Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park



In 1921, Wallace E. Pratt, Humble Oil & Refining Company's first geologist, and two associates bought land that included part of McKittrick Canyon within the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. At the height of the depression, his partners decided to sell their interest and Mr. Pratt bought them out. He assumed complete ownership in 1930.

In 1930 Wallace Pratt built a stone cabin in McKittrick Canyon at the confluence of north and south McKittrick Creek. Pratt used this vacation lodge as a family get-a-way retreat from the hot humid summers of Houston, Texas, his permanent home at the time. When Wallace Pratt retired in 1945, he and his wife moved to McKittrick Canyon and used the cabin as their home for a brief time, but eventually, severe flooding of the creek convinced Mr. Pratt to build another home on higher ground outside the canyon.

Construction of the second home, Ship-On-The Desert, began in 1941. The onset of World War II halted construction until 1945 when full-scale construction started again. A New York City architect named Newton Bevin was hired by Mr. Pratt to build his second home. Mr. Bevin and his wife, Elizabeth lived on site and supervised the construction of the stone building. Mr. Pratt stated "The architect literally put each stone in place, so distributing the various shades of soft gray and brown rock tints as to yield a pleasing harmony".

The building's ground floor plan is a narrow rectangle, only 16wide x 110 feet long, and consists of a single story with a flat deck roof. On both sides, the deck extends out to cover a paved, semi-enclosed gallery. This gallery is eight feet wide, and runs the full length of the structure. The long axis is oriented south-southwest into the prevailing wind.

Inside the dining room, the captain's bridge arises from the main deck into a small, glassed-in second story room. Detached from the main building is a two-car garage with a small spare bedroom that was sometimes used as a guest bedroom. The principal construction material was the natural building blocks (McCombs and Radar limestone) collected from the surrounding countryside.

The building was completed in 1945 and Mr. Pratt lived there until ill health required him to move to Tucson, Arizona in 1963. He died at his home in Tucson on December 25, 1981 at 96 years of age.

The Pinery

The Pinery Trail

Travel the short .75 mile path to the ruins of the old Pinery Station, once a favored stop on the original 2,800 mile Butterfield Overland Mail Route. Trailside exhibits describe Chihuahuan desert vegetation. The trail is paved, rated easy, and wheelchair accessible. Pets are allowed on leash.

Preservation of the Ruins

The ruin is fragile; climbing on the walls can destroy this piece of history. It is preserved by the National Park Service as a window to the past, in the relatively unchanged, rugged setting that stage riders and Mescalero Apaches saw more than one hundred years ago. With the help of careful visitors to protect it, this historic location will continue to reflect the spirit of courage and adventure which commanded the senses of long-ago travelers, and still stirs in those who ride this route today.

History of the Pinery

When the conductor, his driver, and their sole passenger made their first call at the Pinery, there was little to see: a stout corral built of pine that had been cut and hauled from the mountains above, and the tents that housed the station keeper and his men. But two months later the station consisted of a high-walled rock enclosure protecting a wagon repair shop, a black smith shop, and the essential replacement teams of fresh horses. Three mud-roofed rooms with limestone walls offered a double fireplace, a warm meal, and a welcome retreat from the dusty trail of the plains below.

Pinery Station was built of local limestone, in a fortress like pattern. High rock walls formed a rectangular enclosure with a single entrance. The three mud-roofed rooms were attached, lean-to fashion, to the inside walls, which afforded safety and protection from Indian raids. These walls, built of limestone slabs and adobe, were 30 inches thick and 11 feet high. The station's water supply came from Pine Spring through an open ditch to a tank inside the station. A stockade of heavy pine posts protected the main entrance on the south. In the southeast corner of the enclosure, a thatched shelter covered the wagon repair shop and smithy. Livestock were kept in the stone-walled corral on the north end.

There was more activity about this station than one might suspect. The station keeper was Henry Ramstein, a surveyor from El Paso. He supervised six to eight men who worked as cooks, blacksmiths, and herders. Four times a week the distant sound of the conductor's horn announced the arrival of the mail coach with up to nine passengers. Express riders dashed through at all hours, road crews stopped off, and tank wagons filled up at Pine Spring, rolling on to fill water tanks along the dry stretches. Freighters and mule pack trains added to the passing traffic.

There were fearful moments, as when an army scout brought word that Indians were sighted in a nearby canyon. All stock was quickly herded inside the station, bars were secured across the entrance gate, and every man stood ready with his Sharp's rifle. At times, soldiers were garrisoned at the Pinery to guard against Indian attacks, which led to stories that this ruin was once a government fort. There was also news of tragic happenings. On one occasion a rider reported that the three men who had built this station were murdered with axes at a mail station in Arizona by three of their helpers. Their construction foreman, St. John, was still living, but had suffered an axe blow that severed his arm. On another occasion an express rider brought news of an Apache attack in Arizona which stopped the mail and left the station keeper and a passing emigrant family massacred.

The Butterfield Mail Coach continued to come through the Pinery for 11 months until August 1859, when this route was abandoned for a new road that passed by way of Forts Stockton and Davis. The new route better served the chain of forts along the southern military road to El Paso, and was better protected against Indian attacks. A total of ten stations were abandoned along the Guadalupe route and 16 were added along the "Fort Trail." But long after its abandonment, the old Pinery Station continued to be a retreat for emigrants, freighters, soldiers, outlaws, renegades, and drovers. It is now a fragile remnant of an early endeavor to span the continent with the first reliable transportation and communication system ever attempted.

Butterfield Stage

On the afternoon of September 28,1858, the conductor of the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail Coach sounded his bugle to announce the coach's arrival at the Pinery. The station was named for nearby stands of pine. With abundant water from Pine Spring and good grazing, it was one of the most favorably situated stations on the original 2,800-mile Butterfield route. Located at 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass, the Pinery was also the highest.

After a meal of venison and baked beans and a change of horses, the weary travelers jolted slowly down the pass on their rough-riding stage. Shortly after sunset, near the base of Guadalupe Pass, the westbound coach from St. Louis pulled alongside the eastbound from San Francisco. The excited passengers and drivers exchanged comments about their history-making encounter. For the brief space of a conversation, the ends of the continent were connected. But there was mail to deliver; the stages rolled on as contracted, traveling an average of five miles an hour around the clock, and averaging 120 miles a day. The Butterfield contract called for semi-weekly runs, covering 2,800 miles in a maximum of 25 days. In its two and a half years of operation the Butterfield never broke its contract.

Imagine the feeling of isolation experienced by the station masters and their crews, and the sense of excitement and companionship brought by the stages. Between Fort Chadborne and El Paso, a distance of 458 miles, there was no sign of habitation other than outpost stage stations. The stage route between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and San Francisco, California, passed through only two real towns: Tucson and El Paso. One stretch of route had no settlements for 900 miles; another had no water for 75.

Wallace E. Pratt

McKittrick Canyon - The Park's Beginning

McKittrick Canyon attracts thousands of visitors each year to enjoy its hidden beauty and spectacular fall colors. The canyon is open to the public due to the generosity of Wallace Pratt and his family, who donated the land to the National Park Service around 1960.

Wallace Pratt - Exploration Pioneer

Born in Phillipsburg, Kansas, March 15, 1885, Pratt began his career in geology as an assistant with the Kansas Geological Survey shortly after he graduated from the University of Kansas in 1907 with a bachelor's degree.

From 1909 to 1916, he worked in Philippines, becoming chief of the Division of Mines there in 1912. He returned to the U.S. in 1916, and in 1918 joined Humble as the company's first geologist. Prior to that time the company had treated the search for oil as largely a hit or miss operation without scientific exploration. But Pratt, joined by 10 more geologists during 1918-19, proved that geology was an important factor in finding oil.

Among the most notable early contributions made by Pratt and his staff were geological studies that led to the correct interpretation of the structure of the huge Mexia field, discovered in October 1920 in East Texas. On the basis of these studies, Humble bought leases on the structure and developed substantial reserves and production. This work and leasing of large amounts of acreage that proved productive in Powell, Texas, in 1923 firmly established Humble as an oil producer.

Pratt also played a prominent role in the scientific progress of his profession. As early as 1922, others were using geophysical instruments experimentally on the Texas Gulf Coast as a new method for finding salt domes. After studying results from this work, Pratt concluded that Humble should use geophysical instruments and methods. In line with these recommendations, in 1924, Humble set up a geophysics group and established a shop in Houston for geophysics research and development, and the manufacture of a refraction seismograph recording in the field.

Pratt served as Humble's chief geologist and later director, and vice-president In 1937 he joined Standard Oil Co. (Humble's parent firm in New Jersey), once again rising to director, executive committee member, and finally, vice-president, a position he held until he retired from the company in 1945.

After retirement Pratt served on the National Security Resources Board for 2 years and began a long career as a consultant geologist. Pratt wrote more than 100 geological papers during his lifetime, including "Oil in the Earth," one of the most widely read books in his profession.

One of the founders of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Pratt was elected fourth president of the association in 1920. He was the first recipient of the AAPG's Sidney Powers Medal, awarded in 1945. In 1972 he received the AAPG's Human Needs Award. He also received the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers' Anthony F. Lucas Medal in 1948, and the American Petroleum Institute's Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 1954. He was director of API for many years. Pratt was inducted into the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum's Hall of Fame in1969 and was named Grand Old Man of Exploration in 1976 by directors of the International Petroleum Exposition.

Most notably though, Wallace E. Pratt donated 5,632 acres, which included McKittrick Canyon, to the National Park Service, forming the core of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Wallace E. Pratt, pioneer U.S. exploration geologist, died December 25, 1981 in his Tucson, Arizona home. He was 96.

Pratt Cabin

McKittrick Canyon attracts thousands of visitors each year to enjoy its hidden beauty and spectacular fall colors. The canyon is open to the public due to the generosity of Wallace Pratt and his family, who donated the land to the National Park Service around 1960. In a 1974 interview, Wallace Pratt revealed the circumstances that brought him to McKittrick Canyon.

In 1921, Pratt accompanied two West Texas oil-lease brokers to Pecos, Texas to purchase leases for his employer, Humble Oil and Refining Company. He was the first geologist hired by Humble. While awaiting a meeting with landowners, Pratt was offered a chance to visit what Pecos attorney Judge Drane assured him was "the most beautiful spot in Texas." Pratt agreed to go, but during the trip through the barren desert scrub of West Texas, Pratt became skeptical about Drane's enthusiastic description. Pratt had nearly concluded that Judge Drane's "beautiful spot" referred merely to the high desert mountains; then he entered the canyon, and the beauty of the hidden woodland deep within McKittrick Canyon's walls was revealed.

In 1921, the canyon was even more spectacular than it is today. It sheltered a free flowing stream running the length of the canyon with a succession of miniature waterfalls formed when travertine deposits created dams along the watercourse. These dams were destroyed and most of the stream went underground during flooding in 1943 and 1968.

Maple, walnut, oak, and madrone grew alongside desert plants like cactus and agave, all enclosed by steep walls formed when the creek cut through the limestone of the Capitan Reef. On the return trip to Pecos, Judge Drane told Pratt that the McCombs Ranch containing part of McKittrick Canyon was for sale. Pratt acquired a quarter interest for a summer vacation getaway. His partners were interested in a place to entertain clients on deer hunts, but Pratt recognized the uniqueness of the canyon. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Pratt bought out his partners and by 1930 he owned a major portion of the canyon.

During the winter of 1931-32 he began construction of the home Houston Architect Joseph Staub had designed. With the depression on, good help could be hired inexpensively. From Staub's office, Pratt hired Vance Phenix, a young architect displaced by the lack of projects. Phenix brought along his brother, Dean, a carpenter, and Adolph May, stonemason. Local ranchers Green McCombs and Alfred Lehman helped haul rock to the site and position materials. The cabin is made of only stone and wood. Heart-of-pine rafters, collar beams and sheathing to support the stone roof were shipped in from East Texas. The stone used in building the house was quarried outside the canyon at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. Always the geologist, Pratt selected "silty limestones, thin-bedded and closely jointed by clean vertical fractures." Workers scraped off the thin layer of earth to reveal the proper stones, then using crowbars, levered the blocks apart. The joints made the blocks fit well, and Pratt noted that few required the stonemason's hammer or chisel.

Once complete, the Pratts furnished the cabin with rough plank reclining chairs, four beds and assorted hammocks, and a special table to seat twelve. Outdoors was a picnic table made of stone. Although the cabin is often called the "Pratt Lodge," Wallace Pratt told an interviewer that he had grown up in Kansas and never quite learned what a "lodge" was used for. He always referred to the house as The Stone Cabin. During summers when Houston, Texas is hot and humid, the Pratts and their three children spent time in the Guadalupes, sharing the cabin with friends. This was the principal use of the cabin for over a decade. When they retired in 1945, the cabin was their home for a brief time. Years earlier a flood had trapped them in McKittrick Canyon; the experience convinced them that any permanent residence would have to be outside the canyon, and they selected a site on the mountain front. During construction of the new house, called Ship On The Desert, the New York architects lived in the Stone Cabin for a year.

In the late 1950s the Pratts planned a move to Tucson, Arizona for health reasons. By 1960 they had bought property there and began to donate the family holdings in McKittrick Canyon to the National Park Service. Ultimately the donations totaled over 5,000 acres, and included the Stone Cabin and Ship-On-The-Desert.

Although Pratt recognized the geologic and biologic value of his West Texas property, the canyon's natural beauty exerted a stronger influence on him than its science. Pratt said that his early career had been spent in the open. "Instead of dealing with men I had communed with rocks-they never let you down." Until his death in 1981, Wallace Pratt remained interested in the "most beautiful spot in Texas," and in sharing its magic.


For over 10,000 years, the Guadalupes Mountains have witnessed a constant stream of human history, including bloody conflicts between Mescalero Apaches and Buffalo Soldiers, the passing of the Butterfield Overland Mail, the coming of ranchers and settlers, and finally, the making of a national park. Today, the history is preserved at the Frijole and Williams Ranches, and at the ruins of the Pinery Station.

Protecting Cultural Resources

It is always exciting to discover evidence left behind by earlier inhabitants, but in order to preserve our history, and continue to interpret the cultures that came before us, it is imperative that all cultural and historic artifacts and evidence remain undisturbed. Please help us preserve these items. It is illegal to collect them.

Mescalero Apaches

For the Mescalero Apaches, the Guadalupe Mountains were the last stronghold. War with the Comanches forced bands of Apaches to retreat from the plains into these inhospitable mountains. They survived here by learning to utilize the native plants and animals. The Mescaleros, or Nde (In-deh) as they called themselves, hunted mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, and harvested plants including, agave, sotol, and bear grass.

The agave, or mescal formed the major staple in both their diet and culture. In addition to supplying fiber for ropes, blankets, and sandals, agave hearts were roasted in large cooking pits and eaten or made into cakes for later consumption.

The Mescaleros were constantly on the move, ranging over vast areas and following the changing seasons. Though the Mescaleros learned to adapt to this rather harsh environment, they were unable to contend with the rapid and unwelcome advance of settlers into the area. Suddenly, their bounty of resources and precious water sources were being taken away. While they tried desperately to defend their lands by raiding and attacking stages and settlements, the Mescalero Apaches were defeated by soldiers and cavalrymen in a series of brutal skirmishes. By the late 1800's, the Mescaleros had, for the most part, been driven from the Guadalupes.

Today, the Guadalupes still represent an important cultural and spiritual sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. Each year members of the tribe come to the area to harvest agaves for ceremonial purposes.


Early Ranching

By the late 1800s, the Mescalero Apaches had for the most part been driven out of the Guadalupes. Settlers began to arrive and attempted to make a living farming and ranching in these mountains. Although there were a few who prospered, most failed. Among the few ranchers who persevered and prospered in the Guadalupe Mountains were the Smith family, Henry and Rena Belcher, and Adolphus Williams. The Smith family operated an orchard at Frijole Ranch for nearly forty years. Henry and Rena Belcher had a ranch at the foot of the rugged Western Escarpment, 5,000 feet below Guadalupe Peak. The Belcher's ranch was later sold to James Adolphus Williams, and became known as Williams Ranch. In the early 1940's, both Frijole and Williams Ranches were bought by Judge J.C. Hunter. Hunter eventually owned much of what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Early on, he had a vision of this place being a public park for all to enjoy. After Hunter's death, his son, J.C. Hunter Jr., sold the land to the National Park Service for $22 per acre.


Humans have frequented the Guadalupe Mountains for over 10,000 years, from early hunter-gatherers, settlers, and military, to entrepreneurs, ranchers, geologists, and conservationists. In many instances, there is little evidence of their stay, and we are must carefully piece together the circumstances of their lives. But for many, the historic structures, ruins, remnants, and written record vividly recount their existence in this majestic landscape.

Williams Ranch

The fragmented history of the Guadalupe Mountains region tantalizes the imagination. There are few records left behind for the scholar, and the Williams Ranch story is no exception to this scarcity of information. Historians believe the ranch house may have been built by John Smith of El Paso in 1908 for Henry Belcher and his wife Rena. Another story maintains that Henry Belcher's brother constructed the house for his new bride, who stayed only 24 hours before heading for home! Regardless of the builder's identity, it is fairly certain that Henry, Rena, and their baby daughter Bernice, were the first people to live in the house for any length of time. The family moved in with a wood stove, bunk beds, and other furniture, and a luxury for the time, wallpaper. Standing among the rugged foothills 5,000 feet below Guadalupe Peak, the house, with its attractive architecture and steeply gabled roof, looks out of place. The builder may have been thinking of the popular styles of the eastern states when he had the lumber hauled by mule train from Van Horn, Texas, sixty-five miles to the south.

The Belchers remained for about a decade and maintained a substantial ranching operation, at times supporting up to 3,000 head of longhorn cattle on the mountain slopes and in the Patterson Hills across the valley. Water for this venture was piped from Bone Spring down the canyon to holding tanks in the lowlands.

At the turn of the century, grass was abundant here and rainfall was probably greater. Wildlife was far more diverse and plentiful; bear, wolf, lion, bighorn sheep, prairie dog, and elk were common. Pronghorn, javelina, bison, porcupine, fox, coyote, bobcat, and badger were numerous in and around the mountains. Even the jaguar and mighty grizzly may have occasionally found refuge within the sheltered canyons of this remote rocky island. Thousands of ducks, geese, cranes, and hawks migrated over the highlands in the spring and fall. The hills and canyons rang with the calls of songbirds. Spectacular spring wildflower displays were a regular occurrence.

By the time Henry Belcher departed, overgrazing combined with increasing aridity and drought had depleted much of the ranch's grass cover. The grasses were replaced by mesquite, acacia, and creosote. Animal populations were already dwindling due to hunting, trapping, poisoning, disease, the change of vegetation from grasses to shrubs, and competition with stock for diminishing forage and cover.

Today many of these trends continue outside of the park. The bighorn sheep, bison, wolf, and native elk are gone forever; the bear and lion all but eliminated.

Sometime around 1917, James Adolphus Williams (known to friends as "Uncle Dolph"), a lone cowman from Louisiana, acquired the house and ranch property. With his partner and friend, an Indian named Geronimo (not the legendary Apache leader), he ran several hundred longhorn. A few years later he switched to sheep and goats, animals better adapted to the changing environment. Relatives and hired hands helped manage the 500 to 3,000 animals. A limited amount of land was also farmed. Williams and his men frequently visited neighbors, collected firewood, picked up produce at Frijole Ranch, and herded stock to water and grass over precarious trails beneath majestic limestone ramparts. Dolph Williams owned the ranch until 1941 when he moved to Black River Village, New Mexico, fifty miles to the northeast. He died there in 1942. The ranch was purchased by Judge J.C. Hunter, adding to his extensive holdings in the Guadalupe Mountains. Judge Hunter's son sold the ranch to the National Park Service in 1966.

The panoramic west facing view from the Williams Ranch porch has changed dramatically over the last ninety years. Although the story of the human endeavor here is only vaguely reconstructed, this singular place contributes far more than a mere physical or textbook record. Its silent eloquence may stir time-worn feelings and engender a profound appreciation for all that once was. Above all, it evokes a bittersweet yearning for a time of simplicity and beauty that will never be again.

The El Paso Salt War

The Salt Flats
Upon approaching the Guadalupe Mountains from the west, visitors traveling from the El Paso area will pass through a landscape of barren beauty. The Salt Flats are a remnant of an ancient, shallow lake that once occupied this area during the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 1.8 million years ago. Salt collected here as streams drained mineral-laden water into this basin. The basin, called a graben, formed about 26 million years ago as faulting lifted the Guadalupe Mountains and depressed the adjacent block of the Earth’s crust. At the end of the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago, the lake dried up as the climate became more arid. The salt deposits left behind would later become a precious resource to the people of the El Paso area.

A Precious Resource
Salt was considered sacred to Native American tribes such as the Apache and Tigua Indians, who used it in the tanning of animal hides and as a condiment and preservative.

In 1692, Diego de Vargas led an expedition in search of salt deposits in and around the
Guadalupe Mountains. An Apache prisoner led de Vargas and approximately 20 Spanish soldiers from Socorro, through the Hueco Mountains, eventually arriving at the base of the Guadalupes after a four day trek across the desert. After discovering the salt beds, de Vargas collected a sample of the salt and returned to New Spain (Mexico). This expedition helped pave the way for future Spanish expeditions to the Guadalupes.

During the Spanish (1848-1821), Mexican (1821-1848), and early American (1848-1881) periods, Hispanic populations of the El Paso Valley region depended on salt from the Salt Flats.

After the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, ending the American-Mexican War, over 75,000 Mexicans chose to remain in the United States as U.S. citizens. Approximately 5,000 Mexican Americans lived in the El Paso valley region, formerly part of Mexico, subsisting primarily through farming and livestock grazing. In order to supplement income from farming, the Valley Mexicans would endure the heat and the threat of Apache attack to collect salt. They came from as far south as Chihuahua to load their wagons with this precious resource.

Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the El Paso Valley communities would make a 70 mile, two day journey from San Elizario to the salt beds. The salt would then be transported by mule drawn wagons south to Chihuahua and Sonora, where it was an important trade item. In addition to traditional uses, in Chihuahua the salt was used in the smelting of silver.

Prior to 1848, the salt beds, under Spanish law, were common land not owned by any one individual. After 1848, under American law, these were unclaimed lands, available to anyone who filed there. The Mexicans, believing that everybody had the right to the salt, never thought to file claims to the salt beds in the name of any one individual or group.

Mills filed his own claims to the salt beds and formed a group that became known as the Salt Ring. Fountain, who had a falling out with Mills, later became the leader of the opposing Anti Salt Ring. He was elected to the Texas Senate with the expectation of securing title to the salt deposits for the people of the El Paso area. Cardis and Mills soon joined forces with Charles Howard, a Missouri lawyer. Cardis helped secure Howard's election to district attorney, but later became bitter enemies with him after Howard filed on the salt lakes for himself. These actions outraged Mexican citizens who considered the lakes public property under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Cardis later joined forces with Father Antonio Borrajos, an Italian priest who served the Mexican communities, to oppose Howard.

In September 1877, Howard started a riot when he arrested two San Elizario residents who attempted to go for salt. An angry mob captured and held Howard for three days at San Elizario. He finally gained his freedom by vowing to give up claim to the salt beds and leave the country. He retreated to Mesilla, New Mexico, but quickly returned to murder Cardis in an El Paso store. Angry Mexicans demanded Howard's arrest. Howard was arraigned for Cardis' murder and placed under bond to appear in court in March.

In early December, a wagon train of Mexicans from both sides of the border left the valley, headed for the salt lakes. Howard brought suit and left for San Elizario to press charges. In San Elizario, he and a handful of Texas Rangers were besieged by an angry mob and held up for four days in the rangers' fort. On the fifth day Howard gave himself up. The rangers also surrendered, believing that Howard was to be freed. On December 17th, Howard, his agent John E. McBride, and John G. Atkinson were shot by a firing squad composed of Mexicans. The rangers from the fort were allowed to leave after forfeiting their arms.

Within a few days, several detachments of troops and a posse of American citizens arrived in San Elizario, killing and wounding an untold number of people. Most of the mob had already fled into Mexico, and no one was ever arrested or brought to trial. The short lived war very nearly led to an armed confrontation between the U.S. and Mexico. The unfortunate consequence of the Salt War was that Mexicans from both sides of the border were robbed, assaulted, and murdered. An exodus of Mexican families from the San Elizario area immediately followed the event. Eventually, the Salt Flats were claimed and the Mexican community was forced to pay for the salt they once collected for free.

For the Hispanic people of the El Paso Valley region, the Salt War was a struggle against Anglo attempts to exploit natural resources believed by the Mexican culture to be on communal land. The transformation of the salt beds from communal to private ownership threatened the very survival of the Mexican border population. They had constructed the road to Salt Flat and therefore had a vested interest in the future of the salt beds. The El Paso Salt War was not merely a quarrel over control of the salt beds, but rather a struggle for the economic and political future of the area.


No one knows exactly when the first people came to the Guadalupes, but archaeological evidence dates back over 10,000 years ago. The earliest inhabitants were hunter-gathers who followed available game and ripening vegetation, and lived in and among the many caves and alcoves common throughout the range. Scattered evidence of their existence, including projectile points, baskets, pottery, and rock art has been found throughout the park.

Since then, many different groups have moved in and out of the area, including the Spanish who arrived by the mid 1500’s. There is little evidence of any attempts on their part to penetrate the Guadalupes, and no large-scale settlements have been located. Their influence was significant though, because they introduced horses into the area. For the bands of Apaches who roamed freely over much of southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico, horses quickly became an invaluable asset to their nomadic lifestyle. The Mescalero Apaches followed game, much as the earlier peoples had done, and they also harvested the agave (or mescal) for food and fiber. Mescalero is name given to them by the Spanish, and it means mescal-maker. Agave roasting pits and other remains of Mescalero campsites are common in the park.

Prior to the mid 1800’s, the Guadalupes remained an unchallenged sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. But newly established transportation routes, and the end of the Civil War, encouraged droves of pioneers, homesteaders, miners, and numerous others to head west. In the 1840’s and 1850’s, explorers were commissioned to look for possible emigrant routes to the west, and the proposed transcontinental railroad expected to follow one of these. Although these surveying expeditions would never lead to a railroad through Guadalupe Pass, they did provide the first extensive studies of the Guadalupe region. In 1858, the Pinery (a horse-changing station), was constructed near Pine Springs for the Butterfield Overland Mail. To protect their investments, the stage line and settlers in the area demanded protection from the military. Several cavalry troops, including the Buffalo Soldiers, were intermittently ordered in and out of the area to halt Indian raids and secure settlements along the stage route. In the winter of 1869, troops lead by Lt. H.B. Cushing penetrated the Guadalupes and destroyed two primary Apache camps. These aggressive actions were devastating to the Mescaleros who were already facing food shortages within their increasingly limited land base. They were eventually driven out of the Guadalupes, and by the late 1800’s, nearly all of the surviving Mescalero Apaches in the U.S. were living on reservations.

Permanent settlements in the Guadalupes were not common though, even after the final displacement of the Mescaleros. The Butterfield stage route through the Guadalupes was abandoned in less than a year for a more favorable course along a string of army forts to the south. Most settlers found the range (and its limited water sources) too rugged and inhospitable. Historical evidence shows that one of the first settlers who stayed was Felix McKittrick who worked cattle in the area in the 1870’s. McKittrick Canyon is thought to be named after him. The first permanent ranch house was constructed in 1876 by the Rader brothers. Now called Frijole Ranch, it served as residence for several families through the years. And, as the only major building complex in the region (for several decades), it served as a community center and regional post office from 1916-1942. Today, the Frijole Ranch House has been restored and operates as a cultural museum. In 1908 another ranch site was built in the Guadalupes below the western escarpment. Later, it became known as Williams Ranch after one of its inhabitants, James Adolphus Williams. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Judge J.C. Hunter from Van Horn, Texas consolidated most of the smaller ranches in the area into a large-scale operation called the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch. In order to sustain livestock, primarily sheep and goats, Hunter established a complex pumping system to send water into the highcountry. Concerned for the preservation of fragile habitats, such as the riparian canyons, he concentrated grazing in the northern part of his ranch. He also introduced elk into these mountains.

Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become reality until Wallace Pratt became involved. A geologist for the then tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon); Pratt was one of the early explorers of oil in the Permian Basin. In 1921, he was captivated by the geology and beauty of McKittrick Canyon and shortly after began buying land in the canyon. He built two separate homes in the canyon, the Pratt Cabin, located at the confluence of north and south McKittrick canyons, and Ship-On-The-Desert located on higher ground near the mouth of the canyon. Both of these locales were used as summer homes by Pratt and his family up until 1960. Shortly after, his generous contribution of nearly 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon became the nucleus for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Another 80,000 acres, owned by J.C. Hunter Jr., was purchased by the government to complete the parcel. Congress passed the necessary legislation in 1966, and by 1970 the land transfer was complete. In September, 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park was dedicated and formally opened to the public.

Frijole Ranch

The Frijole Ranch - Pioneer Legacy of the Guadalupes

Artifacts reveal that the Frijole area has been a popular place of settlement for many centuries. This is not surprising when one considers that Pine, Juniper, Smith, Manzanita, and Frijole springs are all within a 2 mile radius of the Frijole Ranch History Museum. Mescal pits, petroglyphs, and artifacts discovered in nearby caves reflect early Native American occupation and dependency on the essential water, vegetation, cover, and game found in the vicinity.

The first substantial, permanent structure at the site was built by the Rader brothers in 1876. These two bachelor brothers operated a small cattle ranch out of their sturdy rock home, which consisted only of the present front or south-facing living and dining rooms of the structure. The house was constructed 40 feet from Frijole Spring. It had double walls of native stone with a filler of mud between; interior walls were also plastered with mud. While the brothers were the first permanent settlers on this side of the mountain range, it appears they never filed a deed on the cattle ranch. They moved on by the late 1800s after which the Herring family took up ranching in the area.

At the end of the Civil War, Major Calvin Herring moved his family from North Carolina westward into Texas where they ended up at the foot of Guadalupe Peak in what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It was here that Major Herring's daughter, Ida Herring, married George W. Wolcott in 1888. Wolcott family records indicate that the couple's first home had two rooms, one of which was a dugout, and that this was the early structure at the Frijole Ranch site. Wolcott and his wife remained until 1895. George W. Wolcott then took his family to the Midland, Texas area where he went on to become a prominent rancher.

In 1906, John Thomas Smith filed on the Frijole site as vacant land, referring to the house and property as the "Spring Hill Ranch" until 1912. Mr. Smith had moved from Wisconsin to Texas, where he married Nella May Carr in 1889, in Sherman, Texas. They were married for 63 years and had ten children. The Smiths made a living by truck farming and had a 15-acre orchard and garden east and north of the house. Over the years, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, pears, figs, pecans, blackberries, strawberries, currants, and some corn were grown; the springs providing more than adequate water for at least two plots. Periodically, the Smiths would load up their wagons in the evening, covering the fresh produce with wet paper and linen. They would then travel for two days to Van Horn (65 miles south) where they would sell the fruits of their labor. They also raised cattle, horses, pigs, and chickens.

The Smith family greatly expanded the Frijole Ranch House in the 1920s. A rear kitchen and two bedrooms were added, as well as a second story and dormers . A gable roof with wood shakes eventually covered the house. The building in the northeast corner of the lot was first erected as a bunkhouse for hired help, but was later used as a guest house. Like the original home, that structure and the double toilet (a luxury) were constructed of stone masonry with shed roofs. A spring-house of wood and stone was also built for water protection and storage. The areas first hydraulic "Ram Jet Pump" was installed to pump water up the tower located in the front yard to a storage tank for domestic use. Because of its location and cool interior, the small stone building south of the spring-house was first used to store fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and other perishables. Later, with the availability of electricity, a more sophisticated pump system was installed there. A barn and hay loft was also a necessity.

The red schoolhouse was built with vertical wood siding and a low pitched roof covered with corrugated tin. Up to eight children from the Smith family and local ranches once attended school there. The Smiths provided room, board, and a horse, in addition to a $30.00 per month salary for the teacher. Later, the schoolhouse served as a storage shed and bunkhouse.

Frijole Ranch House has seen many changes in lighting since its construction in 1876. Originally lit with tallow candles and kerosene lanterns, the Smiths installed a carbide lamp system, which produced acetylene gas that was piped through the house. This advance was followed by battery-powered lights charged with a wind generator. Today, of course, the house is lit with electricity, perhaps waiting for yet another technological advance.

As the only major building complex in the region for several decades, Frijole Ranch served as a community center for dances and other social gatherings, as well as the regions official post office, from 1916 to 1942. Although not built until 1950, the present barn complements the other buildings and is of wood frame construction. Today park livestock use the barn. A stone masonry wall encloses most of the Frijole complex.

In 1942, after 36 years, John Smith sold the Frijole Ranch house and associated property to Judge J.C. Hunter for the price of $55,000. He then moved with his family to Hawley, Texas, near Abilene.

Jesse Coleman (J.C.) Hunter first moved to Van Horn, Texas in 1911, to serve as Superintendent of Schools. J.C. Hunter also served as Director and Vice President of the Van Horn State Bank, was a Culberson County Judge and Treasurer, was successful in the oil and gas business, and he was a rancher. J.C. Hunter began buying land in the Guadalupe Mountains in 1923 and by the 1940s he owned 43,000 acres, including John Smith's Frijole Ranch. His "Guadalupe Mountains Ranch" concentrated on raising Angora goats, sheep, cattle, and horses. At one time, 22 tons of mohair wool were produced annually by 4000 Angora goats. The mountain high country was used as summer range for livestock; water pumped from lowland springs by pipeline to metal storage tanks on top was crucial to its survival. The Frijole Ranch house served as ranch headquarters for J.C. Hunter's foreman, Noel Kincaid and his family from 1942 to 1969.

Hunter was an early conservationist and initiated the first attempts to make the region a park in 1925. The idea failed to gain momentum and was dropped. Because Hunter continued to hope for a park in the future, he permitted only limited hunting on the ranch and allowed no grazing in McKittrick Canyon. Under his stewardship, elk, turkey, and rainbow trout were returned, or introduced, to the Guadalupe Mountains ecosystem.

In 1945, J.C. Hunter's son, J.C. Hunter, Junior, inherited the ranch. Although mayor of Abilene and a successful oil man, Mr. Hunter took an active interest in his lands in the Guadalupe Mountains. By 1965 he had purchased additional lands and the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch totaled 67,312 acres. In 1966, he fulfilled his father's dream and sold the ranch to the National Park Service, at the bargain price of $1.5 million, or about $22 per acre.

From 1969 to 1980, the ranch house served as a ranger residence. During the next three years, rehabilitation and renovation of the Frijole Ranch buildings was completed by the National Park Service. Park staff used the ranch house as an operations office from 1983 until 1991. In 1992, the Frijole Ranch House was again renovated and finally opened to the public as a history museum.

Today's Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum is on the National Register of Historic Sites. The National Park Service will continue to preserve Frijole Ranch so that future generations may come to appreciate our diverse heritage.

Buffalo Soldiers

A Clash of Cultures

As settlers, cattle drivers, and stage lines began to invade and claim lands in West Texas, the Mescalero Apaches tried to defend their lands by raiding and attacking stages and settlements. In response, the Federal Government ordered thousands of soldiers and cavalrymen to the west to establish forts that would protect travelers and settlers from the threat of Indian attacks.

Buffalo Soldiers

At the conclusion of the Civil War, many African American soldiers who remained in the U.S. Army were organized into segregated units. These units, commanded by white officers, consistently received some of the worst duties that the Army had to offer. Several of these units, including the 9th and 10th cavalry, were put into service to control Indian hostilities on the Great Plains. It is ironic that these black soldiers, who had just recently gained their own freedom, were now ordered to take freedom away from a group of people who had known it all their lives.

The Cheyenne Indians called these black regiments "Buffalo Soldiers" because of their dark skin, curly hair, and fierce fighting spirit. These soldiers were subjected to unimaginable hardships as well as never-ending prejudice. Over the twenty or so years that they waged war on the Indians in the west, the Buffalo Soldiers made many forays into the Guadalupe Mountains. Military patrols in these rugged mountains were long and arduous with a limited amount of food and water available. Aside from fighting with the Mescaleros, the Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for exploring and mapping much of this little known region. These courageous men played an important role in bringing about the settlement of the American West.