restricted access Horsehead Crossing
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Its banks knew drama from the time of Indians afoot to conquistadores to westbound wagoners and cattle drovers. The very name “Horsehead Crossing” suggests the violent history of this ford on the Pecos River, southwest of Crane, Texas, and twelve miles west-southwest of Castle Gap.1 The land in which it lay was even identified with hell by early venturers. “When a bad man dies he goes either to hell or the Pecos,” said buffalo hunters in consideration of the desert around the moat-like river.2 These barrens seemed no kinder to a Spanish man of God who, it is said, once rode like the devil to get across this part of hell.3 Horsehead Crossing Castle Gap as seen from Horsehead Crossing. Photo by the author, with the assistance of Richard Posey and Richard Galle. 26 Horsehead Crossing Nothing ever tarried at Horsehead except the coyote and vulture, for Indians, outlaws, rattlers, and the broiling sun turned the crossing into a graveyard. Once, Charles Goodnight counted thirteen graves at the site, with all but one the result of gunplay. Goodnight wrote, “I shall never forget the impression made upon me by those lonely graves, where rested cowboys killed in battle with one another after having fallen out while crossing the long stretch without water.”4 Fords were rare in early days on the lower half of the Pecos, which originates near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and slithers through arid land en route to the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border. Void of trees and valleys for hundreds of miles below the New Mexico line, the river appeared suddenly and its banks dropped steeply. “If our driver had not been on the lookout we might have been wallowing in its muddy depth,” said Waterman L. Ormsby, the only through passenger on the first westbound Butterfield stage in 1858.5 Ormsby echoed the observations of other early travelers. “As we approached, we looked in vain for the usual indications of a stream; for, owing to the want of trees or bushes, it was not seen until we were within a few yards of it,” said John Russell Bartlett of his 1850 crossing at Horsehead. “The Pecos resembled a great canal rather than a river. . . . [It] has not a single tree or shrub along its banks, nor has it any valley or bottom land near. It runs with a dark rapid current between high perpendicular banks, cut through various strata of clay and sand. On both sides is a vast open prairie, entirely destitute of trees, though scantily covered with mezquit, and other plants of the desert.”6 Few rivers are more crooked than the Pecos, a fact which confounded some venturers. In the dark of September 26, 1858, as Ormsby and the first Butterfield stage reached Horsehead, the driver cried out and blew a bugle to rouse the station attendant. “We obtained an answer, as we supposed, from the other side of the river, telling us to drive up stream, which advice we followed, when to our astonishment we found ourselves in a camp on the same side of the river,” said Ormsby.7 J. B. Hardeman, bearing upriver with a gold-hunting company that same year, was equally astounded by the “zig-zags” of the Pecos. “Some of the boys supposed it was the longest river in the world, if the meanderings were followed. . . .” he wrote. “While fishing in several places we could stand in one spot and by simply turning around could fish in the same stream 3 or 4 miles below the first point.”8 Another pioneer awoke one morning in his camp on the Pecos to see his hobbled team half a mile away and across the river. Swimming across six times, he finally reached his horses to find them on the same side as his camp.9 But cattle drover Sam McGlothing found an advantage in the crooks of the river. Trailing herds up the Pecos to New Mexico Territory, he gained valuable sleep for his hands by bedding the cattle in pronounced Horsehead Crossing 27 river bends that required but a single night rider. Cattle packed the ground so hard that the sites remained grassless for decades.10 Because of the channel’s moat-like nature, the Pecos proved a natural barrier to man and beast alike. Buffalo were common east of the river, yet virtually nonexistent on the opposite side.11 Lured by the sustenance these animals provided, nomadic Indians of...