Bandera Pass is a narrow, V-shaped natural erosion cut in the long limestone ridge separating the Medina and Guadalupe valleys just south of the Bandera-Kerr county line. There a twentieth-century highway follows the route successively traversed for centuries by Indians, Spaniards, United States Army units, Texas Rangers, and cattle drovers.
Although a number of persistent legends seek to explain the naming of Bandera–"Flag"–Pass, the origin of the name remains a mystery. Some stories tell of a flag being placed to mark a battle between Indians and Spaniards, at a date somewhere about 1732. Others say the Spanish commander was named Ciro or Manuel Bandera. There was indeed a Manuel Bandera who owned property at the confluence of the Arroyo de Alazán and the Arroyo de San Pedro near Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña Mission at San Antonio. But various popular accounts crediting Bandera as the Spanish general cannot be corroborated, nor has his name been found on any Bexar muster roll.
Capt. José de Urrutia discovered the pass in 1739 while campaigning against the Apaches, who had been threatening Spanish settlements at Bexar. Urrutia had proceeded to the region of San Sabá de la Santa Cruz Mission by a direct route through rough country, where he surprised a band of Apaches and took captives. His recommendation for a presidio on the upper Guadalupe, presumably to guard the pass, was ignored. It is probable that once the easy, though risky, pass route became known, it provided faster communication between Bexar and the mission outpost of San Sabá.
Possibly the earliest map showing Bandera as a place name is an anonymous one, dated around 1815 to 1819, that indicates an Apache village just north of "Puerta de la Bandera." The pass is indicated as the terminal point of an Old Comanche Trail from Nacogdoches. Stephen F. Austin, in preparing his 1829 map for presentation to the Mexican government, designated the creekbed that runs into the Medina River from the vicinity of the pass Puerta de la Bandera. A map of Spanish Texas issued in 1835 by W. A. Ely shows the Old Comanche Trail intersecting the "Trail to Mission San Saba" but does not specifically show the pass. However, maps beginning with that of John Arrowsmith, as compiled by H. S. Tanner of London in 1841, consistently show either Bandera Creek or Bandera Pass.
The 1849 reconnaissance of routes from San Antonio to El Paso made for the United States Army by Lt. Col. Joseph Eggleston Johnston included the route traversed by the expedition of Lt. W. H. C. Whiting across Texas. Whiting's trail began at Fort Washita and bore south through Preston, Fort Worth, Fort Graham, Fort Croghan, the German settlement at Fredericksburg, and Fort Martin Scott. Whiting then crossed the Guadalupe, rode down the remote North Prong of the Medina, cut across to Bandera Pass, recrossed the Guadalupe at a lower point, and then returned to Fredericksburg.
In the 1850s Bandera Pass saw a stream of soldiers and new settlers passing between the lumber camp on the Medina named Bandera and the new cavalry post of Camp Verde beyond the pass in the valley of Verde Creek. Probably the strangest procession ever to cross the pass was that on August 26 and 27, 1856, of the herd of camels on the last leg of their journey from the Middle East to Camp Verde, where they were employed as beasts of burden in the short-lived Camel Corps of the United States Cavalry.
District of Bexar Survey Number 341, made for George Cole by surveyor Gustav Schleicher, shows Puerta de la Bandera with the trail heading northwest on the edge of the property and going through the pass, labeled "Road from San Antonio to Fort Terrett" (see CAMP TERRETT). The survey, dated July 25, 1855, is noted as postdating that made in 1841 by John James for Bernardino Ruiz. Early records seem to indicate, however, that land containing Bandera Pass was part of Survey Number 562, actually granted to A. C. Hyde in 1847 and transferred the same year to James Randall, whose first name is variously given as James, John, or Jonas. That the tract in question was subject to confusion and speculation, fueled by the location of the cavalry post guarding the growing nearby communities of Bandera and Kerrville, is evidenced by the survey recorded on July 21, 1856, for John Randall, assignee of Hyde, again by Gustav Schleicher.
The state of Texas gave title to the property to James Randall on January 7, 1858. William G. Randall and James W. Randall of Calhoun County thereupon gave John James a location interest in 640 acres for Jonas Randall, assignee of A. C. Hyde, for which John James was to receive 320 acres on the waters of Verde or Green Creek, tributary of the Guadalupe, in Kerr and Bandera counties. The sought-after Hyde Survey, straddling the road and the pass, could possibly have been intended for use in the establishment of a toll gate, as was the case in other sections of the western frontier, notably at Raton Pass on the Santa Fe Trail. There is no evidence, however, that any such commercial venture was undertaken.
With safety guaranteed by the presence of the cavalry, the pass continued to gain prominence as the gateway between the ranch country of South Texas and the high plains. After the abandonment of Camp Verde by both Union and succeeding Confederate forces, local minutemen and vigilantes stood guard at the pass throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction. Their duty was to intercept carriers of contraband and livestock rustlers who were taking advantage of the wartime breakdown of law and order in the remote area.
After the return of normalcy, Bandera Pass again saw streams of heavy traffic, now of cattle being driven north to Kansas on what came to be known as the Western Trail. During the period of the trail drives from Texas to northern railheads, Bandera became a booming center for trail outfitters and contractors, as did Kerrville, and most young men of the locality found employment as cowboys. The old trail became the road for wagons and later automobiles from Bandera to Kerrville and was first paved about 1940. It was designated Farm Road 689 and later incorporated by the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation into State Highway 173, which originates at Devine and ends at State Highway 16 near the city limit of Kerrville.