Terrell County Memorial Museum
A History of Terrell County
By Anna Lee Allen, for Texas Centennial Contest, in her senior year, 1936
Terrell County was created by an act of the State Legislature of Texas, April 8, 1905 and organized July 27 of the same year. It was named for A. W. Terrell, made famous by the Terrell Election Laws. He was active during the Civil War and did much for the State of Texas. He was a minister of the United States to Turkey under President Cleveland. All the land between the Pecos River and the Rio Grande was called Santa Fe County after the boundary dispute with Mexico in 1848, giving this territory to the State of Texas. Later (he county was considered too large and divided into four counties, with the southeastern part being called Presidio County. In 1871 Pecos County was created from Presidio, and Terrell County was a part of that county until its own creation.
The first white person to see this territory was Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard who came through this part of Texas in 1538. It is believed that he came up the present Sanderson Canyon. He travelled on foot and lived on the wild game he killed, wild berries, and food received from the Indians with whom he made friends. Juan Dominguez Mendoza from Mexico City led an expedition which passed through Fort Stockton on January 12, 1684. His path was definitely traced from there to Independence Creek by his complete descriptions of the country.
The first inhabitants were the native Indians. Caves and scattered arrow heads, as well as the many mounds, show that they once lived here. The mounds are made of baked rocks, which were used by the Indians to cook sotol. They cut the large heads, which look something like a large cabbage, and placed them in a pit lined with heated flat rocks and put more rocks on top of them. A large fire was built on this and the heads roasted. The next day the rocks were removed and the sotol dried. The women ground this into a kind of meal which they used for making bread. The large rocks were heated so often that they would crack and become too small for further use. They were thrown around the pit forming what we call Indian mounds.
In the eastern part of the county on the Roy Barksdale ranch is an Indian painting on some flat rocks. A map of the land west of the Pecos is cut in the rocks. The pictures tell the story of an Indian chief who took his son hunting. There are several scenes of the hunt and the deer which they finally killed. In the north central part of the county on the R. N. Allen Ranch, near King Springs, is a cave which shows signs of Indians living there. The walls and a rock in the center have deep marks cut by the Indians sharpening their arrows. The cave is not very large, but it is blackened with smoke showing that fires have been built there.- Many arrow heads and one tomahawk have been found here. Below the cave are two paintings in red and black. One is a buffalo and the other an Indian squaw. Myers Spring is one of the most interesting historical points in the county. It is about fifteen miles northeast of Dryden. The Comanche Indians came here in the fall to hunt. They would bring their squaws and spend about three months of the year at these beautiful springs. The paintings on the walls portray their life and a number of fights they had with the fiercer Apache Indians who were not given to hunting, but more to stealing from the Comanches. The paintings show the bear, symbol of the Comanche race, and lion, symbol of the Apache race. They also indicate an attempt to tell the story of the first Catholic priest to bring Christianity. There is a church and a priest with garb, confused with the worship of the seasons shown by various symbols portraying the sun surrounded by long and short rays, which was believed to be the source of all creation. In 1880 a troop of Seminole scouts, who were part Negro, lived at Myers Spring in about fifteen one room houses made of dirt with ocotillo roofs. They were under the command of Lt. John L. Bullis. He took his scouts and led several raids on the Kikapoo and Lipan Indians. The last of these raids was in August, 1882. The Indians had been raiding the white people, stealing cattle and horses, and often taking lives. They would come up as far as San Angelo and then go back into Old Mexico where the American Government could not bother them. A troop led by Bullis went into Mexico and attacked their village, killing most of them and scattering the remainder. On the return trip they met Mexican troops, but when Bullis said that they were going lo cross at Eagle Pass and did not want trouble, the troops let them pass.
Before civilization came here, the country was more beautiful than it is now. Grass and weeds grew unmolested except for wild animals. The present deep canyons were small cracks with grass covered bottoms. The shrubbery was much the same as it is now; many kinds of cactus, ocotillo, sotol, lechuguilla, cat claw, sucahuista, mesquite, cedar, sumac and several kinds of small trees including red bud, walnut, hackberry and the lead tree. And there were many springs. Above Sanderson was Seminole Spring which never flowed but a few days but furnished a camping place for the Indians and early pioneers. The King Spring was away from any other water but it never had any signs of camps being made there. Around this spring was a kind of phosphorus rock showing the print of fossils and leaves, and it polished beautifully. A rock like this has been found in no other place except East Texas. Below Watkins in the middle part of the county is Cedar Spring.
Frank Dobie in his book "Coronado's Children" locates the "Lost Nigger Mine" as being southwest of Sanderson in Terrell County. The legend is that a Negro cowboy who worked for the Reagan brothers found some gold nuggets while riding the range. He refused to tell where he found the gold and some say that the brothers killed the Negro and threw his body in the Rio Grande River, but others say that he escaped.
Many deer, wolves, and panther used to prowl where sheep and cattle now graze. A stray wolf still comes around occasionally, but the panthers have almost entirely disappeared. In the early days one man killed twenty-eight panthers between the railroad and the river in a short time. The panthers would go down the river to spend the winter and return in the spring. The wolves sometimes found catching a living lamb very difficult when sheep were few and there were no young lambs. When O. W. Williams was surveying the county, he had an interesting experience with wolves. One morning before breaking camp, the men killed a beef and when they put it on the wagon, the tail was left dragging. They began their days work without washing their hands. The next morning their stakes which had been stuck in the ground nearby were gone. There was no one to take them and at first they were puzzled. Soon they found the stakes scattered all over the flat. The wolves had found where the beef was killed and being hungry followed the trail of the tail to camp. The stakes had the smell of blood on them and the wolves, attracted by the red flags, tried to eat them and then carried them away. The men were lucky that their provisions were well protected. The buffalo here were few, but evidence has been found which shows that there were some here. A head was found in one place and several horns have been found. In surveying down on the Rio Grande, Judge Williams was much surprised to find the complete carcass of a buffalo. It was on a point by the river where stock would come to get water, but could not get down and died there looking at the water. There were many carcasses of horses and cattle there. Deer hunting is still a sport, but there are not as many deer as there once were. There used to be so many that a man would kill several on one hunt. Bears have come up from Mexico, and many have been killed before returning. Prairie dogs used to have many "towns" in Terrell County as their deserted villages can still be found on some ranches. Sometimes an unlucky rider's horse will step in one of these holes and break his leg, and a rider's neck is sometimes broken this way. Wild turkey at one time could be found on Independence Creek. Other small animals that can often be seen are fox, bobcat, skunk, ringtail, 'coon, jack rabbit, and javelina.
Charley Wilson was the first person to build a house and own land in Sanderson. When he heard that the railroad was coming, he chose this location and built a saloon. He was a fine, big hearted man, and one of the most colorful characters in West Texas. He liked to gamble and conducted an extensive business in the sale of liquor and gambling. The old Wilson saloon still stands near the depot in testimony of the rare pioneer days. Wilson gained ownership of all the land north of the railroad and no one else could get a deed to the land for many years. Wilson enjoyed telling jokes and also playing them. Wilson had a pet coyote and Sam Lee, a Chinaman who ran a boarding house, had some chickens. Wilson would put corn in front of his coyote and when the chickens would come to eat it the coyote would catch them. Wilson felt like he was feeding his pet for nothing, but one day the Chinaman came over with a bill for so many chickens, and Wilson paid it.
The naming of Sanderson is a very disputed question. One theory is that there were two brothers named Sanderson who had a shack and corrals near the present town site from which they ranged cattle. Then some say that the engineer who constructed the railroad through here was named Sanderson. When the town was just a few tents the name was already fixed. In 1892, the only white people living in Sanderson were Charley Wilson, D. M. Boozer's family and Herman Young's family. The town was composed of the Boozer home, two adobe houses, a bunk house for the railroad men, and some Mexican homes on the east side. The town soon began to prosper. Men were establishing ranches and needed a place for supplies. Yancy Hancock began a mercantile store which shortly became Hancock and Kerr's. At the present time it is the Kerr Mercantile Company, a progressive and modern store, which is a friend of the ranchmen. The early store's sales consisted chiefly of frijoles, potatoes, bacon, flour, cornmeal, syrup, and sugar. Canned goods were too expensive for most people. The dry goods department did not have large displays, but they furnished the necessities. Calico for women's dresses was very cheap, also at the butcher shop, meat was very cheap. Beef was ten cents a pound and brains and liver were given away. Each store had its delivery wagon, but it was very different from the present one. They had a cart which they pushed by hand.
Sanderson's early water works were very simple. Everyone had a water barrel and bought water at the depot for ten cents a barrel and rolled it home by a hook which would catch on the barrel and pull it over. Fred Savage got a burro and would pull the water to the houses and charge twenty cents a barrel. A platform was fixed in front of each home to set the barrel on so that the water could be easily reached. The county court granted Edward McGinley the right to furnish the town of Sanderson with a water system in 1909. In 1911 he was given a contract to construct a power and light system for the town.
After the town began to develop, the problem of law became greater. Every time a case of any kind came up it had to be carried to Fort Stockton. Men had to go over there to county court, and it was a long journey to be made in wagons. At one time it is said that the road could be followed by carcasses of dead horses. They would be over-worked or over-fed and die on the road. The distance to be covered was ninety miles and required two days to make it. After they arrived the accommodations were poor. Most men camped, because they had to have equipment on the road. Sometimes they would stay at the hotel, or if it was full, they rolled their own bed out on the porch. At every election the boxes had to be brought over to Sanderson and then taken back. Often when the election depended upon this precinct the candidates would try to get this box and stuff it. At one time they had their trap all set, but the men carrying the boxes heard of their plans and went by another road. As there were not enough qualified voters they had some trouble in getting a county cut off. By going to Austin they got the bill passed. The first election caused quite a bit of excitement and electioneering on the part of the candidates. Most of them spent more time than they do now, because all work had to be personal and traveling was much slower. The candidates who ran always had several bottles of beer for their friends that drank. They always took apples or some kind of fruit for the children, when they visited a home. The night before election the men would get a group of Mexicans together and giving them plenty to drink would keep them until the polls opened next morning, and then make them all vote for them. The returns of the election of September 27, 1905, gave the following results. Sanderson was chosen as county seat with a cast of only eighty five votes. The officers elected were Joe Kerr, County Judge; George W. Fenley, Sheriff; W. H. Lemons, County Clerk; W. J. Banner, Tax Assessor; S. B. Hudson, County Treasurer; J. B. Johnson, County Surveyor. The most votes cast for one candidate were one hundred and eight, and the least were forty
The first act of the commissioners’ court which met in October was to rent the Wilson Hall from C. M. Wilson, to be used as a court house. The county clerk was paid fifty dollars to transcribe the assessment of taxes on all property in Terrell County. Several interesting incidents can be found in the Minutes of the Commissioners Court. Court house and jail bonds were issued June 12. 1906. An election was called to determine whether or not hogs should be permitted to run at large. By a petition of fifty voters an election was held in 1908 to determine whether or not the sale of intoxicating liquors should be prohibited. The returns for Prohibition were fifty four votes for, and eighty three votes against it. During 1911 five hundred dollars were issued to the Local Fire Company. Also, an order was given to discontinue the public watering trough near Oak Street, because of the nuisance to the citizens of the town, which the stock congregating around the trough caused. Plans were made to reconstruct the "Big Hill" road and make it safe for passengers. During December 1913, two guards were hired to maintain a quarantine issued for small pox patients, and a health nurse was hired to help with the work.
The Sanderson Methodist Church was built in 1905. The people were eager to have a church, and everyone came together to help build the church house. All labor was donated and materials were paid for as they were bought. The first preacher was Brother Cox. One Sunday several members of the congregation were talking, so Brother Cox asked for the meanest man there to come to the front. An old cowboy, wearing his boots, rough clothes, and carrying his big hat, came forward and sat down on the pulpit. The preacher thanked him, and then finished the sermon.
Sanderson's need for a local bank was supplied July 1, 1907. The Sanderson State Bank was organized with a capital of twenty five thousand dollars. The directors were Joe Kerr, C. A. Downie, N. H. Corder, J. C. Stansell, and S. B. Hudson. Joe Kerr has been president since the organization, and Charley Downie and Alexander Mitchell have been the only vice presidents. The first cashier was J. P. Keller. The capital of the bank has increased to sixty five thousand dollars.
One of the pioneer women of Sanderson is Mrs. (Grandma) Savage. She has endured the hardships of the western town and seen it grow to its present standing. She is one of the few pioneers still remaining. She likes to tell of "The good old days." She says that life was a greater pleasure to people then, than it is now. She knew how to shoot a gun and often shot snakes and hawks. One time she was without a gun and a lobo wolf got after her chickens. She went after him with a poker and her two dogs. The dogs got the wolf down, and she beat it in the head until it was dead. Mrs. Savage was often called upon to help the sick. For a long time there was no doctor and if a person was very sick the doctor came up on the train from Del Rio. Doctor Davis was the first doctor to live in Sanderson, but Mrs. Savage did most of her work with Doctor Hudson. He told her one day that there was a sick woman up on "hominy hill", who needed help. "Hominy Hill" was in the area where the Church of Christ now stands. The people who lived up there gave the place its name by making hominy. Mrs. Savage found the family living in a wagon. They had no food and the mother was sick. She told other women about the family, and they got some clothes, while the men brought food to the people. A clean barn was found where the cold could be kept out, and the family was moved into it. The mother's bed was fixed in the manger and there her baby was born. The little boys offered to trade the baby to Mrs. Savage for her dog. Much work was like this and the doctor or nurse seldom got any money for their work.
Another pioneer woman is Mrs. Ellis. She has lived for thirty eight years in her house on Main Street. She came to Texas with her husband from Ohio. Her husband came for his health, and so they lived on his uncle's ranch, which was fifteen miles below Haymond. They spent two days and three nights on the road and she was very tired when they reached Haymond. This was as far as the railroad came. The telegraph office was in a box car. She was resting there when some Chinamen came and started playing with her children. When she objected the operator said that they loved children. Nevertheless she was afraid and asked them to leave her children alone. Twelve years later her husband died and she was left alone to look after her children. People wanted her to go back to her folks in Ohio, but she said that she liked this country and if the people would give her work she would stay. She found a little house in Sanderson, below the tracks, with a grass roof and dirt floors, and there she made a living for her seven children by washing and ironing. Later she moved to her present home and kept boarders.
Terrell County has a crime record which is of some interest. Scudder Biggs, one of the first school teachers, was murdered. He was justice of the peace, and tried to keep peace, but many of the people of the town would not cooperate with him. One night as he came out of the post office two men, McMahon and Bell, said they wanted to talk to him. He went out with them and later when he came back into the light, Bell shot him in the arm. He turned and killed Bell, but McMahon was hidden behind some barrels and shot Biggs in the back. He shot and hit McMahon, and died before he could kill him. This caused so much excitement that very few people slept that night. McMahon was tried and cleared by a jury in Del Rio but later fell on the railroad tracks and was killed. The killing of Doc Anderson and Ed Valentine caused much trouble. Valentine was in the saloon, and after becoming very drunk, drew his gun and told everyone to get out of the saloon or he would shoot them. Everyone left him and was afraid to go back inside. Doc Anderson heard about it, and said that he knew him and would go talk to him. When he stepped in the door, Valentine shot him without a word. The men found it a problem to get him stopped. Bob Gatlin finally located him by the noise that he made and shot him through the door. The train robbery at Baxter's Curve has been a topic of conversation up to the present time. It was a shock and a surprise to the citizens of Terrell County. One evening as passenger train number 109 pulled into Dryden, two men boarded it. One entered the engine and the other the passenger car. They were train robbers. The one man took charge of the engine crew and ordered them to drive to Baxter's Curve. The other came to the baggage car bringing die brakeman with him and forced him at the point of a gun to break the train in two. The passenger cars were left on the bridge with all lights out while the train robbers took the engine crew and express messenger and proceeded to a point one mile ahead where horses were waiting. Here the mail and express was robbed of about sixty thousand dollars. While the robber from the rear was gathering the loot and preparing to leave with it in a bag, the express messenger struck him on the head with an ice mallet, and he fell dead from a single blow. The one in the engine waited an hour for a signal, but it never came. When he grew impatient he forced the engine crew to promise to keep the engine still while he investigated. When he reached the baggage car he called but no answer came. He then looked inside where a low light was burning. He was shot by the express messenger who used the gun of the other robber.
One of the modern necessities was first enjoyed in Sanderson in 1899. George C. Haseltine, a railroad telegraph operator here for several years, built a telephone line from the Kerr Mercantile store to the Dull ranch, north-east of town. This ranch was called the Big Canyon Ranch. The first automobile in Sanderson was owned by N. H. Corder. He had it shipped from San Antonio. A chauffeur had to be brought with the car to teach the owner how to drive it and repair it when necessary. After Terrell County was created the first baby born was Terrell Hunter, on May 8, 1905. Grandma Savage was his nurse. The first marriage recorded was Mr. Arthur Musgrave and Miss Mamie Jeffers, on November 25, 1905.
The railroad which caused Sanderson's establishment began operation through here in 1883. Railroad work is the occupation second in importance in Terrell County. This was the only mode of transportation for many years. The highway came many years later. It followed an old Seminole Scout road from Marathon to Sanderson. In 1918, a third class county road was constructed from Dryden to the Val Verde County line. A few years later the road was paved and it is now a State Highway.
Free, a town which is often seen on old maps of West Texas, was one time a post office in the northwestern part of the county. Mail was carried there about twice a week. Paul Tarver and Frank Edwards were the men who drove the mail hack. When automobiles came into use, the ranchmen could come to town for their mail in so much less time that the post office was no longer needed. Now the remains of an old cistern are all that mark the spot. The only other post office in Terrell County is Dryden, once the headquarters for the Swinging H Cattle Company. After the railroad was built, Dryden was the largest shipping center on the border for cattle from Mexico. Near Dryden is one of the deepest wells in West Texas. It is two thousand feet deep. Dryden is still a small typical West Texas town. Also near Dryden is the airport which is the pride of Terrell County. It is a modern, well equipped airport.
Ranchmen have played a leading part in the development of the county Before wells were drilled, some sheep were drifted here during the winter. There was an abundance of sotol to leed the sheep and water was obtained from the natural waterholes. A heavy fog often enabled the sheep to go many days without water. Some of the first big ranches were the Downie, Big Canyon, T5, Hawthorne and Wilson, N. G. King, D. Hart, and also many smaller ranches. Charles Downie was one of the earliest settlers. He brought his sheep here as early as 1881. He built up a ranch of one hundred and sixty four thousand acres in western Terrell, Pecos, and Brewster Counties, and it has been in continuous operation. Charles Downie was a Scotch pioneer of hearty spirit, who had much to do with the formation and sound building of Terrell County. He was a member of the first as well as many following commissioners’ courts. At one time he owned and financed the operation of the county's only newspaper. He was one of the original organizers as well as vice-president and director of the Sanderson State Bank. It is said that he built the first road to Fort Stockton, and he brought a large number of Chinese, who had been used in construction of the railroad from Langtry through Sanderson, and used them in building the wall supporting the first "big hill" road leading to Fort Stockton. It was so well constructed that it remains today about as well as when it was built. Mr. Downie died May 26, 1928, in Bexar County.
Alexander Mitchell came soon after Downie, he came from Scotland to Boston in 1881. Later he and his brother, James, came to Crockett County and established their ranch. In 1898 he purchased his present ranch in the northern portion of the county. His present ranch is sixty eight thousand acres. Mr. Mitchell helped organize the bank, and is the present vice-president. He is president of the Wool and Mohair Company.
One of the leading citizens and a progressive business man of Sanderson is Joe Kerr. He was born in Ireland and brought to the United States as a small child. He came to Terrell County in 1901. He has done much in the development of the county and in civic improvement. Besides having a large interest in one of the most successful merchandising businesses in West Texas he owns a forty section ranch south of Sanderson.
After the county was organized N. H. Corder and R. R. Russell operated a large ranch of three hundred sections which they purchased from Andrew and J . J . Dull. Known as the Big Canyon Ranch, it has under gone many changes, but it remains a ranch of ninety two thousand acres. Ranches which were at one time a part of it are the Prosser and Brown, Hardgrave, Allen, Roberts, J. M. Corder, Arvin, Appel, Hill, and a part of the Alexander Mitchell.
Among other ranchmen was Henry Packenham who had a ranch on Independence Creek which is still operated by his niece. Doc Turk, a colorful character, is a cattleman who has lived through the development of the ranch from cattleraising to the present raising of sheep.
The chief industry of Terrell County is sheepraising. Sheep from Terrell County are noted on the northern markets. They are known to be in the best condition and to fatten quicker in the feed pens than sheep from any other part of the country. Feeder buyers have been heard to say that Terrell County lambs make the most rapid gains on the same amount of feed of all lambs that they have found. The western part of the county is especially adapted to cattleraising while the eastern and northern is better for sheep and goats. The central and southern part is also well adapted to horse raising, and some fine polo horses are raised here. Terrell County is a delightful place to live and it is my home.
Excerpted from the original document on file at the Terrell County Memorial Museum. Used by permission of the Terrell County Historical Commission.
All text and photos on this site ©Terrell County Memorial Museum, except where attribution is given.