Man’s prehistoric occupation of the Big Bend is generally divided into five periods: Paleo-Indian, Early Archaic, Middle Archaic, Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric. Throughout the Paleo-Indian Period (10,000 – 6500 B.C.), the Indians depended primarily on large game for food, clothing, and shelter. As the climate changed at the end of the last ice age becoming warmer and drier), large game animals like bison declined, ushering in a move toward hunting smaller game. Indians of this new era – the early to late Archaic Periods (6500 B.C. – 1000 A.D.), began relying more on plants they gathered for clothing, shelter, and food. By the end of the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 700 –1535), Spanish mission priests traveling through the area reported small bands of nomadic peoples they called the Chizo living in the high mountains. This society marks the beginning of the Historic Era (AD 1535 to Present) and it’s for them that the Chisos Mountains are named. By the 1700s the Chizo Indians were either absorbed or forced out of the region all together by the Mescalero Apaches, who were then themselves displaced from Big Bend by another American Indian group—the Comanche. Even though the Comanche did not make their homes in the region, they maintained a strong presence here for nearly 100 years. Throughout the 1800s, reports were continually heard of a well-worn trail cutting across the landscape toward Mexico. The Comanche Trail, as it was known, served as a major thoroughfare back and forth between the two countries. By 1875 even the mighty Comanche could not stem the tide of American settlers moving into the region and they too were eventually forced from the Big Bend.
The Historic Era began around AD 1535 with the first Spanish explorations into this portion of North America. The expedition of Cabeza de Vaca passed near the Big Bend. Other expeditions followed in search of gold and silver, farm and ranch land, religious converts and Indian slaves. In an attempt to protect their northern frontier, the Spaniards established a line of “presidios,” or forts along the Rio Grande in the late 1700s. These were soon abandoned because they could not effectively stop Indian raids into Mexico. Less study has been made of the Mexican occupation of the Big Bend after the abandonment of the presidios, but when Anglo settlers began arriving in the 1800s, they found Mexican families who had occupied the area since the late 1700s, still farming the floodplains of the Rio Grande. In 1848, with the resolution of the war between Mexico and the United States, the border between the two countries was clearly defi ned and American occupation of the Big Bend began in earnest.
The Modern Era
In the 1880s, ranchers migrated into Big Bend to raise livestock in such numbers that the land was soon overgrazed. By the late 1890’s with the discovery of mercury (also known as quicksilver), mining operations replaced ranching as the main economic force of the region. Settlers were enticed to the area by work in the mines or by work in support of the mines like farming or cutting timber for the smelters. Some communities like Terlingua developed directly around the mine sites, while other settlements like Castolon sprang up on the fertile Rio Grande floodplain. These settlements were mainly small groups of families living and farming in the same area and they were only as successful as the land would allow. By the 1930s, however, many people began to agree that this area of contrast, beauty, and solitude was worth preserving for future generations. To that end, the State of Texas created the Texas Canyons State Park in 1933, and began developing facilities with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 the federal government passed legislation to establish a national park. Subsequently, the State deeded the land to the federal government and on June 12th, 1944 Big Bend National Park became a reality.
According to the historian Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale, "Facts concerning the discovery of cinnabar in the Terlingua area are so shrouded in legend and fabrication that it is impossible to cite the date and location of the first quicksilver recovery." The cinnabar was apparently known to Native Americans, who supposedly used its brilliant red color for pictographs.
George W. Wanless and Charles Allen began working the area of California Mountain around 1894 based on reports of Mexican miners from as early as 1850. Ore was found in 1896. Jack Dawson, J.A. Davies and Louis Lindheim soon followed. A Terlingua post office was established in 1899 at the California Mountain mining community. The origin of the name Terlingua may be a corruption of Tres Lenguas, in reference to an early mine or local feature. By 1903, 3000 people populated the area. The mining center and post office eventually moved to the area of the Chisos Mine and the
Howard E. Perry was born on 2 November 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio, Howard E. Perry worked for his father in the Woods-Perry Lumber Company until he was 21. Perry then moved to Chicago in 1881 and started work at C.M. Henderson, eventually rising to the position of director after his marriage to Grace Henderson on 2 Feb.
By 1887, Perry had acquired four sections in Texas, as security on an unpaid debt. Perry was offered increasingly more money for his property, which prompted him to hire the attorney Eugene Cartledge to investigate. Cartledge determined the mining on adjoining property was actually infringing on the Perry property, through an error in a previous survey. Perry's attorneys filed a motion on 8 Nov. 1900, and Perry finally was granted legal possession on 13 May 1901, when the case was decided in his favor. Perry founded the Chisos Mining Company on 8 May 1903 with a $50,000 loan from the Austin National Bank.
Two more retorts were added in 1904 and production amounted to 200 flasks per month. In 1905, the company leased the Colquitt-Tigner 10-ton Scott furnace 5 miles away. In the same year, Perry hired Dr. William Battle Phillips (future director of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology and president of the Colorado School of Mines), who taught Perry how to mine. In 1906, they agreed to install a 20-ton Scott
The furnace was initially heated with mesquite and cottonwood. However, Perry hired geologist Johan August Udden to prospect for coal on his property in 1926. The resultant coal was used to generate producer gas. Water was supplied by Mexican freighters hauling water from the Rio Grande 12 miles away. Some water was also obtained from a dam built on the Terlingua Creek and was hauled 10 miles from springs discovered in the Christmas Mountains and Cigar Mountain. By the mid-1920s, water came from the 800- foot level of the Chisos mine, which was pumped to the surface. Udden was also responsible for discovering
Philipps' departure in the autumn of 1906 began Perry's direct management of the mine. Remarkably, he did this from his Chicago office. In essence, as Ragsdale notes, "Perry first perfected the technique of management in absentia" and "supervision-in-detail became the distinguishing feature of the Chicago-Terlingua correspondence." Perry also received semiweekly telegraphed production reports.
Photograph of the Perry House in Terlingua, Texas.
Texas Historical Commission July 1, 1985
This photograph is part of the collection entitled: THC National Register Collection and was provided by Texas Historical Commission to The Portal to Texas History, a digital repository hosted by the UNT Libraries.
In 1906, Perry built his Perry Mansion based on the Moorish architecture from his visit to Almadén. The two-story structure had nine bedrooms, a wine cellar, nine 10-foot arches, and a 90-foot front porch. By 1913, Perry had installed in Terlingua the Chisos Hotel, a "company store", an ice-making plant, telephone service, a company doctor, and mail delivery three times a week. By 1936, he had installed the Chisos Theatre and the Oasis Confectionery Shop. His mainly Mexican miners were provided rent-free dwellings. Perry joined the New York Yacht Club in 1920. He remained a member until 1944, owning during that time three different yachts, none smaller than 59 feet. In Perry's words, "If he had not wanted the yachts, he would not have made so much money, which he had to do in order to have them." As a consequence,Terlingua became the "Land of Perry", where he controlled all aspects of life.
The beginning of the end to financial prosperity was in sight, however, by 1930, when Perry was forced into a $75,000 settlement with the adjoining Rainbow Mine. The Chisos Mine's No. 9 Shaft had been mining a rich ore body that extended 200 ft into the Rainbow claim. Then in 1934, Perry was forced to increase wages in a settlement with the National Recovery Administration. More disturbing were the accusations the mine was a "death trap" for miner safety. One of the Chisos geologists, A.R. Fletcher, later testified that the "mine was extremely hot, horribly hot, and there wasn't any provision made for ventilation."
Financial problems with the Chisos mine were compounded when Perry bought the Mariposa mine in 1928 and then the Rainbow Mine in 1938. Though a major ore body in the Mariposa was found by Fletcher in 1935, by 1939, Fletcher reported that the Chisos Mine "had been worked out." Perry further squandered scarce cash on the Bonanza silver mine near Sierra Blanca, Texas, and the Stanley gold mine in Canada.
With more accounts becoming delinquent, and creditors becoming more irate, Perry was forced into bankruptcy on 1 October 1942. Perry died not long afterwards, on 6 December 1942.
People at La Fiesta de San Juan in Terlingua, photograph, Date Unknown
(https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth87913/m1/1/?q=terlingua: accessed May 6, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Marfa Public Library.