Grass-Lease Fight

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1995

The controversy over the leasing and settlement of state lands in West Texas, particularly in the Panhandle, traces its roots to the Annexation Resolution in 1845, by which Texas was allowed to retain ownership of its public domain. The state legislature divided this domain into three categories. Soldiers', or veterans', grants, each equivalent to several thousand acres in the unsettled areas, were to be awarded in lieu of cash for service rendered during the conflicts with Mexico. School and university lands were to be leased out, and the money was to be set aside for public education and a state university. Railroad grants were meant to induce rail companies to construct lines from settled areas in East Texas, from where supplies could be transported west. For every mile of track laid, the firm received sixteen sections of land in the state's undeveloped areas. In 1873 a law was passed by which railroads were required to sell these holdings within five years.

In order to prevent the consolidation of large blocks of land by any one group or individual, the state developed a "checkerboard" surveying policy, in which alternating sections were parceled out to the schools and railroads. The system, however, did little to curb "land-grabbing" practices. Many cattlemen simply bought up railroad land certificates for as little as sixteen cents per acre, or $100 per section, and grazed their herds on both this land and the intervening school sections. When barbed wire became available, many ranchers simply enclosed entire pastures regardless of ownership.

In 1883 the legislature passed the Land Board Act, which provided for the competitive sale of as many as seven sections of public land to an individual and a policy of leasing land to ranching operations. Many ranchers who had been utilizing these lands when grass was "free" either refused to pay for the leases altogether or would pay no more than four cents an acre annually, while the State Land Board, consisting of Governor John Ireland, Attorney General John D. Templeton and other executive officials, wanted eight cents an acre. Panhandle cowmen, led by Charles Goodnight, engaged in legal battles for what they felt would be an equitable lease law in Austin. Various newspapers throughout the state accused the cattle "kings" of blatantly defying the best interests of Texas and its people by fencing entire counties without paying one penny for their usage.

Upon conducting thorough investigations, Templeton and other state officials discovered the extent to which West Texas cattlemen were enclosing the public domain. Millions of acres in the Panhandle alone were being grazed free, and school lands were being fenced illegally. Consequently, in 1884 about fifty Panhandle ranchers were indicted on charges of illegal enclosure. By late December 1885 Templeton had made arrangements for a trial at Clarendon, which was held the following summer. At the attorney general's bidding, W. H. Woodman, attorney for the Thirty-fifth Judicial District, presented the suits against the cowmen before Frank Willis, the Panhandle's first district judge. Templeton, however, was playing against a stacked deck; since the jury consisted mostly of cowboys and area ranchers, including Goodnight and others under indictment, the accused men were promptly acquitted. At the urging of Judge Thomas J. Brown of Sherman, the state then retained James N. Browning, who was completing his second term in the legislature, to go to bat for the settlers. Since Judge Willis had clearly sided with the cowmen, Templeton sought to bring impeachment proceedings against him. The trial, which was held at Austin in February 1887 and presided over by Templeton's successor, James S. Hogg, was a sensational one that attracted statewide attention. Several noted attorneys were hired to hear the case; some, including state senator Temple Houston, were employed by the Panhandle cattlemen to defend Willis, who was acquitted in the end and went home to a hero's welcome in Mobeetie.

The main reason for the cattle companies' opposition to the influx of settlers was their belief that their semiarid ranges did not get enough rain for farming. However, most of the state legislators, including Browning and Houston, believed otherwise, and in 1887 passed a revision of the Land Board Act's lease law to encourage further settlement of the public domain. This new law continued both the sale and lease of state lands and also provided for their reclassification as farm and pasture land. No individual or family could purchase more than four sections, one of farm and three of pasture. The price of two dollars an acre was initially set up to be paid within three years, but that period was later extended to forty years.

Even then, such a law was not easy to enforce. Some cowmen continued to use public land without paying for it. What was more, they were often able to get around the law's purchase provisions by having their cowhands file on land under the law, obtain titles, and then sell it to the cattle companies for a fraction of its value. Thus, while ranchlands were increased, many settlers were not always able to acquire the land they wanted.

With the advent of railroads to the Panhandle, however, the problems of lease and enclosure were gradually worked out peacefully. Many cattlemen who had initially viewed the steel rails with apprehension soon came to realize the benefits the railway would bring. In 1895 the passage of the Four-Section Act, which among other provisions allowed settlers sufficient land for stock farming, was a major step toward the equitable division of land. After 1900 most of the public domain had been sold, much of it to the big land and cattle operations, and the leasing of state lands that had caused so much controversy ceased. Subsequent financial reverses compelled ranchers to sell their holdings piecemeal, and a more equal parceling of land resulted. By then, even Goodnight had mellowed in his attitude toward "progress," declaring that "nothing will ruin us that settles the country." The grass-lease fight, along with the coming of the railroads, figures prominently in Paul Green's outdoor drama Texas, which runs during the summer months in Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park.

J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949). J. Evetts Haley, "The Grass Lease Fight and Attempted Impeachment of the First Panhandle Judge," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 38 (July 1934). Willie Newbury Lewis, Between Sun and Sod (Clarendon, Texas: Clarendon Press, 1938; rev. ed., College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976).


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Court Cases, Controversies, and Scandals
  • Feuds
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Business

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

H. Allen Anderson, “Grass-Lease Fight,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 20, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995