1850 to 1900, new settlers flocking to the Panhandle
and West Texas prairies
faced almost insurmountable odds in establishing a legal homestead.
Most had few resources at hand or the time to waste as they searched
The entire area was not surveyed, with only the outside boundaries
identified as the 100th and 103rd meridians on the east and west and
No Man's Land on the north. Even these boundaries changed with each
new government survey.
Although the Texas Legislature's "checker-board" scheme of land identification
was ingenious in design, it placed all the efforts of locating, surveying
boundaries and registration of claims onto the settlers, many of whom
were illiterate or unfamiliar with complicated claim requirements.
Communication at the time was slow and inefficient with only a minimum
of state offices and officials available to serve the public. In addition
to these problems, the big ranchers who had filed on hundreds of sections
of grass made every effort to forestall and discourage settlement
on the open sections within their ranch boundaries.
The big ranches illegally fenced their vast checker-board claims with
leaving no access gates for settlers searching for open, unclaimed
sections. When laws were passed making it illegal to maintain such
fences, the ranchers began leaving an "eight inch gap" between the
corners of fences allowing human passage but not livestock passage.
used Winchester Patrols to keep out settlers from the vast JA Ranch
holdings using the excuse of keeping "tick herds" from the south away
from native cattle. Most large ranches also made it possible for loyal
employees to claim sections of land within their boundaries containing
live water with the promise of "buy-back-with-profit" deals offered
at a later date. After the homestead claims were termed legal, they
offered the employees several acres for one acre in trade if they
chose land on the outskirts of the ranch land boundaries.
All open sections owned by the state were leased to nearby land owners.
Another scheme operated by the big ranches was carried out by waiting
until a few days before the current lease terminated, traveling to
Austin, canceling the current
lease and applying for a new lease immediately. With no one around
to compete or bid against them, a new five-year lease was signed.
After a homestead was located, the boundaries surveyed and the claim
papers filed, completion of the homestead requirements still had to
be completed. In the absence of common building materials, dugouts,
sod houses and rock cellars were built to meet the housing requirements
and the individuals had to actually live there for a period each year.
Residents had to burn cow chips for fires, haul water in barrels from
the nearest creek and endure Mother Natures' elements of floods, drought,
blizzards and heat. When added to the human obstacles and the remoteness
of the prairie, it's a wonder the lands were ever settled.
We owe a debt of gratitude to these early pioneers who had to be tough
and determined to survive the times and pave the way for progress.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" December
11, 2007 Column
Texas Ranches & Ranching