In the winter of 1926, the Whites “were moving from the high desert chill of Las Animas, Colorado to Littlefield, Texas, south of Amarillo.” Bam White was a ranch hand who went to Texas to find work, either managing cattle or picking cotton. However, the family got stuck in No Man’s Land due to his horses starving from a lack of rations. His wife, Lizzie, hated the chill of the land, which made it impossible to stay warm. Bam considered selling their organ, their most prized possession, but it would not cover the cost of another horse. They seldom saw a tree, and there was barely any grass on the land.
The White family’s settlement of the Southern Plains was haphazard—the combined result of bad luck and bad weather. Like many of the homesteaders, they were poor. However, they were attached to the organ, which gave them pleasure and connected them to their creativity. Perhaps they regarded the barren land similarly—as a space in which they could eke out a living and hold on to something of their own.
The High Plains has been home to many different explorers and settlers. Archaeologists have uncovered settlements of indigenous tribes that existed 700 years ago. The Spanish, including the conquistador and explorer Francisco de Vasquez de Coronado, pursued precious metals and introduced horses into the region. Some indigenous tribes, including the Querechos, ancestors of the Apache, showed up on foot, following the bison herds. For most of the 1700s, the Comanche dominated the Panhandle, having originally migrated out of eastern Wyoming. The horses aided them in their migration to the south, and facilitated their ability to hunt and trade throughout the Southern Plains. In the 1800s, they traded the horses and mules they had raised.
The High Plains has a history of migrants coming to the land to seek their fortunes. Each group of settlers has left their own mark on the territory, introducing aspects of their own cultures. Before Anglos settled the Panhandle, the Comanche were its most permanent settlers, relying on livestock both for nourishment and for trade. Unlike the European settlers, the Comanche people were not interested in building wealth, but rather in maintaining sustainability.
The Comanche also spent the 1800s fighting Texans, whom they loathed. Around 1840, the Texas Rangers went after the Comanche. The warriors were expert horsemen and equally effective in fighting and defending themselves. They enjoyed killing Texans out of revenge for the sorrow that the Anglo newcomers had brought into their camps. When Texans attacked their bison, they found the offenders and scalped them. When the white women cried, Comanche women laughed.
Though Egan’s description may give the impression that the Comanche were brutal, their war efforts were attempts at self-preservation. When Texans killed bison, they killed the only means through which the tribe could feed, shelter, and clothe itself. Killing bison meant slowly killing Comanche people through the eradication of their way of life.
Bison were the source of everything the Comanche needed, including clothing, shelter, tools, and “a protein source that could be dried, smoked, and stewed.” Tepees were made from twenty bison skins and weighed 250 pounds when stitched together—light enough to be portable. They also dried the stomachs and used them as food containers. The tendons were turned into bowstrings. In addition to bison, they ate “wild plums, grapes, and currants, as well as antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens, though some Comanche thought that it was unclean to eat a bird.”
The Comanche lived off of the land, but they were not indiscriminate about what they ate. Theirs was a culture, it seems, that did not permit waste, for even animal entrails and muscles had everyday use. To move with the bison on which they depended, they built homes—tepees—that were portable.
The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 was a promise from the U.S. government to the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other tribes, guaranteeing them hunting rights to “much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas River.” The land was on soil that no one wanted—“the arid grasslands in the west.” Comanchero traders called the center of this area "el Llano Estacado,” or “the Staked Plains.” It was called this because it was flat and treeless, and people drove stakes into the ground to aid in navigation—otherwise one “could get lost in the eternity of flat."
The treaty was instituted on the premise that no white settler would wish to live on the High Plains which, the government assumed, was too arid for farming and too flat and treeless to appeal to potential homesteaders. The land retained the name given to it by the explorer Zebulon Pike, who had scouted the area shortly after it was acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
When the Medicine Lodge Treaty was signed, Comanche Chief Ten Bears talked about why his people loved the High Plains. He was born there and described a prairie “where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun” and there were “no enclosures.” He asserted that he wanted to die on the High Plains “and not within walls.” He lamented the fact that white people had “taken the country [the Comanche] loved,” though he and his people only wished “to wander on the prairie” until they died.
The Comanche’s view of the High Plains was in direct contrast to that of the white settlers, who initially found the land undesirable due to their belief that they were unable to amend the soil to their needs. The Comanche saw openness where the Anglos saw a barren treeless expanse, and they felt a place where the “wind was free,” whereas the whites felt an unfriendly chill.
A few years after signing the treaty with the Comanche, Anglo hunters invaded indigenous territory. They killed millions of bison and stockpiled the hides and horns “for a lucrative trade back east.” Between 1872-1873, a government agent estimated that twenty-five million bison had been killed, and “seven million bison tongues were shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas.” Bison bones were bleached and piled up at railroad terminals, where they were to be shipped and sold for as much as ten dollars a ton among farmers who used them as fertilizer.
The Anglo hunters’ desire to profit off of bison led to the ravenous murder of the animals and the disregard of their treaty agreements. Ironically, the white hunters were also keen on using bison parts for various purposes, but they were less interested in preserving the animals for long-term use, preferring short-term profits to sustainability.
Texans did not care at all about the treaty, insisting that Texas belonged only to them. When the bison herds diminished, the Comanche “went after Anglo stock herds.” Quanah Parker and other Comanche leaders led the tribe in an attack on the trading post at Adobe Walls.
Texans regarded themselves as superior to the natives, which likely explains their disregard of the treaty. Parker’s attack was an attempt to undermine the Anglo trade in bison and to re-establish the Comanche way of life.
The Red River War of 1874-1875 was decisive in permanently displacing the Comanche from the southern plains, particularly the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Six rows of infantrymen launched a surprise attack on an encampment, causing the natives to flee. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army killed 1,048 horses, leaving the Comanche with no means to defend themselves or to fight. The attacked Comanche wandered for a while, starving, then were rounded up and “sent to various camps in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma,” while “some of their leaders were imprisoned in Florida.” The last bison were killed five years after the Comanche had been removed. Their destruction ensured that “no Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle” again.
The Comanche’s impressive battle skills were no match for the U.S. military’s superior resources, particularly their weaponry. The goal of the battle was to render the Comanche immobile, to displace natives who were forced to remain in Texas, then to destroy the remaining bison, thereby making it impossible for the Comanche ever to return. The army’s vicious massacre of horses and bison resulted in the Comanche, once a migrant people, losing their longest-term home.
In 1875, General Philip Sheridan told the Texas Legislature that white people should “kill, skin, and sell” bison until they are completely exterminated. He envisioned a prairie “covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy,” who would be the “forerunner of an advanced civilization.” The new settlers, or nesters, used the dried turds that the bison left behind as sources of heat in their dugouts and sod houses. Once the bison and the natives had been eliminated, the American government remained unsure of what to do with the abandoned land.
Sheridan was blatant in his belief that, for the United States to fulfill its “manifest destiny,” or urge to push its borders toward the Pacific, the indigenous people had to be driven off of the land and replaced with “forerunners” of Western civilization. The cowboy was a figure who did not live off of the land so much as he conquered and controlled it.
The White family arrived at the XIT ranch—a place that Bam White had heard stories about all his life. It was part of the vast grassland that covered 21 percent of the United States and Canada, and that covered two-thirds of Texas. Nearly all twenty million acres of the Panhandle was grass.
The XIT ranch was a place of legend—a dream of infinite grazing land, where the cowboy could reign free and be prosperous. For Bam, who was poor and desperate for work, it was the realm of his dreams.
Profits from the XIT ranch had built the state capitol—"the biggest statehouse in the union, a palace of polished red granite.” After the Comanche were removed, Charles Goodnight moved cattle down from Colorado. Investors, some as far away as Great Britain, became involved in the cattle market, which thrived on an abundance of grass. In 1882, a company out of Chicago, the Capitol Syndicate, managed the land’s three million acres.
Cattle ranching, contrary to legend, was neither the unique business of cowboys nor was it limited to a particular region. It was, instead, an early conglomerate involving investors from distant major cities and even some from Europe. This indicates that multiple economies were complicit in the removal of the Comanche.
Most of the XIT ranch was located in the middle of the Llano Estacado. The syndicate filled the prairie with cattle, put up windmills to pump water for the animals to drink, and fenced off the land that was theirs. Shortly after barbed wire was invented in 1874, ranchers used it to close off free grass. By 1887, “there were 150,000 head of cattle” and “781 miles of fence,” making the XIT “the biggest ranch in the world.”
The ranchers, though they had a particular love for the prairie, did not appreciate its limitless expanse in the way the Comanche did. Their insistence on fencing it off and closing it off demonstrates that, unlike the Comanche, their freedom was still determined by ownership and control of the land.
Cattle ranchers formed vigilante posses to chase off “people who encroached on the ranch or stole cattle.” They also spread poison to kill wolves and other animals who might have eaten the calves. When a railroad track was run through a shipping point, it soon became a town. Cowboys made good livings “fixing fences” or “riding herd.” Things were more difficult for black or Mexican cowboys, who were seldom hired and kept in lowly positions despite their capabilities.
Though the cattle ranchers loved the grasslands, that love was proportional to the land’s profitability. Disruptions from nature, such as wolves, were eliminated. There was little respect for an ecosystem that was incompatible with the business of ranching.
No gambling, drinking, or shooting without permission was allowed on the XIT ranch. Outside of the ranch’s fence posts, things were completely the opposite. Though things were tightly controlled on the ranch, the weather, which included droughts, snow blizzards, grass fires, hailstorms, flash floods, and tornadoes, still threatened business. Good cattle ranching years would be followed by dismal ones, in which massive numbers of cattle would die off in droughts or freezes. Though bison could withstand great extremes in temperature, cattle were more fragile.
The orderliness required for cattle-ranching also extended to the management of cowboys’ conduct, which was known for its hedonism, on the ranch property. It seems that the desire to manage controllable behavior on the ranch was a way to temper one’s lack of control in other areas, such as the weather, which threatened to destroy the business.
The fragility of the cattle trade put pressure on the syndicate. British investors wanted better returns. So, the syndicate looked into the real estate business to generate profits. The grassland did not offer much, but it was scenic in some parts. There was timber, but not enough to offer sufficient fuel. Rainfall was insufficient for growing crops.
The syndicate realized that they could tap into the desire of thousands of poor people—small Southern farmers and recent immigrants—to own property. Offering them a slice of land, any land, could rescue the syndicate from bankruptcy.
The army explorer and topographical engineer Major Stephen H. Long had first called the Great Plains “the Great American Desert.” The name he gave it remained on maps until after the Civil War. Before him, the explorer and brigadier Zebulon Pike, who had scouted the area for Thomas Jefferson three years after the United States acquired it in the Louisiana Purchase, compared the plains to the Sahara Desert. Everyone who explored the land declared it uninhabitable and desolate.
To sell pieces of the XIT, the syndicate had to overcome the plains’ reputation for aridity, which had existed since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The comparison to the Sahara was exaggerated, given the presence of grass in the region, but its absence of trees and flora, which early explorers would have associated with good soil, also made it unappealing.
To overcome the Great Plains’ poor reputation, the Capitol Syndicate advertised heavily. They distributed brochures “in Europe, the American South, and at major ports of entry to the U.S.,” claiming that 500,000 acres were available to become farm homes. The land would be cheap, “selling for thirteen dollars an acre.” Twice a month, the syndicate would transport about 500 people from Kansas City and transport them to the territory by train, for no charge, to let them tour the Texas Panhandle.
The syndicate capitalized off of the desperation of poor farmers and newcomers to claim some stake in American soil. Property ownership was still a key aspect of citizenship. The syndicate tempted thousands of people with unbeatable salesmanship—free tours of large tracts of cheap land, up for sale to any white prospective owner willing to buy.
The syndicate created “experimental farms” on the Llano Estacado to show potential settlers, particularly immigrants, how well they could dry farm in Texas. The syndicate showed the travelers how they could succeed with the aid of a windmill, which would pump water for the livestock. They could plant dryland wheat in the fall, “when a little moisture would bring the sprouts up,” let it go dormant in the winter, then wait for the crop to rise again in the spring. The prospective farmers were also told to use dust as mulch to help hold the ground in place.
The syndicate’s dry farming gimmick was an attempt to override the High Plains’ reputation for aridity by showing that its climate and landscape could actually work in a farmer’s favor. Dryland wheat needed little care and was, it seemed, the perfect crop for a novice farmer to cultivate. Moreover, the livestock would practically take care of itself, drinking water pumped from underground.
Ranch hands on the XIT found the farming advice absurd, and thought that the farming demos were “a scam.” The Panhandle was no place for farming, and dust could not possibly hold moisture in the ground. The grasslands were “high and cold,” and there was not enough rainfall to sustain any cultivated crop. The only thing the Panhandle could grow was grass. Still, the nesters came anyway, and the cowboys resented them, regarding them as “bonnet-wearing pilgrims” and “religious wackos,” in contrast to their own free-wheeling hedonism. By 1912, all cattle-ranching had ceased on the XIT. When Bam White arrived with his family, “only 450,000 acres were unplowed of the original three-million-acre XIT ranch.”
The cowboys’ resentment of the nesters was both the result of their fear of economic displacement and, possibly, also a distaste for the family settlements that soon overran the area. The culture around the XIT changed from that of a place dominated by freewheeling bachelors, who enjoyed drinking and carousing, to one dominated by domesticity and stability. The nesters got their names from their urge to build homes in which they cared for children.
The White family arrived in Dalhart on February 26, 1926. They camped on the edge of town and had little dried food left. The Whites, a family with indigenous blood, noticed that the presence of the first people had been erased. Members of tribes “who had drifted back lived a shadowed existence” and “dressed like whites.” Dalhart had no history before the XIT ranch. Though the white nesters were basically refugees, the local newspaper, the Dalhart Texan, described them as people with “the highest type of Anglo Saxon ancestry.” The railroad companies were still trying to lure people in, particularly those who were interested in speculating for oil. Between 1910 and 1930, almost thirty towns sprang up in the Panhandle.
The white settlers of the Panhandle succeeded in eradicating any sign that a culture had existed before their own. The indigenous people who remained in the area had to assimilate to whiteness in order to survive in the transformed High Plains. White migrants, who were diverse in their origins and had been looked down upon in their native regions, were recreated in print as a noble people whose “superior” white ancestry destined them to civilize the plains.
In most of Texas, Prohibition was strictly enforced, but not in Dalhart. Farmers who grew corn for whisk brooms had lost revenue after the invention of the vacuum cleaner. Then, grain became very valuable as alcohol. A single still could produce “a barrel of corn whisky a day, every day, nearly every year of Prohibition.” Five counties within three states in the High Plains “shipped fifty thousand gallons a week to distant cities.”
The farmers were nearly undone by technology, but the profitability of grain was revived by the thirst for alcohol, which seemed to increase after Prohibition. Ironically, farmers, who at this time were regarded as exemplary Americans, were key in undermining American law.
Bam White toured the town. Near the railroad switch tower there was a two-story sanitarium—the only hospital for hundreds of miles. On one side, Dr. George Waller Dawson, nicknamed “Doc,” had a medical practice. His wife, Willie Catherine, a woman known for her beauty, helped him run the place. Dawson migrated west from Kentucky, coming to the High Plans to help cure a respiratory ailment. He arrived in Dalhart in 1907 with the intention of starting a ranch and living off of his investments in livestock. Then, he lost everything two years later in a market collapse. He opened the sanitarium in 1912. By the late-1920s, he decided to do less medical work and try to wheat farm.
Dawson was driven to the plains by the misfortune of illness, but his migration west did not improve his circumstances. Though he was in a better position than Bam White due to his education and greater funds, none of Dawson’s enterprises succeeded permanently. He opened the sanitarium not out of a desire to provide necessary medical services to locals, but because it was the only venture available to him. Dawson seemed to prefer to work as little as possible.
Past the sanitarium and further down Denrock, Dalhart’s main street, was a clothing store, “with window displays of new dress shirts and silk ties.” The store was Herzstein’s, and it was owned by one of the first Jewish families in the High Plains. Near there was the beautiful, “first-class” DeSoto Hotel, owned by “Uncle” Dick Coon, where a guest could dial 126 and get a prostitute from the Number 126 house. Next to the hotel was the Mission Theater, where movies played.
Dalhart quickly developed an air of some sophistication. The nesters were not all simple, plain-clothes farmers; they, too, liked to dress nicely and stay in elegant surroundings. They also were not the prudes that cowboys imagined them to be, given the popularity of the Number 126 house and their fondness for Hollywood films, which sometimes tackled risqué topics.
During conversations with locals, Bam found out that Dick Coon “owned Dalhart.” Coon owned nearly every establishment in Dalhart, including the DeSoto and the Mission Theater. Coon, who had grown up in dire poverty, did not plan on getting rich on the plains. He didn’t even plan on staying there. He was passing through in 1902, while trying to get a train to Houston, and had been seduced by one of the Capitol Syndicate’s real estate agents to stay and buy land.
Dick Coon epitomized the American ideal of the “self-made man”—one who rises from poverty on his own initiative and builds wealth through his fearlessness and clever ability to seize on opportunities. The serendipitous circumstances in which Coon came to Dalhart only contributed to his legend.
When Bam returned to his family, he found his horse dead. Bam took it as a sign that they should stay. He figured there had to be plenty of jobs in what was still a new town. Someone in Dalhart had told him about jobs “in the newly plowed fields.” Bam felt that the town might be his chance “to get a small piece of the world and make it work.”
Bam, like Coon, also remained in Dalhart due to chance circumstances. However, his choice to remain was borne from desperation. Like the Comanche before him, his dead horse rendered him immobile. He also had nowhere else to go.