Hittson, John (1831–1880)

By: Charles Kenner

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: January 1, 1995

John Hittson, rancher, son of Jesse and Polly (Beck) Hittson, was born at Nashville, Tennessee, on October 11, 1831. The Hittson family moved to Rusk County, Texas, in 1847. Four years later John married Selena Frances Brown, by whom he had ten children. In 1856 John, his father, and his brother William moved to Palo Pinto County, where John Hittson served as the first county sheriff until 1861 and also ranched; he owned approximately 500 head of livestock in 1860. During the Civil War the Hittson brothers moved westward to settle in Camp Cooper, an abandoned federal camp. Despite several narrow escapes from Indians, they remained at the fort throughout most of the war. Branding ownerless cattle and marketing them in Mexico, John Hittson became the wealthiest man in the region by 1865. The next year he moved his ranch headquarters to Callahan County and allowed his cattle to range over an eight-county area; his ranching operation was the first in Callahan County.

In 1866 Hittson drove cattle over a trail running up the Middle Concho River valley, across the plains to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos, and up that stream to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Although Hittson and his fellow ranchers were following a trail opened the previous year by James Patterson, the New Mexico beef contractor to whom many of them sold, the route became known in later years as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. For several years Hittson drove an average of 8,000 cattle a year to New Mexico and Colorado. By 1870 he had secured a rich grazing area southeast of Denver near Deer Trail, Colorado, to which in 1872 he decided to move his Texas herds. Overcrowded conditions in Texas and heavy losses of cattle to Comanche raiders allied with Comanchero cattle dealers from New Mexico motivated his decision.

Also in 1872 Hittson undertook his most ambitious operation. Securing powers of attorney from many other Texas ranchers, he employed approximately ninety gunmen and moved into New Mexico to reclaim animals bearing Texas brands from possessors lacking bills of sale. Despite considerable turmoil and some bloodshed, Hittson's forces drove several thousand cattle out of New Mexico before legal difficulties ended the operation in late 1872. The cattle were eventually sold, evidently with no reimbursement for the Texans who had granted powers of attorney. Although charges later were made that Hittson had profiteered and that the proceeds of the sale were used to finance an office building built in Denver by Hittson's sons-in-law, the expenses of his raid quite likely equaled the value of the cattle recovered. By disrupting the Comanches' New Mexico market for cattle, moreover, the Hittson raid reduced the incentive for the Indians' cattle-stealing forays.

Hittson remained a prominent stockman in Colorado until his death. Financial reverses associated with the panic of 1873, a lavish living style, and periodic problems with alcohol caused him to sell many of his cattle. At the time of his death, although he had far fewer than the estimated 100,000 head he possessed when in Texas, probate records for his estate indicate that he still had well over 20,000 head. On Christmas Day 1880 Hittson was killed when he was thrown from a wagon drawn by a runaway team of horses.

M. L. Johnson, Trail Blazing: A True Story of the Struggles with Hostile Indians on the Frontier of Texas (Dallas: Mathis Publishing Company, 1935). Charles Kenner, "The Great New Mexico Cattle Raid, 1872," New Mexico Historical Review 37 (October 1962). Charles Kenner, "John Hittson: Cattle King of West Texas," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 37 (1961). Joseph G. McCoy, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest (Kansas City, Missouri: Ramsey, Millett, and Hudson, 1874; rpt., Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1974).


  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen

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

Charles Kenner, “Hittson, John,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hittson-john.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995