New Mexico Art Tells its History

History: Ranching


 The livestock and livestock product industry is one of the largest in New Mexico producing over $3.0 billion in 2007. The dairy industry brings in the most money annually at $1.3 billion while the beef industry is second at $951 million.

  • There were over 1.5 million head of cattle in the state in 2007 with 340,000 of them being dairy cows.
  • There were over 130,000 sheep as of January 1, 2007.
  • The 2007 calf crop was estimated at 590,000 head with a total beef count of around 1 million.
  • Annual crop and livestock sales exceeded $3.3 billion in 2007.
  • 89% of New Mexico’s 45,787,108 acres of farmland is pasture ground.

The Cattle and Sheep Industry at the End of the 19th Century

In 1598, Juan de Onate, descendant of a wealthy mining family in Zacatecas, Mexico, won the contract to settle New Mexico. The expedition was a full-fledged colonizing enterprise, and the introduction of new animals and plants was an important part of his plan.

An inventory of Onate’s livestock before he left Mexico included 846 goats, 198 oxen for the carts, 2,517 sheep, 316 horses, 41 mules, 53 hogs, 500 calves, and 799 cows, steers and bulls. Before the Pueblo revolt of 1680, cattle ran at will over the ranges of New Mexico.

Various accounts credit Onate with the introduction of wheat, barley, lettuce, cabbage, peas, chile, onions, carrots, turnips, garlic, radishes, cucumbers and a variety of herbs and spices. He also established an irrigation system reliant on an acequia madre, or mother ditch, to direct water from rivers.

While under the rule of Spain 90% of the settlements of New Mexico were located in the valley of the Rio Grande. The colony was remote from the rest of the world and was separated from Vera Cruz and Chihuahua, the centers of trade, by a vast expanse of desert. The trade of the colony was chiefly in the products of mountain and ranch: sheep, wool, hides, furs, deerskins, and buffalo robes. For more than two hundred years New Mexico was isolated by nature and Spanish law, and it was not until after Mexican independence that trade with the United States began over the Santa Fe Trail.

The cattle industry remained in a primitive and undeveloped state until New Mexico was annexed to the United States in 1848, but the great grasslands of the high plains could not be fully utilized until the Indians had been subdued. During the years of the gold rush large herds of cattle were driven to California annually, but rapid growth of the cattle industry did not begin until after the Civil War.

The livestock industry has undergone many changes in New Mexico since the first horses and sheep were brought into the province by Coronado in 1540. Although some sheep and cattle were introduced into the region by subsequent expeditions, they had disappeared before Juan de Onate came with his four hundred colonists in 1598. With this permanent settlement the livestock industry in what is now the United States may be said to have begun.

Until the rush of cattlemen into the region after the Civil War, sheep dominated the agricultural economy. They fed, clothed, and supported the people and were every man’s stock in trade. Vast herds were owned by a relatively few rich families who were given land grants by Spain. They employed herders in great numbers, sometimes on a wage basis, but more often on a so-called partidario basis, a form of share cropping in the raising of sheep, which is as old as Spanish colonization in New Mexico.

After the close of the Civil War, and before the coming of the railroads into New Mexico, cowmen who were engaged in the raising of livestock in other parts of the West and Southwest were attracted to the immense unoccupied grazing lands of the New Mexican Territory. The only serious threat to the business in those days, as it had been to the Spaniards and Mexicans, was from the hostile Indians. The long drives first to army posts in New Mexico, and later to shipping points on the railroads in Kansas were made at the risk of sudden and massed attacks by the Apache and Comanche. The principal railroad shipping points in the 1870’s were Dodge City, Abilene, and Newton, Kansas, and cattle were driven to these points from the great ranges and ranches in western Texas and New Mexico.

The Big Ranches of the Lea Llano Estacado

Russell - Last of the HerdDue to several devastating West Texas droughts of the middle 1880’s, numerous cattlemen were forced westward in search of sufficient grass for their expanding herds. Without question, the first essential for the incoming ranchers was a source of water. Quite naturally then, it is not difficult to see why the first known ranching operations on the future Lea Llano developed around the visible watering places – Monument Spring, Dug Spring about twenty miles south, Ranger Lake, and Four Lakes to the north, and the White Sand Hills to the far south where the army’s expedition to map the Llano Estacado had discovered standing holes of water. The aforementioned watering places would soon become the heart of four of the great ranches of the Lea Llano, with each becoming the ranches’ headquarters.

The San Simon Ranch

The buffalo hunters, who were resolutely determined to stay on the Llano Estacado, turned to digging water wells. Since they could lay claim to the wells by squatter’s rights, the men would camp by a newly dug well until a prospective buyer would come along. Then they would shift to another location and repeat the process, thus providing for themselves a moderate living.

In the fall of 1884, Francis Divers drove twelve hundred head of longhorn Mexican cattle from Starr County, Texas to San Angelo, Texas. It was here that he hired a young cowboy named Bill Oden, who would become his top hand. In his later years Oden chronicled an account of crossing the state line into New Mexico Territory with the long dusty trip terminating at Dug Springs.

Divers and Oden found the site already staked out by Louis and Gyat Faulkner, they also being ex-buffalo hunters. An offer from Divers of $250 in gold was readily accepted by the two men, thereby relinquishing their claim on the watering spot. This simple business transaction marked the beginning of the Dug Spring Ranch. Divers utilized the brand TAX with an open “A”. In 1887 Divers put Oden in charge as the overseer of his New Mexico ranch and moved to the thriving railroad town of Midland, Texas. Oden changed the name of the ranch to TAX from the brand Divers had used. On October 23, 1884, Frank Divers sold the TAX Ranch to the Elliott Cattle Company of Midland for $34,000. James M. Daugherty, a successful cattleman from Abilene, Texas purchased the ranch from the Elliott Cattle Company in October 1895 for $45,000, which included thirty-five hundred head of cattle and fifty-five saddle horses. The large ranch changed ownership once again in February 1897 when another Abilene citizen, Claiborne Walker Merchant, acquired it from Daugherty and Frank Divers, who still retained partial ownership. Merchant was one of the founders of Abilene and co-owner of the San Simon Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, with his partner, James Harrison Parramore. The sale included grazing rights, the two-room adobe ranch house that Divers had built in 1885, and four watering places; however no land was sold since it was situated on public land and owned by the federal government. Merchant renamed the ranch the San Simon after his Arizona counterpart, and stocked it with five hundred Texas longhorns. The San Simon in New Mexico encompassed twenty-one hundred square miles or sections, making a total of 1,344,000 acres, and was operated by Merchant’s two youngest sons, Mack and Will Merchant, and his nephew Dick Seay.

The Hat Ranch

Sprawling across the midsection of future Lea County was the Hat Ranch, encompassing an area 35 miles wide and 150 miles long. It stretched from the Pecos River near present-day Carlsbad, New Mexico, east to near the site of Brownfield, Texas. R.F. Kennedy, a Scotsman working for the Earl of Aylesford, was sent to Monument Spring in the spring of 1885 to acquire an estate for the earl who was headquartered at Big Spring, Texas. Kennedy offered the handsome sum of $5,500 to ex-buffalo hunters James Harvey and Dick Wilkerson, owners of the Monument Spring, who accepted the money without hesitation. In the fall of 1885 Kennedy drove one thousand head of cattle from Gonzales County, Texas, to stock the new ranch. When the Earl met an untimely death in January 1886, R.F. Kennedy was not able to be reimbursed for buying the ranch. This unfortunate event necessitated a change in plans, forcing Kennedy to remain on the ranch and operate it as the sole owner. He branded with an elongated or mashed “O,” which gave rise to his nickname “Mashed O Kennedy.” Early in 1891, Kennedy purposed to return to his home in England, having sold out on April 17 to the McKenzie brothers’ outfit, owned by E.W. and Thomas W. McKenzie, for $26,000. The McKenzies operated the extensive Monument Springs Ranch for about three years, and gradually acquired additional smaller ranches. But regrettably, having overextended their finances, they were forced to liquidate their holdings.

On March 10, 1893, the McKenzies sold four of the acquired ranches to Andres B. (Sug) Robertson of Mitchell County, Texas. In turn Robertson sold his Monument Springs Ranch to long time friend, Winfield Scott of Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 19, 1894 for $80,000. The sale included eight thousand head of cattle, one hundred head of horses, several wells and windmills, and ranch houses. Winfield Scott changed the brand of his newly acquired ranch to a “hat” design and greatly increased the size of the ranch. In December 1897, Scott sold back to A.B. Robertson a one-fourth interest in the newly christened Hat Ranch for $126,000. Over the next few years, the two men managed to amass about one million acres of ranch land, fifty thousand head of cattle and five hundred horses. At its peak, the Hat Ranch had branded thirty-one thousand calves in one season and employed as many as sixty men to operate the large enterprise. On June 3, 1899, A.B. Robertson sold a one-third interest of his share in the Hat Ranch to his brother, Richard P. Robertson. Dick Robertson had been the manager of the Hat Ranch since 1896, and his son, Clifford Robertson, got the job as outside man.

The Hat Ranch served as a voting place for Precinct 5 of Eddy County, New Mexico, beginning in the November election of 1894, and continuing until 1901. By September 1901 the Hat holdings had diminished to about twelve thousand head of cattle and fifty horses. But by that same year, the Hat cowboys had sunk twenty-six water wells at a cost of $20,000.

The beginning of the end for the huge ranch occurred in late 1901, when its holdings across the line in Texas went up for sale to the vast number of homesteaders pouring into the area. Its New Mexico portion suffered a similar fate in 1903 when Edward W. Ramsey (who had succeeded Dick Robertson as foreman in December 1899) moved on Christmas Day to the ranch’s headquarters ten miles west of present-day Seminole, Texas. In June 1902 the Hat owners had purchased a ranch in Dawson County, Montana, and in April 1904, they began to ship their cattle to the new ranch. The last of the HAT cattle were driven northward to Portales, New Mexico, bound for Montana, in late 1905.

William Fletcher Weir purchased what remained of the Hat Ranch on February 21, 1906, which included the famous Monument Spring. The transaction was the culmination of Weir’s lifelong dream to own the ranch. Weir paid $2,000 for the property around the old rock fortress, but did not get the “hat” brand. Winfield Scott had chosen to give the brand as a gift to a young orphaned cowboy named Charles Fristoe, who had faithfully assisted him in selling out in 1905. In 1913 Fristoe bought the ranch from Weir’s descendants and restored the old “hat” brand, but later opted to sell out on February 17, 1967, to W.B. (Dub) Baum of Tatum, New Mexico. The old ranch with its famous landmark is operated today by the Baums’ daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Cooper.

The Four Lakes Ranch

The Four Lakes Ranch was the largest single ranch to encompass future Lea County. Comprised of almost 1.5 million acres, it covered nearly the north half of the future county, with its south boundary line only one mile north of present-day Lovington, New Mexico. George Washington Littlefield and his nephews, James Phelps White and Thomas D. White, who ranched east of Roswell, New Mexico, on the Pecos River, established their headquarters at Four Lakes, about sixty miles east of Roswell. The name of their ranch was derived from the four small alkali lakes located nearby. Littlefield also purchased other smaller ranches in the area, including the Ranger Lake Camp. Cowboys from Littlefield’s LFD (Littlefield Freight Drivers) Ranch had scouted the area in the fall of 1882 as a potential site for a ranch. The Four Lakes Ranch was in full operation by 1886 after twenty thousand head of cattle were driven to the High Plains ranch. At its peak operation, the ranch was grazing forty-five thousand cattle, in addition to four hundred horses and mules.

Van Soelen - Working with the WagonThe Four Lakes Ranch also had the distinction of being one of the first ranches to erect drift fences. Used not only to prevent LFD cattle from being pushed too far from grazing areas by blizzards that occurred all too often on the Llano, the drift fences also served as a deterrent for neighboring cattle from straying into the Littlefield herds. In 1890 James Phelps White, the Four Lakes Ranch foreman, constructed two drift fences, both running east and west. The north boundary fence was stretched fifteen miles north of Four Lakes near present-day Milnesand, New Mexico. The one forming the southern boundary was forty-nine miles long and was strung one mile north of present-day Lovington, on the Chaves and Eddy County line. Both fences ran parallel to one another and were fifty miles apart. Such enclosures were technically illegal in New Mexico at the time, as federal law prohibited enclosing public domain. But since drift fences were stretched in the fashion of a tennis net, most ranchers argued that they weren’t really enclosing anything.

The Four Lakes Ranch served as the voting place for Plains Precinct 8 of Chaves County, New Mexico, for the period 1904 – 1906. With the influx of settlers moving into the area, by 1906 the empire-like ranch was beginning to shrink.

The JAL Ranch

The JAL Ranch made its debut on the Lea Llano Estacado in 1885 when William Henry Cowden and his brothers, George Edgar and John Motherwell Cowden, moved into the southeastern corner of future Lea County from the Monahans White Sand Hills area. In the spring of 1886 the Cowden brothers began operating full-time in New Mexico, but maintained their central headquarters in Midland, Texas. A three-room adobe house was constructed approximately twenty-five miles southeast of Monument Spring or roughly six miles northeast of present-day Jal, New Mexico.

The JAL Ranch grew rapidly and used the “JAL” brand, with the crossbar of the “A” omitted. Over the next few years, the JAL Ranch increased to a herd of forty thousand cattle, and sprawled over an area that covered more than one-fourth of future Lea County. Its boundaries extended almost to the Pecos River on the west, and to the Texas line and beyond on the east. Its southern boundary reached from the Texas line, north to the HAT Ranch’s drift fence. The Cowdens continued to operate the JAL Ranch for more than twenty-five years. With the arrival of so many settlers after 1900, the large spread began to suffer the inevitable. As nesters began to stake out their claims, the JALs began to fade out of existence. Following New Mexico’s statehood in early 1912, John Cowden purchased the JAL interest from his brothers.

Ranching Today

A general view of the stock industry today presents a very different picture. The modern cattleman is a businessman. By scientific methods he has developed the haphazard practices of the old-time cowmen (who turned their stocks loose on the public range and trusted to fortune and nature to return them a profit on it) into an efficient system in which the stock raiser knows the value and number of his herds, is familiar with their productiveness, and can figure with a fair degree of certainty his yearly profits. In the old days the “big” cattleman was one who owned from fifteen to thirty thousand head of cattle; the “big” sheepman owned as many as half a million head. Today a few cattlemen own more than three thousand; and ten or twenty thousand sheep is a big flock for one man or firm.

The large Bell Ranch in Harding County and those in the neighborhood of Magdalena are the last outposts of the great ranches and the open range; elsewhere cattle are generally raised in small herds and fattened at shipping points on the railroads. In the San Juan area in the northwest, the huge crops of alfalfa are used to feed cattle in small herds. Oil and gas developments in the east and southwest have made that industry more profitable than stock raising; and in some areas sheep have driven out cattle altogether. Sheep are still raised in great flocks in some areas of the state, notably those in the north and the southwest, and by the pastoral Indian tribes – formerly nomadic huntsman--the Apache and Navaho.

Collier - Cordova, Rio Arriba County, NMIt is said that there are as many head of livestock in New Mexico today as there were twenty or thirty years ago, but they are confined to half the former area. In 1936 there were 2,337,000 sheep and lambs and 991,000 cattle on the farms; horses, mules, and hogs totaled 222,000. There were over 1.5 million head of cattle and 130,000 sheep in the state in 2007.

In 1916, an excellent year for the industry, the value of livestock in the state totaled $22,000,000. In 1938, the total valuation, inclusive of cattle, calves, sheep, and lambs, was more than $56,000,000: and horses, mules, and swine increased this total by another $7,000,000. Annual crop and livestock sales exceeded $3.3 billion in 2007.

“Cattle Industry of New Mexico”
James I. Culbert
Economic Geography, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr.,1941) pp. 155-168
Published by Clark University

Lea County Western Heritage Museum
New Mexico Junior College
Hobbs, New Mexico

Lea County Museum
103 South Love
Lovington, New Mexico

Lea County New Mexico; A Pictorial History
Lynn C. Mauldin
The Donning Company Publishers,1997


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