Terrell County Memorial Museum

Sanderson, Texas

The history of Sanderson and Terrell county begins in the shrouded mists of pre-history, with the influx of Native Americans into the area thousands of years ago.


European incursions began in 1535 when Cabeza de Vaca explored the Trans-Pecos.  Other Spanish and Mexican explorers followed through the next three centuries.


In 1848 the Hays-Highsmith expedition made one of the first official explorations of West Texas by the United States.


At the cessation of hostilities in the Mexican War, the Treaty of Hidalgo decreed that a boundary be surveyed and established between the United States and Mexico. The Boundary Commission Expedition took place in 1851 with Major Emory at the helm, drawing newly-conquered lands from Mexico into the boundaries of the United States.


In 1856, Lt. Edward Harte made the first camel expedition through the TransPecos.  Eventual abandon-ment of that project left wild camels roaming the area for years afterward.


An 1860 expedition by Brevet Major W. H. Echols surveyed the Comanche Trail using  camels and mules.


But, in spite of all this activity, true settlement of the region was hindered by Native American peoples of the area, who did not give in easily to the confiscation of their lands by U. S. settlers.


Raids, kidnappings and atrocities were committed by the Comanches, Lipan Apaches and other indigenous peoples until the 1880s, when Lieutenant John Lapham Bullis and his Seminole Scouts and Buffalo Soldiers put a stop to Indian raids in West Texas.


Though Mexican settlers had lived in the area for centuries, one of the first U. S. sheepmen,  Mr. Charles Downie, moved into the Sanderson area and established his ranch in 1881.


This coincided with the arrival of Chinese workers building an all-weather southern transcontinental rail route for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  This set the stage for the coming of Sanderson.


Born as a railroad boomtown and engine servicing terminal with the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1882, Sanderson served area ranchers as a shipping point for cattle, sheep and mohair products.


Every bit a “Wild West” town, Sanderson had a colorful and lurid history before finally becoming the county seat of the new Terrell County in 1905.  With a background of outlaws, gambling, bawdy saloons and deadly shootouts, the lawless element was banished with the coming of the new sheriff and his tough deputies.


With the criminal element in check, the town was free to become a commercial center, with modern amenities not available in neighboring towns.  The addition of a water system in 1907 and a power generation plant in 1912 allowed the town to blossom in the forbidding Chihuahua Desert of West Texas.


The relatively high wages of the railroadmen and the entrepreneurial spirit of its early businessmen helped create an oasis, drawing many newcomers to the flourishing community. 


The citizens boasted of having the best hotel and department store between El Paso and San Antonio, and rightly, so.  And that, along with pharmacies,  auto dealers, milliners, haberdashers, grocery stores, mom-and-pop tiendas, bakeries, beauty salons, barbershops, a  newspaper and full-service printing shop, a contingent of motels, hotels, restaurants, auto service stations and other businesses, made Sanderson and Terrell County a Mecca for area shoppers and those seeking a better life.


From the beginning of the county in 1905 until the present day, the city has maintained a top-rated school system, with modern facilities and the best staff in every generation.  Sanderson has always valued its children and their education, and has made sure that they were properly prepared to make their way in the modern world.


And, all of this history is captured in great detail in the first-hand accounts of our citizens in our county history book, "Terrell County - Its Past - Its People." Often told in their own, colorful language, their stories read like recorded interviews.  At times hilarious and at other times filled with great drama and pathos, their accounts are always entertaining, gripping the reader like a good adventure novel.


All text and photos on this site ©Terrell County Memorial Museum, except where attribution is given.