EDITOR'S NOTE: Caprock Chronicles is written or edited each week by Paul Carlson, emeritus professor of history at Texas Tech. This week’s essay, written by Carlson, reviews an 1875 Army expedition that thoroughly explored and mapped the Llano Estacado.
After the 1874-1875 Red River War in the Texas Panhandle, Lt. Col. William R. Shafter, a Civil War veteran who in 1898 led American troops to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, received orders to remove any Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa families remaining on the Llano Estacado.
For nearly six months, June to December 1875, Shafter and 450 African-American troops of the U.S. 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantries crisscrossed the Llano over a veritable maze of trails.
In small groups, they covered the large region from the upper tributaries of the Red River to below its southern reaches and from the eastern escarpment to the Pecos River.
Shafter also held orders to explore the high tableland, map it, find water holes, note its potential for agriculture and in general describe the still-mysterious region.
They found no Comanches but encountered a few Apaches hunting and trading on the Llano.
They discovered comanchero cart trails and trading sites and they overtook nine comancheros who then served as guides.
In late July, a heavy rain fell. After it, Capt. Theodore Baldwin of the 10th Cavalry, in a letter to his wife, wrote of the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos (White River): “Mosquitoes were 10,000 to the inch.”
He complained that on account of the rain near the head of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos (Punta del Agua on the maps, or the Lubbock Lake site) we “had a hard time for wood, could not get the buffalo chips to burn, and there was nothing else. Mosquitoes very bad.”
From Punta del Agua on the way to Casas Amarillas, west of modern Littlefield, Baldwin said, “All of the water found so far, with the exception of the streams, is only temporary.” It disappeared quickly and the men ran short of water.
He also wrote, “From the side [the east] on which we struck [Casas Amarillas] there was a low sand ridge, just before you get to it you cross a valley which was undoubtedly, at one time, the bed of a river.
“On crossing the sand ridge, there lies a beautiful lakelet 1½ miles long, ¼ mile wide, beautiful water to look at, but not good to drink. Salt!
“On the opposite side there is a high ridge of rocks with a great many holes in them, and just under the bank the Indians have dug the springs.”
Baldwin sensed that he knew where Casas Amarillas got its name: “the Indians [or comancheros] have laid up a sort of a fort out of yellow stone, which doubtless gives it its name.”
Then, the rain stopped, playas dried up and the men suffered, particularly on a march from Casas Amarillas southwest toward the Pecos River.
On that desperately hard ride, the men emptied their canteens and some of them suffered from heatstroke or related maladies. A few were tied in their saddles.
Baldwin, later wrote: “Started this morning. . . . Marched until noon, no water. . . . I saw that [Shafter] was frightened as it was fearful work on the horses in the sand.
“Men were again straggling, several of the men fell out. I went to the rear and told them I would use a pistol on them if they fell out without my permission. . . . We reached the Pecos” River near modern Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Because of the hard drive to reach the Pecos, the men came to call their commander, William Shafter, “Pecos Bill.” The name stuck.
Between Punta del Agua and Casas Amarillas, the men found a few pronghorn antelope, which, Baldwin wrote, were wild, and they saw no bison.
Beyond Casas Amarillas, the command rode through immense herds of bison where hundreds of thousands of the large, magnificent animals lumbered off to either side before turning to stare in bewilderment at the strange intruders.
The command explored the Pecos River downstream to its Horsehead Crossing. Later, it also viewed Shafter Lake in modern Andrews County, Cedar Lake in modern Gaines County, and such places as Five Wells, Monument Spring, Big Spring, the several lakes in the modern Tahoka area, other water holes and charted the distances between such scattered points.
When it returned to its home base at Fort Concho in December, the expedition had dramatically fulfilled its orders. The black troopers had cleared temporarily the High Plains of Indians. They had mapped the region and connected by wagon road several water sources on it.
It was a tough march. They covered some 2,500 miles on horseback and went long stretches without water. They had lost no men, but most men were warn and exhausted.
In his final report of the expedition, Shafter described the tableland and noted its high potential for ranching. He wrote of large stretches of “good grass” and “excellent grass.”
Not long afterward, such ranchers as Charles Goodnight and C. C. Slaughter and such farmers as the Quakers at Estacado entered the region.