Historic River Crossing in West Texas is Filled With Death

Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

As state historical sites go, few can rival this remote muddy ford on the Pecos River for rank obscurity.

Until recently, only a bullet-pocked, vandalized state historical marker, erected in 1936, miles off the paved road, gave any hint of the wrenching frontier dramas that once played out here, 30 miles northeast of Fort Stockton.

As the marker inscription notes, the crossing got its odd name from the bleached animal skulls found hanging from bushes by a government surveyor in 1850.

Back then, when it was one of the few safe crossings along the treacherous, high-banked Pecos River, this was an action-packed and perilous place, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Comanche war parties returning from Mexico with stolen horses crossed here, as did immigrants and adventurers drawn by the California goldfields, as well as pioneering cattle drovers, including Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, pushing their leggy longhorns through to northern markets.

From 1858 to 1861, the Butterfield Overland Mail stage also stopped here on its daring 2,700-mile run between St. Louis and San Francisco.

An intrepid reporter on the first westward stage shared the grim observations made along the 75-mile waterless stretch coming to the Pecos from the east.

"Far as the eye could reach along the plain, decayed and decaying animals, the bones of cattle and sometimes of men, all told a fearful story of anguish and terrific death from the pangs of thirst," wrote Waterman L. Ormsby, who also noted the abundance of prairie dogs and antelope.

And while its importance began to fade 150 years ago, out here on the barren mesquite and greasewood flats, Horse Head Crossing has never been forgotten.

Some, in fact, rank it with the state's most important historical sites.

"I think Horse Head Crossing is the second most iconic landmark in Texas, second to the Alamo, because so much history went through there, and also Larry McMurtry based his novel (`Lonesome Dove') on that cattle drive," said Kirby Warnock, 68, secretary of the Pecos County Historical Commission.

"Only some of us who live out here in Pecos County know about it. It's out there in the middle of nowhere on a dead end road on the Pecos River," added Warnock, who recalls visiting the famous crossing as a child with his father.

Warnock still marvels at the guts and determination required of Goodnight, Loving and their drovers on their first cattle drive, trying to reach water at Horse Head Crossing.

"It was a death march. Either they got to water in so much time, or the cattle died. They were in the saddle 30 hours. And when they got near the crossing, the cattle stampeded, and they lost a bunch of them," he said.

On the last weekend in October, the tranquil old crossing sprang vibrantly to life, as hundreds of folks, including western artists, historians and local cowmen, gathered to celebrate and retell its colorful history.

For two days, the Dutch ovens glowed and wood smoke billowed, the bugles blared and fiery cannons lit the night, and in the evening, guitarists played cowboy songs.

Among the tunes heard was "The Ballad of Pecos Bill," who was Texas's most famous fictional cowboy. As the story goes, young Billy fell out of the family wagon while crossing the Pecos and was raised by coyotes. The lyrics describe him as "the roughest, toughest critter, never known to be a quitter."

At serving time, the campfire grub ran to biscuits, tin pot coffee, beef stew and chili, with plenty of beans.

Diners ate standing up, from plates set on heavy pine planks laid between metal barrels.

There were scholarly presentations and performances by historical re-enactors dressed in frontier garb.

"We're here to preserve our history. Look at all the statues and monuments being torn down. And they want to change the name of Sul Ross (University). They've lost their flippin' minds," said Robin Adams, 56, of South Brewster County, seated at a campfire near a 120-year-old chuck wagon.

Robert Schmitt, 80, of Alpine brought his step-granddaughter Zoey, 9, for a close look at the once fearsome Pecos that flooded a mile wide before it was dammed. It now resembles a meek and muddy irrigation ditch.

"I just started reading Zane Grey's `West of the Pecos,' and this locale is mentioned numerous times. They run cattle up the river through here," he said.

"I feel connected to the land and the history of this area. And as I age, all that stuff seems to mean more to me."

While the two-day event was officially sponsored by historical groups in four area counties, the main driver was Ernest Woodward, 67, a prominent local rancher who owns the west bank at the crossing. He also is president of the Pecos County Historical Commission.

And when Woodward put out the call, people came from as far as Louisiana and California.

"Everyone knows Ernest and that's why all these people showed up, because he asked," said Tom Lindsey, 65, a local rancher.

Woodward has long been fascinated with the history and secrets of Horse Head Crossing.

A few years ago, he held a celebration for the 150th anniversary of Goodnight and Loving's first cattle drive north. He also was behind the long overdue repairs to the damaged granite historical marker.

Most recently, he has been trying to solve the mysteries of the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coach station that once sat on the east bank, but was long ago erased by floods.

A breakthrough by avocational archaeologist Tom Ashmore, who finally pinpointed the site of the long gone adobe building, was the inspiration for the two-day bash.

"We are specifically identifying the 1858 stage stop, the trails and the swing-around, which to our knowledge, had never been found," Woodward said.

In his presentation, Ashmore, 67, told how he used satellite and drone imagery, as well as an 1867 military map, to find the lost sites and roads.

Amazingly, even 160 years later, the vegetation that grew up on the old roads and building sites remains distinguishable from that of the surrounding countryside, he said.

"For the first year, the stage never crossed the river here, but they got water and changed teams here, and then went upriver to cross.

"After that, they created a ferry crossing at Horse Head Crossing," Ashmore said about the cross-country stage run that ended with the onset of the Civil War in 1861.

After the war, Texas cattlemen had plenty of free-range beef but no capital and few good markets. To get the best prices, some began pushing herds through here for delivery in New Mexico, Colorado and points north.

"In the beginning, the Indians hadn't picked up on it. When they did later, it got real bad. They attacked the cattle drives, but they were mostly after the horses," Ashmore said.

The cattle drives through Horse Head Crossing eventually faded with the completion of rail lines and later, the fencing of the range.

While the Comanche and later the Apache were a menace, the most deadly obstacle to both cattle drovers and travelers was the long dry stretch from the Concho River west to the Pecos.

Decades later, Goodnight still shuddered to recall the suffering of man and beast on his first cattle drive, as they struggled for three waterless days to reach the river. Hundreds of cattle died on the way.

"The Pecos, the graveyard of the cowman's hopes," he would say, adding, "I hated it! It was as treacherous as the Indians themselves," according to his biographer, J. Evetts Haley.

Human travelers suffered just as dreadfully, and in his book "Crossing River Pecos," historian Patrick Dearen recounts some of those experiences.

"Thousands upon thousands of cattle lay dead about the Pecos, while all the road was white with fleshless bones," noted Stephen Powers, an early traveler, who almost died on his trip through here in 1868.

"Many great droves had arrived here before us. Some of the frenzied animals had rushed headlong into the glittering pools of alkali, and quaffed the crystal death, falling where they stood," he added.

Another traveler described the river of rotting carcasses that greeted them at Horse Head Crossing.

"We can see the dead cattle floating down while we are dipping up the water and see them lying on the banks all over. This is all we will have to drink for 87 miles," wrote emigrant Ruth Shackleford in the same year.

Indian attacks at Horse Head Crossing increased as it found favor with cattlemen and travelers.

"During the last year, I am informed that every drove of cattle intended for the (U.S. Army) posts in New Mexico were captured when passing this place," referring to Horse Head Crossing, wrote Edward Hatch, the U.S. Army post commander in Fort Stockton in 1867.

That same year on their third drive north, Loving, Goodnight's partner in the early cattle drives, died of his wounds after being attacked by Comanches.

Disregarding Goodnight's advice to travel only at night, Loving and another cowboy were ambushed near the Pecos while riding ahead of the herd in the daytime.

As of early November, through Woodward's efforts, the gravel road to the crossing has been improved and a large area has been cleared and covered with caliche.

Ranch hand Jesus Espinosa, 85, took a break from singing "El Rancho Grande," with Doug Moreland, a guitar picker from Austin, to share his memories.

"When I was small, I saw all this, and it was very different then, all brush," he said, adding, "It's very beautiful now. My son and I helped to clear it."

Woodward said he intends to donate the crossing property he owns to an appropriate entity so that it can "forever be accessible to the public, and for preservation, research and education."

And, he said, he is not finished delving into its long and colorful past.

"There's enough history out there to fill a whole shelf of unsolved mysteries," he said.

Not the least of them is the unknown fate of Mexican Emperor Maximilian's lost money and gold, which was reportedly stolen in West Texas in 1867 as he tried to sneak it out of the country.

"A lot of it is myth and legend, but there actually was a Maximilian who lost all the money," Woodward said. "And the last place it was known to be was at Castle Gap," a geological feature 12 miles east of Horse Head Crossing.

Copyright Associated Press
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