Wednesday, May 21, 2014

XIT Ranch: The Largest Fenced Ranch in the 1880s

Cowboys at Escarbada Bunkhouse at the XIT Ranch, 1891. Image from the Portal to Texas History.

Moving closer to the end of the alphabetical journey through the American Old West, we will take a short break from Wounded Knee to examine the XIT Ranch for the letter X, then return briefly to Wounded Knee for yet another terribly painful story starting with Z for Zintkala Nuni, the little girl found four days after the massacre beneath the body of her mother. Let's take a breath, though, first, and a look at a 3,000,000 acre cattle ranch, the XIT Ranch. 

XIT Ranch Office Plaque. Photo taken in Channing, Texas by Billy Hathorn (who quite often makes his photos of the Old West available for use for educational purposes. Thank you Mr. Hathorn!) 

In the 1880s, the XIT was the largest ranch in the world, and believe it or not, it was completely fenced, too. Three million acres stretched out from the "Yellow House" headquarters to Lubbock, Texas. The ranch land resembled a strip that was only 30 miles wide with the remainder of the ranch in its length. It had pieces in ten different counties--Dallam, Hartley, Oldham, Deaf Smith, Parmer, Castro, Bailey, Lamb, Cochran, and Hockley--and according to the XIT Museum many people believed this was the reason for the name, that XIT stood for Ten in Texas. In fact, XIT was a brand chosen because it would be difficult for rustlers to imitate. 

A beautiful photo of the revised XIT Ranch Office in Channing, Texas. Photo by Billy Hathorn.

So, where did this ranch come from? How did a ranch this size possibly get started? It was a trade! The Texas State Capital Building in Austin was too small to handle the business for all of Texas and to make matters worse, it suffered from a terrible fire on November 9, 1881, destroying most of its structure. Purely by coincidence, just two years earlier, in 1879, Governor Oran M. Roberts called a Special Legislative Session to discuss the matter. The Texas Constitutional Convention had already set aside 3,000,000 acres in the Texas Panhandle to help pay for a new capital building. After the fire, Charles B. and John V. Farwell, brothers from Chicago, agreed to buy the 3,000,000 acres for exactly $3,000,000. 

This lovely photo of the Texas State Capital at 1100 Congress Ave. in Austin, Texas was taken by photographer Roger heslop. The building is made of red granite and is still one of the largest state capitols in North America, second in size only to the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. according to the XIT Museum. It's dome stands seven feet higher than the US Capitol's dome. 

The corrals, foreman's house and bunkhouses were built at the Springs in Dallam County and still remain as the oldest structures in Dallam County, Texas. The first cattle--mostly Longhorns--arrived on the XIT ranch in 1885. At one point the ranch had over 150,000 head of cattle! They were well-contained within the 1500 miles of fence. The ranch also had 325 windmills and 100 dams to regulate the water supply.   

They also had strict rules for their many employees, including no alcohol allowed on the premises; no gambling or card playing; no hunting of wild game using any ranch horses; no non-ranch horses allowed on the ranch (which would just about cover any of the previous listed activities as the employees could not leave the ranch); and no employee-owned weapons. 

A gorgeous Texas Longhorn grazing among the bluebonnets outside Kingsland, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

With a ranch of this size you may wonder why we don't hear more about it! Because sadly, it didn't last long. With a ranch that size it was difficult, if not impossible to thwart cattle rustlers and predators, such as wolves. The ranch was actually syndicated, and when the cattle market crashed in 1886 the Farwell brothers were forced to sell off large parcels of land to repay investors.

Edited to add: While researching my next post I found a note stating that in the late 1880s the XIT Ranch added 15,000 square miles of Montana land to its Texas holdings (remember it was syndicated) then established a trail between the two properties through seven states--now that's a cattle trail!  

  • Anderson, Allen H. "XIT Ranch." Texas State Historical Association. Accessed December 2, 2013.
  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.
  • "Thumbnail History of the XIT Ranch.XIT Museum Website. Accessed December 2, 2013.
  • "XIT Ranch." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...