A New Mexico Federal Writers' Project Book

Editors’ Preface
            Landscape plays a dominant role in the history and cultures of a people. For centuries, New Mexico was a place where peoples hunted game over broad distances and grew crops in the contrasting lands of dry desert, riverine valleys, grasslands, plains and mountains. After the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century with domesticated animals, land use began to shift towards life on the range. The stories in Cowboys, Ranching & Cattle Trails illustrate this changing relationship to land and its resources.
            When Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his conquistadores entered New Mexico in 1540 they encountered a farming culture in which Pueblos grew corn, beans, calabashes and other crops. The Spaniards introduced new crops as well as sheep, cattle and horses. The following spring, when they gave up hope of finding gold and returned to Mexico, most of the livestock disappeared with them or wandered off.
            Domesticated animals were reintroduced to New Mexico in 1598, when Juan de Oñate arrived with 846 goats, 198 cart oxen, 2,517 sheep, 316 horses, 41 mules, 53 hogs, 500 calves, 799 cows, steers and bulls. The cultivation of livestock took hold. Sheep herds proliferated; Franciscan friars and the Pueblos began to produce woolen cloth.
            When the Pueblos revolted against Spanish rule in 1680 and drove the invaders out, they kept some of the herds and flocks. Cattle roamed freely over the ranges. In 1692, when Spanish conquistadores reentered the area, a few wealthy landowners dominated the landscape with vast herds of sheep. The partido system—a sort of sharecropping arrangement in which the sheepherder, paid in sheep, could establish his own herd over time—controlled the area’s economy. Later, when New Mexico became part of the Territorial United States, merchants flooded into the region by way of the Santa Fe Trail to buy up wool for shipment east.
            But a major change in the livestock economy was occurring. In 1866, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving drove their first herd of longhorn cattle across west Texas and up the Pecos River to Fort Sumner in search of grasses and markets for their cattle. Their outfits supplied beef to the U.S. Army as well as to Navajos held captive at Fort Sumner; they also drove herds to railheads, such as Magdalena and Dodge City, for shipment east.
            More cattlemen streamed into New Mexico from Texas on the heels of the Civil War. The more ambitious among them established vast spreads (sometimes on original Spanish land grants) with hundreds of cowboys employed to ride herd, work roundups and drive cattle to railheads and markets. By 1875, a year before the Lincoln County War broke out between rival ranchmen, John Chisum’s Jinglebob Ranch in Chaves County supported 80,000 head of cattle.
            The 1880s was a dynamic decade for ranchers and sheepmen in New Mexico. Those years saw the establishment of a regional railroad system, which facilitated shipping of livestock. It also encompassed a devastating spate of blizzards and drought, resulting in widespread loss of livestock. In 1881 an increase in cattle prices caused many ranchers to sell out to large ranching syndicates; the same year saw the introduction of barbed wire fences on the Southern Plains.
            By the 1890s, cattle ranching overshadowed the sheep industry. But sheep remained an essential part of life on the range. Around the time that New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project writer Lorin W. Brown filed his eloquent interview with the sheepherder Basílico Garduño, there were still 2,337,000 sheep in New Mexico. Sheepmen, like ranchers, played an essential role in the iconic western landscape.
            As some of the stories in this collection remind us, the Mexican vaquero taught the Texas cowboy much of what he needed to know to survive in the new land. Of the cowboy in New Mexico, Brown wrote, “His everyday life was full of expressions descriptive of events, tasks, and physical features of the country itself, so commonly used in the original Spanish as to have become a part of his native tongue without his being aware of it.”
            During the 1890s the open range was increasingly fenced in with miles and miles of drift fences to keep the herds within boundaries. Huge range spreads began to shrink. The present era of fenced-in cattle ranching had begun.
            Cowboys, Ranching & Cattle Trails features oral histories by and about the many enterprising men, women, and children who inhabited Territorial New Mexico. Whether living on remote ranches, herding sheep or driving cattle along the trails, they exhibited initiative, endurance and downright toughness—qualities that readers may recognize as aspects of a collective western imagination.
            Cowboys, ranchers and sheepherders in this volume tell their stories in their own words; these stories were transcribed, translated and sometimes elaborated by the able writers of the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project. As editors, we have tried to remain faithful to each writer’s style and intent, making grammatical changes to the original documents only where deemed necessary for readability. Although the manuscripts in this collection do not tell the whole story—most notably, the voices of Native Americans were omitted, and women informants are rare—they do give us a picture of a vibrant era in New Mexico history.
            We are grateful to the writers of the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project who made this collection of stories possible. In Cowboys, Ranching & Cattle Trails, as in the four previous volumes in this series, the field writers’ spirited documentation provides us with an authentic, lively and truly splendid record of life in Territorial New Mexico.