Exploring the Past in Trans-Pecos Texas

Trans-Pecos Texas is located in the north-central portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the highest North American deserts in terms of both maximum and mean elevation above sea level. The region lies along the eastern edge of the Basin and Range province, a physiographically variable land mass characterized by low desert mountains interspersed with lower and drier intermontane basins that extends across the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

With an elevation range from less than 2,000 ft. above sea level in the eastern Big Bend to as high as 8,750 feet in the northern Guadalupe Mountains, it is a region of dramatic topographic relief characterized by rugged mountains, plateau grasslands, volcanic outcrops, massive limestone canyons, deep alluvial valleys, flat-topped mesas, undulating dune fields, and seemingly interminable salt flats.

Euro-American explorations during the 16th through 19th centuries record the hardships suffered by all who sought to chart or settle the despoblado, a term applied to this area of the Chihuahuan Desert by the commanders of Spanish frontier outposts.

Lt. Edward L. Hartz, a participant in the Big Bend camel experiment of the 1850s, summed up the feelings of the explorers who came before and after him with the ominous observation that " a rougher, more rocky, more mountainous, and rugged country, can scarcely be imagined." Hartz's thoughts were apparently seconded by the 19th century adventurer Jules Leclercq, who declared that "each plant in this land is a porcupine, it is nature armed to the teeth", and by M. T.W. Chandler, a participant in the 1850s U.S.-Mexico boundary survey, who discovered that "what in the distance seemed to be a smooth and open country was really rough and broken, being cut up with deep arroyos." But such harse descriptions by early, frustrated travelers are also replete with accounts of the overwhelming beauty and magnificence of the land they were traversing.

Traveling the byways of Trans-Pecos Texas can be a fascinating experience. The spectacular desert mountain scenery is reason enough to be here, but the region has much more than scenery to offer. It is a land steeped in human history as well-a human presence that began more than 12,000 years ago.

The history of humanity in the Trans-Pecos is fraught with the trials and tribulations of existence in an ever-changing environment, for what one sees today is not necessarily what people set eyes on 12,000 or 6,000 or even 500 years ago. Yes, the mountains, canyons, and basins-all formed millions of years ago in geologic time-were indeed here, but the vegetation and animal life blanketing those landforms might have been quite different, depending upon that particular moment in time when one gazed out across the landscape.

The story of humanity in the Trans-Pecos, like that of most places throughout the world, is linked intimately to very successful hunting and gathering lifeways that persisted for thousands of years prior to the introduction of agriculture. Unlike many places around the globe, however, the introduction of agriculture from the Southwest into the Trans-Pecos sometime around the advent of the first millennium A.D. appears to have had only minimal impact on the lifeways of nomadic hunters and gatherers across much of this region. Simply stated, for most of its human history the Trans-Pecos was the domain of small nomadic bands of people, both peaceful and warlike, that moved frequently from area to area seeking wild plants and animals for their survival.

The first in this long succession of some 800 generations of hunters and gatherers were the earliest Paleoindians-specifically Clovis mammoth hunters (9,000-9,500 B.C.) whose open camps were sometimes situated along the edges of marshy wetland areas and pluvial lakes in what are now dry, creosote studded basins of the Trans-Pecos.

These eroded relict lake-beds can still be seen today in areas such as Lobo Valley near Van Horn and in the Toyah Basin, suggesting that the Clovis hunters experienced a much different Trans-Pecos from the one we see today. There was more effective moisture and much more surface water, with innumerable large springs, flowing creeks, and marsh-like areas.

Today's low-elevated, dry basins probably were savanna-like, and probably had populations of pine as well as oak and juniper. By 9,000 B.C. a significant drying trend was operative, helping to accelerate the extinction of the mammoth and other big Ice Age animals in North America.

Along with the mammoth, Clovis culture became extinct and was replaced by Folsom (8,000-9,000 B.C.) hunters whose prey included large bison that were ancestral to the smaller, modern buffalo. Folsom peoples also established their campsites around the edges of basin lake-beds that were by now slowly drying up.

Evidence of their passing has also been discovered at the edges of high-elevation grasslands in the central Trans-Pecos, and among sand sheets in the western and more northerly portions of the region. The early Paleoindians hunted on foot, used thrusting spears and atlatls as their principal weaponry, and had very distinctive and sophisticated stone tool industries.

If one comes forward in time a few thousand years, to about 4,000 B.C., one would find the character of the Trans-Pecos changed substantively.

The overall drying trend begun during much earlier Clovis and Folsom times had persisted and even accelerated. Basin lakes had been long extinguished, pine trees and other conifers had retreated from the basins and moved up the mountain slopes, and the plateau grasslands, foothills and basins now had admixtures of desert succulents such as sotol, lechuguilla, and yucca that had slowly expanded their ranges with increasing aridity.

By this time, the Trans-Pecos may have been caught up in a 3,000 year long, severe drying trend called the Altithermal-a period of environmental desiccation so persistent that large areas of the Texas Panhandle to the north were abandoned by human populations.

While not abandoned during this time, archeological evidence suggests that Trans-Pecos hunters and gatherers had become more territorial and restricted in their movements, and had begun to place much more emphasis on wild plant collecting in the course of their daily rounds. A wider and morphologically different range of stone tools were made and carried than in earlier Paleoindian times, and there is strong evidence of the use of desert succulents both as staple foods and as the source of raw materials for a wide range of implements and goods.

By 2,000 B.C. the Altithermal may have moderated, although the overall trend towards a slow drying continued. A territorial hunting and gathering lifeway was deeply entrenched among Trans-Pecos inhabitants, and pit ovens were used commonly in the processing of desert succulents for food.

The primary weapon was still the atlatl, while deer and small mammals were common food animals. Rockshelters were highly sought after for habitation, and springs and tinajas (natural water-bearing potholes in bedrock) figured importantly in patterns of human movement and subsistence.

Outlets for artistic expression and symbolic meaning were found in rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs), which is found in rockshelters, in boulder falls, and on canyon walls throughout the Trans-Pecos region. A very distinctive shamanistic form of rock art had become highly developed in the lower Pecos River area by this time.

Around 500 B.C. the Trans-Pecos is believed to have experienced a brief but significant period (about 200-300 years) of increased moisture accompanied by the entry of substantive herds of bison into the region from the southern Plains.

Following the herds were bison hunters from the Plains and Central Texas. The mechanisms of social interaction between indigenous inhabitants and the migrating bison hunters remains unknown, but it was during this period that a major bison drive took place on the lower Pecos River in which several hundred bison were driven over a cliff and butchered in the rockshelter below (Bonfire Shelter).

The period from about 100 - 1,000 A.D. saw the introduction into the Trans-Pecos of significant technological and subsistence innovations. These included the bow-and- arrow, pottery, and agriculture. All were probably introduced into the Southwestern U.S. from cultures in Mexico, and into the Trans-Pecos from the Southwest.

The bow-and- arrow, which was a more effective weapon than the atlatl, quickly replaced the atlatl throughout the Trans-Pecos region. With respect to agriculture, some evidence of the use of cultigens such as corn and squash exists from as early as 2,000 B.C. in the Southwest, and it now appears likely that a form of incipient agriculture, accompanied by the use of ceramic technologies and pithouses, were present in the western Trans-Pecos (El Paso area) by 100-300 A.D., if not earlier.

However, knowledge of agriculture and ceramics seems to have had very little impact upon the deeply entrenched, yet diversified hunting and gathering lifeways of the majority of Trans-Pecos peoples. A basic nomadic existence was maintained throughout the remainder of the prehistoric and historic periods in the central and eastern portions of the region.

Between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D., attendant to a wetter climatic regime, there appears to have been a currently inexplicable increase in populations of the region, and there is increasing evidence of developing belief systems that were based in shamanism and mountain ritualism, and that were communicated in part in rock art and mortuary practices.

The inventory of tool types seems to have expanded once again, and there is evidence for the use of long nets being used in rabbit drives. Deer remained a staple food source, and by 800 A.D. desert succulents were being baked in rock-lined pit ovens, possibly in response to a re- entrenchment of dry climatic conditions. Rockshelters were preferred for habitation and archeological evidence reveals a wide range of material goods, including basketry, matting, sandals, fending sticks, snares, prepared grass bedding, digging sticks, tanned animal hides, shell and stone jewelry, and the use of many other items. There is some evidence for the development of extensive trade networks during this period as well.

In contrast to the eastern and central Trans-Pecos, in the El Paso area the advent of agriculture had major ramifications on human lifeways. Puebloan (Jornada Mogollon) agricultural villages accompanied by rapid population increase were present by 1,000 A.D., and by 1,200 A.D. Puebloan populations and/or influence had spread down the Rio Grande to the Presidio area in the Big Bend and for a distance up the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua. By 1,000 A.D. vegetation patterns established across the region were, with few exceptions, roughly the same as exists today, although grasslands probably occupied basin areas that are today replete with creosote (due to overgrazing in later historic times).

In the area of Presidio, Texas, known historically as La Junta de los Rios, semi-sedentary villages consisting initially of pithouses and later of surface pueblos were established immediately along the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos, where they flourished from 1,200- 1,450 A.D.

Nomadic Indians lived in simple stone-based wickiups in the hills and mountains surrounding the riverine agricultural villages and traded with their inhabitants. Remarkably, the lifeways of the nomadic hunters and gatherers whose ranges bordered on the agricultural settlements of the river in La Junta seem to have been only superficially influenced by the agriculturalists.

There currently is no evidence to support anything other than ephemeral attempts at horticulture on the part of the interior nomadic groups. While they were quick to adopt the use of the bow-and-arrow, most nomadic peoples of the Trans-Pecos largely rejected ceramics and agricultural innovations. By 1450 A.D., for reasons only poorly understood, most of the agricultural villages along the Rio Grande were abandoned. The deeply entrenched hunting and gathering lifeway, however, was still alive and well, and was continued up to and after the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century A.D.

The advent of the historic period in Trans-Pecos Texas was heralded with the arrival at La Junta de los Rios of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions in 1535. Although the Trans- Pecos was largely skirted by the Coronado expedition of 1541, a number of later Spanish expeditions, such as that of Antonio de Espejo (1583) regularly included La Junta and the Big Bend in their itinerary.

For over 200 years the Spanish were in a state of almost constant conflict with indigenous, nomadic Indians of the region such as the Jumano, Tobosos, Chisos, and Suma, as well as later nomadic migrants such as the Apache and Comanche. Efforts of the Spanish to Christianize the Indians of La Junta and the El Paso area proved largely futile, and presidios were too few and far between to provide needed protection for the early settlements.

The arrival of Mescalero and Lipan Apaches in the Trans-Pecos between 1600 and 1700 A.D., followed by the Comanches around 1700 A.D., further exacerbated already troubled relations between the Spaniards and Indians. Although many of the Indian groups were slowly assimilated into Spanish and later Mexican culture, the by-now established tradition of hostility was passed by the Spaniards to the Mexicans in the first half of the 19th century, and by the Mexicans to the Americans in the mid-19th century.

It wasn't until 1880, with the death of the great Apache war chief Victorio at Tres Castillos in Chihuahua, that peace finally reigned supreme in the Trans-Pecos borderlands. In essence, the Apaches represented the closing episode of a persistent hunting-gathering continuum begun 12,000 years earlier by Clovis hunters.

It is this combination of remarkable environment and human history-a cultural melting pot amid breathtaking scenery-that makes the Trans-Pecos a favored travel destination of the modern nomad.

— by Robert J. Mallouf (From West Texas Traveler Magazine, Monahans News, Spring/Summer 2000.)