Horsehead Crossing

By: Glenn Justice

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: October 31, 2019

Horsehead Crossing, a ford of the Pecos River, is near Farm Road 11 and twelve miles northwest of Girvin in northeastern Pecos County (at 31°14' N, 102°29' W). There the river forms the Pecos-Crane county line. Horsehead Crossing was one of the few fordable points on the Pecos River before the twentieth century. Steep, muddy banks, unpredictable currents, and quicksand were natural barriers to travel. After long treks across the surrounding desert, thirsty animals were often poisoned by the briny river water or became hopelessly mired in the quicksand at the crossing. It was littered with horse, cattle, and mule skeletons. Horsehead Crossing was named for the horse skulls said to have been placed atop mesquite trees near the ford.

The Comanche Trail was probably the first route that traversed Horsehead Crossing, which became a favorite camping place. Comanche and Kiowa raiding parties en route to the Llano Estacado from raids in Mexico found the first water hole in more than sixty miles at Horsehead. Anglo-American use of the crossing dates from 1839, when Dr. Henry Connelly crossed on his way from Fort Dawson to Chihuahua. In April 1849 an expedition headed by John S. (Rip) Ford and Robert S. Neighbors reached the crossing in search of a wagon route to El Paso. Ford saw horse skulls at the crossing, and a Comanche guide told him the place's name came from the many horses that had died there. In July of the same year a United States Army cartographic survey crew floated its baggage across the Pecos at Horsehead, using empty water casks strapped to spare wagon tongues. John Russell Bartlett, United States boundary commissioner, led an expedition to Horsehead Crossing in 1850 in search of a practical route to California. Within a few years, stagecoach routes were traversing the ford. Henry Skillman drove the Butterfield Overland Mail stage through in the 1850s. A stage station was established about a quarter mile above the crossing.

Beginning in the 1860s cattlemen frequently drove their herds across Horsehead Crossing. Charles L. Pyron drove a herd of 10,000 cattle across in 1866. The same year, John Chisum drove 600 steers to Bosque Grande by way of Horsehead Crossing. Also in 1866 Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and W. J. Wilson drove cattle up the Pecos River past Horsehead Crossing on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. After losing hundreds of cattle in the desert and the river, Goodnight described the Pecos as the "graveyard of the cowman's hopes."

The end of the cattle drives and modern road construction decreased the importance of Horsehead Crossing by the twentieth century. In 1936 the Texas Centennial Commission placed a historical marker at the site.

John Russell Bartlett, Personal Narrative of Explorations...Connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission (New York: Appleton, 1854; rpt., Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1965). Patrick Dearen, Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1988). J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949). Jack C. Scannell, "Henry Skillman, Texas Frontiersman," Permian Historical Annual 18 (1978). Clayton W. Williams, "That Topographical Ghost-Horsehead Crossing!" Permian Historical Annual 17 (1977).

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

Glenn Justice, “Horsehead Crossing,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 25, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 31, 2019