Published April 15, 2019 in the San Antonio Express News, story by John MacCormack
For the urban tourists bound from Marfa to the Chinati Hot Springs, the desert canyon is mute as to the human dramas that played out here over the last century.
Tucked into a remote corner of the Big Bend, Pinto Canyon is a bleak and almost forgotten place, albeit one with a rich and colorful history.
Its story is now eloquently told by archeologist David Keller’s “In the Shadow of the Chinatis,” a deeply researched historical and cultural narrative that was a decade in the works.
For any serious student of the Big Bend, this book is a treasure.
It opens with the geological birthing of Pinto Canyon 33 million years ago with a volcanic eruption that left 6,000 square miles covered in ash. It also created the spectacular landscape so admired today.
The modern human chapter began late in the 19th century when Mexican immigrants Jose Prieto and his teenage wife Juanita Barrera became the first to settle in the canyon.
Keller serves the reader well by using Jose Prieto as the book’s main character, mining a rich trove of family records, photos and anecdotes to tell the tale.
The author also acquaints the reader with other pioneering canyon families, who, because of the isolation, were sometimes much closer than neighbors.
Over more than seven decades in the canyon, the Prietos, who had nine children, amassed significant acreage while raising sheep and goats on the rocky pastures.
Tragedy also came their way with the murders of two sons, one by a local Texas lawman, another in Mexico in an ambush.
Resourceful and determined, the Prietos survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and the seven-year drought of the 1950s that forced other pioneers to leave.
Jose lived to 96, and his death in 1963 came just a few years before conflicts among his children led to the sale of much of their family land.
Keller paints canyon life with a broad and colorful brush, including sheep shearing crews, candelilla wax mills, bootleg sotol distilleries and Apache Adams, who single-handedly wrangled wild bulls out of the thorny brush.
He also explores the larger political and social dynamics of the milieu, when Anglos were dominant and wiley Mexican rebels such as Chico Cano led the U.S. Cavalry on many a wild chase.
But canyon life also led to a rare intimacy between Mexicans and Americans who lived and worked together. Sometimes things got a bit confusing, such as when the federal agents arrived at the Shely Ranch looking for undocumented Mexican workers.
“On rare occasions when the Border Patrol showed up and the (Serrano) men scattered, the (Shely) kids scattered with them, sensing the urgency if not fully understanding the reason for their flight,” Keller writes.
During the Great Depression, he notes, holdup men were such a menace in West Texas that the reward signs posted by Big Bend banks offered hard cash for “dead bank robbers, not one cent for live ones.”
Overgrazing, drought, predators and a slump in wool and mohair prices eventually made it impossible for canyon ranchers to survive.
The last to leave were the Shelys, who in 1982 sold out to a rich Houstonian who wanted the land for hunting. One of his first acts was to bulldoze roads through the fragile desert.
Most of the canyon and surrounding Chinati high peaks are now in the hands of preservation-minded owners, including the state of Texas, leaving it much as Jose and Juanita Prieto found it a more than a century ago.
With Keller’s book, the long-silent rocks and ruins of Pinto Canyon have finally been given voice.