The Cowden, or JAL, ranch originated in 1882, when the brothers George, John M., and William Henry Cowden bought 100 cattle and the JAL brand from Alonzo Edwards in Palo Pinto County. The brand's origin remains a mystery; theories claim that it came from the initials of John A. Lynch, James A. Lawrence or John Allen Lee, all of whom were early West Texas ranchers. The Cowdens ran their herd along the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River north of Colorado City for about a year. In 1883, however, they began trailing their cattle west to the rail town of Midland and thence to the Monahans Sandhills area, where sufficient water holes could be found. By December of that year they had moved about 1,000 head of stock to a site on Monument Draw in the sandy area of southeastern New Mexico, three miles west of the Texas line.
During the next two years the Cowdens' JAL cattle reportedly were scattered all the way from Midland to the Carlsbad area of New Mexico and as far south as Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River. In 1885 they selected a more suitable site on Monument Draw, where grass was more abundant, and dug wells, over which they placed windmills. By then they had between 6,000 and 7,000 cattle. They built a three-room adobe ranchhouse on the draw by the end of 1886 and set up business headquarters in Midland, then the nearest shipping point on the Texas and Pacific line.
For twenty-five years the Cowden Cattle Company operated the JAL ranch, which at its peak covered one-fourth of Lea County, New Mexico, and portions of adjacent Texas counties. At first, only the three elder Cowden brothers and two brothers-in-law made up the firm, but in time it came to include the younger brothers, Liddon, Rorie, and Eugene Cowden. Not until 1895 did the Cowdens utilize barbed wire; then they fenced over 300 sections. They kept no line camps at first, paid no lease on their grass, and owned none of their JAL range, although they later bought forty acres around their wells. Over the years the JAL herd multiplied to some 40,000 head and eventually necessitated line camps at various watering places.
After the turn of the century the influx of homesteaders into Lea County resulted in the rapid reduction of the JAL range. In 1912, after New Mexico became a state, John M. Cowden bought the interests of his brothers and continued to operate the ranch from the headquarters in Midland until all of the land was sold. The town of Jal, New Mexico, was founded at the ranch's Muleshoe Camp and named for the Cowdens' brand. The other Cowden brothers became independent ranchers and businessmen in West Texas or New Mexico; William H. Cowden, in particular, owned ranchland in Crane County and later in Frio County.