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Native Peoples of the Trans-Pecos Mountains and Basins During Early Historic Times

Eighteen-century map by Álvarez Barreiro showing boundaries of New Spain’s provinces. At that time, only small portions of the Trans-Pecos region were part of Spanish province. The El Paso area was part of Nuevo Mexico and Nueva Viscaya. Most of the region (upper right) was considered tierra dispoblado (uninhabited land). Barreiro was a military engineer and a trained mapmaker charged with compiling a series of maps documenting northern New Spain. In 1726-1727 he accompanied Brigadier Pedro de Rivera on an official inspection of the presidios and missions of the Province of Texas, as part of a series of inspections across northern New Spain that lasted from 1724-1728. The resulting map is based on considerable first-hand knowledge and is said to have been highly valued for its completeness by the Spanish king. Finished and first published in 1728, this map is best known from the 1770 copy shown here. Original in the British Library. Map image: Copyright © The British Library; All Rights Reserved; Additional MS. 17,650.b.

Texans have long had a sense of the vastness of their state. Nowhere is that vastness felt more than in the Trans-Pecos, a region where the land stretches for miles in all directions with distant mountains rising in rugged relief from broad, undulating plains and with sweeping sunsets that defy artists. It is a region that was little explored by Europeans. Spaniards seeking precious metals or rich farming lands found little in it to hold their interest. Frenchmen found the Rolling Plains north of the Red River and the woodlands of eastern Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas home to large quantities of deer, buffalo and beaver. In the early 19th century, emigrants from Tennessee, Kentucky, and other parts of the expanding United States settled the rich farmlands of the eastern half of Texas with few venturing west of the Pecos. As a consequence, 18th century and even some early 19th century maps showed the Pecos paralleling the Colorado River and emptying itself into the Gulf of Mexico.

Not surprisingly, however, the Trans-Pecos Mountains and Basins region has long been home to humans. In the 16th and 17th centuries when the Spanish established the provinces that they called Nueva Vizcaya (today’s modern Mexican state of Chihuahua, along with parts of Sonora and Coahuila and a small area of today’s Presidio County), Nueva (New) Mexico, and Tejas (Texas), they identified by name scores of native groups who occupied the Trans-Pecos. Spanish documents testify to a rich, complex network of relations and alliances between these groups and, gradually, equally complex relationships between these groups and the Spanish. The Spanish called these groups “nations.” The term nation did not reflect nation states as we think of them today, but rather small, recognizable bands, each of whom distinguished itself from other bands. Some groups were the equivalent of tribes with many hundreds of members, but many were small bands of a few hundred people or even fewer. Some nations shared the same language and recognized that they were part of a larger social group, others spoke different dialects or completely different languages.

In northern Nueva Vizcaya, southern New Mexico, and Trans-Pecos Texas most nations were hunters and gatherers (also called “foragers” by anthropologists). While most of the group names are mentioned multiple times in Spanish documents, most of the nations did not survive the tumultuous centuries of colonization and colliding cultures. One nation, the Masames, was slaughtered by their enemies, the Tobosos, around 1652. Another, the Nonojes, were greatly reduced in number after participating in a series of rebellions against the Spanish in northern Mexico, became part of the Tobosos with whom they had long held a close alliance. Others succumbed to European diseases; in fact, it has been estimated that Old World diseases alone were responsible for the loss of as much as 90 percent of the overall population of the native peoples of North America. Still other native peoples of the Trans-Pecos region were resettled by the Spanish south of Nueva Vizcaya, at times far from their native lands, in what was, in essence, a precursor to the 19th century resettlement of American Indians on bounded reservations.

We do not wish to leave the impression that the Spanish completely ignored the fate of the native peoples of the Americas. Medicine was fairly primitive in those centuries and few Europeans realized that the deadly epidemics they witnessed were caused by their own contact with the natives. The common cold was of little concern to Europeans in 1550, but was deadly to native peoples who had never experienced it. Documents show that although some soldiers and Spanish citizens who had been granted lands by the Spanish king were remarkably cruel to native peoples, other Spaniards did not agree with such practices. As early as 20-30 years after Columbus’ arrival, priests were writing to their superiors in Mexico and Spain and complaining about abuses inflicted by soldiers and other Spaniards on the native peoples. Those accounts continued for years to come. Particularly troubling are the reports of Spanish attacks and mayhem against towns, cities, and camps of natives without any offer of an alternative.

Some of the Spanish responses to these reports may seem foolish to us today, but they fit a 16th century European perspective, particularly since Europe was an ocean away and not likely to fully understand what was happening on the ground in northern Mexico, New Mexico, and the Trans-Pecos where slaves were being captured and forced to work on silver mines and ranches. For example, believing that if warned, many natives would naturally choose what the Spanish viewed as the only correct choice (i.e., dutiful submission to the newcomers), the royal court of Spain around 1514 issued a “summons to submit” (or requerimiento in Spanish). The summons, which told the listener that he/she needed to accept Christianity and the Spanish king, was to be read not once but three times to the natives before Spaniards could commence an attack on them. Imagine having someone knock on your door today and read aloud a requirement to submit to someone else or be attacked! Likely the native people were as incredulous as we would be. Nonetheless, the Spanish royal court believed this was a reasonable solution to the reports of incredibly harsh attacks on native peoples they had received.

A translation of one version of a requerimiento is in Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-1542, ‘They Were Not Familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects’ (Southern Methodist University Press, 2005). The text of the requerimiento tells the listener that he/she needed to accept Christianity and the Spanish king. If they were to do so, “His Majesty and I [“I” being whatever Spaniard was outside their walls or village at that moment] will receive you with complete affection and charity. [The people who are with me] will leave your wives to you and your children at liberty, without imposing servitude so that they and you may do freely whatever you may wish and may think wise.” Of course, the requerimiento discussed the other side of the coin: “If you do not do [what I ask] or you maliciously delay [doing] it, I assure you that, with the help of God, I will attack you mightily. I will make war [against] you everywhere and in every way I can.” Harsh words, indeed, and often ones that were unacceptable to the natives.

Today we would consider such demands completely unreasonable, but for the European court of the day they represented a rationale approach. And, since reading it once, with interpreters translating it into the native language, would likely not be sufficient, the order required that it was to be read and translated three times. Apparently, the court believed that three readings would be sufficient to convince natives of the wisdom of obedience. As we know today, many nations remained unconvinced after three readings and they became victims or slaves. Despite these traumas, some native peoples, unlike the Nonojes and Masames, negotiated with allies and the Spanish to find a middle ground where they could survive.

In this exhibit we discuss some of the native peoples of the Trans-Pecos for which we know the most. Many other native peoples also called these lands home about which very little will ever be known.

In How Do We Know ? we discuss the sources used to develop an understanding of the Trans-Pecos native peoples known from the historic record.

In Who were the Jumano? we look at the Jumano, whose native lands extended from the Concho drainage near San Angelo west to the Pecos and beyond. The Jumanos were allies of many nations and were known for their travels across Texas.

Jumano-Spanish Relations: when the Jumano-pueblo alliance fell apart because of the decimations inflicted on the pueblos by the Spanish and Apache, they turned to the Spanish themselves as their new allies. For a time, they were successful.

In Part-Time Farmers, we look at the Patarabueyes, a group of closely allied villages at La Junta de los Rios in the area of modern Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Mexico first encountered by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions in 1535.

In Foraging Peoples, we characterize what little is known about the Chisos and the Mansos, two of the many hunting and gathering peoples of the Trans-Pecos who became known to the the Spanish but quickly disappeared, the victims of tumultous times.

As the Spanish began to colonize the fringes of the Trans-Pecos, several groups of American Indian Newcomers moved into the region. We concentrate on the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo who arrived in the El Paso area after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in Santa Fe and continue to live on and close to their small reservation in Ysleta, today a suburb of El Paso.

Credits and Sources provides some of the critical published references.

Section from copy of Nicolas de Lafora’s 1771 map of New Spain’s frontier in Mexico and Texas
Section from copy of Nicolas de Lafora’s 1771 map of New Spain’s frontier in Mexico and Texas showing the names and approximate locations of native groups in the Trans-Pecos. From Texas Tides, Stephen F. Austin State University, http://tides.sfasu.edu:2006/ Enlarge image
Cover of recent book by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint presenting Spanish documents of the 1539-1542 Coronado Expedition. (Southern Methodist University Press, 2005).
illustration of the Oñate entrada
In an act of thanksgiving for their safe passage across the Chihuahuan desert, the Oñate entrada arranged for a feast to be held and asked the Mansos to be their guests. This thanksgiving was the first to be celebrated in what is now the United States, a full 23 years before that of the Pilgrims at the Plymouth Colony. Painting by Jose Cisneros, courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library and the artist. Enlarge image
illustration of the suffering caused by European diseases
Introduced by Europeans, diseases, including smallpox, measles, and cholera, decimated native groups in Texas as in other parts of the country. Enlarge image
photograph collected by J. Charles Kelley labeled “Modern revival of Indian dance near San Vicente and Hot Springs, Texas on Rio Grande about 1937.”
This photograph collected by J. Charles Kelley is labeled “Modern revival of Indian dance near San Vicente and Hot Springs, Texas on Rio Grande about 1937.” CBBS Archives, Sul Ross. Enlarge image