When Ben Leaton went into his fort after sunset and closed the thick mesquite gates, he knew he was not safe. No one was ever completely secure in the Big Bend region of southwest Texas. Water and food were scarce, the sun and snakes were often fatal, and any help was invisible far beyond the horizon.
Leaton had built the structure to protect his family but not even the 20-foot walls would have prevented the Comanche and Mescalero Apache from violating the security of his home, if they ever chose to attack. The walls were almost three feet thick but similar constructions in the area had already been tunneled under and chipped through by Indigenous tribesmen determined to kill the whites, Spaniards, and Mexicans moving into their country.
A few outlanders refused to be intimidated by the Indians. Leaton, who had experienced the harsh country of the high deserts during the Mexican-American War, had decided there was likely money to be made as commerce emerged between the two countries following the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Freight wagons were expected to eventually move between San Antonio and Chihuahua and Leaton’s personal fortress was ideally positioned as a sanctuary and retail operation along the Rio Grande. The people and the commerce of America’s westward expansion was hundreds of miles to the north and decades from creating the opportunities Leaton had already envisioned for his spot along the Rio Grande.
There must have been a livelihood that Leaton and his contemporaries foresaw but as my motorcycle topped an 8,000-foot pass, more than 160 years of history and the advance of civilization did not suggest the remotest prospect of prosperity, and certainly not any form of comfort. The only sign that humans had ever traversed the dark lava spills and giant boulders was the chip seal caliche Texas Farm to Market Road 170. When I put the kickstand down at the scenic pullout, the big river looked small and still from altitude. The watercourse cut through escarpments and along lava fields into a hazy western distance.
“I just looked on my truck and it said it’s 99 degrees.” I turned around to see a large man with a goatee and a small dog on a leash. “Good lord, it’s almost December. What the hell is it like out here in the summer?”
“Hotter,” I answered.
“Well, I damned sure wouldn’t be ridin’ out here alone. I haven’t seen another vehicle in almost an hour.”
Ben Leaton’s old fort was still an hour west along the Rio Grande and I wanted to arrive in time to get at least a docent’s historical briefing. The fact that Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, and Europeans had moved through this landscape on horse and foot made a motorcycle run with a 1200 cc engine seem a bit timid but I rolled down the mountain gaining speed to cover a distance it had to have taken them two weeks to cover in the mid-nineteenth century.
What must they have thought? There was little vegetation beyond the ocotillo and prickly-pear cactus, scattered cottonwoods down by the river, and some marshy grasses along narrow stretches where the water slowed and eddied and moved up the sand bars. Temperatures in the summer were consistently near 120 degrees daily and the air lacked even a trace of moisture for long months. There seemed little to hope for beyond the avoidance of rattlesnake or scorpion bites.
“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the mortal risks of living out here, even now,” a long time Big Bend resident told me. “Back then, you really were on your own. A snakebite was usually death. Running out of water while riding twenty miles to your neighbor’s? The same thing.”
Desolation and poisonous reptiles were not the greatest danger, though. The mountains and deserts were roamed by the fiercest of Indian tribes known north of the Rio Grande. The Comanche Chief, Baja Sol, was said to consider the presence of Anglos, Spaniards, and Mexican settlers a crime punishable by death, and killed so wantonly that narratives of the time from Chihuahua say that it “took courage just to whisper his name.” Mescalero Apache were equally vicious toward outsiders and both tribes constantly raided Mexican cattlemen; they came down from the mountains, killed the herders, and left with live animals and butchered beef cuts to be dried.
Not even Ben Leaton’s fort offered much protection. His horses, cattle, and mules were constantly being stolen from outside the walls where they grazed and watered. After a series of thefts and raids on his property, Leaton decided to try a peaceful approach to ending his problems with the Comanche. Mrs. O. L. Shipman, a contemporary of Leaton’s who lived nearby in the Presidio del Norte, told the story of Leaton’s olive branch overture, and it was later reported in a newspaper toward the end of the 19th century.
“He invited the chiefs to dinner inside the fort,” she said. “These were the Comanche everyone knew were doing the stealing and killing down there. I suppose Ben thought he might buy them off by offering a cow or two every now and again.”
A feast was spread along a great table in the main dining hall of Leaton’s fort. Whiskey and wine were poured freely and huge beefsteaks were seared and laid before the chiefs and many of their braves. Leaton later told friends that he had assumed the evening was a great success and he thought an understanding had been achieved and there was even a distant possibility of friendship.
“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Shipman said, “the next morning his campesinos came into tell him that when the Comanche left the night after the meal they took with them a large number of Ben’s mules, horses, and cattle. Maybe the Indians had no idea that what they did was wrong, or that it was at least a rude way to treat your host. There’s just no way to ever know.”
Lacking a cultural context for how Leaton might have interpreted their thieving, the Comanche had no cause to be suspicious a few weeks later when they were invited back to the fort for another dinner and celebration. Leaton had been trading guns for horses and cattle with the Comanche and they were accustomed to frequent interactions. Food and drink were again plentiful and the natives were quickly inebriated on Leaton’s expensive whiskey and wine. Even without impaired perceptions, though, they were unlikely to have noticed a new wall built along the edge of the courtyard where they were dining. The previous gathering had been held indoors but this was a warm evening in the Chihuahua Desert and the table had been spread in the open air.
“There were cannons behind that wall,” Mrs. Shipman said. “The military had sometimes used the fort as a garrison and for storage so Ben had a couple of small cannons available. When the Indians were sufficiently drunk, he and his family and workers left the courtyard and he gave the orders to open fire.”
The explosions burst through the false façade and massacred the sated Comanche, lingering over the abundant table. The few still writhing after the cannon shot were gunned dead by riflemen stationed along the parapets at the top of the fortress. The number of Indians killed was not recorded but Leaton’s problems with the regional tribes temporarily abated.
The Comanche and Apache were expressing territoriality for a region known as La Junta de los Rios, a Spanish name that describes the junction of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos rivers in a valley archaeologists say is the oldest continually cultivated site in North America. The Rio Concho drains a giant alluvial watershed in Northern Mexico and the Rio Grande runs 1896 miles from southwestern Colorado and the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico.
The flood plains at the confluence of the rivers, which have provided fertile soil to sustain agriculture for centuries, were visible twenty miles distant from the motorcycle. Cane breaks, reeds, and marshes stood up improbably from the desert scrub and ocotillo bushes.
The evidence from various archaeological digs indicates that the first humans discovered the oasis of La Junta some time between 8,000 and 6500 BC. Javelina, rattlesnake, fox, mountain lion, and other small game were hunted; they also ate fruit from the prickly-pear cactus and other plants. The hunter-gatherers of the Paleo-Indian Period were replaced about 1500 BC with the arrival of the Cochise culture, which planted corn and began to live in jacales, long, low-roofed huts made of ocotillo sticks and mud. Because the region was also watered by abundant springs and presented a safe crossing of the river, it became a busy trade route and in a few centuries the Cochise were replaced by the Mogollon people, who later assimilated into the mysterious Anasazi of New Mexico.
The region had long been a fascination for me. An outsider saw nothing but inhospitable surroundings in the La Junta, but great endeavors had transpired here long before American wagon trains were cutting tracks across the plains. My keenest interest was in the men who had inexplicably ended up here from the east coast of the U.S. and the cultured and affluent lives they had fashioned out of the isolation. I was convinced that one of them had given America the notion of the cowboy, which was more than just a cattle herder or rancher.
The first cowboy, in my analysis, had initiated the concept of a cattle drive to move great herds of animals from remote locations to markets where they could be sold, and, in the process, established a set of unflinching principles by which he lived and operated his businesses. This physically daunting task, which involved the added risk of bandits and Indian depredations, was later romanticized as the country sought to rewrite the narrative of its brutal expansion and the ensuing genocide of native people. The national psychology, generations later, seems to have cured itself of any guilt associated with the mass killings of Indian tribes and the iconic cowboy has endured, mostly as a good guy in a white hat who only shot people who needed shooting.
The story was hardly that concise, however, because the cowboy was mostly just a man who did whatever was necessary to survive, and maybe make a little money. His principles often weakened when required to overcome difficult circumstances. Before Manifest Destiny, the settlement and growth of the West was occurring in a microcosm along the Rio Grande in the area around what is now Presidio, Texas. The river crossing served as funnel to force together dreamers, outlaws, bounty and scalp hunters, adventurous settlers, and people carrying secrets they hoped to forget. This region, La Junta de los Rios, included a diversity of races and characters that became retail traders, highwaymen, ranchers, soldiers, and killers as a means of simply making it to another day.
Out of their midst, legends emerged that were actually less compelling than the realities that have never been widely told. Even though La Junta helped shape the contours of life in the American West even before the country expanded, history has taken little note of the valley, perhaps, because of its distant geography and international character, which separates it as not distinctly American and, consequently, of less interest to U.S. historians. But there were people and undertakings of great consequence here on both sides of the river and I was finally determined to tell those stories and find the first cowboy, who rode off into the American zeitgeist, working for himself, answering only to his own code, and changing much of what came after him.
* * *
The first non-Indians to see the La Junta de los Rios were three Spaniards and one African. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca led them after surviving a shipwreck off the Texas coast and traveling overland for six years. In 1534, Cabeza de Vaca recorded for the Spanish crown that the La Juntans have “the best physiques of any we saw” and that they lived in “houses that really looked like houses.” The people he described were the Julimes or the Jumano, a hunter-gatherer society that proliferated by trading between the plains Indians and agriculturalists in the south and the northern pueblo dwellers. The Spanish explorers are believed to have spent a few weeks with the La Juntans and departed for Mexico City with furs and other provisions.
Cabeza de Vaca also wrote of the Jumano “….they best understood us and intelligently answered our inquiries. We called them the cow nation because most of the cattle (buffalo) killed were slaughtered in their neighborhood, and along up that river for more than fifty leagues they destroy a great number.”
La Junta, as remote and disconnected as it was from the centers of human advancement, was an unlikely location for cultural innovations and historical change. Consistent attempts by Spanish missionaries to convert the Jumano, Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche Indians to Catholicism tended to fail and there appeared little to stop the depredations against settlers that were perpetrated by the Comanche and Apaches. Both of those tribes were ranging widely through the surrounding mountains and canyons subsequent to their adoption and mastery of riding horseback. They killed and robbed with impunity and rode away without fear of pursuit.
Various Mexican authorities tried to end the fear of Indian raids by offering bounties on Comanche and Apache scalps. Two men who turned this into a profitable enterprise were a crazed Irishman named James Kirker, and former Texian independence fighter John Joel Glanton. The mercenaries realized there was no effective way for the Mexican government to determine the provenance of a scalp and they began to kill peaceful, sedentary Indians, and, eventually, anyone they encountered. The Glanton Gang served as the literary device for Cormac McCarthy to tell what might be the first honest story of the Old West in his novel, Blood Meridian. I had packed the book in the panniers of my motorcycle and was rereading it for the fourth or fifth time, trying, perhaps, to find insights from the era that might not be captured through historical research.
I had determined that, if there were such a thing as the first cowboy, I would find him and separate the mythology from what was likely the less honorable facts. The search was being conducted, I considered, appropriately, from the back of large touring motorcycle, the only steed I was suited to ride in the modern American west. The logical first place to look was the Trans-Pecos, a great expanse of desert and mountains west of the Pecos River. Seven of the largest counties in a very big state are located in the Trans-Pecos, and one of them, Brewster County, is about ten percent larger than the entirety of Connecticut. There is an average of only 1.4 persons living in each the 6,139 square miles of Brewster County.
The task I had chosen was not without difficulty, and definitive proof of whoever might have launched the cowboy culture and mythology might be more elusive than I imagined. Maybe there simply was no way to trace the beginnings of the American cowboy. Because the icon of the west is most closely associated with Texas, my assumption was that the cowboy ethos and what comprised its character had originated south of the Red River and near the Rio Grande. If no man or men fit the description of my evolving qualifications, there was at least a chance of getting close to the origin of cowboy in the U.S.
Every cowboy is a cultural descendant of the Vaquero, a cattle herder from the Iberian Peninsula, which comprises Spain, Portugal, and parts of France in the south westernmost part of the European continent. Spanish priests establishing missionaries in Mexico brought these skilled horsemen and their traditions to Mesoamerica. Vaqueros generally worked ranches and managed herds, rounded up strays, even fixed fences and handled the birthing of calves each spring.
They did not begin to approach the image of the American cowboy until the emergence of the Mestaneros, vaqueros who roamed the plains, rounded up and broke wild Mustang horses, and then drove them to markets in the territories of Northern Mexico, California, and Texas. Until the Mestaneros, the vaquero was hardly a romantic free spirit; he was a hired hand, working hot and tired and nasty on a rich man’s hacendado.
The Texas cowboy’s history is, as earlier suggested, closely connected to the cattle drive. At the end of the Civil War, as young men returned to Texas, estimates circulated north toward Houston, San Antonio, and Austin that there were possibly more than two million wild Longhorn cattle roaming the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a lush, sub-tropical region of fruit and palm trees, and wild, tall grasses.
Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and Jesse Chisholm are usually credited with the idea of rounding up those cattle and pushing them north to railheads for delivery to eastern markets where they were sold for large profits. The Goodnight-Loving Trail rose up through Central Texas and across the Llano Estacado, or “Staked Plains,” of “taller than horses” grass in West Texas, through New Mexico to Denver and Wyoming. The precise route of the Chisholm Trail is an unsettled matter with historians but it crossed much of Texas and Oklahoma to bring Longhorn herds to Kansas’s railheads.
On my motorcycle this hot afternoon, I was riding the range west of these historic trails because the cowboy rancher of Texas appears to have initially emerged in one of the most inhospitable and remote locales America had to offer during the 19th century. The notion of Manifest Destiny, the white culture moving westward to overtake native peoples, was being expressed considerably north of Ojinaga, Mexico and Presidio del Norte down along the Rio Grande. The Anglos and Europeans living in these borderlands were generally either ex-military who had been exposed to the locale during their service in the Mexican-American War or they were fugitives from justice or some kind of other failure in life. A few were simply mysterious individuals who spoke multiple languages, created businesses, and expressed neither nationality nor loyalty to any laws other than those they wrote and enforced.
One of these men was Ben Leaton, whose private fort, now on the National Register of Historic Places, stood before me when I climbed off the motorcycle. The yellow adobe walls obscured whatever history was held by the structure as well as the reputation of the man who purchased it in 1848 through the creation of forged deeds. First renderings of the history of the site were that it had been the spot where the Spanish had built a 15th century mission, though Catholic church archives in Mexico City have no records of such an outpost even as they report details on several other missions near Presidio.
The only certainty is that Juan Bustillos built a small adobe on the site and in 1848 sold it to Leaton and his wife Juana Pedraza, who he had met in Chihuahua City. Immediately, Leaton ordered peons and a few slaves to set about the work of expanding the structure into a forty room “el fortin.” He intended to establish a place of commerce and sanctuary.
A Texas Parks and Wildlife manager gave me a tour that illuminated the story of the fort but only exacerbated my frustrations regarding details about Leaton.
“You’ll notice how each room flows into the other,” the guide explained. “Leaton did not want any of his family to be trapped if Apache or Comanche got inside the walls. He designed the floor plan for escape.”
Leaton, whose only known photograph shows him to be about six feet tall with a long white beard, had multiple reasons to be overly conscious of escape routes.
He was a nefarious practitioner of dark endeavors like scalp hunting for bounties and trading guns and horses with Indians that he had convinced to bring him stolen cattle for resale. There are certain to have been Comanche and Apache that conducted business with Leaton a few days before he killed them and sliced off the skin and hair on their heads in one of his raids. The Mexican government paid Leaton $50 for each scalp he delivered to its offices.
The duplicitous dealings of Ben Leaton were not unique in La Junta. Murders and deception were almost elements of daily commerce. The baronial fort that Leaton had built was, however, about letting the Mexicans and Indians know that he intended to exert control over cattle and commerce in the valley where the two rivers joined. He could not have anticipated another American with even grander ambitions than his or that his frequent treacheries would lead to murder and ruined lives in the Leaton household. He was also unable to figure out a consistent and viable market for his beef. Ojinaga and Presidio del Norte did not offer much opportunity for growth, and Spanish ranchers already adequately supplied the cattle sales in Chihuahua City.
Ben Leaton was not destined to become the great cattleman of La Junta. An immigrant to Mexico from the Eastern U.S., who had arrived under curious, if not mysterious circumstances, had started to build a life and business not too distant from Fort Leaton. Milton Faver, a diminutive stranger who never talked about his background or his past, was working in a flourmill in Meoque and pushing a handcart of Mexican goods to sell to settlers near the Rio Grande. His descendants say he was running from the law and the grave mistakes of a young man seeking anonymity and redemption.
“We know what happened,” Margaret Bustillos said. “There’s no secret about it. He told the story to his wife, Fracesca, and his son Juan, and Juan shared it with all seven of his children. Juan’s children are our parents and so that wasn’t that long ago. Anyway, we saw nothing wrong with what he did. That’s how it was back then.”
Faver’s story, if it could be ascertained accurately, was connected to historic trade routes. The Camino Real that ran up from Chihuahua City to present day Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Santa Fe Trail of U.S. westward expansion both appear to have served Faver’s commerce and saved his life. Before I acquired any understanding of his epic accomplishments and how they changed the west, though, I needed to travel his roads and find his beginnings, which involved an incident in Independence, Missouri where the wagon trains were gathering. Faver was a wild-haired teenager, alone on the frontier, carrying a gun and whatever dreams had prompted him to leave behind everyone he ever knew before he had even reached adulthood.
I was not done with Ben Leaton and the other Americans that had ended up in La Junta, however, on the edge of the continent where train service and electricity would not arrive for almost another hundred years. John Burgess and Richard Daly were creating businesses and building lives and trying to determine how to turn cattle into cash. Their plans were not grand but they grew in detail and ambition and Faver was to use them to create his legend. Their stories, though, were difficult to access and I would return to that work after I came to understand Faver’s journey to the edge of American continent. History had largely forsaken these men but they were economic and cultural actors of great importance and deserved more recognition; especially, I was beginning to believe, Milton Faver.
I wanted to find out what led them to such an austere and lonely spot from the relative civilization of the eastern U.S. My goal was to back track along their trails and discover their motivations and examine their risks because little about their decisions, even in retrospect, seemed adorned with logic. They were either desperate or stupid and filled with an ambition big enough to affect the future of a continent and a country.
I leaned the motorcycle northward away from the Rio Grande toward the Chinati Mountains and the almost ancient trail known as the Camino Real. Nothing is more exciting than riding in the direction of an untold story.