wishes. Yet nature's power would ensure that only the hardiest plants, animals and humans would grace the landscape; a factor in the richness and beauty of its flora and fauna that today draws visitors from around the world. Deckert noted in 1981 how 98 percent of the park was Chihuahuan desert, yet most park patrons preferred the coolness of the Chisos Mountains or the greenery of the Rio Grande and its canyons. It was in the desert, where ground temperatures could reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, that the keen eye could detect over 60 species of cactus (eleven alone of prickly pear), 56 species of reptiles, and over 100 variations of grasshoppers. One plant that served Native, Hispano, and Anglo dwellers well was the candelilla (wax) plant, whose properties when boiled yielded a substance used in perfumes, lubricants, and the like. Another plant that lured humans was the agave, or "mescal" plant, which the Inde people (whom the Spanish called "Mescaleros") ate to gain sustained energy for their journeys through the desert. Finally, large quantities of cinnabar (the host ore for the element mercury, or "quicksilver") were found in the late nineteenth century north of the Rio Grande. This made the Big Bend for a time the nation's (if not the world's) most important producer of this key element in the preparation of fulminate of mercury (an explosive). [4]

Park archaeologists like Tom Alex noted in the 1980s and 1990s that early human interaction with the land was not sporadic, but in Alex's terms "heavy" and constant. At least 8,000 years ago, desert tribes traveled down the drainage basins of the Big Bend, leaving fire rings and campsites in large numbers. "Over 200 kinds of foods were available to these people," wrote Frank Deckert, "who used several parts of a variety of plants and animals." Distinguishing characteristics of these ancestral peoples emerged with the establishment of permanent communities some 60 miles up the Rio Grande from the western park boundary; the place that the Spanish called La Junta de los Rios ("the joining of the rivers"). There the Rio Conchos flowed north and east to meet the Rio Grande coming south from its headwaters high in southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Called Patarabueye, these village-dwellers multiplied in the fertile river valley until early Spanish explorers estimated their number in the late 1500s at 10,000 or more. Even today, the most substantial population base between the park and El Paso (a distance of over 300 miles) is the border area of Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua, located at the confluence of the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande. [5]

Scholars of the early twenty-first century still refer to these people by the term that the Spanish gave them: Jumanos. No translations for this term are offered in historical texts of the Big Bend, and the archaeological evidence links these people to the communities of farmers far to the north and west in New Mexico whom the Spanish identified as Los Pueblos (translated as "villagers"). This may indeed be the case, as the word in Spanish for "human being" was humano (written in sixteenth-century Castillian with a "J"). All tribes in the Southwest, and for that matter throughout North America, referred to themselves as "people" or "human beings." Hence the possibility that the Jumanos typified one behavioral trait in the Big Bend region: settled agriculturalists who solved the mystery of survival through ingenuity and dedication to the soil.

The disappearance of most of these communities, and the persistence of one area around La Junta, may stem from the presence in the Big Bend of another type of Native society: the semi-nomadic hunters and warriors whom the Spanish would encounter throughout the Great Plains and the high desert of the Southwest: Los Indios Bravos. These "wild" tribes would not submit to the demands of the Spanish for labor, tribute, concubinage, or conversion, preferring their own existence in a harsh land. In later years these tribes would include such names as Apaches (the Zuni Pueblo word for "enemy"); Comanches (the Ute Indian word for "the people who fight us all the time," or Koma'antsi), and the most mysterious of all: the Chisos people, from whence comes the name of the most prominent mountains of Big Bend National Park. As with Jumanos, the texts of the Big Bend state repeatedly that the word meant "ghost;" a reference to the mountains where these people hid as a sanctuary, or to the mist-shrouded peaks in winter and spring that summon up images of ghosts on the hillsides. Even a folk tale of the "Lost Mine Trail," where supposedly the Spanish enslaved Indians to work digging for gold in the Chisos, emanates from this translation of the word. [6]

Because scholars can identify all of the nomadic peoples who journeyed through the Big Bend except for "Los Chisos," and because the name means so much to the region's folklore, a search of Spanish lexicons revealed a similar pattern to the translation of Jumanos. The formal Spanish word for ghost is espectro (as in "spectre"), and sometimes fantasma (as in "phantom"). Yet the term Chisos has as its root the common Nahua Indian term chi, which translates into English as "wild" or "uncontrollable." Chihuahua has such a root, as does the Apache band that the Nahuas called Chiricahua, and who called themselves Indeh (for "people"). Old Spanish documents that served as the primary sources for Max L. Moorhead, author of The Apache Frontier: Jacobo Ugarte and Spanish-Indian Relations in Northern New Spain, 1769-1791 (1968), mentioned Spanish soldiers chasing Mescaleros (Governor Ugarte called them the "Enemy") into Sierra de los Chizos, and across the Rio Grande at the Paso de Chisos, upriver from Mariscal Canyon. Given the Spanish precision in their naming practices, and their penchant for recordkeeping, it seems unlikely that Spanish officials would not mention why they referred to the Chisos people or mountains as "ghostlike". [7]

One reason for this discrepancy may have been the way that Big Bend place names appeared on old maps and charts. In 1948, park superintendent Ross Maxwell wrote to the director of the NPS's Region Three (based in Santa Fe), stating that "for quite some time I have been concerned over the general interpretation or translation of the term 'Chisos' as meaning 'ghost' or 'phantom.'" Maxwell confessed: "I am guilty of the usage myself, and I know that several other Park Service employees have also stated that the meaning of 'Chisos' is 'ghost.'" The superintendent believed that "there probably is not a Spanish term 'chisos' which is translated as 'ghost,' but that perhaps it might have originally come from one of the various Indian tongues or tribal languages." Maxwell wondered about the wisdom of using a term that lacked clear definition, especially in light of a conversation that he had had in 1940 with Dr. Robert T. Hill, famed for his 1899 rafting trip through the canyons of the Rio Grande. When the superintendent had asked the explorer the origins of the term, "he told me at that time that when he made his trip through this country the Mexicans told him that the term 'Chisos' came from a small tribe of cannibalistic Indians [who] were feared and hated by all other tribes." These people "were eventually exterminated by their larger and more powerful enemies," Hill told Maxwell, "but the name 'Chisos' was applied and retained for this group of mountains because it was the last stronghold of the small Chisos tribe." [8]

Because Maxwell had such reservations about the translation of the word for one of the park's most distinctive features ("I shiver any time I hear one of the Park Service employees say that 'Chisos' means 'ghost'), the NPS regional office asked for opinions from its staff. Erik K. Reed, the regional archaeologist who had surveyed the future park site in 1936, told Maxwell that "the word 'chiso' or 'chizo' is not given at all in the few available Spanish-English dictionaries." This led Reed to believe that "if it does not mean 'ghost' or anything else, it is at least not Castilian and probably not standard Mexican Spanish but a local word." The archaeologist apologized for not recording the word's meaning when he conducted his survey, but did offer the possibility that "the Indians in question were named from the mountains instead of vice-versa." He also theorized that "the name is actually an Indian word meaning 'ghosts' which somehow was applied and then was assumed to be Spanish." Reed then asked his colleague in Santa Fe, Walter W. Taylor, Junior, for his opinion. Taylor had spent considerable time in the Big Bend area (including Mexico) as part of his biological survey work for the future NPS unit. Reed informed Maxwell that "the geologically similar range just across the river, along the Coahuila-Chihuahua border, is named the Hechicero Mountains." This term meant "witches" or "enchanters," and Taylor contended that "'chisos' is a corruption or contraction of that work, with the related meaning of 'ghosts' having become attached to it." Reed concluded that in Taylor's opinion, "any 'Chisos Indians' or 'Chisos Apaches' received that name from the mountain-range, not vice-versa." [9]

Interaction between the Spanish speakers and the Jumano and Bravo peoples they met formed the story of the Big Bend for the better part of three centuries. Scholars have uncovered in the study of Spanish-Native history evidence of cultural interaction as well as conquest. Such is the case for the Big Bend and the people who inhabited it from the mid-sixteenth century to the arrival of the Americans 300 years later. Students and aficionados of Texana attempted to link the Big Bend country to the first Spanish wanderers, the party of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. His trek through the wilds of west Texas and southern New Mexico in the 1530s produced stories so fabulous that in 1540 Spanish royal officials commissioned the famed Entrada of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Vaca cannot be placed within the boundaries of the modern-day park as he traversed the valley of the Rio Pecos, nor did Coronado and his outriders record any travel farther south than present-day Lubbock, Texas (nearly 400 miles north of the Rio Grande). For good reason did Vaca and Coronado avoid el despoblado, as both followed river courses in west Texas that provided more sustenance than the Big Bend terrain. The area thus avoided Coronado's battles with the Pueblos of central New Mexico or the Plains tribes of western Kansas; stories that would have their parallels in the Big Bend after permanent Spanish settlement of Nueva Espana in the seventeenth century. [10]

The hardiness of the Spanish brought them on several occasions to the lands along the Rio Grande, beginning in 1581 with the exploration of the Rodriguez-Chamuscado party. Gomez wrote of the journey down the Rio Conchos by these soldiers and missionaries, wherein they encountered Jumanos. From them the Spaniards learned that Cabeza de Vaca had traveled through the area. Chamuscado and Rodriguez then ventured northwest along the Rio Grande to present-day El Paso, on their way to central New Mexico and more fertile fields for missionary work. When word reached Mexico of the failure of this latest effort to control the Southwest, a relief party retraced their footsteps the following year under the command of Antonio de Espejo. Espejo reported the presence of 10,000 Native people residing in five substantial villages around the juncture of the Conchos and Rio Grande. It also was Espejo who spoke of the wild tribes of the Big Bend as Los Chizos, a people whom Frank Deckert called "fierce warriors who resisted Spanish enslavement and raided Spanish border settlements." These also may have been Mescaleros, but the historical record is silent because the Spanish did not return to the Big Bend area for nearly a century after the Espejo journey. [11]

While the sixteenth century produced in northern New Mexico a permanent Spanish colony and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Spain's inability or lack of desire to establish control of the Big Bend country left the latter outside of the orbit of Spanish imperial dominion. The flight of the Spanish and their Indian allies southward to El Paso in 1680 did not remove the Europeans from the region. Instead, the Spanish in 1683 entertained a delegation of Jumanos who sought protection from the Apaches who raided deep into west Texas. La Gran Apacheria, as the Spanish called the huge area from modern-day central Kansas to southeastern Arizona, witnessed a higher concentration of "the Enemy," as the Apaches' opponents labeled them, which in turn threatened the lives of the more-sedentary Jumanos. The leader of the delegation to El Paso, a man whom the Spanish called Juan Sabeata, included in his request for protection a plea for conversion to the Catholic faith. The Spanish interpreted this as an admission that Apaches posed more of a threat than the very same Spaniards whom the New Mexican Pueblos had fought just three years earlier. [12]

Still stinging from their retreat from Santa Fe, and nearly a decade removed from a successful reconquista, Spanish officials in El Paso agreed to send three priests down the Rio Grande to La Junta: Fray Nicolas Lopez, Juan de Zavaleta, and Antonio de Acevado. Soon thereafter, New Mexico Governor-in-exile Domingo Jironza Petriz de Cruzate dispatched a military unit under the command of Captain Juan Dominguez de Mendoza to survey the new mission. The latter's journey took him downriver as far as the Rio Conchos, and then by a circular route northeastward to what would become the Davis Mountains (which Mendoza called Los Reyes). Before returning to El Paso, Mendoza met with Juan Sabeata at Horsehead Crossing on the Rio Pecos, a spot north of modern-day Fort Stockton that the Comanches used on their annual raids. There the Jumano leader gave Mendoza a French flag, evidence to the Spanish that a new European power had penetrated deep into the Southwest. [13]

Spain's fears of foreign competition east of New Mexico compounded the obstacles of distance, isolation, aridity, and resistant Native peoples that had hindered Nueva Espana since the days of Francisco Coronado. In Texas, the French presence along the Mississippi River (Louisiana) forced the Spanish to defend their claims with presidios and missions in San Antonio and Nacogdoches (known La Mision de Los Adaes). History texts of the Southwest speak of the efforts of eighteenth-century Spanish rulers (the Bourbon family of France) to modernize the colonial empire through strengthened defenses and expanded trading zones. In 1747 the audiencia of Mexico reported, in the words of Gomez, "that not a single presidio existed between San Juan Bautista [near present-day Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass] and El Paso, a distance of over [360] leagues [approximately 540 miles]." Catholic missionaries had continued the work of Fray Lopez, et al., but they did so among the people of La Junta without any military support. In that same year, the Governor of Coahuila, Pedro Rabago y Teran, led a party to the Rio Grande near modern-day Del Rio, then southwest to near Boquillas; a site that they named "Santa Rita." From there they journeyed across the river through the Chisos Mountains, across Terlingua Creek, and back to the Rio Grande at Lajitas en route to La Junta. No more Spanish interest in the area occurred for a generation, and only then because of Spain's final commitment to improvement of imperial defense in 1768 under the famed Marques de Rubi. [14]

The appearance in the Southwest of the Royal Corps of Engineers, Spain's version of the French military academy of Saint Cyr (and later the United States Military Academy at West Point), precipitated the review of Spanish military readiness. Inspired by the French model of science and engineering, the Royal Corps sent Rubi to suggest a radical departure in its strategies for protection of the Rio Grande. Together with his assistant, Nicolas de Lafora, Rubi journeyed from the Native villages near Tucson of the Pagapo (the Tohono O'Otham), to the Sabine River in central Texas. Rubi described the Indian villages, sources of water, mineral deposits, and flora and fauna, and made suggestions for roads and trails. In his report, Rubi warned his superiors that it would be impossible for Spain to provide military garrisons for every settlement located south of the Rio Grande. He also criticized the decentralized process of presidio alignment, as these appeared wherever a community wanted one, rather than following a coherent plan of defense. The Spanish government adopted Rubi's recommendation for three new presidio sites in the Big Bend area: one at San Vicente Pass south of the Chisos Mountains (the future location of the villages of San Vicente on both sides of the Rio Grande), another at San Carlos, a dozen miles or so south of Lajitas, and a third at the thriving communities around La Junta de los Rios. [15]

Despite the wisdom of Rubi's judgment, the reality of Spain's imperial decline (and eventual ouster from Mexico in 1821) meant little funding for such an elaborate scheme of defense. In addition, the Comanches had surged southward to the Rio Grande and Mexico in the years after 1750, driving the once-feared Apache bands further into Mexico and exposing villages there to constant fear of raiding and retaliation. In 1767 the Spanish sent to the new presidio at San Vicente a commander of Irish descent, General Hugo Oconor, known as El Gran Colorado for his flaming red hair and beard. Knowing how the Mescaleros used the Chisos Mountains for protection, Oconor and his troops marched down the Rio Grande to La Junta, then eastward to the Big Bend area. Before arriving in the Apache stronghold, Oconor visited the presidio at San Carlos, where he placed Captain Don Manuel de Villaverde in command of 50 soldiers and their families. He then stopped at San Vicente to install Captain Francisco Martinez as commander, in hopes that a unified presidial defensive line along the Rio Grande would drive the Apaches northward into the territory of the Comanches. [16]

Whatever his credentials and accomplishments, Oconor's decision to constrain the Apaches in the Big Bend did not sit well with Teodoro de Croix, the new commandant-general of Spain's Las Provincias Internas (the new name for the interior provinces of the Southwest. Himself a Frenchman, Croix preferred a strong offensive against the Indians, as well as a complicated alliance with the Comanches to defeat the Apaches. He also thought that the presidios at San Vicente, San Carlos, and La Junta were unnecessary, and called for their removal. Then Croix ventured into the Big Bend area in early 1778 from Chihuahua, only to be attacked by a party of 500 Mescaleros. Based upon this incident and his personal review of the Big Bend presidios, Croix concluded that the garrisons barely supported themselves, and lacked adequate grazing land for the soldiers' mounts. To make matters worse, the quartermaster at San Vicente had gone bankrupt twice since establishment of that presidio, leaving the Spanish troops, in the words of Gomez, "unpaid and demoralized." [17]

A decade later, the Spanish decided to engage in an elaborate scheme of treaties and coercion to succeed where presidios and frontal assaults on the Apaches had failed. Juan de Ugalde, successor to Jacobo de Ugarte as Governor of Coahuila, moved in 1779 to pursue the Mescaleros north of the Rio Grande. Several years of effort resulted in the Spanish victory at the battle of El Aguaje de Dolores in the Chisos Mountains. Two years later, three Mescalero band chiefs sought peace, which entailed a settled existence on land around Presidio. The same could not be said for the other Native bands that surged through the Big Bend country, the Comanches. The Comanches continued raiding throughout the remainder of the Spanish imperial era, reaching Spanish villages as far south as Zacatecas, more than 500 miles below the Rio Grande. Thus few residents of the Big Bend, whether Spanish or Native, noticed in 1821 when the Mexican Revolution ended and the new government of Mexico City declared a republic to replace imperial Spain. Even more so than the more-populous centers of New Mexico and eastern Texas, the Big Bend reverted in the Mexican interlude (1821-1846) to a state that one visitor in 1828 to San Carlos called "a half-wild Indian and Mexican settlement on the Rio Grande." [18]

Just as the Mexican independence movement meant little to the villages and presidios along the bend of the Rio Grande, the advance of the "Army of the West" through New Mexico and California during the War with Mexico (1846-1848) brought few changes to daily life. General Stephen Watts Kearny and his 6,000-member force sent no one southeastward from El Paso to survey the new territory. Nor did American forces under General Zachary Taylor show much interest in the Big Bend country as they moved south that year from modern-day Brownsville, Texas, to capture the Mexican state of Coahuila. The corridor from San Antonio to Monterrey that Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana had taken in 1836 to recapture the Alamo had no spur lines westward to Big Bend. Thus the United States claimed an area about which it knew little, and which required much in the way of defense, scientific study, and economic support. [19]

More substantial for the future of the Big Bend under American domination would be negotiations for the peace treaty held near Mexico City, and the subsequent boundary survey required by the treaty commissioners. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in the Mexican community of the same name on February 2, 1848, contained clauses about citizenship, land-grant rights, and protection against Indian raiding that appealed to Mexicanos throughout the Southwest. Scholars of the 1960s and 1970s decried the consequences of "lost lands" or discrimination against Spanish-speaking peoples of the region; a condition all too real throughout the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet they ignored the fact that the treaty's Article XI, in the words of Gomez, "provided that the United States would bear the burden of responsibility for restraining Indian attacks along the international border [Mexican negotiators had referred to them as 'tribus selvajes,' or 'savage tribes']." In addition, Article V "called for each nation to appoint a commission to work jointly on the formation of a common border." These two mandates brought the same U.S. Army to west Texas and the Big Bend that had defeated Santa Ana and the Mexican forces months earlier, and launched the first of many official scientific and diplomatic studies of the region. [20]

While the treaty negotiators hailed their accomplishment, another event occurred that linked the Big Bend more closely to the orbit of American power and influence. In January 1848, a supervisor of timber workers in California's Sierra Nevada found traces of gold in the millrace. The discovery unleashed the most dramatic surge of population across the continent that America had ever seen. While the preferred venue was sailing around South America, some hardy souls trekked across the desert Southwest to avoid the Rocky Mountains. The 49ers also found relatively flat land between the Texas coast and San Diego, making a southern route to California a priority for the federal government. The potential for Indian resistance only heightened as thousands of gold-seekers poured across the central and southern Great Plains in 1849 and 1850, with west Texas especially vulnerable because of the intractable Comanches and Apaches. [21]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003