by Jim Foreman
The Panhandle of Texas sticks up out of the rest of the state like a prairie dog poking its head from his den to see if there are any hungry coyotes lurking around, waiting to pounce on him. Come to think of it, the people of the Panhandle still have to do the same thing as the prairie dog, except that the hungry coyotes are now known as Austin politicians.
The politicians are not alone when it comes to trying to do away with the Panhandle. Pick up most any roadmap and you will find that, in an effort to make the odd shape of Texas fit onto a square piece of paper, they have lopped off the Panhandle and moved it over somewhere near Albuquerque. At times, they even go so far as to print the Panhandle on the back side of the paper, along with mileage charts, uninteresting facts about the state and a picture of whoever might be governor at the time when the map was printed.
Even though Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836 and formally joined the union as a state in 1845, the politicians down in Austin would just as soon have given that part of the state to Oklahoma, New Mexico or back to the Indians as to have bothered with it. Most of them believed the report of an early explorer who said, "The El Llano Estacado is a high plains, devoid of trees and has little rainfall. Its only practical use is as a home for Indians and buffalo, both of which flourish there in great numbers." The politicians became interested in the Panhandle only when oil was discovered in 1926 and they saw it as a new source of taxes.
Giving the Panhandle back to the Indians may have been more nearly true than most people would like to believe, because the last recorded Indian attack on white settlers in Texas occurred in the Panhandle at a place known as Adobe Walls.
In 1874 the only two towns in the entire Panhandle were Mobeetie near the eastern edge and Tascosa some one hundred miles to the west. The only people living in the Panhandle, other than those who resided in the two towns, were a few ranch managers and Mexican vaqueros hired to look after cattle grazing on the open range. There was also a group of professional buffalo hunters who were doing their best to wipe out the few remaining herds of those beasts which still roamed the plains. There were several reasons for wanting the buffalo killed; first for their hides to be turned into leather and secondly, to leave more grass for the cattle. The plains Indians had been rounded up some time before and driven across the border to reservations in the Oklahoma Territory.
One of the buffalo hunters by the name of Billy Dixon decided that since the supply of buffalo to kill was rapidly disappearing, he would change his lifestyle and become a shopkeeper. He selected a location on a large meadow about half way between Mobeetie and Tascosa and hired a bunch of Mexicans to construct buildings and corrals. Since there was very little in the way of trees large enough to be used for building purposes, he decided to build the walls from adobe, a mixture of soil, manure and straw. They erected the adobe walls for the buildings in short order, but had been able to get roofs on only a couple of them when it came time to open for business.
Dixon brought in four wagons loaded with supplies, which included several kegs of whisky. News of the new trading post spread across the Panhandle like a range fire and soon everyone around knew about it, including a band of Indians camped just across the border in Oklahoma Territory. Dixon invited all of his buffalo hunting buddies to a big party to celebrate the opening of his new trading post, but as is the case with many private affairs, there came a group of party crashers in the form of a band of renegade Indians, led by a young brave named Ishatai.
The tribal chief, Quanah Parker, had been able to keep the Indians under his control and on relatively peaceful terms with the whites for some time but Ishatai had other ideas. He had been trying to wrest leadership from the old chief for several months and the opening of the new trading post offered a rare opportunity for him to demonstrate his leadership ability to the rest of the tribe.
When Ishatai heard about the impending party at the trading post, he called all the young braves aside and told them that he had a vision in which he was told to take the best braves and attack the hunters who had come to kill off their buffalo. He said that he had also seen in the vision that they would be victorious and would capture a great amounts of supplies, guns and whiskey. It's hard to tell whether the vision of a quick victory or the vision of all of that whisky was the greater force in getting the braves to violate the chief's orders and follow Ishatai into battle.
Twenty-six buffalo hunters had gathered at the trading post and the party was going at full tilt while Ishatai, with something over a hundred braves, massed a short distance away. At dawn, they attacked the stronghold, but their limited weapons proved to be totally ineffective against the powerful Sharps and Henry rifles of the hunters. Shooting from behind yard-thick adobe walls, the buffalo hunters mowed the Indians down each time that they charged. By the end of the second day, nearly half of the Indians lay dead on the meadow and their attacks had become more of a sport for the drunken hunters than any real threat.
On the morning of the third day, the Indians gathered on a small hill about a mile to the east of Adobe Walls, and this is where details of the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of it you might be hearing. According to the version made popular by historians and Hollywood writers, Billy Dixon rested his big 50 Caliber Sharps over one of the walls and dropped Ishatai off his horse with a single shot. The Indian's side of the story holds that the remaining braves were so put out with Ishatai's inability to lead them to victory that they shot him and rode back to join the rest of the tribe in Oklahoma without ever knowing that Dixon had fired a shot at them. The Indian's side of the story seems more believable because the Sharps 50 would do well to hurl the massive lead bullet a quarter mile, much less to the top of a hill a mile away.
The hunters killed off the remaining buffalo and left the Panhandle. Without the trade and support of the buffalo hunters, Dixon's business failed and he went off to do other things, leaving the unfinished adobe walls to melt and crumble away.
All that remains today of the last Indian battle in Texas is a small monument, few mounds of dirt and the legend of how Billy Dixon killed an Indian a mile away with a rifle which had an absolute maximum effective range of about five hundred yards.
Surveyors for the Kansas and Southern Railroad, later to become the Santa Fe, and the Fort Worth and Denver were checking out possible routes for their lines through the Panhandle. It was obvious that these two lines would meet and cross someplace in the Panhandle and both Mobeetie and Tascosa envisioned that this would occur at their town, making them the hub of commerce for the area. The surveyors were looking for the easiest way to get across the area and bypassed both towns, sounding their death knell with the driving of the route stakes.
Even after fifty years of independence and later, statehood, the Panhandle remained more or less unpopulated except for an occasional homesteader clinging to his 160 acre claim and a few Mexican families who ran some sheep in spite of strong opposition from the cattlemen. There was a constant battle between the big ranchers, the sheep men and the homesteaders, with the ranchers holding a decisive advantage.
When barbed wire came to the Panhandle, sounding the end of the open ranges, the cattlemen began to stake out and claim vast areas of land for their ranches. Most of the land came to them through grants from the politicians down in Austin, and those with the most political pull were awarded the most land. The land which had long been under the rule of the Indians, was now firmly controlled by the big ranchers, who had no intention of allowing anyone else to come in and threaten their little monarchy.
In many ways, the Panhandle was built on hate. The Indians hated the cattlemen, the cattlemen hated the sheep herders and the sheep raisers hated the homesteaders. The whole bunch of them hated the thought of the developers who would be coming in to build cities. Finally, when oil was discovered in the Panhandle, everyone hated the men who became rich overnight from it. This was because for the most part, the least deserving were the ones who profited the most from the oil.
The Fort Worth and Denver Railroad was being built northward from Fort Worth and at the same time, it was being built southward from Denver with a goal of the two sections joining at the village Des Moines, New Mexico. They were in a race with the Kansas and Southern to see who would be first to cross the Panhandle where a fortune was waiting to be made from hauling cattle to market. From the Fort Worth end, the railroad meandered its way toward the Panhandle, always taking the easiest route as it headed toward what was known as the Buffalo Crossing of the Canadian River, some five miles to the west of the town of Tascosa.
The State of Texas, which owned most of the land over which the railroad was being built, not only gave the railroad the right of way on which to lay the tracks, but in addition, they gave them a section of land for a townsite about every ten miles along the way. The railroad was supposed to establish towns on these sections of land; however they were permitted to sell the property if they decided not to establish a town at that particular point.
About forty miles before the railroad reached the Buffalo Crossing on the Canadian, they came to a small problem called the Brewster Ranch and Wild Horse Lake. This lake was nearly three miles across and one of the few Playa Lakes which held water even during the dry seasons. If they ran the railroad to the south of the lake, they had to cross the Brewster Ranch and if they went to the north, they would have to build several bridges across dozens of streams which flowed northward into the Canadian River.
Lloyd Brewster didn't really want the railroad cutting across his ranch, especially where his land extended out into Wild Horse Lake and decided to make them pay through the nose for the right. He demanded that the railroad pay him fifty thousand dollars for permission to cross his land. The railroad countered that they could have the state take the land from him for the right of way under the laws of Eminent Domain and he would get only one dollar per acre for the land that they actually used.
Threats of law suits went back and forth until a compromise was finally struck in which the railroad would be allowed to pass to the south of the lake and across the Brewster Ranch. In return, the railroad would locate a townsite there and construct a siding with cattle loading facilities, which would then become the property of the Brewster Ranch. This gave Brewster control over the only shipping point with a constant supply of water within a hundred miles in either direction. By charging a fee of twenty cents for each day a cow was kept in his pens, plus another ten cents as a loading fee, Brewster was destined to become the richest and most powerful rancher in the Panhandle.
The route of the railroad was changed slightly to make it run straight westward for four or five miles over state land to where it entered the Brewster property at the south edge of the lake. It would then would follow the shore of the lake for about a mile before leaving the Brewster Ranch and heading toward Buffalo Crossing again.
With more than a million head of cattle grazing on the Panhandle's open range, the shipping business grew so rapidly that Brewster decided to turn the operation of the cattle pens over to his son, Warren, who had just turned twenty years of age. Realizing his son's total lack of business sense, he kept a tight rein on him and hired much more qualified men to keep things running profitably.
It soon became apparent that housing would be needed for all of the cowboys required to run the pens. Rather than trying to have the cowboys stay at the ranch headquarters some twenty miles to the west or building a bunkhouse near the pens, streets were laid out on the land next to the tracks and building lots were offered for sale to Brewster's employees. Within a short time, a number of shacks popped up on the lots.
To help the town get started, Lloyd Brewster built a house for his son about half a mile to the south of the pens. Along what was called Front Street, which paralleled the railroad tracks, he opened a store, a blacksmith shop and a combination eating and drinking establishment called the Wild Horse Saloon. A livery stable and three or four more saloons followed shortly thereafter. Brewster named the new town San Jacinto, in honor of the location of the battle which won independence for Texas.