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Essays

Wild On The Prairie: People

Indians and Hispanics
March 3, 2002


For hundreds of years before Lum Medlin started living in a dugout near Mustang Springs, Hispanic adventurers visited the southern Llano Estacado. History books mention the most important explorers – “important” meaning the first to arrive, or ones that had horrible travails -- but history books rarely mention common folk and how they survived day-by-day. We should all know the history of our bioregional homeland. If we don't, are we truly at home? And if we aren't truly at home, how can we claim the intricate emotions of patriotism?

The actions of humans often affect the landscape. The buffalo prairie was partially maintained by the Native Americans’ burning of grass to provide fresh new growth for the buffalo to graze. Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Here in Midland County, the bones of Llana (I call her that in honor of our homeland -- instead of the ridiculous appellation “Midland Minnie”) date from 9,000 years ago, and locally-found Clovis artifacts date to 12,000 years ago.

The Jumanos were using this area when the Spanish arrived. These "rayados” (they had lines that looked like rays painted on their faces) had pueblos near modern day Presidio, and as far north as Gran Quivara in New Mexico. They invited Spanish priests to visit them at their buffalo hunting camps along the Concho and Colorado rivers, and at the trade fairs with the Hasanai (or Caddoans) along the eastern edge of the Llano. A wonderful magical tale of this relationship, "The Blue Nun,” is still told in Hispanic households descended from the Jumanos. The Jumanos helped in dispersing the horse to other Native American tribes, and as the horses escaped from both Spanish and Indian herds, “wild” horses could be found in many of the watered and timbered draws. Over time, the horses would overgraze the areas nearest their watering holes.

Apaches had begun to make serious incursions into the southwest just as the Spanish arrived. From the late 1500's until 1720's the "Pharones” and other Apachean groups were mentioned in Spanish reports. The Jumanos made a number of treaties with the Spanish in hopes of defending themselves against the Apaches. The word Apache comes from the Zuni word for “enemy” and was not commonly used until the 1700s.

In the 1720s, Comanches arrived on the scene with guns and other "modern” implements supplied by French traders. According to several sources, a nine-day battle between the Comanche and Apache occurred near present-day Wichita Falls. Afterward, the Lipan Apaches moved to the San Antonio area and sought the protection of the Spanish Army. Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches moved into the mountains of New Mexico. Comanches controlled the Llano Estacado until 1874, when Colonel Randall MacKenzie hunted down the Quahadi band in the big canyons of the northern Llano Estacado.

There are wonderful stories of the use of the Llano before settlement. For example, imagine leaving the city of Chihuahua in August on a wagon train, slowly heading northeast, crossing the Rio Bravo at modern day Ojinaga, trailing further northeast to Horsehead Crossing, and stopping at Juan Cordona Lake to collect salt. After the salt collection the ciboleros continued on to the springs of the southern Llano Estacado, where they hunted buffalo from horseback with 12-foot lances, hamstringing los cibolos, and returning to finish them off. The meat was dried and salted, rolled into medicine ball sized spheres, and covered with tallow. When the wagons were full of meat and hides, the ciboleros returned to Chihuahua, often not reaching home until the first of November. These yearly trips began in the mid-1600s. According to buffalo hunter Frank Collinson's memoir, the cibolero visits lasted until 1881.

J. Frank Dobie wrote of the mostenas in his wonderful book "The Mustangs.” He places them near the Llano Estacado in the mid- to late-1800s, coming north from places like Musquiz and other areas south of Del Rio and Laredo. Since this was the refuge of Lipan Apaches, I have wondered if the mostenas came after listening to some of Magoosh's tales.
A family would leave their home driving a wagon and trailing three or four horses. Upon discovering a band of wild horses, the mostenas would go to work. These teen-aged girls would walk their ponies after the mustangs, taking turns, following them day and night, never letting the mustangs sleep, eat, or drink. As the wild horses tired, the rest of the family would round them up. Finally only the stallion would be left, and the mostena with the best riding skills would take over. She would approach the stallion at breakneck speed, forcing it to run, and when it tired enough for her horse to come along side, she would leap onto the stallion and ride it until it could run no more.

Dime novels introduced the stereotypic drunken and bestial Comanchero, and films perpetuated the racist denigration of los pastores of northern New Mexico. Hispanic sheepherders have lived in the Pecos River Valley for 400 years. Puebloan Indians traded with Plains Indians for millennia, and los pastores learned to do so in their company. For several months every year beginning in the early 1600s, sheepherders turned traders would head out to the plains to do business. Much of this economic activity happened in the northern Llano Estacado, but a place like Big Spring had its moments as well. Comancheros would pay ransom for captives the Comanches had enslaved. This was perceived by Anglos as being "trade in human flesh” and thereby deemed evil, which led to the evil caricature Hollywood promulgated.

Cross-cultural exchange between Native American and Mexican citizens also occurred when Comanches raided Mexican villages and took captives. As would happen with Anglo captives in later years, a number of the captives decided they preferred the Comanche lifestyle. After becoming accepted into the tribe, some would visit their homes in Mexico, but return to the Comanche way of life. One source from the 1950s reports that when the Comanches were herded onto the reservation, up to a fifth of their population had at least one Hispanic ancestor.

The human history of our homeland enriches our knowledge of our landscape. When we can point to a hill and say, "that is where Lone Wolf retrieved his son's body,” or sit at the edge of a playa and say, "this is where Juan Tafoya rescued the daughter of los ricos from Belen,” or say, "this is where the famous buffalo soldier Pompey Factor won his Medal of Honor,” then we truly become patriots with a soul rooted deep.

Sibley Nature Center
1307 E. Wadley, Midland, Texas 79705
phone 432.684.6827
email info@sibleynaturecenter.org