A brief overview of Big Bend History
Big Bend History
Tracks across the centuries trail back thousands of years when the first Native Americans arrived in the Big Bend. Many different groups ebbed and flowed across the area, taking their living from native plants and animals found here. The oldest archeological site in Big Bend National Park is 8,800 years old.
The Big Bend Archeological Society
The hunter/gatherer lifestyle of those early peoples was interrupted in the 1500s when the first Europeans arrived – the Spanish. Shortly thereafter, the Mescalero Apache and the Comanche arrived in the Big Bend. Even though Spain claimed the Big Bend for 300 years, the Spanish never settled it. Nor did Mexico, which, after becoming independent from Spain, laid claim to these regions for another 50 years. Both the Spanish and Mexicans called the area El Despoblado (the uninhabited land). To them it was, because until well after they had given up their claim to the territory, the Mescalero and the Comanche controlled it.
After the Civil War, military posts were established, and mounted cavalry, mostly Buffalo Soldiers (Black troops), drove the Apache and Comanche to reservations in other areas.
In the 1880’s ranches sprang up and operated until the mid part of the 20th century. Much of the land that was ranched privately is now in either Big Bend National Park, or Big Bend Ranch State Park.
In the 1890’s, silver was found in nearby northern Mexico, and shortly thereafter, cinnabar was found throughout the Big Bend. A mining boom, which lasted about 20 years, occurred around the turn of the century. Other elements were taken, but the main production was of mercury which is refined from cinnabar.
In 1910, the Mexican Revolution broke out, and for more than ten years, the Big Bend became a danger zone. There were raids, pitched battles, and massacres on both sides of the Rio Grande. Due to strained relations between the countries, the United States and Mexico almost went to war. People like Pancho Villa, and General Pershing were major players in that chapter of the area’s history.
In 1944, a ten year effort by area citizens to establish a major park was culminated when Big Bend National Park was dedicated. At first, it was a remote park with no paved roads, virtually unknown to the general public, and South Brewster County around the park was scarcely inhabited. Only a few remote ranches dotted the landscape; Terlingua was a ghost town; Lajitas just a trading post.
In the sixties, the modern age of tourism began. By that time, the area was becoming known as a destination for adventure travelers, rafters, hikers, students of natural history, birders. River companies had been established, the first championship chili cookoff was held, and the Big Bend assumed a new identity.
In 1978, Lajitas Resort was built. Today, Lajitas prospers on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande.
Terlingua Ghost Town is the home of a river company, trading company and a restaurant. Study Butte at the confluence of highways 118 and 170 has motels, restaurants, a bank, a post office, and a service station. In the national park, concessionaires offer lodging, food, and necessary services.
Since those first hunters crossed the desert regions of the Big Bend, the area has changed in many ways. Not only geographically but culturally. What was a harsh land to some, uninhabitable to others, has become a place where hundred mile viewscapes and technicolor sunsets offer solitude and reflection to some, adventure travel and nature study to others.
See our listings for information on accommodations, restaurants and services.
The archaeology and history of the Big Bend are intertwined – one extends the other. The movement of peoples, trade patterns, changes in climates, the arrival of the Apache, the Comanche, and the Spanish changed the course of history for the first residents of the area. The only record we have of the earliest of cultures we learn about and document through archaeological excavation and field study. Hearth sites and rock art are all that remain.
Time frames for the study of archeology and history:
Paleo Indian Period 10000 – 6000 BC
Hunter gatherers, small groups, nomadic, hunted mostly big game and some small. Spear most important weapon. Learned to herd buffalo over cliffs or trap them.
Archaic Period 6000 BC – AD 900
Depended more on small game and plants, because some big game – mammoths etc., – were extinct. Different type dart points than paleo Indian. Used grinding tools – metate, mano, bedrock mortars. Pit ovens common to bake plant roots, sotol, lechugilla. Ovens survive today as burned rock middens.
Late Prehistoric Period AD 900 – 1500
Introduction of Agriculture to some village settlements. New tools – bow appeared in Big Bend about 1000 AD. Prior to that, adle-adle and spear used. Pottery and arrow points are indicators of late prehistoric period. Some villages grew up, but many groups continued a nomadic lifestyle.
Historic Period AD 1500 – Present
The historic period began with the arrival of the Spanish. The introduction of guns and horses, the competition of land and the introduction of new diseases forever altered the lives of native Texas Indian groups.