Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park



In 1933, the state of Texas established Texas Canyons State Park, using 15 school sections owned by the state. Lands forfeited for non payment of taxes were quickly added and the name was changed. By October 27, 1933, Big Bend State Park included about 160,000 acres. In 1935, on June 20, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that authorized the establishment of Big Bend National Park. On June 6, 1944 a deed for about 700,000 acres was formally presented to President Roosevelt and Big Bend was established June 12, 1944 as a National Park by Congressional Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

Globally Important Bird Area - September 2001
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve - October 26, 1976
National Park (established) - June 12, 1944
National Park (authorized) - June 20, 1935
Texas Canyons State Park - May 27, 1933


The fossilized remains of gigantic crocodiles have been discovered in the Aguja Formation in the south-central part of the Big Bend National Park. These are among the largest crocodiles ever known.

With lengths of 40-50 feet and jaws studded with 6-inch teeth, these powerful predators were extraordinarily equipped to feed upon a variety of dinosaurs. In fact, dinosaur bones have been found here that are heavily damaged and covered with distinctive crocodile bite marks! Just like modern day crocodilians, Deinosuchus riograndensis probably hunted by ambush...lying submerged near shore, and violently seizing large dinosaurs as they foraged amid the vegetation of Big Bend's ancient swamps.

The magnificent skull of Deinosuchus is on display at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Ross Maxwell

The First Superintendent
Ross Maxwell (1904-1993) served as the first superintendent of Big Bend National Park, from the establishment of the park in 1944 through 1952.

Born near Sparks, Oklahoma on June 9, 1904, Ross Maxwell attended the University of Oklahoma and earned two degrees there. He received a Ph.D. in geology from Northwestern University in 1936, and later that year moved to the Big Bend to participate in a geological survey of the region for the National Park Service. Following the closure of the CCC camp in Big Bend in 1937, Maxwell worked at National Monument sites in Arizona.

Well versed with the area, Maxwell was seen as a logical choice to serve as the first superintendent of Big Bend. When he arrived on the job in July 1945, he supervised four employees and had an annual operating budget of $15,000. In the words of his sucessor, Maxwell presided over "the real rough-and-tumble beginnings of park establishment." At the time, the park had no paved roads, no electricity, and the nearest telephone was 100 miles away. While superintendent, Maxwell laid out the route of the road today named in his honor to highlight the more spectacular geologic features on the west side of the park.

After leaving the National Park Service in 1952, Maxwell taught at the University of Texas until his retirement. Until the end of his life Maxwell maintained a relationship with the Big Bend, and is remembered for his vocal support for the region.

To Learn More

  • Maxwell, Ross A. The Big Bend of the Rio Grande; A Guide to the Rocks, Landscape, Geologic History, and Settlers of the area of Big Bend National Park. Austin, University of Texas, 1968.
  • Maxwell, Ross A. Big Bend country: A History of Big Bend National Park. Big Bend National Park, TX: Big Bend Natural History Association, 1985.
  • Welsh, Michael. Landscape of Ghosts, River of Dreams: An Administrative History of Big Bend National Park. National Park Service, 2002.
  • Lassiter, Berta Clarke. We Come and Go: A Handbook for the Big Bend National Park. San Antonio, TX: The Naylor Co., 1949.

Cultural History of the Big Bend

Ecological Background
To the casual visitor, the Big Bend area of Texas presents a face of harsh desolation, austere panoramas, open expanses of cactus and scrub brush broken by rugged mountains, towering pinnacles and deeply etched canyons. However, at the end of the last ice age, the climate was much cooler and wetter, and a widespread woodlands covered much of the Big Bend. Since about 9000 B.C. the climate has gradually become warmer and drier, and there has been a gradual influx of heat and drought adapted plants.

THE PREHISTORIC ERA (9000 B.C. - 1535. A.D.)
The idea of the Big Bend as "desplobado," or unpopulated, is difficult to dispel. The fact remains that Big Bend has been more or less continually inhabited by humans for thousands of years. The archeological record reveals that earlier inhabitants developed a nomadic hunting and gathering life style so successful that it remained virtually unchanged for several thousand years. Human occupation of the Big Bend during this prehistoric area can be generally divided into five periods:

Paleo-Indian (ca. 8000 - 6500 B.C.)
Early Archaic (ca. 6500 - 3000 B.C.)
Middle Archaic (ca. 3000 - 500 B.C.)
Late Archaic (ca. 500 B.C. - 1000 A.D.)
Late Prehistoric (ca. 1000 - 1535 A.D.)

Throughout the Paleo-Indian period the inhabitants of the Big Bend depended upon large game hunting as their primary source of food, and materials for clothing and shelter. As the slowly changing climate caused a reduction in the numbers of large game animals, primarily bison, the Indian groups of the Archaic Periods adapted by utilizing a combination of hunting smaller game with a type of spear thrower called an atlatl, and gathering and processing plants for food, clothing, and shelter. These highly efficient methods maintained a relatively stable lifeway for about 7500 years. Not much is known about these early Indian groups. It is not known by what name these early Indians were called, or what they called themselves. That information did not survive into the historic period. By the Late Prehistoric period (1000 A.D.) the native people of the Big Bend had come under the influence of agricultural groups to the northwest. Agricultural villages existed near present day Presidio, Texas, and it is suspected that some limited agriculture was practiced by Indian groups in the area of the park. During the Late Prehistoric, Indians of the Big Bend began to use the bow and arrow, and groups northwest of the park were using pottery.

THE HISTORIC ERA (1535 A.D. - Present)

The Indians (1535 - 1850 A.D.)
During the early historic period several Indian groups were recorded as inhabiting the Big Bend. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gathers who probably practiced limited agricultural on a seasonal basis. The origin of the Chisos Indians is not known. Linguistically, they were associated with the Conchos Indians of northern Chihuahua and northwestern Coahuila. Their language group spoke a variation of Uto-Aztecan, a language whose speakers ranged from central Mexico to the Great Basin of the U.S. The Jumano was a nomadic group that travelled and traded throughout west Texas and southeastern New Mexico but some historic records indicate that they were enemies of the Chisos. Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Mescalero Apaches began to invade the Big Bend region and displaced the Chisos Indians. The last Indian group to use the Big Bend was the Comanches who passed through the park along the Great Comanche Trail on their way to and from periodic raids into the Mexican interior. These raids continued until the mid 1800s.

The Mexicans and Anglos (1850 - Present)
Very little study has been made of the Mexican occupation of the Big Bend following the abandonment of the Presidios. In 1805 the Mexican settlement called Altares existed 30 miles south of the Rio Grande. Mexican families lived in the area when Anglo settlers began moving in during the latter half of the 1800's.

Following the war between Mexico and the United States, which ended in 1849, military surveys were made of the uncharted land of the Big Bend. Military forts and outposts were established across Trans Pecos Texas to protect migrating settlers from the Indians. Around 1870, ranchers began to migrate into the Big Bend, and by 1900, sheep, goat, and cattle ranches occupied a majority of the landscape. The delicate desert environment, however, was soon overgrazed.

In the early 1900's, the discovery of valuable mineral deposits brought more settlers who worked in the mines or supported the mines by farming or by cutting timber for use in the mines and smelters. Communities sprang up around the mines; development of Boquillas and Terlingua directly resulted from mining operations. During this period, the Rio Grande flood plain was settled by farmers. Settlements developed with names like Terlingua Abajo, San Vicente, La Coyota, and Castolon. These were often no more than clusters of families living and farming in the same area, and they were successful only to the degree that the land was able to support them.

In the 1930's many people who loved the Big Bend country saw that it was a land of unique contrast and beauty that was worth preserving for future generations. The State of Texas passed legislation to acquire land in the area which was to become the Texas Canyons State Park. In 1935, the Federal Government passed legislation that would enable the acquisition of the land for a national park. The State of Texas deeded the land that they had acquired to the Federal government, and on June 12, 1944, Big Bend National Park became a reality.

The park is dotted with old buildings and ruins, the physical remains of those past settlements. Thousands of archeological sites hold remnants of the material remains of 10,000 years of Indian occupation of the Big Bend. By visiting these sites and ruins, you can glimpse a view of early life in this seemingly hostile environment. When properly studied, these sites can provide valuable information which improves our understanding of past lifeways. Many of these cultural resources are unique in that they are one-of-a-kind or because they only occur in the park area.

Remember: All cultural and natural resources and objects in Big Bend National Park are protected by federal law. Collecting any type of artifacts is illegal.

Our cultural heritage is valuable, irreplaceable, and worthy of protection and preservation. As citizens of this country and this world, we can appreciate the story of mankind's past. Hopefully, the lessons we learn from the past can help us create a better tomorrow. By protecting the material cultural remains here in the park, we help to preserve this heritage for future generations.

A Texas Giant

In 1999, Dana Biasetti, a graduate student from the University of Texas at Dallas, discovered giant dinosaur bones protruding from a dry hillside in the Javelina Formation of Big Bend National Park. Upon careful excavation, this hillside yielded partial pelvic bones and ten articulated cervical vertebrae of an adult Alamosaurus.

Alamosaurus belongs to the group of dinosaurs named Sauropods-large herbivores with extremely long necks and tails. The Big Bend Alamosaurus appears to have been a massive individual, measuring in at 100 feet in length and probably weighing over 50 tons.

Due to their extreme size and the remote location of the fossil site, excavation and removal of these giant bones by hand was nearly impossible. As a result, Big Bend National Park issued a special permit to the excavation team to remove the fossil by helicopter. In 2001, UT Dallas, now teamed with the Dallas Museum of Natural History, made history with Big Bend's first ever "dinosaur airlift." Over the next several years, the fossil will be cleaned, studied, and prepared for display.

A brief history of water

Deserts and water are intrinsic opposites, each defining the other, in a relationship that is distinct, dramatic, and dynamic. While representing the best protected example of the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend National Park's intricate geological, natural, and cultural histories are water driven. Few places on earth offer such a premier example of this relationship as the association of the Rio Grande and the desert in Big Bend.

The geological history of Big Bend is very complex and reflects the importance of water in geological processes. Geologist Ross Maxwell conducted the first major study of Big Bend's geologic history during the early years of the park's development. Maxwell noted in his book The Big Bend of The Rio Grande that only recently has man appreciated the role of water in the formation of rocks through sedimentation. Throughout geologic time spanning many millions of years, vast deep oceans and shallow seas have recycled the eroded sediments from surrounding mountains forming the rich limestone ranges as seen near Persimmon Gap, Boquillas, and Santa Elena Canyon. Water was also important during Big Bend's volcanic era some 38 million years ago in that rising magma contacting the water table caused huge steamy explosions, rearranging the landscape into fantastic shapes seen along the scenic Ross Maxwell Drive. While water creates new rock, its erosive nature is best evident in the deeply etched canyons characterizing the Rio Grande.

Water has been a major influence in Big Bend's vibrant natural history. The deep oceans and shallow seas dominating Big Bend's early geological history left rich fossil treasures such as ammonites, mollusks, ancient petrified trees, and dinosaur bones. All life evolves in response to environmental pressures, and 10,000 years ago Big Bend's environment began the slow process of drying out which resulted in today's Chihuahuan Desert. The desert encouraged wildlife adaptations; a life of limited water, a life of conservation, a life of hardiness. Succulent, waxy surfaces, small leaves, spreading root systems, deep root systems, dormant lifestyles characterize arid adapted plants; animals evolve smaller body sizes, are active at night, or metabolize water from their foods in response to water or the lack of it. Water's influence today is reflected in the amazing transformation of a lifeless-appearing desert into a verdant, life-filled landscape immediately after a rain. Abundant rain provides food in the form of seeds, berries, nuts, and succulent grasses, perpetuating a complex food chain.

It was the rich landscape that attracted man. Cultural history is defined by man's presence, and man first ventured into Big Bend as the climate dried. At that time, the Rio Grande was naturally free flowing with plentiful water, its few tributaries thriving and fertile, allowing early cultures access to the resources necessary for existence. Archeological finds mirror man's link to water; thousands of Native American habitation sites abound - all within reach of a water source. Spanish explorers followed, finding thriving communities of farming Native Americans irrigating their fields of corn and squash along the river's banks. By the 1880's, man's grasp for water was nearly complete in Big Bend as all major water sources supported the western advance into a still isolated frontier. These hardy souls endured isolation and hardship, seeking opportunity as cattle ranchers, homesteaders, farmers, and miners using the natural resources and water with impunity to fuel a growing nation. By the mid 1920's, the rich desert grasslands were disappearing due to overgrazing; the tree-lined streams were denuded and drying. Man hoped it would rain to replenish the land, renew the streams and fill the river; hope in the renewing power of water continued through the 1940's until it became clear that nature was more powerful than hope.

Today, water is still in short supply, and unable to meet the increasing demands of man's growth. The Rio Grande flows with less water today than 20 years ago. Many reliable springs no longer flow or flow only intermittently. Invasive exotic species such as saltcedar monopolize springs, soaking up water, transforming soils to salt beds; feral hogs and trespass livestock dig up or trample springs, disrupting the delicate balance required to keep them flowing. Sheet flooding after a downpour rearranges and erodes the exposed desert soils because the soil holding grasses has disappeared.

Our water challenges are being addressed with efforts to re-establish the once magnificent desert grasses and control the exotic species of plants and animals. Monitoring springs, recording river flows, water quality and quantity are tools for managing the resource. The water issues facing Big Bend National Park are not easily solved and reflect a growing concern with all of earth's water. With sound conservation practices, public awareness and time, one day the mighty Rio Grande, the rich desert grasslands, and the clear flowing streams and springs may recover. Water pays little heed to time and only time will tell.

La Harmonia Store

Historically, the trading post in a remote frontier had to be all things to all people. So it was in the southern Big Bend with the Castolon store. From 1902 until the establishment of the park in 1944, it served, though not always by virtue of legal designation, as consulate, sheriffs' department, notary public, bank, and a source of medical, hardware, and ranch supplies in northern Mexico and the southern Big Bend.

A ninety-year history of practical diplomacy in an isolated and often troubled border region is hardly what one expects from the local convenience mart. And while the original founder of the store never planned it that way, later owners recognized the role the store could play in area practices and politics.

In 1901, Cipriano Hernandez had the idea of farming the fertile floodplain around Castolon and selling his produce to the miners in Terlingua, just up the creek. The east end of the rambling adobe building now known as the "Alvino House" was the original Castolon store, where Hernandez vended his melons, pumpkins, squash, and beans. In 1914, he sold the property to Clyde Buttrill, who hired James Sublett to manage the farm and store. Sublett and his family moved into the house, and later moved the store into larger building located across from Cottonwood Campground at Old Castolon. Several subsequent managers ran the store in this location until the spring of 1919. In 1918, Howard Perry, owner of the Chisos Mining Company in Terlingua, decided to get into the farming and ranching business as well. He formed a partnership with Wayne Cartledge and founded La Harmonia Company, which bought the Castolon Store in 1919. Cartledge, with his son Eugene, managed it.

Cartledge picked the name fully aware that life was not always harmonious. Border troubles enlivened the years 1910-1920. To protect the citizenry and the mines, the U.S. Government sent cavalry and Texas sent rangers to Castolon. La Harmonia Company became a stabilizing influence largely due to the efforts of Wayne Cartledge.

Northern Mexico at that time represented an extreme in isolation. La Harmonia Company was the most accessible wholesaler for many small Mexican stores in the region. Cartledge used his connections with the Chisos Mining Company to secure low prices through bulk orders. He was also a middleman between suppliers from interior Mexico and buyers as far away as New York in the candelilla and fur trades. La Harmonia Company kept money and valuables for local clients, detained criminals, resolved financial tangles, and obtained the postal contract in 1922, shortly after moving into the newly completed but never occupied Army barracks in Castolon. When the county sheriffs had business across the river, Cartledge would use his influence to enlist Mexican cooperation. Local residents and business people found the store--and its keeper--to be a valuable asset to the community.

The Castolon store changed management and got its fourth storekeeper in 1961, when Cartledge sold his property to the National Park Service for inclusion in Big Bend National Park. National Park Concessions, Inc., took over from the Cartledges and began running the store as a park concessioner. Today, park concessioner Forever Resorts, Inc. manages the Castolon Store year-round for visitors.

In the past thirty years, a few changes have taken place. The ice box was converted to electric. A microwave oven now reorganizes the molecular structure of sandwiches on the counter. Candelilla wax and furs have given way to snacks and tourist information as major commodities at the store, and the area is now sought after for rare bird sightings rather than farmland. Although still isolated by most American standards, telephones and paved roads now link Castolon to the outside world. Still, much remains the same.

Judging from the line-up of cars in the parking lot and the foot traffic up and down the hill toward the river, the La Harmonia Company Store is still the center of activity for travelers through and residents of the southwestern tip of Big Bend.

Juan de Leon

Along the Old Ore Road, a short distance from the Ernst Tinaja and one mile north of the site of the La Noria community, stands a solitary grave marker. The cross reads "Juan de Leon, Born June 24, 1906, in Boquillas, del Carmen, Coah. Died July 19, 1932."

The death of Juan de Leon is one of many mysteries of Big Bend's past. What happened on July 19, 1932, is unclear. What is known is that Juan de Leon was shot and killed while riding his horse. His body was not found for several days, and was so decomposed from the hot July sun that he was buried where he fell.

De Leon's murder did not receive mention in local newspapers. In August 1932 the case was presented to the grand jury to charge area resident Oscar Loftin with the murder. Nothing was done and the case was passed to the next grand jury.

There are a number of accounts of how de Leon was murdered. According to his family, the gunshot came from a low-lying hill and Juan was left for dead next to the road. The story goes that the mule was startled from the gunshot and ran back to Chata's store. The saddle was covered with blood.

It is unclear why de Leon was murdered or who committed the crime. As with many border stories, details vary depending on who's telling the story. Historical records do reveal incidents in the Big Bend region during this era where Mexicans were shot and killed by Anglos for no apparent reason.

There is evidence that de Leon could have been involved with ranchers, or members of their families, running contraband across the border to make money during the depression. Did they fight over money?

Finally, was de Leon in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of target practice? De Leon is a seemingly unimportant Mexican man with no economic or political clout whose family had roots in the Big Bend region. By all accounts he was well-liked by both Anglos and Mexicans.

The winds of time have now blown across de Leon's grave for over 70 years. He was murdered in cold blood.

To Learn More

  • Potter, Linda Bailey. "An unsolved case: the murder of Juan de Leon." Alpine Avalanche; Alpine, Tx. February, 2004.
  • Casey, Clifford B. Mirages, Mysteries and Reality: Brewster County, Texas, the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Hereford, Tex. : Pioneer Book Publishers, 1972.

Memories of La Coyota

During the first decades of the Twentieth Century, La Coyota was a small farming community along the banks of the Rio Grande, just a few miles northwest of Castolon and within the future boundaries of Big Bend National Park. Today, all that remains of the settlement are a few crumbling ruins and the memories of those who once lived there. Through its Oral History Project, Big Bend National Park is trying to preserve as many of the memories as possible.

In January 2000, park volunteer Doug Hay interviewed Mrs. German (Ramirez) Rivera, a former La Coyota resident, and she provided an intriguing story. Mrs. Rivera believes the community was named by its first settlers after a man shot a coyote that was attempting to break into a hen house.

Mrs. Rivera remembers that there was usually running water along Alamo Creek (now a dry wash), which made subsistence farming possible. The families dug ditches to bring surface water runoff into the fields. They raised corn, wheat and many vegetables, as well as hogs and chickens for their own consumption, selling surpluses and tamales to the miners in Terlingua. The road to Terlingua went alongside the creek in those days.

Houses in La Coyota had wood stoves for cooking. There were no glass windows or screens. The houses did have doors, however, which usually were shut in fear of bandits from Mexico. Mrs. Rivera remembers bandits robbing a store in Study Butte, and pursuit by a posse formed at the Chisos Mine by manager Robert Cartledge.

Mrs. Rivera remembers that weddings were festive, but rare. Women in La Coyota married late, usually in their thirties, because travel was infrequent and they rarely met anyone other than their cousins and uncles. The only church was in Terlingua, and older women led the religious services, saying novenas to the various saints.

As the youngest girl at La Coyota, Mrs. Rivera bore a portrait of San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers, in a procession on the saint's feast day, during which the people prayed for rain. Sometimes this worked too well, she said, and they would be drenched by downpours and cut off from home by runoff in the dry washes. When it did not rain, San Isidro's portrait would be hung on a post outside and remain there until it did.

Mrs. Rivera spent part of her youth living with friends in the mining communities at Terlingua and Study Butte, where she went to school for three years. Her last year in school was grade four, when she was twelve years old, in the Castolon compound. Most of the nine pupils at Castolon at that time were age seventeen or older. They did not know much English, and since the teacher did not speak Spanish, Mrs. Rivera became his interpreter. Boys and girls sat on separate benches and played apart at recess. The school was sparsely furnished, with a wood stove, dirt floor, three handmade benches, a table and blackboard. Students had to buy their own pencils and pens at the store and be careful not to waste too much paper. Schoolbooks were secondhand, circulating from Alpine to Terlingua and then to Castolon.


The Comanche Trail

After the beautiful brilliance of spring flowers, summer's blistering heat and the sporadic but fierce late-summer thunderstorms, the desert was primed for the greatest challenge it had yet to undergo. The full moon of September rose ominously over the Deadhorse Mountains and heralded the arrival of the Comanche Indians. During the time of the "Comanche Moon," this nation of nomads pulled up settlements and departed the buffalo-hunting grounds on the Great Plains in what is now Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. They had practiced their equestrian skills during extended hunts and sharpened their reflexes in preparation for this exhaustive journey and the lifestyle they would adopt along the way. Their route forked a leaving Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River and forged its way southward. By the time they entered Persimmon Gap, the trail had already acquired lasting characteristics from decades of use during migrations such as this one.

The Comanches at this point had entered the territories of other tribes: the Chisos and Apaches, who had already mastered survival in this harsh Chihuahuan Desert. It was time once again for the annual conflict to begin anew. The Chisos Indians, a hunting-gathering- farming band, were no match to the extremely mobile Comanche warriors astride their mounts.

The Apaches, on the other hand, had a firm grip on existence on this particular patch of earth and knew its secrets intimately. They would harass the small bands of Comanche raiders and ambush the larger parties at springs and tinajas. But eventually, even the Apaches dropped back into their hiding places and let the invaders pass.

The Comanches proceeded to their weakest opponents of all—the Spanish and their line of fortifications, or presidios, along el Rio Bravo del Norte (the Brave River of the North). The small Frontier villages that had been established by Spain in the 1700s were ripe for "harvest" by the Comanches. It was easy for them to avoid the widely-spaced presidios and small garrisons of Spanish soldiers to raid any settlement meeting their needs. Livestock and prisoners were herded back across the river northward along the Great Comanche Trail through Persimmon Gap again. The "booty" that did not survive the forced march left their bleached hones as stark monuments to others passing through the area. Coupled with the practice of setting fires behind them to drive off any pursuit that might follow, the Comanches produced a major thoroughfare a mile wide in some places and 'so well beaten that it appeared that suitable engineers had constructed it." Few explorers failed to mention this scar upon seeing it cut across the heart of the Big Bend.

Today as you travel in your modern-day "covered wagon" down U.S. 385 from Marathon through Persimmon Gap, the great trail is practically invisible, even to the trained eye. A small stone and steel plaque at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center mentions its existence, yet cannot convey what some historians have called the most sustained onslaught by one civilization upon another.

History Of Castolon

In the early 1900s, people began to live and farm along the banks of the Rio Grande, downstream from Santa Elena Canyon. The fields were fertile and the community grew. Farmers in the area raised corn, beans, wheat, squash, tomatoes, and melons. In 1901, Cipriano Hernandez started the first store in the area and sold goods to his neighbors and to the mining community in Terlingua. He operated the store out of his home, which is today known as the Alvino House (named for Alvino Ybarra who lived there with his family from 1918 to 1957).

From about 1912 to 1920, revolution raged in Mexico. Many Mexican families moved north of the river to avoid the bloodshed and bandit raids. The raids, including the Glenn Springs raid in 1916, brought the U.S. military to defend the border. The National Guard established camps at Glenn Springs, La Noria (northeast of Rio Grande Village), Lajitas (west of the park), and Castolon (Camp Santa Helena). In response to a later revolution (the Escobar Rebellion of 1929), the Air Corps established a landing field at nearby Johnson's Ranch.

Camp Santa Helena, established in 1916, utilized troops from the 5th, 6th, and 8th cavalries. The men lived in tents and the construction of a permanent post began in 1919. By the time the buildings were completed in 1920, the Revolution was over, and the men were ordered to roll up their tents and take new assignments elsewhere. The new buildings were most likely never occupied by the soldiers. They included an enlisted mens' barrack, officers' and non-commissioned officers' quarters, a latrine, a granary and tack shed, and a stable (which burned sometime before 1933).

In 1921, the La Harmonia Company Store moved into the new barracks building and began its eighty-year history of serving as a frontier trading post (from 1918 to 1921, the store was located in "Old Castolon" accross from what is today Cottonwood Campground). The La Harmonia Company was also involved in farming and ranching. In the early 1920s, La Harmonia began farming cotton, a not-so-prosperours endeavor that continued for two decades. In 1961, the National Park Service acquired the La Harmonia Company holdings and began operating the store as a concession operation.

In addition to the store, Castolon includes the oldest known adobe structure in Big Bend National Park (the Alvino House), another store building (Old Castolon), and numerous adobe ruins that were once homes for the many Mexican American and Anglo families that lived in the area. There are two cemeteries in the Castolon area.

The real story of Castolon is the everyday lives of the people who lived, worked, and raised families there.

A Paleontological Paradise

The Ruling Reptiles
Early in the Triassic Period, some 248 million years ago, the ruling reptiles appeared. They included dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and crocodiles. These reptiles dominated life on land throughout the Mesozoic Era. Although mammals appeared later in the Triassic Period, the mammals did not achieve dominance until the ruling reptiles became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The fossilized remains of many kinds of ruling reptiles have been found in Big Bend National Park.

Remember: All resources are protected by federal law in Big Bend National Park. It is illegal to collect fossils or rocks in Big Bend National Park.

Paleontological Paradise
Big Bend is one of the true jewels for paleontological research in the world. Unique among U.S. National Parks, Big Bend exhibits dinosaur remains from the last 35 million years of the dinosaurs' existence. Furthermore, the fossil record here continues uninterrupted from the Age of Reptiles into the Age of Mammals. Over 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and even early mammals have been discovered here, giving us one of the most complete pictures of a prehistoric ecosystem known anywhere on earth.

The fossil record here spans a rich history of 35 million years within the Cretaceous Period. Beginning about 100 million years ago, when a huge sea covered what is today most of the midwestern U.S., the of the ruling reptiles appeared in Big Bend's fossil record. The sea layers of limestone known as the Boquillas Formation (100-95 million years ago) preserve numerous marine fossils, including a 30-foot long sea-dwelling reptile known as Mosasaurus.

The most exciting finds have occured in strata that chronicle Big Bend's emergence from this sea. Nearly 70 dinosaur species have been discovered in the Aguja Formation (80-75 million years ago) where we find evidence of a humid and swampy land. At this time, Big Bend was closer to the equator, and this tropical coastal swamp had palms, ferns, and diverse dinosaur life, including duck-billed Hadrosaurs.

By 75-60 million years ago, plant fossils suggest that the sea had retreated and Big Bend had become a drier floodplain environment. The sediments from these times, the Javelina Formation, have yielded over 80 species of plants, including cypress, laurel, conifers, and mangroves. While these plant finds are remarkable in their own right, they are usually overshadowed by several unique and spectacular dinosaur finds. Over 20 dinosaur species have been found in the Javelina Formation, giving us a rich glimpse into the last days of the ruling reptiles. These were the giants who ruled the earth at the time of the great extinction. These finds, and the possibility of future discoveries, make these sediments worth their weight in gold for paleontologists.

Mariscal Mine

Abandoned since the 1940s, and isolated by its remote location in the middle of Big Bend National Park, the Mariscal Mine is the best preserved mercury mining site in the state of Texas, and is a listed historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mercury or "quicksilver," as it is known commercially, is the only metal that appears in liquid form at ordinary temperatures. Centuries of use as an amalgam to process precious metals, a detonator for explosives, an electrical conductor, and an agent for dental and medical preparations, made the enigmatic metal a highly valued commodity. While California was the first United States producer of mercury beginning in 1824, the industry advanced to West Texas by the end of the 1800s. From 1900 to 1930, the Terlingua Mining District, which borders present Big Bend National Park on the west, accounted for approximately one-third of the total U.S. output.

Altough Terlingua's Marfa and Mariposa Mining Company and the Chisos Mining Company were the region's preeminent producers of mercury during these decades, a second source of cinnabar ore was Mariscal Mountain, forty miles southeast near the Rio Grande. Soon after local ranch owner Martin Solis discovered ore deposits along Mariscal's northern ridge, U.S. Immigration Inspector D. E. (Ed) Lindsay filed mining claims and commenced prospecting. From 1903-06, Lindsay produced a modest amount of high-grade ore that he transported on burros to the Chisos Mine for refining. Concurrent with the First World War, the market value for mercury increased. In February 1916, W.K. Ellis, a Midwestern businessman and owner of a wax production plant at nearby Glenn Springs, patented all of the Lindsay claims.

Robert Hill Photographs, 1899

In the 1880s and 1890s, even as settlers began to trickle into the Big Bend region, it remained largely undefined on maps. Following the Mexican War, American surveying parties followed the river to determine the boundary between the United States and Mexico, yet steered clear of the deep canyons found along this portion of the Rio Grande.

In October 1899, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist Robert T. Hill led a six man expedition to explore and document the canyons of the Rio Grande, a place he described as "the longest and least known." Traveling in three boats, the expedition took nearly an entire month to travel from Presidio to Langtry, Texas.

Hill packed photography equipment into the boats, and took a series of photographs, both during and after his river voyage. Two years later, Hill published an article describing his voyage, and describing the Big Bend region in the colorful language of the period.

The photographs shown here are a portion of the nearly 200 he took during his eighteen year career with the USGS, and vidly capture Big Bend just before Twentieth Century. All photos are in the collection of the U. S. Geological Survey Photographic Library.


While Big Bend is famous for its natural resources and recreational opportunities, the park is also rich in cultural history. Native peoples lived in and/or passed through this area for thousands of years. Their presence is evidenced by pictographs and archeological sites. In more recent history (the last 500 years) Texas has been claimed by six different nations!

The Big Bend has been a home to people for many centuries, but knowledge of the Rio Grande among non-Indians dates back less than 150 years. Spanish people crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th and 17th centuries searching for gold, silver, and fertile land. Comanche Indians crossed the river in the 19th century, traveling to and from Mexico with their raiding parties. Mexican settlers began farming on both banks of the river's floodplain around 1900. Anglo-Americans joined in the farming after 1920, when boundary unrest ended. Cotton and food crops were grown around Castolon and what is now Rio Grande Village even after the park was established.

Today, you can drive your car along portions of the Comanche Trail, the same route that Comanche warriors once traveled on raids into Mexico, or you can visit the La Harmonia Store at Castolon where locals (and visitors) have shopped for eighty years. From archeological sites dating back nearly 10,000 years, to ranches and mining operations from the Twentieth Century, Big Bend can be a great place to "discover" history.

Glenn Springs

Looking at Glenn Springs now, it is hard to imagine that anything ever happened here or that, in 1916, there were nearly 80 people living here in a busy little village. But history tells the tale of turbulence and violence that put Glenn Springs on the map. It all begins with water--the "liquid gold" of the desert.

Glenn Spring assumed its place in history because it was a reliable water source in an arid land. It lies on one branch of the Great Comanche Trail. Flint chips and bedrock mortar holes throughout the area indicate that Indians used Glenn Spring not only as a water stop during their raids into northern New Spain, but also for more permanent stops as well.

The Wax Industry
In 1914, “Captain” C. D. Wood and Mr. W. K. Ellis built a factory near the spring to produce candelilla wax—another form of “liquid gold”. They employed forty to sixty Mexican workers to operate the factory and hired C. G. Compton to run the general store and post office. Candelilla, the wax plant, was the primary raw material needed for the wax business, and the Glenn Spring area not only had an abundance of the plant, but it also had water, another essential ingredient for the wax rendering process. Candelilla is a perennial, with hundreds of gray-green stems each somewhat smaller than the diameter of a pencil, which grow vertically from the base. The rendering of this wax was hard and hot work. In 1916, wax workers were paid $1.00 per day. The workers boiled the stems in large vats of water, adding sulfuric acid to separate the wax from the stems. When the wax floated to the surface, the men skimmed it off and boiled it again to remove excess water and impurities. They let it cool, broke it into small blocks and put it in burlap bags for shipping. Two boilers provided the steam to cook the wax. Dried cooked plants were used as fuel to keep the boilers going.

A Border Raid
Bandit raids along the border caused the United States government to send troops to the Big Bend region as early as 1911. On the warm summer night of May 5, 1916, there were nine soldiers stationed at Glenn Springs. Around 11:00 PM, after everyone had gone to bed, Mr. Compton, the storekeeper, was awakened by several armed Mexicans at his door. When they inquired if there were any soldiers in the village, he said no, hoping that they would go away. Compton was afraid they would return, however, and took his small daughter to a Mexican woman across the draw and asked her to keep the child for the night.

He was coming back for his nine-year-old son, Tommy, when the raid began. Captain Rodriguez Ramirez, a Mexican bandit, led his men into a dark, sleeping Glenn Springs, each man well-armed and shouting “Viva Carranza” and “Viva Villa” as he rode. How many Mexican raiders accompanied Ramirez or to whom they pledged their allegiance is not known. In Mexico during these unsettled times, it made little difference to the followers whether the leader was a Carranza or a Villa sympathizer, for political affiliations made little difference if the men were provided with food.

Regardless of their numbers or affiliation, there were too many for the nine cavalrymen attempting to defend the village. These nine men of Troop A of the 14th Cavalry were sleeping in their tents when the bandits appeared. Upon hearing the shouts and commotion, they fled in the dark to an adobe building nearby where they would have more protection. For nearly three hours, the soldiers exchanged fire with the bandits and were able to hold off much of the attacking force. When the Mexican raiders realized that they were not making any headway they set fire to the thatched roof of the building. Pieces of the burning roof began to fall on the necks and heads of the men. As the oven-hot room filled with smoke someone yelled “run for it” and the soldiers fled from the adobe inferno to a nearby hill. Three of the soldiers were killed and all but two were either seriously wounded or badly burned. When Mr. Compton returned, he found that his son had been fatally shot.

The little community of Glenn Springs suffered heavy losses due to the raid: four people killed and four others severely injured, the store looted, two of the major buildings partially burned and much of the wax factory destroyed.

Everett Townsend

"I wish you would take a map of the State showing the counties, put your pencil point on the Rio Grande, just where the Brewster and Presidio County line hit that stream; then draw a line due East and at a distance of sixty miles it will again strike the River. My dream is to make the area South of this line into a park and I shall live to see it done."
- Everett Townsend, 1933

A Frontiersman’s Dream of a Frontier Park
High in the Chisos Mountains, within sight of the South Rim, rises a ridge that is the second highest peak in the Chisos Mountains. Listed on some maps as Townsend Point (7,580’/2,310m), this peak is named in honor of Everett Townsend and his determination to preserve this place for all Texans, and all Americans, to enjoy. While many people participated in the decade-long struggle to create Big Bend National Park, Everett Ewing Townsend stands out for the level of dedication and tenacity he displayed in making a lifelong goal into a reality. He is remembered today as the "Father" of Big Bend National Park.

Born in Colorado County, Texas on October 20, 1871, Townsend was raised into the nascent Texas cattle ranching industry. At the age of ten, the Townsend family moved to Wharton, Texas, and later Eagle Pass. At Eagle Pass, young Everett attended school until the age of thirteen, when his father's poor health made it necessary for him to support his family. In 1891 Townsend lied about his age and joined the Company E, Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers. Townsend became a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1893 and one year later he came to the Big Bend area as a mounted inspector for U.S. Customs in Presidio County. It was in his role as customs inspector that Townsend experienced the beauty of the Big Bend firsthand.

On August 31, 1894, Townsend ventured into the Chisos Mountains, which form the heart of the present-day national park, tracking mules stolen from a Mexican citizen. The panoramic view from the South Rim made a real impression on the young man—decades later he recalled that the sight made him "see God as he had never seen Him before and so overpoweringly impressed him that he made note of its awesomeness…" Inspired by the expansive vista he had seen, Townsend vowed to preserve the region in some fashion.

From 1900 to 1918, Townsend managed the E. L. Ranch; in 1918 he was elected to serve as sheriff of Brewster County. Following three terms as sheriff of Brewster County, Townsend was elected to serve as state Representative in 1932. It was in this role, the next year, that Townsend would be given the chance to make his dream come true.

In the spring of 1933, Townsend was approached by Representative Robert Wagstaff of Abilene, who had read of stunning beauty of the Big Bend, and was interested in establishing a park there. Townsend confirmed the description of the area, but demurred when Wagstaff attempted to list him as the author of the bill establishing a state park there. Townsend felt that a bill sponsored by a frontier representative would get lost. When the bill establishing Texas Canyons State Park in the Big Bend was passed in March 1933, Townsend was indeed credited as the co-author. Later that year he assisted in expanding the scope of the new park and renamed it Big Bend State Park.

Townsend was instrumental in the establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the Chisos Mountains. Following the establishment of the state park, the next step was to bring in a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp to develop the new park; this proved a difficult task. The US Army, responsible for overseeing operation of the CCC camps repeatedly objected to potential camp locations in the Big Bend due to lack or roads or sufficient water. In April of 1934, Townsend led a locally financed expedition of six men into the Chisos Mountains to locate water. All other desirable locations had not had sufficient water. Expressing his concern over the matter, Townsend told his group “Boys, we've got to have water and quick.” When a sufficient water supply was found, it was named “Agua Pronto [quick water],” in commemoration of the need. One month and two days later, a CCC camp was established in the Chisos Basin, to begin the work of developing the new park.

Establishing the state park was only the beginning. Writing about the region to a U.S. Army officer, Townsend provided both a physical description of the area he wanted to preserve as well as a bold statement of his ultimate goal, "I wish you would take a map of the State showing the counties, put your pencil point on the Rio Grande, just where the Brewster and Presidio County line hit that stream; then draw a line due East and at a distance of sixty miles it will again strike the River. My dream is to make the area South of this line into a park and I shall live to see it done."

Townsend's tenacity in support of the national park idea seemed nearly limitless. He tirelessly promoted both the idea of a national park and international park status for the region, writing National Park Service officials, and politicians of two countries. When the Texas legislature allocated $1.5 million to acquire the land for the park in 1942, Everett Townsend's local expertise was utilized to appraise land values and arrange for the purchase of much of the private land needed to establish the park. In a ceremony handing the land deeds to the Department of the Interior in 1943, Townsend was the one individual singled out in recognition of his efforts to see his decades-old dream realized.

Townsend would live to see his dream fulfilled; following the establishment of the National Park in 1944, he was appointed U. S. Commissioner for the park. Townsend died in 1948 at the age of seventy-seven. In 1954, on the tenth anniversary of the park’s establishment, Superintendent Lon Garrison presented the Townsend family with a posthumous honorary park ranger commission for the man remembered as "the father of Big Bend National Park."

Decades later, the second highest point in the Chisos Mountains is named Townsend Point in honor of Everett Townsend. Listed only on a few maps, Townsend Point is a fittingly quiet tribute to the young Texan who once stood on the South Rim and had the dream of preserving what he saw for the future.

To Learn More:

  • Hilton, David Edmond. The "Father" of Big Bend National Park. Big Spring TX: Sprinkle Printing Co., 1988.
  • Saxton, Lewis H., and Clifford B. Casey. The Life of Everett Ewing Townsend. Alpine, TX: West Texas Historical and Scientific Society, 1958.
  • Welsh, Michael. Landscape of Ghosts, River of Dreams: An Administrative History of Big Bend National Park. National Park Service, 2002.
  • Lassiter, Berta Clarke. We Come and Go: A Handbook for the Big Bend National Park. San Antonio, TX: The Naylor Co., 1949.
  • Jameson, John R. The Story of Big Bend National Park. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Roman De La O

Promising Start, Tragic End
Roman De La O immigrated to the United States in 1883. Nothing is known about his whereabouts or activities until May of 1910, when he was living in southern Brewster County, most likely in the Terlingua area. At that time he was 44 years old and working as a teamster. With him were his second wife, Tomasa, age 29, and 4 children, ages 2 to 11. At the time Roman and Tomasa had been married 7 years, indicating that the two oldest children were from Roman's first marriage.

In 1911, probably in March, Roman purchased Section 18 of Block 16 from the State of Texas. This 636.3 acre section is several miles east of Castolon. It was designated as "School Land" and Roman is recorded as the original owner. He built a house and a large rock corral near a spring, still known as De La O Spring, on the northern part of his land and went into the ranching business. He apparently enjoyed some success; in 1912 and 1913 he not only paid the interest on his loan from the state but also was able to pay a total of $214.62 on the principle, and in 1914 he filed a document certifying that he had resided on the property for three consecutive years. Roman continued paying the interest on his loan annually through April 1917.

A dramatic change occurred in 1917. In October of that year Roman's wife Tomasa was in the process of selling the property to Faustino Pineda, and by June 1918 Faustino had begun making the interest payments on the loan.

A story passed down through the family explains what happened. Roman had made arrangements to meet some men from Mexico for a cattle transaction along the Rio Grande. Whether Roman was the prospective buyer or seller is not clear. Roman had enjoyed some success at the gambling table the night before and was carrying his winnings with him, a fact apparently known to the men he was planning to meet. When Roman arrived at the designated meeting place he was ambushed and killed and his body was thrown into the river; it was not found until several days later. Tomasa and the children were so terrified by the event that they left the area almost immediately and moved to Alpine. The date of Roman's death was not included in the family story, but the events described in the previous paragraph indicate that it occurred between April and October of 1917. A likely location for the killing is along the Rio Grande near the mouth of Smuggler's Canyon, which would have provided the easiest access from Roman's home to the river.

A short distance south of Roman's home are two graves on a lonely hilltop, one a child's and the other an adult's. Both have remnants of wooden crosses, but no markings are legible. Could this be Roman's final resting place? We probably will never know.

Researched and compiled by park volunteer Bob Wirt.

A Ranger's Lament

Oren P. Senter was transferred to Big Bend from Hot Springs National Park in July of 1944 to serve as the first Park Ranger for the newly established park. At the time the park boasted a total staff of five, and Senter was quite literally the "Lone Ranger." Park Superintendent Ross Maxwell reported that Senter would devote his patrols to "becoming acquainted with the local ranchmen who were still living in the park, meeting local representatives of federal and state agencies, local civic clubs and other citizens." This poem by Senter vividly depicts his frustrations with the challenges this place had to offer.

By Park Ranger Oren P. Senter 

'Twas once that I was happy,
My life was filled with cheer,
I never had seen Texas,
'Till the Park Service brought me here.

I've heard songs of her beauty,
Pretty girls and big strong men,
Rolling plains and majestic mountains,
Just heaven—from end to end.

The one thing that is certain,
Of this there is no denying,
The guy that started that noise,
Did a hell of a lot of lying.

Deep in the heart of Texas,
There is sand in all we eat,
The girls are all bowlegged,
The boys all have flat feet.

That's why they have to send me here,
To sit in sad dejection,
Out of this lonely desert,
For this park's protection.

No longer are we religious,
We drink, we fight, we curse,
No worry about going to Hell,
It can't be any worse.

Down here the sun is hotter,
Down here the rain is wetter,
They think it's the best state,
But there are forty-seven better.

Still there is no one to blame but me,
The Park Service never forgot it,
I asked for foreign duty, and
Believe me, By God, I Got it.

Archaeology & Big Bend

The Science of Archaeology
Archaeology is defined as the study of the remains of the past culture of a people. Archeologists recover such things as samples of soil, pollen, charcoal, feces, chipped rock debris, and artifacts and then analyze these samples for evidence of food gathering and hunting technology, food processing, diet, and many other facets of subsistence activity. They use technical methods which include controlled excavation, extensive site recording through written field notes, drawings, maps, and photographs. These methods are designed to gain a maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of site destruction. Through careful scientific study, archeologists try to recover the pieces of the past that help us better understand how mankind has learned, developed, and succeeded or failed. As citizens of this country and this world, we can appreciate the story of mankind's past. Perhaps the lessons we learn from the past will help us be better stewards of our fragile planet, now and in the future. By protecting the material cultural remains here in Big Bend National Park, we help to preserve this heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Archaeological Study at Big Bend National Park
There still is much to learn about the prehistory of Big Bend National Park. A complete understanding of man's past is totally dependent upon the scientific study of the sites and artifacts that have survived the ravages of time. Archeological research in Big Bend National Park is scanty, and an intensive survey of the total park has never been done. Two early archeological surveys (1936-37 and 1966-67) sampled only a portion of the park. However, the two surveys recorded a total of 628 sites and the latter survey revealed that the park probably contains more than 5,000 archeological sites. In 2002, the National Park Service made a quantitative estimate based upon more recent data which suggests that there are nearly 26,000 sites in the park.

Preservation of Archeological Resources
At Big Bend National Park, only two prehistoric archeological sites are presently considered "public"--the Hot Springs pictograph site and the Chimneys (see the Hot Springs Trail Guide and the park Hiker's Guide for these locations). As research is completed on other archeological sites, they may be opened to the public, also. There are eight National Register historic sites or districts in Big Bend National Park, including the Castolon Historic District, Hot Springs Historic District, the Mariscal Mining District, the Homer Wilson Ranch Site, Rancho Estelle, and Luna's Jacal. Thousands of archeological sites within the park hold remnants of the material remains of 10,000 years of Native American occupation of the Big Bend. When properly studied, these sites can provide very valuable information about past lifeways. Many of the park's archeological and historical sites have been vandalized and valuable information has been destroyed or removed by artifact collectors. Casual artifact collecting by the park visitor has resulted in the loss and destruction of much evidence of the past, information which could otherwise be obtained through scientific investigation. Archeological sites are protected by the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Under this act, people who disturb these cultural resources can be fined up to $10,000 and sentenced to up to six months in prison for their first offense. Information about sites is exempt from the Public Freedom of Information Act. Clearly, citizens and lawmakers view our cultural heritage as valuable, irreplaceable, and worthy of protection and preservation.

Late Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 8000 - 6500 B.C.)
At the end of the last ice age, the climate was much cooler and wetter, and woodlands covered much of the Big Bend. Since about 9000 B.C. the climate has gradually become warmer and drier, and there has been a gradual influx of heat- and drought-adapted plants. Evidence of Paleo-lndian presence has been recorded in the park but no studies have been done which explain local human adaptation during this period. The earliest inhabitants lived a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle that was adapted to the cooler and wetter climate that prevailed in that age. Throughout the Paleo-lndian period, people hunted large game animals as their primary source of materials for food, clothing, and shelter.

Archaic Period (ca. 6500 B.C. - A.D. 1000)
After the last glacial episode, woodlands gave way to arid-adapted plant communities at lower elevations. The slowly changing climate caused a decline in the numbers of large game animals, primarily bison. Native American groups of the Archaic Period adapted to the changing climate by developing a hunting and gathering lifestyle so successful that it remained virtually unchanged for about 7500 years. The Archaic Period people hunted smaller game with a spear that was propelled by a spear-thrower, called an atlatl. This period is characterized by a strong dependence on plant foods, and a more structured social organization. People learned skillful ways to exploit the environment and developed a rich material culture that involved the intensive use of available plants and animals. A higher density of late Archaic sites indicates a more efficient adaptation and larger, denser population. An expansion of the Jornada Mogollon culture from southeastern New Mexico into extreme West Texas occurred at the close of the Late Archaic.

Late Prehistoric Period (ca. A.D. 1000 - 1535)
By 1000 A.D. the native people of the Big Bend had come under the influence of the Jornada Mongollon, with its ceramics, agriculture, and sedentary lifestyle. During the Late Prehistoric, Indians of the Big Bend began using the bow and arrow, and groups northwest of the area were producing pottery. Agricultural villages existed near present-day Presidio, Texas, and horticulture or simple agriculture was practiced by Indian groups in the area that is now the park. In most areas to the east, the Late Archaic hunting and gathering lifeway persisted into the Historic Period. The period is characterized by increased interregional trading.

The Historic Era (1535 A.D. - present)
During the early Historic Period several Indian groups were recorded as inhabiting the Big Bend. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gatherers who probably practiced limited agriculture. The name Chiso (Chizo) originally referred to one band (also known as the Cauitaome or Taquitatome) but the Spaniards extended it to include at least six closely associated bands. Their origin is not known but they were associated with the Concho speaking Indians of northeastern Chihuahua and northwestern Coahuila. Their language group is a variation of Uto-Aztecan, a language whose speakers ranged from central Mexico to the Great Basin of the U.S. and includes the Aztec, Toltec, and the modern Hopi. The Jumano were a nomadic people who traveled and traded throughout western Texas and southeastern New Mexico but some historic records indicate they were enemies of the Chisos. Around the beginning of the 18th century (1700 A.D.), the Mescalero Apaches began to invade the Big Bend region, eventually displacing or absorbing the Chisos Indians. The last aboriginal group to use the Big Bend was the Comanche who passed through along the Great Comanche Trail on their way to and from periodic raids into the Mexican interior. These raids continued until the mid-1800s.

As you explore Big Bend National Park, there is a good chance that the sites and artifacts you see have never been recorded or studied. Please help the park protect these important resources by leaving them as you find them, and by reporting what you see to a park ranger. Remember, the removal of any cultural or natural object, or the disturbance of these objects from their natural state, is illegal in all national parks. So, please, take only photographs, leave only footprints.

Hot Springs

For thousands of years people have inhabited the Big Bend region. Evidence of their occupation has been left behind in the form of pictographs (painted art) and petroglyphs (pecked or incised art) on rock walls, mortar holes along the river's bank, and remnant artifacts telling about the daily lives of the people who once called this area home.

The Hot Springs Historic District preserves the rich history of human occupation from thousands of years past to the not-so-distant past. Visitors can study rock art left behind on the limestone cliffs, picture farms of corn, squash and beans along the river's floodplain, or imagine what it would have been like to meet at the Hot Springs Post Office in the early 1900s to collect your mail each Monday. By exploring this area all of these stories from the past can come to life.

A Homesteaders Story
During the early 1900s the motto was "Go West Young Man." In 1909 J.O. Langford heeded this call and headed for West Texas with his family. He came to this area not to find fame or fortune, but to regain his health. As a child living in Mississippi he had contracted malaria and his reoccurring bouts with this disease ravaged his body. In the lobby of a hotel in Alpine, Texas he heard tales of a spring that would cure anything:

"Stomach trouble, rheumatism, all sorts of skin diseases," the old man vowed.

"I wonder why it is that I've never heard of those springs before. It looks like somebody would have tried to develop them like they've done at Hot Springs, Arkansas," the Mississippian replied.

"Nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans. And it's too far away---that damned country promises more and gives less than any place I ever saw," the old man replied.

After verifying the story with other townspeople, without even looking at the land, J.O. knew he had to have that spring. He rushed to the county surveyor's office and filed his claim under the Homestead Act. Two weeks later the Langford family received word that the claim was theirs.

The Homestead Act stated that one had to have 3 years of continuous occupancy and $300 in improvements to the land in addition to a minimum bid of $1.50 per acre. Others had filed on this land but no one had been able to meet the requirements of the Act.

With his wife, Bessie, an 18 month old daughter and a baby on the way, the family began an eleven day journey to reach their new home. Today the trip from Alpine takes about 2 hours. Upon their arrival the Langfords discovered Cleofas Natividad, his wife, and their ten children living and farming on their land. At first the Langfords pondered what to do about these "squatters." Then, they realized that this land had probably been home to this family for generations. Cleofas turned out to be the best neighbor anyone could have asked for, always there to help in a time of need.

Once J.O. had regained his health by taking a 21 day treatment of bathing and drinking the spring water, he opened up the springs to other bathers. The cost was 10 cents per day or $2.00 for the whole 21 day treatment. In addition to running the bathhouse, he became a schoolteacher, a self taught doctor, and a postman.

The Hot Springs was more than just a place to restore your health, it was a meeting place for people from all walks of life, from both sides of the river. It was a prelude to the tourism that would come with the establishment of Big Bend National Park.

Today, visitors can take a walk back in time and visit the Hot Springs area. Several of the buildings have been preserved and tell the story of a time past. You can still soak in the 105°F waters that bubble up from a hole in the ground. After a long day of hiking in the park you may feel the same curative powers from the water as did J.O. Langford.

A Hot Springs guidebook is available for $1.00 at the Hot Springs trailhead and at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

To Learn More about Hot Springs

  • Langford, J.O., with Fred Gipson. Big Bend: A Homesteader's Story. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973. Second Edition.
  • Koch, Etta with June Cooper Price. Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Gómez, Arthur R. A Most Singular Country : A History of Occupation in the Big Bend. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1990.

Johnson's Ranch

Aviation in the Big Bend region has a long and colorful history. Following Pancho Villa's attack on Juarez, Mexico, in June 1919, the U.S. Army ordered eighteen DeHaviland DH-4 airplanes to Fort Bliss to inaugurate an aerial border patrol from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas. Aircraft based at Marfa patrolled from El Paso to Sanderson and into the Big Bend country. A temporary landing field was established at the cavalry outpost at Glenn Springs.

A decade later, in response to events following the 1929 Escobar Rebellion in Mexico, an airfield was established at Johnson's Ranch. Elmo and Ada Johnson established their ranch and trading post on the banks of the Rio Grande in 1927. With the exception of a few neighbors on each side of the border, they lived in almost total isolation sixteen miles downstream from Castolon.

On April 11, 1929, the Johnsons came face to face with the revolution as thirty Mexican bandits raided the trading post, driving away Johnson's goats and cattle. In response, the cavalry was dispatched from Ft. Davis to patrol the area. On April 24, the U.S. Army Air Corps established a landing field at Johnson's ranch. Two weeks later, army transport planes delivered the first infantry troops from Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. Big Bend had entered the annals of military aviation.

Lt. Thad V. Foster, Eighth Corps Area assistant air officer, made the initial inspection flight of Johnson's Ranch and quickly recommended its official authorization. Lt. Foster was the first to make an entry in the field register when he carried the official authorization to Johnson's Ranch on July 6, 1929. The Johnsons kept the register on the patio for the subsequent fourteen years. Notable inscriptions included Lt. Nathan F. Twining, later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Jonathan M. Wainwright, then post commander at Ft. Clark, who would later became a hero at Bataan.

Elmo Johnson's position was unique—he owned the landing field, was personally responsible for its maintenance, and was a close personal friend of Lt. Foster. Due to his trading post and excellent relations on both sides of the border, Elmo Johnson became a prime source of information on border activity in the Big Bend. He was accredited to the G-2 Army Intelligence Section of the Eighth Corps Area headquartered at Ft. Sam Houston.

The Johnson Ranch airfield was the first permanent installation by the Air Corps in the lower Big Bend. It was distinct from other airfields in the area in that it was neither an auxiliary nor emergency field. It was established solely due to its strategic location, where combat troops and aircraft could be deployed in case of a border emergency. It was also unique in that the ranch house became the airfield headquarters, and Elmo Johnson—with neither rank or authority—provided a quaint civilian dominance over the field's operations.

Johnson constructed two rock piles, 100' apart near the landing threshold, to help the pilots. For night landings, he carried two lanterns out to identify the landing area. By 1939, the field had three graded runways, the longest measuring 4,200 feet. These improvements transformed Johnson's Ranch into a safe all-weather operational facility for emergency combat aircraft.

A stopover at Johnson's Ranch also included lounging in the cool vine-covered patio and enjoying Ada Johnson's home cooking. The field was a popular weekend destination for pilots—a place to combine flying exercises with recreation such as hunting, fishing, exploring Indian caves, and taking burro rides into Mexico. Whatever technical skills a young aviator might wish to develop—cross country navigation, strange field landings, or increasing his flying time—a flight to Johnson's Ranch provided ample opportunity. Several times aircraft mobilized at Johnson's Ranch in response to rumored border raids.

The high point of aviation activity at Johnson's Ranch was in 1936. Although the field remained operational until 1943, the expanded training requirements of World War II eliminated it as a flight training center. The field was located too far off the east-west traffic route and had poor ground communications, poor access roads, and no rail line. Ironically, a decade earlier Johnson's Ranch had been the beneficiary of the horse cavalry's loss to mechanization. Now, it too was the victim of technological progress. By 1940, only two flights constituted the total annual activity.

The closure of the Johnson's Ranch airfield ended an era of military aviation. The era of the members of the "order of the white scarf"—those who built America's aerial armada, trained the pilots, and led them to victory in World War II—was forever past. The jet age Air Force that followed bore scant resemblance to the Army Air Corps that established Johnson's Ranch. The days when a civilian could command some of the Air Corps' finest pilots from his adobe command post on the Rio Grande would never return.

To Learn More
  • Ragsdale, Kenneth Baxter. Wings Over the Mexican Border: Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
  • Gómez, Arthur R. A Most Singular Country : A History of Occupation in the Big Bend. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1990.
  • Welsh, Michael. Landscape of Ghosts, River of Dreams: An Administrative History of Big Bend National Park. National Park Service, 2002.

Chata Sada

Big Bend's most famous restauranteur
Maria G. "Chata" Sada, along with her husband, operated a restaurant and store in Boquillas, Texas (in the vicinity of today's Rio Grande Village). 

The Sadas came from the interior of Mexico to the Boquillas area in the 1880s. They were married in 1901. Soon thereafter Chata secured a permanent passport visa. In 1906 she moved to the Texas side of the Rio Grande where she constructed an adobe house with peeled cottonwood logs as beams and supports. Mrs. Sada gradually developed her place into a general store and cafe. In addition to keeping the store and cafe, she farmed a small plot of land located on the floodplain and irrigated by a ditch from the river. She also maintained a flock of chickens and a herd of goats which grazed on the nearby hills.

Typical of the accolades she received is this 1955 account:

The first time I saw her she stood out like a red hibiscus. Her dress probably was made of some kind of calico; anyway, it was limp and colorless and older than dresses have a right to be. But in it, Chata had the bearing that comes to a queen no matter where she reigns.

Chata served meals to wayfarers in the Land of Much of Nothing. Her tortillas were more pungent, someway, her tamales more drippy and a bit more fiery, her chili just a shade tastier than the dishes served on linen and with silver in other establishments.

The Sadas had no children of their own but reared a number of homeless children; victims of flood, revolution, pestilence, and broken homes, and orphaned children of friends.

Boquillas became widely known for its good food and hospitable accommodations for the weary traveler. Ross Maxwell, the first park superintendent, remembered Chata in this way:

There were not many travelers to an out-of-the-way place like Boquillas in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a difficult all-day drive from Marathon—more than 100 miles—and all travelers were hungry when they arrived. Those who had been there before knew what to expect and those who arrived for the first time soon learned that Boquillas was the end of the road. Chata could hear the laboring car motor long before the vehicle was in sight; she would then start a fire in the four-holed flat-topped wood-fired stove and begin to prepare a meal. Those who were making their first visit were agreeably surprised to get a complete meal in a neat, clean dining room, with all they could eat for 50 to 75 cents. There were also four clean adobe cabins nearby and a large arbor where the guests could spend the night.

Her husband, Juan G. Sada, died December 24, 1936, and was buried at Marathon, Texas. By this time the development of the Big Bend National Park was well under way and Chata, after some delay, closed out her business in the Boquillas area and moved to Del Rio, Texas. National Park Service officials attempted to entice Chata to return to the Big Bend into the 1950s, so beloved was the memory of her Boquillas establishment.

While her restaurant has been gone for nearly fifty years, Chata Sada's legacy stands as an important example of the cross-cultural community that existed in the Big Bend through the early years of park establishment.

To Learn More:

  • Welsh, Michael. Landscape of Ghosts, River of Dreams: An Administrative History of Big Bend National Park. National Park Service, 2002.
  • Casey, Clifford B. Mirages, Mysteries and Reality: Brewster County, Texas, the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Hereford, Tex.: Pioneer Book Publishers, 1972.
  • Tyler, Ronnie C. The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier. College Station, TX. : Texas A&M University Press, 1996 (originally published by the National Park Service in 1975).

Big Bend's pterosaur

The World's Largest Flier
An impressive exhibit in the Panther Junction Visitor Center at Big Bend National Park displays a life-size replica of the wing bones of an enormous pterosaur. The 18-foot long specimen was discovered here in Big Bend National Park and represents the second largest known flying creature ever to have existed. Its name is Quetzalcoatlus northropi.

Discovery of the Fossil
In 1971, Douglas A. Lawson, a student at the University of Texas in Austin, was performing geological field work in the park for his master’s thesis when he discovered a fossil bone eroding out of an arroyo bank. His professor, Dr. Wann Langston Jr., determined that this long, hollow, very thin-walled bone could only be from a pterosaur wing. Subsequent excavations recovered more wing bones, but unfortunately the wing must have detached from the body before being buried and fossilized, because no body bones could be found. Lawson named his discovery Quetzalcoatlus after the Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl, who was worshipped by the Aztecs in the form of a feathered snake.

Dr. Langston continued to search for and study Big Bend fossils and eventually found other specimens of Quetzalcoatlus in another part of the park. Although these specimens were smaller than the original, they were more complete and had a very impressive wingspan of at least 18 feet. Comparison of these complete specimens with the huge bones of the original Quetzalcoatlus made it possible to calculate the body size of Lawson's specimen. This enormous pterosaur had an estimated wingspan of 36-39 feet, making it the largest known flying creature of all time. It is not yet clear whether the smaller specimens were young individuals of the large species, or whether they represent a distinct, smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus.

Cook Wanted - 1921

It doesn't pay much, but...
When the La Harmonia Company was in operation in the Castolon area from 1919 into the 1950's, the company operated a small café, or "mess" as they called it, for the salaried employees and their families. Finding and retaining cooks for the café was a constant struggle—they had at least five different ones during the first 18 months of operations.

In October 1921, Wayne Cartledge, general manager of La Harmonia Company, wrote the following letter to Mr. Alex Ebner in El Paso. Mr. Ebner apparently had placed a "cook position wanted" ad in the El Paso Times.

Dear Sir;

We note your add in Times for work as cook. We run an irrigated farm and store and are situated on the river fifteen miles south of Terlingua. Want plant farm cooking for six white people and pay $35.00 per month and board. The salary does not sound high but when you consider the class of work and also the fact that there is nothing to spend your money for except an occasional bottle of beer or cognac, it is not bad. You can save practically all of it. If interested please write us by return mail or hand our letter to some one who might be interested.

As far as can be determined, Mr. Ebner did not apply for the job.

Letter from Wayne Cartledge Collection, Archives of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University. Researched and compiled by park volunteer Bob Wirt.

Texas' Gift to the Nation

In 1944, American's attention was focused on distant lands as the Second World War raged around the globe. Despite a world in political turmoil and an uncertain future, it was the year that Big Bend National Park was set aside for public benefit and enjoyment.

What made Big Bend so important that a President would shift his focus from a world in turmoil to the wilderness of southwest Texas? It was a noble purpose. To set something aside for future generations with the fate of the present generation still uncertain was an act of optimism in an uncertain world.

Still, for some folks, it was difficult to imagine this wild, rugged country as a park, international or otherwise. For years, most people had viewed it as too remote and dangerous to be of any use. The Spaniards had dubbed the area "El Despoblado," the uninhabited land. While many other areas of the west were being settled at a furious pace, Big Bend's remote location and harsh terrain dissuaded most aspiring settlers. It was not until after the establishment of nearby military outposts at Fort Davis and Fort Stockton in the 1850s and the coming of the Southern Pacific railroad a generation later, that settlers began to come to the Big Bend in substantial numbers. Many of these early settlers were miners or ranchers.

The Big Bend country was a rancher's dream. Native grasses were abundant and there was adequate water in the form of creeks and springs. Land was cheap and held promise for anyone with the guts and ambition to give it a try. Many place names familiar to park visitors today came from this ranching era: Hannold Draw, Rice Tank, and the Sam Nail and Homer Wilson ranches are but a few examples. Coincidentally, one of the top songs of 1944, "Don't Fence Me In," seemed particularly applicable to Big Bend ranchers. In the early days, they practiced open range ranching. Only in later years would some of the ranchers find it necessary to fence in their land. Ranching in the Big Bend was not an easy life, but it was home.

While the creation of the national park was a popular notion with most Americans, it was not a decision easily accepted by many of the ranchers who were told they would have to sell their land. Under these conditions, many ranchers allowed cattle, sheep, and goat herds to increase in size to the detriment of the grasslands on which they fed. This overgrazing hastened erosion and changed the appearance of desert plant communities.

The region was named Big Bend for the drastic change in course of the river from a southeastern to a northeastern flow. As the Rio Grande flows through the Chihuahuan Desert, it carves not only majestic canyons, but also a political boundary. Big Bend's location on the United States/Mexico border has always provided a mystique to the park.

Over the past hundred years, the border has experienced peace and stability as well as raiders and revolutionaries. The Mexican Revolution spilled over the international border several times between 1915 and 1920, resulting in some bandit raids of the area. The most famous of these raids took place at Glenn Spring on May 5, 1916, when several people were killed. However, bandits were only a small part of the story of the border. The majority of folks who lived along the border were neighbors who cooperated in order to survive. In the 1930s, calm returned to the region and the military departed. It was during this time that the wonders of the Big Bend country were becoming known outside the area.

Thanks to the efforts of entrepreneur J. O. Langford, E. E. Townsend and newspaperman Amon Carter, the Big Bend National Park idea was hatched. Langford was the proprietor of Hot Springs and advertised the wonders of the area, especially his Hot Springs. E. E. Townsend had spent much of his life here, first as a U.S. Customs Service agent, and later as sheriff. When he was elected to the State Legislature in the 1930s, he dreamed of the creation of a park to preserve and promote the wonders of the Big Bend. Working with the influential publisher of the Fort Worth Star Telegram Amon Carter and scores of other park supporters, Townsend saw his dream become reality. By 1933, the men had garnered enough support to have the area set aside as Texas Canyons State Park, renamed Big Bend State Park several months later.

Before the area would be suitable for visitors, roads, trails, and facilities needed to be developed. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an agency born out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, provided an ideal work force. The CCC was a program designed to alleviate unemployment for thousands of young men while at the same time conserving natural resources. Several hundred young men, most of whom were Hispanic, worked in the Chisos Mountains between 1934 and 1942. Using only picks, shovels, rakes, and a dump truck, the CCC workers surveyed and built the seven-mile access road into the Chisos Mountains Basin. The course of the road and stone culverts have remained basically unchanged over the past seventy years. Later, CCC work crews built the Lost Mine Trail and several stone and adobe cottages in the Basin. It is a lasting tribute to the "CCC boys" that their hard work and skilled labor are still being enjoyed by park visitors today.

Despite all the progress made by the creation of the state park and the work of the CCC, Big Bend supporters wanted something more—a national park. They felt that the area was nationally significant and merited recognition as a national park. The National Park Service sent a team to investigate the values of the area. Their report was enthusiastic and they endorsed the national park idea. Unfortunately, two of the team members, Roger Toll of Yellowstone, and George Wright of the Washington office, were killed in a car accident on their return from the meeting. Toll and Wright Mountains were named in their memory.

It would take several years and much hard work for the national park to become a reality. In the midst of the Great Depression, park supporters had to come up with the money to purchase all the land within the proposed park area. In 1942, $1.5 million was allocated by the State of Texas to purchase approximately 600,000 acres from private owners.

The State of Texas delivered the deed to the Federal Government in September, 1943 and Big Bend National Park was officially established on June 12, 1944. Within a few weeks, the park located its headquarters in the CCC barracks in the Basin. In its first year, Big Bend recorded 1,409 visitors. In recent years annual visitation has increased to over 300,000!

The original plans for the national park included a hospital in the Chisos Mountains Basin as well as a large resort hacienda that would have been built by the CCC if World War II had not occurred. There was also a plan for a two-hundred thousand acre longhorn cattle ranch to be located within the proposed Big Bend National Park. The construction of a cog railroad from the Chisos Basin to the South Rim was also considered.

Although some of these plans never became reality, Big Bend did become a national park. Unforseen designations have also brought Big Bend international attention. In 1976, Big Bend was recognized by the United Nations as an "International Biosphere Reserve." This designation identifies Big Bend as a prominent example of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem and holds opportunities for biological research and environmental monitoring.

As the increase in visitation over the past sixty years testifies, more and more people are discovering the pleasures of a visit to one of the most inspiring and diverse parks in the country. Big Bend is a place to relax, to contemplate the pace of the natural world, to challenge one's own outdoor skills, to study wildlife or plants, and to simply enjoy the splendor of wilderness.

Big Bend is a gift from those who came before us, who worked hard to promote and protect the area as a national park. Today, we have the opportunity to enjoy and learn from the park as well as the responsibility to protect Big Bend for future generations.

Based on a article in the Winter-Spring, 1993/1994 issue of The Big Bend Paisano by Alisa Lynch.

For Further Reading

A Most Singular Country : A History of Occupation in the Big Bend The "Father" of Big Bend National Park The Story of Big Bend National Park Soldiers, ranchers and miners in the Big Bend

Visitation Statistics

Below are visitation statistics for the last five years, including the current year.
2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
January 22,024 27,423 17,095 23,507 23,554
February 26,370 35,505 23,853 37,021
March 44,327 48,424 46,811 80,970
April 53,247 56,814 38,694 36,458
May 20,121 27,121 25,073 17,658
June 18,426 39,717 18,993 17,461
July 18,368 18,078 14,752 21,121
August 30,018 43,529 19,816 14,233
September 24,485 29,887 13,132 23,345
October 25,418 17,826 23,034 34,157
November 39,615 33,432 40,902 29,409
December 37,668 23,191 15,321 31,683
Totals 360,087 400,947 301,080 367,023 23,554

History of annual visitation from 1944-2007. [36k PDF File]

Jodie Harris

A Big Bend cartoonist
Joseph "Jodie" Pickens Harris, III, druggist, soldier, oil operator, journalist, and cartoonist, was born in Anderson County, North Carolina, in 1876. At an early age he moved to Texas with his family and, in early adulthood, became a druggist in Mineral Wells.

In Mineral Wells, Harris was a member of Company I, 4th Texas Infantry, Texas National Guard. When Company I was mobilized during World War I for service on the Mexican Border, Harris was called to duty as a private.

While encamped on the outskirts of Marathon, and during occasional patrols in the vicinity of the Chisos Mountains, Harris in his free time graphically described in drawings on penny post cards, some humorous, some serious, the conditions and people he encountered in his career as a soldier. Many of the cards were sent to members of his family.

In a number of cartoons produced in the fall of 1916, shortly after the creation of the National Park Service, Harris advocated the establishment of a national park in the Big Bend country.

After Company I was demobilized early in 1917, Harris went to San Francisco, California, and joined an ambulance corps. The corps, subsequently as the 364th Ambulance Company in the 91st Division, served in France in the St. Mihiel and Muese-Argonne campaigns. Harris received an award of merit for his service, and continued to send cartoons to his family.

Returning to Mineral Wells after the war, Harris became associated with the Breckenridge Oil and Gas Company as secretary-treasurer. During World War II he worked for the federal government in the Office of Censorship in El Paso and in the Department of the Navy in New York City. In ill health after the war, Harris spent the last few months of his life in the Big Spring Veterans Hospital. He died on May 6, 1960, and was buried in El Paso.

One of the first individuals to advocate national park status for the rugged landscape he patrolled as an infantryman, Harris' cartoons stand today as vivid example of the kind of impressions the Big Bend has left on visitors to the region for nearly a century.

For Further Reading

A Most Singular Country : A History of Occupation in the Big Bend The Story of Big Bend National Park

Cooper's Store

The Persimmon Gap visitor center, located near the northern entrance to Big Bend National park, is often the first park facility that visitors enter. The exhibits, theatre and restrooms all cater to the modern visitor to the park; few may realize that the building has a long and rich history. Some visitors even ask, "Is this building new?"

While the building does appear new with air-conditioning, wiring for computers, a credit card scanner, modern exhibits, and stylish tile floors, it was built in the mid-1940s. You may find it hard to believe that this is an adobe building, and at one time, it was a store belonging to William A. Cooper, Jr., and his wife.

Hallie Stillwell, a neighbor, and Virginia Madison, in their book How Come It's Called That say: "For many years Cooper's Store at this [Persimmon] Gap was the clearing house for information from the railroad to the river and travelers going in either direction always stopped to find out what had happened ahead of them."

The William A. Cooper family owned Persimmon Gap Ranch and built a succession of five stores in the immediate area beginning in 1929. This was the last one, built in the mid 1940s, by their son Bill Cooper, Jr. It was built of 10,000 adobe blocks manufactured on site by four men from Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico.

The store sold ice, cold cuts, soft drinks, beer, gasoline, and a café served meals. The "facilities" were outdoors, and the family lived in part of the building. The Cooper Store was a gathering place for all the local ranchers and their families and was a welcome stopping place for park personnel and visitors when Big Bend National Park opened.

So that the northern park boundary could be extended to where it is today, the National Park Service purchased several sections of land including Bill Cooper's land and the Cooper Store building. It was then that the store became a Ranger Contact Station.

Over the years, the building has evolved from a ranger station containing living quarters to the current floor plan. The latest renovation in September 2003, enables the building to continue as the 21st century version of the "clearing house for information," as it has been for the last 60 years.

Adapted from a temporary exhibit created by park volunteer Sally Jones.

A story of Maggy Smith

Maggy Smith began operating the small trading post at Hot Springs during the early days of Big Bend State Park and continued to serve the local people for several years after the National Park was established. In addition to managing the store, post office, cabins and bath house at the hot springs Maggy also presided over the kitchen whenever it was necessary to serve meals to the tourists and other visitors. Maggy lived there alone following the death of her husband, but had lived in the area for many years so was well known and comfortable in the Big Bend Country. Maggy was fluent in both Spanish and English and was gifted with good humor as well as courage and determination.

Pete and Etta Koch made the decision in the fall of 1945 that Etta and their three young daughters would be spending the winter at Hot Springs [while Pete was traveling in the East with his Big Bend lecture film]. She knew it would be warmer on the Rio Grande, but Etta was concerned about living in a place so remote.

In her book, Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door, Etta shares many of her experiences during the winter of 1945-46 when she and the children lived on the hill across a small creek from the Hot Springs store.

Many of Maggy's customers came from small farms along the Rio Grande. Most folks bartered with Maggy for their needs, therefore cows, chickens, goats, burros, and mules were often residents of the pens under the shade of the mesquite trees along Tornillo Creek.

One of the first things Etta did after moving into the Livingston house was to paint the empty walls with murals. She wrote: "On our first visit to the house on the hill, the plastered and cracked gray walls had been forbidding and stark. . . . [we] bought a can of green paint to swish onto a 10 x 10 foot space to form a giant prickly pear, complete with budding flowers. . . . .as well as a backdrop of Casa Grande, the most interesting of all the Chisos mountain peaks. "

On the kitchen wall she painted a Mexican boy kneeling beside his burro-- partially to cover cracks in the wall. The cracks themselves became parts of wonderful saguaro plants, even though saguaros do not grow in the Chihuahuan desert.

When Maggy saw Etta's murals, she asked Etta if she would paint pictures on her walls in the store. They gathered some old cans of paint that were lying about and in the front room Etta painted her recollection of a Mexican woman she'd seen at the creek washing her baby. She called it "Desert Madonna." She painted the baby wrapped in a white blanket to avoid painting realistic features. Maggy also wanted a Mexican boy with his burro in her kitchen.

All of Etta's murals are now faded, and barely visible.

About 1953, when the Hot Springs store closed, Maggy moved to another location outside the national park. The Desert Madonna was redone by a temporary resident and what you see today bears little resemblance to Etta's original Madonna.

-o0o- -o0o- -o0o-

In her book Etta also tells of an idyllic night when she and Maggy attended a wedding at a Mexican hacienda in San Vicente. The following are excerpts from the book.

"We were met at the river crossing by horses and guides. I mounted a horse and clung to the saddle as if in danger of my life. . . . Lest I fall off from the sheer dizziness of watching the swirling water [as we crossed the Rio Grande.] I shifted my gaze to the shore beyond. . . . The moon, glowing golden, lent an unreal setting, while the Del Carmen mountain backdrop contributed its stagelike effect.

After traveling a half mile or so we reached our destination. . . . The exterior of the hacienda in the moonlight was picturesque. The usual cactus and desert growth surrounded the place, but most unusual for these eyes of mine was the fence of ocotillo stalks that surrounded the house, for it was in full bloom. The [green-leafed] fence with bright flame-colored tips was, to me, a phenomenon.

The ranch house was . . .a rambling affair. . . . I passed in admiration through a doorway decorated in what appeared to be stenciled flowers with touching evidence of a homemaker's love for this plain adobe structure with its dirt floor packed hard and swept clean. The bedroom beyond was also festive with hand-embroidered bedspread and pillow shams, beautifully done. In one corner of the room was a small shrine with artificial flowers adorning a picture of the Virgin Mary. A votive candle sent small flickering shadows up the wall."

"We were conducted to the feast being served on the patio. There, at a long table, the guests were seated on benches. . . . The food was especially good-- a thick spicy goat stew. Tortillas were passed around to be used as spoons to scoop up the stew and have a bite of tortilla at the same time. When this 'spoon' had been swallowed there were others waiting.

"It was a merry party. Most of the Mexicans were known to us, or at least to Maggy, being her customers as well as friends, for Maggy was a friend to all.

"The meal finished we adjourned to an open courtyard with a trellis-like roof. Here the wedding ceremony took place followed by a dance. The men seated themselves on one side of the courtyard; the women on the other.

"The ceremony was a simple reading of the marriage vows . . . .[After the ceremony] a three-piece orchestra struck up a dance tune and each young man rose from the bench on his side of the court, crossed to the lady of his choice, and they began to waltz to the music of two violins and a guitar. Following the dance the young men returned their partners to the ladies' bench, and returned to the mens' side of the floor. I was struck by this formality. I also noticed that the men held their partners loosely, reminding me of Slavic folk dancing I had seen. Their faces were expressionless, almost stoic, and if they enjoyed the dance, it was not obvious."

"The moon was high and as the moonlight fell over my shoulder that early March evening my eyes sought the distant horizon of the Chisos, beyond the fence of fiery ocotillo. As the music shattered the silence with its plaintive notes, I could hardly believe that Hot Springs and the simple everyday life of this tenderfoot was but a few miles downstream. . . .

"It was as if I had stepped into a looking glass [and found] another world where the meld of breeze, violins and a blossoming fence produced the same unreality as did the chiseled peaks of the ghostly Chisos mountains beyond the far shore."

Excerpts adapted and condensed from Lizards on the Mantel...Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir. By Etta Koch with June Cooper Price. © 1999. Published by University of Texas Press

The Original Settlers

The history and culture of Big Bend is intertwined with the history and culture of Mexico. This land was part of Mexico until the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848. The earliest settlers were Mexicans who established residence here in the early 1800s. Yet the traditional history of the Big Bend overlooks these settlers of Mexican origins; it focuses mainly on Anglo-American settlement that took place mostly in the late 1800s.

Many details of the history of Mexican settlement here have been lost with time. Most people of Mexican origins in Big Bend had few opportunities for formal education; therefore, few historical records were kept. Available historical records show that by the time that Anglo-American settlers moved into this region in the late 1800s, Mexican and Mexican-American families were already living here.

Mexican "vaqueros," Spanish for cowboys, were renowned for their horsemanship and knowledge of cattle and began raising cattle along the Rio Grande in the 1830s. The Mexican stockmen were familiar with the dry climate of the Chihuahuan Desert, and they raised a rugged, thin-blooded variety of longhorn that was well adapted to desert conditions. Attracted to the grazing lands and abundant spring water of the Big Bend, Mexican vaqueros drove their herds north across the Rio Grande where some established successful ranching operations. In 1855 Manuel Múzquiz settled in a canyon which still bears his name near Fort Davis, Texas. Múzquiz contracted with the commander of Fort Davis to supply beef to the military post.

Many think of immigration as a new issue in the U.S.-Mexico border region. But the movement of people from Mexico into what is now the U.S. has been a part of the Big Bend's history from the time when this region was still part of Mexico. The late 1800s saw the arrival of many Anglo-American settlers to the Big Bend region, and the settlers of Mexican cultural origin were forced to live under a system that was foreign to them, and often discriminated against them. Although history has focused on the Anglo settlers, their endeavors could not have succeeded without the skills and labor of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who had lived in this region for years and knew the Chihuahuan Desert. Cresencio Sanchez and Liberato Gamboa of San Vicente, Texas, became permanent employees of Fred Rice, who ranched at Grapevine Hills. Fred Rice Jr. often noted what outstanding horsemen these Mexican-American cowboys were. Viviano Castillo, known for his skill in masonry, built a large water tank near Chilicotal spring for John Rice. Simon Celaya, originally from San Luis, Potosi, Mexico, worked for many years as a ranch hand for Coleman Babb at the K-Bar ranch.

Other Big Bend residents of Mexican descent chose not to work for local ranchers. They established homesteads and survived by subsistence farming and raising sheep and goats. These settlers developed ingenious methods for farming in the desert. Armed with an intimate knowledge of which plants could succeed in the desert climate, those who homesteaded near the Rio Grande or desert springs would use these water sources to irrigate their crops. Others, located far from water, farmed seasonally by locating their farms near washes and diverting water from flash floods during the rainy season. Many supplemented their incomes by harvesting candelilla, a desert plant from which they would render a fine wax, by baling hay and selling it to the local military and mining camps, by cutting and hauling wood to nearby settlements, or by trapping and trading furs at local trading posts.

By 1898 mining activities in Mexico's Sierra del Carmen led to the settlement of Boquillas, Mexico. A group of daring Texas investors worked with the Puerto Rico Mining Company in Mexico to move large quantities of lead, zinc and silver ore to the railroad in Marathon, Texas. Utilizing Mexican and Mexican-American labor, they constructed a cable tram across the Rio Grande that spanned six miles of desert terrain. The tramway was successful until the mine closed shortly before World War I.

Some settlers of Mexican cultural origin profitted as independent freighters, hauling ore, supplies, water, wood, mail and passengers to and from the mining towns. Mexican mules were considered superior in strength to American breeds and their drivers were familiar with their animals and the desert. In the Boquillas area, the Gonzalez brothers of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, and the Ben Gallego family of Alpine, Texas, dominated the industry.

After some of the mines in the Boquillas area closed in 1919, farming along the river floodplain became the major activity of the area. Martin Solis and his son Benito were among the most prominent farmers in the area. Farming along the Rio Grande was also an important way of life in the Castolon area. Mexican families began moving to the area in the mid-1800s, and in the early 1900s Cipriano Hernandez was among the first to farm there. When other farming settlements appeared near Castolon, Hernandez opened a small store where he sold supplies to his neighbors. Today, the store building is known as the Alvino House, and is the oldest known adobe structure standing in the park.

Stockmen, homesteaders, farmers, candelilla wax makers, haybalers, trappers, goatherds, miners and freighters, the settlers of the Big Bend whose ancestors came from Mexico transformed their dedicated labor into a way of life that sustained them through the generations. The original settlers of the Big Bend region, although almost forgotten by history, lived and died on this land. They maintained their unique culture in spite of changes to the region's government, economy, and language. The culture of the settlers of Mexican origin still plays a major role in the Big Bend region. Today we find the descendants of the original settlers of the Big Bend taking their rightful place in society. Heirs to a culture that emphasizes the importance of family, hard work, and the spirit of survival, they continue to exemplify the values that are their cultural legacy.

Lady Bird Johnson

In April of 1966 First Lady Mrs. Lyndon Johnson visited Big Bend National Park. The purpose of the trip was to promote the "See America First" campaign and to call attention to the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park Service. Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson's press secretary, was in charge of planning the itinerary and travel arrangements for over seventy press and White House staff. Big Bend's remote and arid location created a few problems and anxieties for such a large group. To reassure her traveling companions, Carpenter wrote on the itinerary handout, "You are headed for wide open spaces. It is two hours to everything! Relax, take a tranquilizer, enjoy the landscape. It's bigger than all outdoors. It is all outdoors! Get with the wilderness spirit!" Only half-jokingly she had written a warning to the pilot of the chartered American Airlines Electra to "please watch for cattle and antelope on runway" at the Presidio County Airport. Sure enough, as the plane landed a herd of antelope scampered out of the way. Carpenter arranged for a modern-day "Pony Express"—the code name for National Park Service ranger Bill Newbold—to pick up the journalists' stories and photographs at stops along the two-hour bus drive from the airport to Big Bend. Newbold delivered them to the airline captain at Presidio, who then flew to Love Field in Dallas where representatives of the various newspapers, magazines, and wire services met the plane.

Activities for the First Lady and the secretary of the interior (Mrs. Udall also accompanied her husband) included a barbecue and a hike up Lost Mine Trail with a ranger on horseback for security. As Mrs. Johnson stood on the ridge between Juniper Canyon and Green Gulch in the Chisos Basin, she commented that "This looks like the very edge of the world." At the end of the first day, she concluded that the Big Bend was indeed "wild country, completely untamed by man, but a good place to come to get your troubles in perspective." In the evening the entourage returned to the cabins in the Chisos Basin.

The highlight of the Big Bend visit was a six-hour, eleven-mile float trip through Mariscal Canyon on the Rio Grande. William Blair, special correspondent to the New York Times, wrote that it was a "wonder" that the First Lady "survived" the adventure. After getting his readers' attention, he explained that there never was any danger, just "traffic jams" which "resembled Times Square at rush hour" as the twenty— four rubber rafts drifted through the shallow (12"-24" deep) and narrow river at a speed of two m.p.h. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Udall even paddled for twenty-five minutes to give the secretary and the accompanying park ranger a rest. Along the route Mrs. Johnson admired the wildflowers clinging to the canyon walls. Other than occasional Canyon Wrens, White-throated Swifts, and Turkey Buzzards circling above the canyon walls, and feral burros on the Coahuila side, she saw little wild life. Adding an international touch, four Mexican nationals standing in the shade of riverbank trees shouted greetings to the First Lady. Unknown to Mrs. Johnson, the foursome concealed a stack of candelilla bundles to smuggle across the river. The wax of the plant was used in a variety of products such as chewing gum and shoe polish. At the conclusion of the float trip, Liz Carpenter summed it up as "a wild experience."

The First Lady really did seem to enjoy herself and appreciated the beauty of the park and its environs, an area she had long wanted to visit. Back at the White House later that month, Mrs. Johnson wrote Conrad Wirth, a good friend and former director of the Park Service, about "that fabulous corner of the world." She recalled "watching the Sierra del Carmen mountains about sunset as we had barbecued steaks under the cottonwood trees . . . There was every hue of blue, lavender and mist color and the changing light made them look quite magical."