Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

History of Big Bend

"Histories never conclude; they just pause their prose. Their stories are, if they are truthful, untidy affairs, resistant to windings-up and sortings-out. They beat raggedly on into the future...."

 -Simon Schama

 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.


This place changes the people who experience it. The modern history of Big Bend if full of numerous characters and individuals who lived, struggled, and thrived in the unique environment of this region.

Here you'll find some of Big Bend's best characters: ranchers, residents, organizations, advocates, and park rangers.

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.


Everett Touwnsend:


    "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.


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.