Clovis History Tied to Land

Don McAlavy

David Calvin Myers and his family stand outside of their home at 123 Prince St. in Clovis in 1916. Photo Courtesy of High Plains Historical Foundation.

“The old-time cowmen were a type of which we will never see again. They are as distinct as gold is from silver. They came from the same mold, and this mold was the life they led. Theirs was a simple life … the life of the pioneer in the great open spaces that was their domain. And in that simple life, they were called upon to make their own path. This called for extreme courage in many instances, patience, independence and self-reliance. It was my good fortune to know a great many of these men and their ladies.”

–Jack Hull (1888-1962), Clovis newspaperman and editor

The 20th century opened in our area with a volley of gunshots, ending the Spikes-Gholson feud at Mesa Redondo some 70 miles northwest of present-day Clovis.

This effectively marked the end of the open-range era, commonly called the cowboy period that followed the Civil War between the states, the slaughter of the buffalo by Anglos and the incarceration of the Indians on reservations.

When one tries to retell the significant events of the last 100 years, centering on Clovis and Curry County, it’s necessary to include some of what happened in the Clovis trading area that extends west to Fort Sumner, to the east past Hereford, Texas, south beyond Portales, and north to what became Route 66.

This area of land, called east-central New Mexico, certainly had a hand in shaping the lives on this lonely, windswept prairie that became home to the first pioneers as well as to those of us who were born here or came later.

It gives one a proper perspective.

Smack-dab in the middle of the Southern High Plains, called by the 16th-century Spanish explorers the dreaded Llano Estacado, or, “the Staked Plains,” this part of the country actually sets atop a large, mostly flat, mesa, at an elevation of 4,260 feet above sea level.

The earliest known people to hunt this land thrived for a while about 11,000 years ago.

The man responsible for first discovering 11,000-year-old, man-made artifacts and bones of the mammoths in the Blackwater Draw south of Clovis is still living here. He is James Ridgley Whiteman (age 90 on Jan. 15, 2000).

The initial discovery he made in 1929 is recorded at the Smithsonian Institution.

A.W. “Pete” Anderson of Clovis is credited with getting Dr. Edward B. Howard, noted archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, here to explore the site.

Pete, part-time newspaperman and amateur artifact collector, first founded an archeological society in Clovis (1932), and was responsible for a short-lived “Clovis Man” museum in the Clovis High School library at Eighth and Pile streets.

He served as head of the local chamber of commerce and also founded the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Due to his and Whiteman’s efforts, the name of Clovis became known around the world in historical circles as the site of the earliest-known man in America.

Early man, from the Clovis through the Folsom and late Paleoindian periods (circa 11,500 to after 8,000 B.P., that is, before present), found a lush environment here with many ponds and streams.

The climate also attracted mammoths, camels, sabertooth cats, horses, dire wolves, short-faced bears and bison.

Since then, however, the climate has become drier, with droughts, high winds, and drifting sand.

The Spanish explorers later introduced horses into this continent. The Native Americans, whom we erroneously called Indians, found horses to their liking and soon became the best fighting cavalry here in the West.

The main Indian tribes that traveled and hunted across this area were the Apaches and the Comanches, with the latter drifting here around 1700 A.D., driving out the Apaches, who then settled in the mountains of southern New Mexico.

Spanish explorers, led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, spent two years searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, hoping to find gold and other riches, but finding it to be only a myth.

They came across the Llano Estacado, following the springs and scattered playa lakes.

Recently, a campsite of these Spanish explorers was found near Floydada, Texas, leading historians to believe they could have traveled south of present Clovis across the sandy and scattered springs between here and Portales.

For the next 333 years, the site of present-day Curry County felt the traffic of not only Apaches and Comanches, and other Spanish explorers, but also the hoof beats of Mexican ciboleros (buffalo hunters) and Comancheros (Mexican and Anglo traders with Indians, often dealing in illicit traffic: the trading of stolen women and children for whiskey and guns).

The first actual record of a Spaniard crossing present Curry County occurred on Aug. 7, 1787. A retired corporal, Jose Mares, and one companion, with a commission from New Mexico Gov. Juan Bautista Anza to find the shortest route between Santa Fe and San Antonio, Texas, crossing the northern part of Curry County coming upon the plains through Puerto Canyon and following along Tierra Blanca Creek, which heads up east of present-day Grady.

This same route was also the path for the main body of the ill-fated Texan-Santa Fe Expedition in 1841. This Texas group was under the false assumption that all of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande belonged to Texas.

Many modern-day travelers on the High Plains can sympathize with Francisco Amangual, the Spanish trailblazer who first crossed the dreaded Llano Estacado with wheeled vehicles in 1808, when he wearily exclaimed: “… we have been traveling over plains so extensive that the horizon was tiring to the eye.”

Twenty-five years prior to Clovis being founded in 1906-07, the earliest sheepmen and cattlemen were taking advantage of the free grass (which was belly-high to a horse, according to numerous accounts) and water from the few springs and playa lakes to establish an open-range industry.

This was essentially our heritage here in east-central New Mexico as the cowboy way of living and dying has been branded on our minds by these exciting times that often have been exaggerated by western movies, TV, and countless country-western songs.

More than a third of the land in Curry County is still cattle country. We still swing our gals to the fiddle of Bob Wills and the wailing of Willie Nelson. Yes, it seems we all want to be cowboys. Some of us have never really grown up. And don’t try to take our guns away!

The first cowman who permanently settled in the area was “Old Man” Carter, who claimed the spring at Tierra Blanca Lake a few miles west of Portales in 1879.

Some will claim that Doak Good was the first to settle at the Portales Spring, and others will say that William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, first claimed that spring, planning someday to start a ranch there.

That someday never came as his brief career was cut short by Sheriff Pat Garrett in the dark bedroom of Pete Maxwell’s house at Old Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881.

Because of all that has been researched and written about this famous outlaw and his time, much more history exists today about those times than would have ever been recorded.

With the buffalo off the luscious grass and the Indians stashed on reservations, Texas cowmen pushed their herds of longhorn cattle into this area. Then they pushed the sheepmen and their “woolies” off these High Plains.

One of the last fights between them occurred in 1902 near Ima, some 85 miles northwest of Clovis. Herman Moncus, who wrote several books on the Comancheros and the Tucumcari area, grew up at Ima, which was founded and named by his folks. To Herman Moncus’ credit, a viable and artifact-packed museum now exists in Tucumcari.

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From 1881 to 1883, some 34 Hispanic sheepmen and five Anglos paid from $340 to $700 dollars each to the surveyor-general in Santa Fe to have what is now Curry County surveyed.

Surveying had to be done before one could file a homestead. Many settlers who came later said “they homesteaded when the land opened up.”

Actually, the Homestead Act of 1862, under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, made possible the filing of 160-acre homesteads, but the land had to be surveyed first.

The settlers who came later followed the opening up of the country by the railroads in the last years of the past century and the early years of the 20th century. It remains a mystery to this day what happened to these 39 original homesteaders in Curry County. Some say they were bought off or pushed off by the gun-toting Texas cowmen.

The biggest ranch to be established in east-central New Mexico was at the Cuniva, near Ima. (The Cuniva was nine square miles of land that sank below the surface of the plains many thousands of years ago.)

In 1880-82, William Henry McBroom, a government surveyor who surveyed much of east-central New Mexico, settled on the old Comanche Springs at the northwest corner of the Cuniva and established a million-acre ranch. It extended from Fort Sumner to the Texas line and from the Caprock south to beyond present Melrose, all on borrowed money. The borrowed money was used to stock his ranch and make improvements.

The first ranchers, like McBroom, did not own the land, except for some 40-acre claims on live water sources, but they controlled all the range around these water sources.

McBroom’s brand was the horseshoe, and Horse-Shoes became the name of that ranch, but he lost it in 1890 when the Scottish Land and Cattle Co. foreclosed.

By the early 1890s, the range was overstocked. Then came the famous die-ups, where thousands of head of cattle perished in the several severe snowstorms, many of them freezing to death stacked up against drift fences. These were the reasons why the big foreign-owned ranches went under.

The small ranchers suffered, too, but survived by fencing their land with barbed wire, drilling wells and putting up windmills and importing a better breed of cattle: Herefords, and later Angus cattle and the many different breeds of today.

Tommy Carson, working for the Scottish Land and Cattle Co., took control of the Horse-Shoes until it was eventually sold.

In 1896-98, the ranch came into the hands of the Curtis brothers.

Carson, in about 1898, simply moved to the Running Water Draw, north of present-day Ranchvale, stocked his range with good cattle and delighted in keeping up his fences even after government inspectors told him it was illegal to fence the public domain. Carson later wrote several books on his worldly travels and his ranching experiences.

Those first early-day ranchers in our area were indeed Americans and exceptionally good stockmen, but many of them were foreign-born, including John and Fred Gerhardt from Germany, Tommy Carson from Scotland, Henry McBroom from Canada and John and Joe DeOliveira and Manuel Brazil from the Portuguese islands of the Azores.

John and Anna Gerhardt DeOliveira moved from the Gerhardt Valley northwest of Fort Sumner to the Frio Draw 25 miles north of present-day Clovis in 1889. Their daughter, Anna W. DeOliveira, born in 1891, became the first Anglo child to be born in Curry County. At this time, it was Guadalupe County. Anna was this historian’s first contact with the open-range days.

Other noted pre-1900 cattlemen included Lonny Horn with his Pigpen Ranch south of present-day Melrose at the old Tules Spring in 1884.

George M. Slaughter, son of his famous father, C.C. Slaughter, located in the Frio Draw, digging twin dug-outs, between 1882 and 1886, and he became the first to drill wells (seven) in Frio and Running Water Draws and erecting windmills. (In 1889, John DeOliveira purchased this Slaughter spread and lived there until 1906. He hired a female teacher from Amarillo to come to his ranch and teach his children, and this became the first school in Curry County.)

George McLean, a sheepman and cattleman, came to the Frio Draw just before the turn of the century, and claimed that he settled on the site near the Texas line, where there was evidence of an older well hand-dug by native Mexican-Americans. McLean ran his sheep on the site of present-day Clovis, watering his stock at what became Dutchmen’s Lake (named for the Liebelt brothers who were the first homesteaders on land now occupied by Clovis. The lake is now called Greene Acres Lake, named for the late C.O. Greene.)

In 1885, the Rhea brothers, Joe and John, located their Figure 2 ranch in the Frio Draw some 10 miles above the McLean ranch.

Before 1900, this area belonged to the stockmen, but the short-lived, open-range era in Curry County was over with the first influx of homesteaders (ranchers called them “nesters”) between 1901 and 1903. The opening up of this area to farmers came with the construction of the Belen cut-off by the Santa Fe Railway between 1903 and 1907.

An extensive history of the first cowmen in our area is in the open-range section put together by McAlavy in the “High Plains History” book published in 1980 and edited by Harold A. Kilmer. McAlavy founded the High Plains Historical Foundation of Eastern New Mexico in 1972 with the help of Bob Spencer, manager of the Clovis Chamber of Commerce, and the Clovis Cultural Commission of the city of Clovis.