Early History of Marfa


The story of the Marfa Lights often makes the point that they were seen by early settlers in the 1880's. A particular person, Robert Ellison, is frequently cited. Here is the history of Marfa based on reputable sources.

GET THIS >>>>>John Ernest Gregg, History of Presidio County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1933).

Cecilia Thompson's "History of Marfa and Presidio County" (F 392.P7 T52 1985. Volumn 1, 1533-1900. Volume 2 is from 1901 - 1946).

.Question: Robert Ellison is quoted in Cecilia Thompson's "History of Marfa and Presidio County" (F 392.P7 T52 1985. Volumn 1, 1533-1900. Volume 2 is from 1901 - 1946). but he was about 70 years old in ca 1937 when 'someone' asked him about the lights he saw in 1883. The person that asked him couldn't have been Thompson who published the book in 1985 unless she had heard it from him as a child. This means the sighting info is second-hand to Thompson and she got it from another source who actually asked Ellison about it. Moreover, Thompson says that Ellison wrote his memoirs in 1937 at the age of 70, but that he did not include in them his Marfa Lights account of 1883. This he apparently had told his family, and related this to some interviewer who was again not Thompson. When did Ellison die ?

Dr. Elton Miles may be the missing link in the Ellison Story, or perhaps Lee Plumbley (Ellison's daughter Evelyn b. 1989)

 According to William Syers 'Ghost Stories of Texas (1981)(p. 67) Dr. Elton Miles at Sul Ross has collected much of the written history of the Lights and 'tells of Robert Ellison's encounter. Also 'When experts explained the lights as automobile headlight reflections, a then aging Ellison observed that there were damn few lights, roads or cars in his day. Also, Syers notes that 'To the Lee Plumbleys of Marfa - her father was Pop Ellison,- they mean no harm'

I will try to email Elton Miles on February, 10 2001 to see if I could track down the origin of the Ellison story from him. I looked at the Sul Ross faculty page and Miles is not listed so I emailed the alumni association again to confirm.





Handbook of Texas, Online

Texas State Historical Asociation (www.tsha.utexas.edu)

I searched on the word 'Marfa' and came up with 89 references. Here are the ones of particular interest.

It was established in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway. Reportedly, the wife of a railroad executive suggested the name Marfa from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which she was reading at the time. Marfa is in an area that has been called one of the last American frontiers. It is situated at an altitude of 4,830 feet above sea level in a semiarid region with many dry streambeds that the summer thunderstorms fill and further erode. To the north are the Davis Mountains, to the southeast the Chisos Mountains, and to the southwest the Chinati Mountains.qqv Marfa lies semiprotected within these escarpments on a great highland plain known as the Marfa Plateau. By 1885 Marfa had one or two saloons, a hotel, and a general merchandise store-Humphris and Company. Poker bets in the saloons were often made with deeds to town lots. At the St. George Hotel stayed drummers-traveling salesmen-who came by train, established their headquarters in the hotel, and from Marfa made stagecoach trips to Shafter, Fort Davis, Valentine, and Presidio to show their wares. Humphris and Company's store also contained the bank, the post office (established in 1883), and a restaurant. In 1885 Marfa replaced Fort Davis as the Presidio county seat, and in July of that year the public records were moved from Fort Davis to Marfa. Also in 1885 a three-story Renaissance-revival courthouse was built at Marfa. It cost $60,000, and in the early 1990s it still housed the county offices. In 1885 and 1886 Marfa gained churches, a school, and a newspaper. C. M. Jennings began publishing the New Era, the town's first weekly newspaper, in 1886. Over the years, it changed hands several times until the weekly finally merged with the Big Bend Sentinel under the management of T. E. Childers. In 1900 the population of Marfa was 900. Eventually the town had literary clubs, fraternal organizations, telephone service, and a bank. By 1920 Marfa reported 3,553 residents. Since the southern border of Presidio County was the Rio Grande, during the Mexican Revolutionqv the United States government in 1911 sent cavalry troops to Marfa; it also built canvas hangars there from which biplanes flew reconnaissance missions. The military presence in Marfa and Presidio County was continued and enlarged by the establishment of Camp Albert (later renamed Camp Marfa and then renamed Fort D. A. Russell). These installations were on the southwest edge of town. The Marfa population continued to grow, and in 1930 the town had 3,909 residents. During the 1940s the government stationed the Chemical Warfare Brigades in Marfa and constructed a prisoners of warqv camp nearby. World War IIqv also saw the building of Marfa Army Air Fieldqv ten miles east of Marfa; it was an advanced flight-training base. The military presence boosted Marfa's population to a record high of 5,000 in 1945. Both military installations were closed the next year, however, ending a vital economic and cultural influence to the area. In 1924, a patrol called the "mounted watchmen" was established by the United States government to deter aliens from crossing the Rio Grande, primarily for the smuggling of liquor during Prohibition.qv The United States Border Patrolqv later replaced this organization. The Marfa Sector, with offices in the northeastern corner of the former Fort D. A. Russell compound, is responsible for immigration control in seventy-seven counties in West Texas and eighteen counties in Oklahoma, a total of 92,000 square miles and 365 miles of border. The administrative offices are housed in solar-powered headquarters built in 1977. In 1989 the federal government built an aerostat station near Marfa in an attempt to control drug smuggling across the border. Tourismqv also plays a vital role in the Marfa economy. In the summer it is often one of the coolest places in the state. Beginning in 1963 a few glider enthusiasts found the thermals at Marfa to their liking, and Marfa eventually hosted two national soaring competition meets, an international meet, several regional meets, and a number of annual soaring camps. From Marfa, the Capote Falls (see CAPOTE SPRINGS), the Ruidosa Hot Springs, the ghost town of Shafter, and the hamlets along the Rio Grande can all be reached easily. Big Bend National Parkqv is also in the vicinity. The town's biggest attraction, however, is the famous Marfa Lights.qv The town and surrounding area have also provided the background for several Hollywood movies, including Giant (1950) and the Andromeda Strain (1970). The 1960 population of 2,799 had decreased to 2,647 by 1970. That year Marfa had several small local industries among its seventy-nine reported businesses. The 2,466 inhabitants of Marfa celebrated the town's 100th birthday on March 5, 6, and 7, 1983. For the celebration about 5,000 friends, relatives, and former Marfans came to have a memorable time and enjoy their city. In 1990 Marfa reported a population of 2,424.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Judith M. Brueske, The Marfa Lights (Alpine, Texas: Ocotillo Enterprises, 1988). El Paso Times, April 30, 1973. Post History (Fort D. A. Russell, 1944). San Angelo Standard Times, July 4, 1976. Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.

2) FORT D. A. RUSSELL. In 1911 the Mexican Revolutionqv in progress alarmed the citizens of Presidio County, Texas, who feared that Mexican forces might raid across the border. To provide protection the United States government sent military forces to the Mexican border areas, including Marfa, Texas, where several cavalry troops were sent. The post at Marfa, first named Camp Albert and then renamed Camp Marfa, also was the base for Signal Corps biplanes that patrolled the Rio Grande during the crisis. From 1913 to 1916 cavalry units from Fort Bliss rotated to Marfa for garrison and field duties. During World War I,qv Camp Marfa was expanded to accommodate numerous units, including federal, state, and national guard troops. In 1920 the post was designated as headquarters for the Marfa Command, which replaced the Big Bend District. Between 1923 and 1936, the War Department took advantage of the remote location of Camp Marfa to conduct simulated combat maneuvers on a large tract of land made available by local ranchers. On January 1, 1930, Secretary of War Patrick Hurley announced that Camp Marfa was to be renamed Fort D. A. Russell in honor of Gen. David Allen Russell, a native New Yorker who served in the Mexican War and Civil Warqqv and was killed fighting for the Union at Winchester, Virginia, in 1864. A Wyoming fort had previously borne the name, but it had been renamed Fort Warren. Hurley also announced that the post was to be a permanent installation instead of a temporary army post. When the government began to consider abandoning the fort in 1931, the Marfa Chamber of Commerce and civic and political leaders tried to retain the installation. The 650 officers and men, maintenance for 400 horses and mules, and payroll of $480,000 a year added greatly to the Marfa economy during the Great Depression.qv However, in 1932 Marfa lost its fight, and on January 2, 1933, Fort Russell was left in the hands of caretakers. In 1935 the post was regarrisoned by 700 men of the Seventy-seventh Field Artillery. In 1938 the first group scheduled for officer training arrived. Training continued at the fort for several years. During the prewar and World War IIqv years, Fort Russell added 2,400 acres donated by the citizens of Marfa, planted 1,000 trees, improved existing buildings, and built new ones. By this time 1,000 men were stationed at the fort. In 1944 the first woman officer was assigned to the post, and civilian women replaced soldiers as drivers of cars and trucks. During the war a camp for prisoners of warqv also was established at Marfa. Fort D. A. Russell was deactivated in 1945, closed on October 23, 1946, and transferred from the army to the Corps of Engineers in preparation for transfer to the Texas National Guard.qv In 1949 most of the fort area and facilities were sold to private citizens. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Post History (Fort D. A. Russell, 1944). Voice of the Mexican Border, Centennial ed., 1936. Lee Bennett

3) MARFA ARMY AIR FIELD. Marfa Army Air Field began in 1942, when the War Department selected the Marfa area as a site for training United States Army Air Corps pilots. By February 1942 the department had let a contract for a Class A airport, costing $2,281,794, where training in the Cessna AT­17 would provide an intermediate step from single-engine to multi-engine planes. McGough Brothers of Houston was the general contractor. Marfa and nearby Alpine each voted $10,000 in bonds to buy the land for the airfield, 2,750 acres, from T. G. Hendrick of Abilene at $6.50 an acre. The towns, in turn, leased the property to the War Department for twenty­five years at one dollar a year. A federal court directed C. T. Mitchell, Mrs. Bertha Holmes, the John A. Lawrence estate, and the Gage estate to deliver 1,809 acres for four auxiliary landing fields. In June 1942 Col. Gerald Hoyle, project officer, arrived and set up his temporary headquarters in the Marfa National Bank building. Hoyle served as base commander until June 1943. The first cadets arrived on December 5, 1942, and entered flight training two days later. Members of this class completed their courses by February 12, 1943, and received their silver wings. A class completed training each month until the final graduation in May 1945. Some graduations were without fanfare, but a majority were thrown open to the public, with aerial demonstrations, tours, refreshments, and a dance. The base at first was designated Marfa Army Air Field, Advanced Flying School, but at the arrival in June of Hoyle's replacement, Col. George F. Hartman, the name was changed to Marfa Army Air Field, Army Air Forces Advanced Flying School. Hartman served four months, and was replaced by Col. Donald Phillips. In October 1943 the scope of support personnel was enlarged, when two Women's Army Corps officers arrived as a vanguard of enlisted WACs. Phillips promoted public relations. For example, in April 1944 he arranged a Pan-American Day celebration, with military and civilian dignitaries from Mexico and the United States attending. In June 1944 Col. A. J. Kerwin Malone assumed command, and the War Department transferred Marfa Army Air Field to the Second Air Force, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. During Malone's tenure (ten months), 2,500 cadets were graduated. The classes included regular trainees, Chinese nationals, and Air Transport personnel. On­the­line pre­pilot training and mechanics courses were added, and B­25s, AT­11s, and AT­6s were added to retrain pilot returnees. In April 1945 Col. Henry R. Baxter, the fifth and last commander at Marfa Army Air Field, arrived. He supervised two graduation services. On May 4, 1945, the local newspaper announced that the May graduating class would be the last. In June Marfa Army Air Field became a redeployment center for the Troop Carrier Command, with some 2,400 men to be sent there to train with C-46 and C-47 aircraft. The field was renamed the 818th Air Base Unit. The end of World War IIqv halted these plans. More than 500 veterans from various squadrons arrived at the base for redeployment or discharge. By December 1945 Colonel Baxter was one of only two pilots at the field. On the thirty-first, Marfa Army Air Field was closed. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Big Bend Sentinel, February 6, 1942, May 4, 1945. Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985). Lee Bennett

4) DEAN, JOHN M. (1852-1909). John M. Dean, early Presidio county attorney and land speculator, son of Dr. Y. S. and Martha (McCullough) Dean, was born in Forsythe County, Georgia, on May 13, 1852. When he was seven the family moved to North Carolina. During the Civil Warqv Y. S. Dean served as a surgeon in Gen. Robert E. Lee'sqv command. By 1874 John Dean was in Lee County, Texas, where he was admitted to the state bar. In 1878 he moved to Fort Davis, then in Presidio County. Since he had no money to open a law office, he drove an Overland stagecoach from Fort Davis to Van Horn Wells for three months. In May 1878 Dean began his law practice in Fort Davis. He was appointed Presidio county attorney in 1879 but resigned a few months later. He was elected county attorney in 1880 and resigned in May 1882 to enter the cattle business with James B. Gillettqv and C. L. Nevill. In 1882 Dean was elected district attorney of the Twentieth Judicial District, a post to which he was reelected for 1884-90 and 1896-1902. From 1892 until 1896 he served a four-year term as state senator. From 1902 to 1909 he practiced law privately. Dean caused a controversy when he made Marfa the Presidio county seat without legal authority. In 1884 he bought the land around the Marfa railroad siding from the Galveston, Houston and San Antonio Railway Company. On October 9, 1885, he conveyed part of the section to four prominent citizens who supported making Marfa county seat. Dean and his four allies managed an election to legalize the action. Dean was a Mason. He married Louise Haggart, and they lived first in Marfa. The couple moved to El Paso in 1889. Dean lived just over ten of his fifty-seven years in Presidio County. He died on August 20, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried in El Paso. Fifty members of the bar and fifteen Chinese friends gathered on the Dean lawn during the Masonic funeral to pay him tribute. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Frank W. Johnson, A History of Texas and Texans (5 vols., ed. E. C. Barker and E. W. Winkler [Chicago and New York: American Historical Society, 1914; rpt. 1916]). Virginia Madison and Hallie Stillwell, How Come It's Called That? Place Names in the Big Bend Country (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1958). Niel John McArthur, The Twenty-Seventh Legislature and State Administration of Texas (Austin: Ben C. Jones, 1901). Buckley B. Paddock, ed., A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of North and West Texas (Chicago: Lewis, 1906). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985). Julia Cauble Smith

5) MARFA LIGHTS. The Marfa lights are visible every clear night between Marfa and Paisano Pass in northeastern Presidio County as one faces the Chinati Mountains. At times they appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. Presidio County residents have watched the lights for over a hundred years. The first historical record of them recalls that in 1883 a young cowhand, Robert Reed Ellison, saw a flickering light while he was driving cattle through Paisano Pass and wondered if it was the campfire of Apache Indians. He was told by other settlers that they often saw the lights, but when they investigated they found no ashes or other evidence of a campsite. Joe and Sally Humphreys, also early settlers, reported their first sighting of the lights in 1885. Cowboys herding cattle on the prairies noticed the lights and in the summer of 1919 rode over the mountains looking for the source, but found nothing. World War Iqv observers feared that the lights were intended to guide an invasion. During World War IIqv pilots training at the nearby Midland Army Air Fieldqv outside Marfa looked for the source of the elusive lights from the air, again with no success. Those who have viewed the lights over a long period personify them and insist that they are not only harmless but friendly. Mrs. W. T. Giddings, who grew up watching the lights and whose father claimed he was saved from a blizzard when the lights led him to the shelter of a cave, considers the lights to be curious observers, investigating things around them. Over the years many explanations for the lights have been offered, ranging from an electrostatic discharge, swamp gas, or moonlight shining on veins of mica, to ghosts of conquistadors looking for gold. The most plausible explanation is that the lights are an unusual phenomenon similar to a mirage, caused by an atmospheric condition produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air that bend light so that it is seen from a distance but not up close. In recent years the lights have become a tourist attraction. The Texas State Highway Department has constructed a roadside parking area nine miles east of Marfa on U.S. Highway 90 for motorists to view the curious phenomenon. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dallas Morning News, July 4, 1982. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 3, 1980. Elton Miles, Tales of the Big Bend (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). William Edward Syers, Ghost Stories of Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1981). Wall Street Journal, March 24, 1984. Julia Cauble Smith

6) PRESIDIO COUNTY. Presidio County (K-5) is in the Trans-Pecosqv region of southwest Texas and is named for the ancient border settlement of Presidio del Norte.qv Presidio County is triangular in shape and is bounded on the east by Brewster County, on the north by Jeff Davis County, and on the south and west for 135 miles by the Rio Grande and Mexico. Marfa, the county seat, is 190 miles southeast of El Paso and 150 miles southwest of Odessa. The center of the county lies at 30°30' north latitude and 104°15' west longitude. Presidio County comprises 3,857 square miles of contrasting topography, geology, and vegetation. In the north and west clay and sandy loams cover the rolling plains known as the Marfa Plateau and the Highland Country, providing good ranges of grama grasses for the widely acclaimed Highland Herefords. In the central, far western, and southeastern areas of the county some of the highest mountain ranges in Texas are found. These peaks are formed of volcanic rock and covered with loose surface rubble. They support desert shrubs and cacti and dominate a landscape of rugged canyons and numerous springs. The spring-fed Capote Falls, with a drop of 175 feet the highest in Texas, is located in western Presidio County. In the southern and western parts of the county the volcanic cliffs of the Candelaria Rimrock (also called the Sierra Vieja) rise perpendicular and run parallel to the river, separating the highland prairies from the desert floor hundreds of feet below them. The gravel pediment, which allows only the growth of desert shrubs and cacti, extends from the Rimrock to the flood plain of the river. Along the river irrigationqv allows the farming of vegetables, grains, and cottons. There are no permanent streams in the county, although many dry arroyos become raging torrents during heavy rainfalls. Major ones are Alamito Creek, Cibolo Creek, Capote Creek, and Pinto Canyon. San Esteban Dam was built across Alamito Creek and on the site of a historic spring-fed tinaja in 1911 as an irrigation and land promotion project. The prairies, mountains, desert, and river give Presidio County an unusual beauty. Altitudes in the county vary from 2,518 to 7,728 feet above sea level. Temperatures, moderated by the mountains, vary from 33° F in January to 100° F in July. Average rainfall is only twelve inches per year, but it comes mainly in June, July, and August. The growing season extends for 238 days. Natural resources under production in 1982 were perlite, crushed rhyolite, sand, and gravel. Silver mining contributed greatly to the economy of the county from the 1880s to the 1940s. Presidio County has no oil or gas production. The area around the present town of Presidio on the Rio Grande, known as La Junta de los Ríos,qv is believed to be the oldest continuously cultivated farmland in Texas. About 1500 B.C. corn farmers of the Cochise culture settled there to use the abundant water, fertile farmland, and bountiful game. Since La Junta was located on an ancient and heavily traveled north-south trade route, its settlers absorbed the cultures of passersby. By A.D. 900 the Cochise culture was replaced by the Mogollón, which later merged with the Anasazi culture. Before the Spaniards appeared in La Junta the natives formed two main tribes, the Julimes and the Jumanos. The first Spaniards probably reached La Junta in December 1535 when Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vacaqv crossed on his trek across Texas. They found the Indians living in pueblos and raising large crops of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and melons. Both the Julimes and Jumanos later succumbed to Spanish influence. The Julimes vanished in an attempt to remain aloof from the Spaniards. The Jumanos lost their identity and self-sufficiency by becoming good subjects of the Spanish crown. After Cabeza de Vaca's visit a number of Spanish expeditions came to present Presidio County, the first in 1581. The entrada of Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Father Nicolás Lópezqv in 1683-84 established seven missions at seven pueblos along the river in the La Junta area. In 1683 Father López celebrated the first Christmas Mass ever observed in Texas at La Junta. Although Spaniards explored the area of present Presidio County, they established no settlements there because they could not control the Apache and Comanche Indians. Indian depredations continued under the Mexican government, but the first white settlement in the area of present Presidio County was established on Cibolo Creek three miles north of the site of Presidio in January 1832 by the family of Lt. Col. José Ygnacio Ronquillo, his soldiers, and laborers. Located on the Ronquillo Land Grantqv and called El Cíbolo, the settlement was abandoned in November 1832 when the soldiers were called away to fight Indians. Amid Indian danger, the Chihuahua Trail opened in 1839 as a trade route from Chihuahua City, Mexico, across the future Presidio County to the Red River and on to Missouri. With the annexationqv of Texas to the Union in 1846, Americans recognized the economic potential of the frontier along the Rio Grande. By 1848 Ben Leaton built Fort Leaton on the river as his home, trading post, and private bastion. Milton Faverqv was the first American to move away from the safety of the river, becoming the first large-scale rancher in the area of present Presidio County. He built two private forts-Fort Cibolo and Fort Cienega-to protect his family, workers, and livestock from Indian raids. Several other Americans irrigated crops and grazed herds on the Rio Grande in the 1850s and 1860s. Although the United States census of 1850 reported no population for Presidio County, a sufficient number lived there to establish the county from Bexar Land District on January 3, 1850. Fort Leaton was the as the county seat. In 1854 the army built Fort Davis in northern Presidio County to protect travelers and settlers. By 1860 Indian attacks declined, and the census of that year recorded 574 whites, two free blacks, and four slaves. As in most frontier areas men outnumbered women 436 to 144. With the outbreak of the Civil Warqv Fort Davis closed, and Indian attacks resumed. The fort was reopened in 1867, and the population of the county increased threefold by 1870, when 1,636 people were listed as residents, 494 of them were women and 772 were Mexican emigrants. The black population increased to 489 when buffalo soldiersqv were stationed at Fort Davis. Presidio County was organized in 1875 as the largest county in the United States, with 12,000 square miles. Fort Davis was named the county seat. The 1880s brought Presidio County a larger population and improvements in the economy and in transportation. The census of 1880 reported 2,873 inhabitants, a total increase of 1,237 and 823 more Mexican immigrants than in 1870. John W. Spencer, a local rancher and trader, found a silver deposit in the Chinati Mountains in 1880 that resulted in the opening of Presidio Mine and the beginning of the company town of Shafter. From 1883 until 1942 the mine produced over 32.6 million ounces of silver, employed from 300 to 400 workers, and paid the largest tax assessments in the county (see SHAFTER MINING DISTRICT). Also in 1880 the twenty-eight small grain farms of the county were valued at just over $47,000, but its nearly $54,000 worth of livestock proved more important to its economy. The railroad reached Presidio County in 1882 when the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway laid tracks through its northeastern corner. With the railroad to move livestock and the Indian threat over, a new generation of cattlemen came into the county and started large ranches in 1884 and 1885. W. F. Mitchell built the first barbed wireqv fence in the county at Antelope Springs in 1888. The widespread use of barbed wire resulted in the refinement of cattle breeds, improvement of ranges, and innovative use of water supplies. Windmills,qv water wells, and earthen tanks were introduced on Presidio County ranches in the late 1880s. The first sighting of the phenomenal Marfa Lightsqv was recorded in 1883 when Robert Reed Ellison came through Paisano Pass and saw the mysterious lights. On any clear night they are still visible between Marfa and Paisano Pass. The lights at times appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. The source of the lights and the reason for their movements have not been explained. The boundaries and seat of Presidio County were changed in the 1880s. Marfa was established in 1883, and the county seat was moved there from Fort Davis in 1885. Two years later Fort Davis became the seat of Jeff Davis County, which was established from Presidio County lands. That same year Brewster, Buchel, and Foley counties were also carved from Presidio, reducing the county to its present size as the fourth largest in the state. These changes were reflected in the census of 1890, when the population of Presidio County dropped to 1,698. Only twenty-six blacks remained in the county after the buffalo soldiers of Fort Davis were lost to Jeff Davis County. The census of the reduced county also showed only 912 Mexican immigrants. By 1890 the number of Presidio County farms grew to forty and were valued at $103,000. Farms produced hay, vegetables, and peaches, as well as grains. Although the number of farms, the acreage under cultivation, and the volume of production continued to increase steadily through the 1910 census, the real change in Presidio County agriculture came after 1914 when farmers began growing cotton. With the completion that year of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande a large and reliable irrigation source was available for the new crop. In 1919 four bales of cotton were grown on twelve acres of land, but in 1929 production climbed to over 3,800 bales on 6,587 acres. By 1939 Presidio County had 1,024 cotton farms that produced nearly 7,000 bales on more than 18,500 acres of land. That same year the now famous Presidio County cantaloupes were grown on twenty acres of land. Like farming, Presidio County ranching changed drastically with the new century. Milton Faver and other early ranchers raised both cattle and sheep from the 1850s through the 1880s, an unusual operation for that day. The 1880 census reported a far larger number of sheep than cattle in Presidio County, 9,030 sheep to 2,496 cattle. The 1890 census counted 3,160 cattle, but gave no number for sheep. By the 1900 census cattle dominated the range with over 41,500, while the number of sheep had declined to 236. Cattle increased to nearly 49,000 by 1910, and sheep neared extinction with 109. By 1920 cattle declined to just over 37,500, and sheep increased to 5,312. The trend continued in 1930 with cattle at over 33,500 and sheep above 16,000. The 1940 census indicated a more even distribution of the livestock and substantial gains for both cattle, at nearly 63,000, and sheep at less than 41,000. The value of Presidio County livestock continued to increase from $2.6 million at the end of the 1950s to $15.3 million in 1982. As long as the small population of Presidio County lived in scattered isolation, church attendance was impracticable. But with the clustering of the population around Fort Davis, Marfa, and Shafter in the 1880s, the need for churches was evident. Although Catholic missions were established in southern Presidio County in the seventeenth century, no priest was permanently assigned to the county until 1875, when Dan Murphy donated land for a church and school in Fort Davis. Father Joseph Hoban came to the church at Fort Davis, but he also said Mass at the Faver ranch, in John Davis's chapel at Alamito, and at Presidio. While the early settlers at Fort Davis and around Presidio were Catholic, the new settlers around Marfa in the 1880s were mostly Protestant. A Protestant church building was erected in Marfa in 1886. Although the building was used by missionaries of various denominations and by a union Sunday School, it was called a Methodist church because the Methodists paid part of the construction costs. In 1888 William B. Bloys,qv founder of Bloys Camp Meetingqv at Skillman's Grove, organized a Presbyterian church in Fort Davis. In 1895 St. Mary's Catholic Church was built in Marfa, and St. Paul's Episcopal Church was organized there in 1896. The First Christian Church was founded in Marfa in 1897, and the Baptists organized a church in 1902. Bloys also organized a church in Shafter in 1903 that joined with the Marfa Presbyterian Church at its founding in 1910. In 1982 Presidio County had sixteen churches with 4,047 members. Like churches, schools were needed by the 1880s. Since neither the Spanish nor the Mexicans had permanent settlements in the area of present Presidio County, no schools were organized under their governments. The early American settlers in the southern edge of the county sent their children to Austin and San Antonio for schooling. The first schools in the county were established at Fort Davis. The army operated a school for soldier's children with a noncommissioned officer as the teacher after 1867. Father Hoban's school opened there in 1875, and the first public school of the county was organized at Fort Davis in 1883. Between 1885 and 1902 public schools were built at Marfa, Polvo, Presidio, Shafter, Ruidosa, and Candelaria. By 1930 the county had five districts-Marfa, Shafter, Presidio, Porvenir, and Ochoa. In 1982 the county maintained two school districts with four elementary, one middle, and two high schools and a daily average attendance of 1,163. In 1983, 85 percent of the students were Hispanic and 15 percent were white. The population of Presidio County continued to increase with the census of 1900 to 3,673. Included in that number were 1,463 Mexican immigrants, fifty-three blacks, and twenty-eight natives of the British Isles who lived at the Presidio Mine. By 1910 the population reached 5,218, and the 1920 census reported the largest population ever recorded for the county, a total of 12,202 with 4,524 Mexican natives. The growth of Presidio County's population in the 1910s reflected the impact of the Mexican Revolutionqv on border life. Refugees migrated to the county from Chihuahua as the fighting moved into northern Mexico. The United States Army established several posts in the county to watch for border incursions. Marfa became the headquarters for the Big Bend Military District, and in 1917 the Army established Camp Marfa, later called Fort D. A. Russell, at Marfa to protect the border. Cavalry posts were established at Shafter, Candelaria, Redford, Presidio, Indio, Ruidosa, and Camp Holland. Raids by Mexican bandits and paramilitary forces invited fierce and sometimes excessive retaliation by the United States military and by the Texas Rangers.qv Incidents like the Brite Ranch Raid, the Neville Ranch Raid, and the Porvenir Massacreqv spread insecurity and racial hatred throughout the county and the border region. As Presidio County entered the 1930s the people faced a drought and a population decline. The county was not greatly affected by the Great Depressionqv until the summer of 1932. Although low silver prices closed Presidio Mine at Shafter with a loss of 300 jobs in 1930, the two banks in Marfa remained stable. The county reported eight manufacturing establishments with twenty-seven employees, a payroll of nearly $22,000, and products valued at slightly under $200,000. Throughout 1930 and 1931 Marfa continued construction of a new hotel, a clinic, and several shops. In 1930 the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway of Texas reached Presidio and built a bridge across the Rio Grande there to provide rail connections into Mexico. By the summer of 1932 the drought, unemployment, and closing of Fort Russell left the economy of the county depressed. Economic recovery began by 1936, as new businesses opened, postal receipts increased 32 percent over 1930, and Fort Russell and Presidio Mine reopened. By 1940 the population of the county rose slightly to 10,925, and five manufacturing businesses employed nineteen workers with a payroll of $12,000, producing products worth more than $160,000. During World War IIqv Presidio County enjoyed economic prosperity as the home for two military installations-Fort Russell and Marfa Army Air Field.qv After the war Presidio County's population went into a thirty-year decline, falling to 7,354 in 1950, 5,460 in 1960 and 4,842 in 1970. In 1980 the county witnessed an increase in population to 5,188. The educational level of the population has increased steadily from 1950, when only 10.7 percent had completed high school, to 1980, when almost 30 percent had. In 1982 Presidio County had an estimated population of 5,500 and, with 77 percent of that number listed as Hispanic in origin, ranked seventeenth highest among all United States counties with Hispanic populations. Most of the residents lived in rural areas. In the 1982 primary the voters of Presidio County went 100 percent for the Democratic party.qv Presidio County has historically supported Democrats over Republicans. The people voted for a Republican president only five times between 1872 and 1992-Grant in 1872, McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt in 1904, Dwight D. Eisenhowerqv in 1952, and Nixon in 1972. The economy of the county in 1982 was based primarily on agriculture with 83 percent of the land in farms and ranches. Sixty-eight percent of agricultural receipts were from cattle, sheep, wool, angora goats, and mohair. Primary crops under cultivation were wheat, hay, and sorghum. Vegetables grown were onions, cantaloupes, honeydews, and watermelons. The number of retail businesses in the county in 1984 was 117, with a sales receipts increase of 17 percent over the previous period. In 1983 the county had two commercial banks. At the end of the 1980s Presidio County remained sparsely populated with 6,637 inhabitants, of whom 81.6 percent were Hispanic. The main communities included Marfa (2,424) and Presidio (3,072). The county economy was still devoted to large-scale ranching and vegetable farming. Over the years droughts and overgrazing damaged the range land. Parts of the prairies supported only one animal per 48 hectares. Powerful pumps, drawing water for irrigation and livestock use, lowered the groundwater levels and depleted many springs. However, in contrast to the more populous areas of the state, Presidio County offered clean air, rugged scenery, and historic sites. Among the attractions that contributed to the county's growing tourist industry were the Marfa Lights, hunting leases, and the nearby Big Bend National Park.qv BIBLIOGRAPHY: Russell Gardinier, "The Physical Geography of a Significant Border Region, La Junta de los Rios," Journal of Big Bend Studies 1 (January 1989). John Ernest Gregg, History of Presidio County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1933). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985). Julia Cauble Smith

7) RANCHERIA HILLS. The Rancheria Hills are in north central Presidio County (at 30°15' N, 104°07' W) four miles southwest of Marfa. The highest point, at an elevation of 4,750 feet above sea level, rises 197 feet above U.S. Highway 67, which runs along the eastern edge of the Rancheria Hills. The feature is composed of volcanic tuff and capped with black lava. The topography of the area is desert mountain terrain and rugged canyonland; vegetation includes sparse grasses, cacti, and desert shrubs of conifers and oaks.

8) PAISANO PASS. Paisano Pass is a gap (at 30°17' N, 103°49' W) between Twin Mountains and Paisano Peak, twelve miles east of Marfa in northeastern Presidio County. The pass, at an elevation of 5,074 feet above sea level, rises 228 feet above the nearby prairie. The surrounding terrain is desert mountain canyonland of volcanic deposits and alluvial washes of sands and gravels. The local soils are light reddish-brown to brown sands and clay loams; vegetation includes sparse grasses, cacti, and desert shrubs. When the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio built its tracks through the area in 1882, Paisano Pass was reportedly the highest point on the line between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Portland, Oregon.

9) SIERRA VIEJA. The Sierra Vieja mountains are forty-two miles northwest of Marfa in western Jeff Davis and northwestern Presidio counties (centered at 30°27' N, 104°40' W). They extend sixteen miles south from just east of the Van Horn Mountains and four miles southwest of Chispa, U.S. Highway 90, and the Southern Pacific Railroad. The highest elevation in the Sierra Vieja is 6,450 feet above sea level, some 2,700 feet above the Coal Mine Ranch, four miles west. Shallow, stony soils in the Sierra Vieja support live oak, piñon pine, juniper, and grasses. Sierra Vieja is Spanish for "old mountains."

10) ANTELOPE SPRINGS. Antelope Springs (Ojos del Berrendo) was located 11/2 miles south of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe tracks in northeastern Presidio County (at 30°12' N, 103°55' W). The springs, which once flowed from caliche rock, are now dry. The gentle slopes of the surrounding terrain are covered with alluvial deposits of sand and gravel. The land surface in the area is generally light reddish-brown to brown sand, clay loam, and stone. Vegetation consists of range grasses and a grove of large cottonwoods that circles the site. Antelope Springs provided water to early Indians, Spanish explorers, and Chihuahua Trail traders. In 1684 the expedition of Capt. Juan Domínguez de Mendozaqv passed by Antelope Springs and planted a cross at the site. In the 1880s cattlemen began using the surrounding range. Cattle overgrazed and trampled the native grasses, which had held the rainwater until it filtered into the subsurface. With the loss of the grass and the installation of a windmill well, Antelope Springs went dry. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Gunnar Brune, Springs of Texas, Vol. 1 (Fort Worth: Branch-Smith, 1981). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985).

11) PLATA, TEXAS. Plata, earlier called La Plata, is located in east central Presidio County on Farm Road 169, Alamito Creek, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, about four miles south of Alamito. The settlement developed as a ranching community in the early 1880s. In March 1883 Robert Reed Ellison, at sixteen years of age, brought several herds of cattle, totaling nearly 3,000 head, to Presidio County for his father, J. R. Ellison. He brought the first herd and a chuck wagon by train to Murphysville (now Alpine), unloaded them, and drove them forty miles to his father's range on Alamito Creek. Later Robert Ellison owned a large ranch of his own at Plata. The Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway designated Plata a station in late 1930, when its tracks reached there from Paisano. The community had a school as early as the 1933-34 term, when Verna Humphreys was hired as teacher. In 1939 Plata was listed as part of the Marfa Independent School District. The town had a store at one time, but both the school and the store were no longer operating in the late 1980s. Plata remains a ranching community marked by a water tank and a railroad siding. BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Ernest Gregg, History of Presidio County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1933). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985). Julia Cauble Smith


I borrowed Cecilia Thompson's 'History of Marfa' from the Library of Congress on February 8, 2001. This is an exhaustive book that makes use of county records, historical records, and many local archives. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of what was reported, however, many of the details come from interviews with surviving family members. Also, she has a very annoying style. She quotes paragraphs of text but does not give the source for the quote by the usual numerals. Then in the back of the book there is a thick bibliography which presumably includes the source for the quote, making for a very tedious process of actually tracking down where she got the info for a specific fact or quote she uses. There is no history for 1900-now.

In the March 1883 quote, she says that Robert Ellison wrote down his history in Marfa in 1937 at the age of 70. The account of the Marfa Lights, however, was not written down in these memoirs, but was an account he had told his family. In the 1884/1886 quote about his recollection of a famous local cattle roundup, Thompson notes that he had not gotten the date right, so his recollections were not always flawless. Moreover, there is no indication when it was that he had told his family' about the lights.

Here is what else I found inside:

August 13, 1583: (p. 15) Quoting from 'The Route of Antonio de Espejo Down the Pecos River and Across the Texas Trans-Pecos Region" August 13, 1583. "They then marched over the plains between Marfa and Valentine, and camped at Capote Draw near Sierra Vieja" No mention of the Lights.

October 15, 1683(p.19) Juan Sabeata enticed the Spainards at La Junta by telling of the vision he had in the sky of 'The Lady in Blue' and a fiery cross, and of indians who gathered pearls along the Nueces river. "He later confessed the stories were a fabrication intended to lure Spaniards into action"

January 2, 1684 - June, 1684 (p. 20) Captain Jaun de Mendoza provides the first detailed account written by him of his expedition across much of the same route as Espejo. "From La Junta, he went down the Rio Grande as far as Alamito Creek, then turned eastwards passing by San Esteban and Antelope Springs, continuing through Paisano Pass, through Leoncito Draw, and to the spring at San Pedro de Alcantara." No mention of the Lights.


November 15, 1747 (p. 26-7) Pedro de Robago y Teran, governor of Coahuila, set out to explore the Rio Grande. He found that the La Junta indians traded with the Apaches regularly near the junction of Alamito Creek and the Rio Grande. "He followed an old indian trail eastward about thirty miles due east of La Junta. He turned southeast at Terlingua Creek, marched around the north extremity of the Chisos Mountains back to San Vicente". The 'Despoblado' region was for the first time demystified and trails were blazed which made travel easier for future explorers.

ca 1824 (p. 38) , in the vicinity of Ruidosa, a Mexican penal colony was set up. The prisoners guarded cattle from the Apaches and Comanches, but were massacered in San Esteban by a band of Comanches. "It is claimed that the ghostly band of convicts returns to the scene of their massacre each year at the appointed time"

ca 1837, (p. 41) Texas defines its western boundary to include the Presidio region. White settlers begin to enter the area.

August 27, 1848 (p.56) the first American settlement of Presidio. Captain 'Jack' Hays formerly of the Texas Rangers stirred up enthusiasm of merchents and newsmen in San Antonio on August 27, 1848 and headed for El Paso. The trip was well publicised.

June 1849, (p. 60-3) The government set out topographical parties to make additional surveys for two roads in the area. By 1849 the indians had not been conquerored. Government surveyors groped about the fringes of the Big Band but could not penetrate its heart. The Big Bend remained a mystery. It would not be explored until the summer of 1852.

Spring, 1853 (p. 69) Chief Surveyor William H. Emory undertook a survey down the Rio Grande from El Paso. Emory sent Lieutenant Nathaniel Michler. Emory filed a report in 1855 with the Secretary of the Interior. He described in detail Paisano Pass, Gomez Peak and San Jacinto.

October 23, 1854.(P. 75) Fort Davis was created.

ca 1857. (p. 80-82) Milton (Don Meliton) Faver became the first cattleman to settle into the Cibolo Creek and Chinati Mountain area. W. B. Mitchell was 15 years old in the summer of 1885, and he took a three day journey from Marfa to reach aver country.


Mid-July 1860 (p. 88) U.S. Army experiments with using imported camels between Mafa and Presidio.

December 6, 1866(p. 102) San Antonio Herald describes three men in the area who had prospered, including Faver.

September 1870, (p. 116) An election was held at Fort Stockton to divide Presidio County into five precincts.  The Chihuahua Trail traffic increased substantially. Lucrative trade had shifted from Santa Fe to San Antonio which helped open up the Big Band region. Wagon trains wound down the valley where the Alamito River flowed. The Cathedral Mountains loomed in the distance to the southeast; the shadowy silhouettes of the Chinati Mountains to the west, and the far away spectre of the Chisos Mountains to the east. There were many wagon trains.


January 16, 1879. (p. 153) an exploration and mining expedition was organized in San Antonio, to explore the Chinati Mountains for silver, bismuth and lead. The party established a camp on January 29th at Presidio del Norte. They explored the Chinati Mountains.

January 29, 1881 (p. 170) The Texas Rangers finally destroyed the last vestiges of maurading Apache indians and the so-called Indian Wars came to an end. This was the signal for ranchers, cattlemen and settlers to start arriving by the droves.

October 12, 1880.(p. 172) John Spencer discovered silver in the Chinati Mountains and began mining operations. The Presidio Mining Company was formed soon there after.

January 16, 1882 (p. 182) The Southern Pacific Railroad reached the 'Tank Town' of Marfa. Marfa was little more than a restaurant, a gambling tent, and a one-room shack.

March 22, 1883 (p. 192) Marfa petitions for a Post Office.

March, 1883 (p.192-4) Robert Reed Ellison enters Marfa with at the age of 16. This is according to his memoirs, written at the age of 70 "provides an authentic and graphic description of the country and conditions of the times...Cal Nations invited father and son on a trip 'down south of the Railroad on Alamito Creek about fifteen miles south of Marfa and show them the country". In 1937, Ellison wrote ...When we passed through Piasano Pass...Straight ahead fifty miles across the valley stood Capote Mountain. Further south we could see the Chinatis with their tall ragged peaks. Due south stood San Jacinto with its tal peak. To the left, Goat Mountain...." The young man found 'Antelope Springs'. The heard was established on Alamito Creek about fiften miles south of Marfa below San Esteban". Adding 70-16 = 54 years to 1883 means that he wrote those memoirs in 1937. How historically accurate were these recollections!!!


ca 1883 (p. 197) '"Although he didn't refer to the phenomenon in his journal, Robert Ellison later told his family about seeing the Marfa Lights, as they have come to be known, on his first trip through Piasano Pass in 1883. Another first hand account of a sighting of the lights in 1885 was made by Joe and Sally Humphreys to their granddaughter, Anne McCracken Markle. The nystery of the lights has intrigued natives and visitors for at least a century. Their source is no closer to being identified than it was when they were first seen. The lights appear and disappear, to glimer against the background of the Chinatis and can be seen on any clear day."

ca 1884 (p.209) "When Robert Ellison returned to Marfa and Presidio County in 1884, he found that many more cattle had been brought into the country in a year's time. His recollection of attending the first big roundup ever made in Big Bend in 1884, could be an error in recollection as it is generally agreed that the big roundup took place in 1886..."


February 1885 (p. 217) Justice's precincts are defined. Marfa was Precinct 5: Beginning at Mitre Peak, Thence in a North Westerly direction to Van Horn Wells, Thence in a South Westerly direction to where the 105 degree longitude crosses the Rio Grande River, Thence following Rio Grande River to the mouth of Capote Creek, Thence in an Easterly direction to Antelope Springs, Thence in a Northerly direction to the place of beginning"


May 20, 1886 (p. 250) The first newspaper was printed in Marfa. "The New Era". It combined with the Big Bend Sentinal in 1926.







Copyright (C) 2001 Dr. Sten Odenwald