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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

William Lee's
Buggy Ride


by Clay Coppedge

Anybody wanting to write a shoot-em-up western about a range war between cattlemen and sheepmen in the Texas Panhandle of the 1870s would have to make it all up. Conditions were right in that time and place for such a conflict, but it never happened.

The Panhandle was the heart of Comancheria until the Red River Wars of 1874-75 subdued the Comanches and opened up a "sea of grass" on a first-come, first-served basis. Several sheep ranchers and their pastores, or shepherds, began driving their flocks from New Mexico to the Panhandle in 1875. Some, like Casimero Romero, were former Comancheros who had traded with the Comanches for years and knew the country almost as well as their former business associates.

Rancher Charles Goodnight famously established the JA Ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon in 1876, setting the stage for a showdown that Goodnight and Romero settled with a gentlemen's agreement: the pastores would stay out of the canyon and Goodnight's cowboys would stay away from the Canadian River Valley. Other ranchers with their eyes on the lush grasslands had to figure out a different way to get there.

The pioneering sheepmen had it good in those early days. They paid no taxes because the state government in Austin didn't know or really care that they even existed. They fished, hunted, trapped, played their own games and staged lively fiestas that attracted even the area's cowboys. For a while they had an ideal situation and a lot of good country all to themselves.


At the same time, the region's early cattle raisers were gradually expanding and fencing their range. They saw the pastores' sheep as obstacles to their livelihoods and a danger to the entire ecosystem. William D. Lee, who made his fortune with the Lee and Reynolds Overland Freight Company, became a co-owner of the LS Ranch in 1881. Lee hated sheep, believing that the ocean of grass should be turned over to cattle, which would leave high grass, as opposed to sheep, which grazed it close to the ground. He further believed that the sheep's odor contaminated the range.

Sensing correctly that the days of free grass were about over, Lee set his sights on the plazas and surrounding grasslands. Sure, he threatened the sheepmen and stomped and fumed and cussed but it was always more sound than fury. He devised another plan.

One day in 1883, Lee hitched a couple of his horses to a buggy and paid a visit to each and every plaza along the Canadian. He didn't speak much Spanish — some said the only Spanish words he knew were vamoose, pronto and dinero — but he took along some persuasion in the form of $35,000 in cash, which he carried in a common valise — bandits be damned. He stopped at each plaza along the Canadian River Valley and urged the residents to "vamoose" and "pronto." If that didn't work he brought out the dinero. Soon, the pastores and their sheep moved back to New Mexico without a single shot being fired.

By 1884, the plazas were completely deserted. Lee maintained a few of them for LS camps and razed others to unclutter the range. Little remains of the former plazas today except for a few old stone fences and corrals, most of them located on private property. Casimero Romero's place became the site of the rowdy cowtown of Tascosa, but it's long gone too.

In the end, what would surely have been a bloody range war between ranchers and sheepmen was reduced to nothing more than an uneventful buggy trip and a series of financial transactions.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 9, 2021 column



Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Double-Crossed, Double Murder 7-10-21
  • He Got Wes Hardin 6-16-21
  • Cooking the Books 5-16-21
  • It Was That Kind of Railroad 4-17-21
  • The Bettina Experiment 3-17-21

    more »



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