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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

It's a wonder
the Panhandle was ever settled

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
From 1850 to 1900, new settlers flocking to the Panhandle and West Texas prairies faced almost insurmountable odds in establishing a legal homestead. Most had few resources at hand or the time to waste as they searched and settled.

The entire area was not surveyed, with only the outside boundaries identified as the 100th and 103rd meridians on the east and west and No Man's Land on the north. Even these boundaries changed with each new government survey.

Although the Texas Legislature's "checker-board" scheme of land identification was ingenious in design, it placed all the efforts of locating, surveying boundaries and registration of claims onto the settlers, many of whom were illiterate or unfamiliar with complicated claim requirements.

Communication at the time was slow and inefficient with only a minimum of state offices and officials available to serve the public. In addition to these problems, the big ranchers who had filed on hundreds of sections of grass made every effort to forestall and discourage settlement on the open sections within their ranch boundaries.

The big ranches illegally fenced their vast checker-board claims with barbed wire leaving no access gates for settlers searching for open, unclaimed sections. When laws were passed making it illegal to maintain such fences, the ranchers began leaving an "eight inch gap" between the corners of fences allowing human passage but not livestock passage.

Charles Goodnight used Winchester Patrols to keep out settlers from the vast JA Ranch holdings using the excuse of keeping "tick herds" from the south away from native cattle. Most large ranches also made it possible for loyal employees to claim sections of land within their boundaries containing live water with the promise of "buy-back-with-profit" deals offered at a later date. After the homestead claims were termed legal, they offered the employees several acres for one acre in trade if they chose land on the outskirts of the ranch land boundaries.

All open sections owned by the state were leased to nearby land owners. Another scheme operated by the big ranches was carried out by waiting until a few days before the current lease terminated, traveling to Austin, canceling the current lease and applying for a new lease immediately. With no one around to compete or bid against them, a new five-year lease was signed.

After a homestead was located, the boundaries surveyed and the claim papers filed, completion of the homestead requirements still had to be completed. In the absence of common building materials, dugouts, sod houses and rock cellars were built to meet the housing requirements and the individuals had to actually live there for a period each year.

Residents had to burn cow chips for fires, haul water in barrels from the nearest creek and endure Mother Natures' elements of floods, drought, blizzards and heat. When added to the human obstacles and the remoteness of the prairie, it's a wonder the lands were ever settled.

We owe a debt of gratitude to these early pioneers who had to be tough and determined to survive the times and pave the way for progress.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
December 11, 2007 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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This page last modified: December 11, 2007