Eastwards Ho: Hispano Pioneers

The American settlement narrative runs mostly as follows: the first humans on the continent arrived over the Bering Land bridge during the last Ice Age. They became the peoples called Native Americans or American Indians or First Nations. Then Europeans arrived on the eastern coasts, settled east of the Appalachian Mountains, and then surged west, bringing wheat, dairy cattle, school marks, railroads, telegraph wires, and plumbing (all the signs of civilization) with them.

Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way.  By Leutze at www.painting -history.com

Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way. By Leutze at http://www.painting -history.com

A slightly more refined version, the Frontier Thesis, first proposed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1892 and fought over through today, has trappers and explorers, then ranchers, small farmers, and then urban dwellers moving west in waves, each group pushing the former farther and farther west until the frontier ceased to exist when a certain level of population was reached.

Except that doesn’t work in the Texas Panhandle.

The Panhandle and eastern New Mexico were pioneered from the west, not the east. Oops.

The Wild, Wild East. The Gallegos "grant" in eastern NM. https://ilovenewmexico.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/view-from-atop-gallegos-mesa.jpg

The Wild, Wild East. The Gallegos “grant” in eastern NM. https://ilovenewmexico.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/view-from-atop-gallegos-mesa.jpg

By the early 1800s, the Rio Grande valley was becoming crowded. To someone from New England or South Carolina it would have seemed very sparsely settled, but given the climate and the economic base of the colony, the lad was bursting at  the seams. Part of the difficulty lay in the allotment of land to the Indian groups. Hispanos could not encroach on tribal lands (in theory. In practice they kept the courts quite busy), and the water allocations for the major streams and rivers had been made pretty much in full. And sheep need food. Sheep, ganado menor, formed the backbone of the New Mexican economy. They walked themselves to the mines in Chihuahua and later to California, provided wool and mutton and milk, and did better with les than cattle did. And they reproduced faster than cattle.

To the west were the Navajo and other unfriendly Indian peoples. And less water and forage. Land grants and pueblos filled the northern mountains. So the Hispanos looked east, to the grassy, empty buffalo plains east of the Rocky Mountains. By the 1840s a few intrepid souls had moved their flocks down the Canadian, Pecos, Cimarron, and Conchas Rivers, grazing the plains with one eye on the sheep an the other on the Comanche and Ute Indians who claimed the area.

By 1874 formal settlements, such as the Gallegos ‘Grant” on Ute Creek had formed and began to prosper. Many of the pioneers had connections to the Comanches, or had traveled the area as hunters and traders before the US Army and drought combined to end the Comanche Empire. They brought Spanish settlement traditions with them, in some cases packing enough supplies to live on for a year, until they finished building fortified houses and corrals, and their first crops and lambs and calves came in. They also brought the Spanish ways of managing land and water.

The Spanish tradition was one of extensive rather than intensive land use. That means, whenever possible or when conditions required it, the Hispano pioneers used a large area lightly, irrigating fields close to streams, then grazing their animals on pastures farther from the settlement, and reserving still more territory for timber, nut and wild plant collecting, and even hunting (where possible or necessary). Community Land Grants, properties issued by the Spanish Crown or later by the government of Mexico, clearly stipulated the amounts of various types of land assigned to each grant. Individual grants, given to families or one person and his heirs, included similar blends.

The “grant” shown above, Gallegos, was not a legal grant, at least not in the technical sense. It was managed and operated as a cross between an individual grant and a Mexican estancia, a combination that worked well into the 20th century. The family used Spanish tradition and quirks and loop-holes in US land laws to control over 250,000 acres of northeastern New Mexico.

Farther east, in Texas, groups of families followed the Canadian River to found plazas, small communities centered on or along tributaries of the Canadian. The most famous of these was Romero Plaza, which over time became the cow-town of Tascosa, and is now Boys’ Ranch. They brought sheep and some cattle, planted gardens and farms, and traded produce, wool, and buffalo bones.

Americans and Canadians tend to think of the frontier advancing from east to west, as weaves of settlers in search of a better life (or elbow room) left the growing urban areas for the Golden West. Except in some places, the tide flowed the other way, from the crowded pastures and fields of the Rio Grande watershed east, into the Llano Estacado.


3 thoughts on “Eastwards Ho: Hispano Pioneers

  1. Notably, San Francisco was also settled from the west. These alternative histories provide a richer, more pliant understanding of the underlying American character than we ever got from the classic textbook approaches. Maybe it’s why genealogy can be so important today, too.

    • Indeed. Genealogy, when done well and fully documented, can provide details and reveal patterns that other historical research methods don’t show as clearly.

  2. A lot of people headed west, to Oregon or the California goldfields, so that much of the west coast was settled while leaving the middle ground barren. But then a fair number of those pioneers bounced off the crowds by the Pacific and wandered back east to find themselves a chunk of choice ground that hadn’t been claimed, yet.

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