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West Texas: A Brief History

West Texas: A Brief History

"Opportunity abounds for those willing to take on the risk. It forever remains a harsh and wondrous land," writes James M. Decker

The year was 1836. Pope Gregory XVI sat at the Vatican. Charles Darwin and HMS Beagle sailed into Sydney. In America, Andrew Jackson was President. Samuel Colt built his first pistol. In the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas, Anglo and Tejano settlers were in rebellion against a despot named Santa Anna, the self-styled “Napoleon of the West.”

On February 23, Santa Anna would lay siege to a tiny mission in San Antonio called the Alamo. 185 Texians, commanded by 26 year-old William Barret Travis, adventurer Jim Bowie, and frontiersman Davy Crockett, would hold out against a massive Mexican army for thirteen days before perishing. On March 2, 60 men would sign a Declaration of Independence establishing Texas as its own nation. The next month, on April 21, the revolution was over. The fledgling Republic of Texas would exist for the next 9 years until annexation by the United States,

Back to the east, Texas grew and prospered. Pioneers cut farms and towns from wilderness and capitalized on fertile lands and abundant resources. In the west, it was a different story. Settlers struggled to gain a toehold in a harsh, wondrous land. The land tantalized with opportunity, but they were beat back by weather extremes, forbidding geography and the most fearsome of all challenges, the Comanche. These brutal, brilliant horse warriors rode far and wide across the West Texas plains, following the buffalo and fending off Anglo settlement with brutal raids and vicious atrocities, the likes of which the world has rarely seen.

In 1874, the Gilded Age was underway. Railroads, mass immigration, and manufacturing transformed America from an agrarian nation to an industrial power. But in West Texas, little had changed. Federal forts were abandoned in the War Between the States and the Comanche pushed the frontier eastward an incredible 150 miles. Settlers warily pushed back west.


Fort Concho ca. 1872

In the late summer, an intense, distinguished Army officer named Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackezie set out from Fort Concho with the Fourth U.S. Cavalry. Years of failed Indian policy were replaced by succinct orders: find the Comanche and destroy them. A daring, dazzling campaign ensued, and over many months, Mackenzie’s cavalry convergedwith other army columns to strike a decisive blow against the Comanche deep in their home territory.

It took many decades longer than the eastern parts of Texas, but the western plains were finally open for settlement. Cattlemen and farmer, German and Swede, old and young, male and female, poured into West Texas. The Comanche were gone, but the other challenges were not—settlers fought weather and geography, flora and fauna, in hopes of building a new, better life in this land. Many gave up, but the ones who remained found the challenges rewarding, and they carved out a paradise of cattle, cotton, and wheat. As the 20th century opened, the frontier finally closed, but the discovery of oil led to a new century of adventure and opportunity.

As West Texas settles into the 21st century, life is different, but no less challenging or adventurous. The weather is unpredictable and extreme. The local flora and fauna bristle with thorns, stickers, and stingers. Cattle, cotton, wheat, and oil dominate the economy. Opportunity abounds for those willing to take on the risk. It forever remains a harsh and wondrous land.


Follow James Decker on Twitter @jamesdecker2006

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  • Wood Allen
    March 17, 2016, 7:27 pm

    Beautifully and succinctly (Was that your word? Lawyers do not prize it, but you are one of the best, so others should heed!) written. Poetic. Opportunities are abundant in an area we call "home"!


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