The pastores were sheepmen, usually of Hispanic origin from New Mexico, who settled with their flocks along the Canadian River and its tributaries during the 1870s and early 1880s. Although they stayed only for a brief period, they made a significant impact on both the society and agriculture of the Texas Panhandle. Since numerous flocks of sheep had practically overrun available ranges in New Mexico by 1874, the pastores began looking toward the Llano Estacado with its lush river valleys and seemingly endless grasslands. Even prior to 1874 a few daring Indian and Mexican sheepmen probably herded their flocks on a seasonal basis along the upper Canadian as far east as the area of present Oldham County. Sometimes they utilized the old cibolero and Comanchero campsites on which they erected crude rock shelters. In their search for the best grass and water itinerant pastores are thought to have made large circuits and followed old Indian trade routes as far east as Palo Duro Canyon or beyond on occasion. Often several large flocks would travel simultaneously over the circuit under the watchful eye of a mayordomo, who, with the aid of well-trained sheep dogs, directed the movement of the sheep as he rode from one flock to another. Although poorly armed and thus easy targets for nomadic warriors, the pastores usually enjoyed fairly peaceful relations with the Plains tribes. Even so, they stayed wary of any Indians who might have resented their intrusion. During the 1860s a small group of families from New Mexico established a settlement on the Canadian below Parker Creek at a site now in Oldham County, but they only stayed briefly. Soon after the Civil War a sheepman named Antonio Baca reportedly ran 30,000 head in the area of the present Oklahoma Panhandle, but because of the potential Indian danger these transient pastores never remained for long. After the Red River War, when the nomadic Indians were confined to their reservations, pastores began infiltrating the Panhandle more frequently. Some of them carried on trade with hunting parties of Indians who, with permits from the federal government agents, sought out the few remaining buffalo in the area. The pastores exchanged cattle and trade goods from Las Vegas and other New Mexico towns for horses and whatever items the Indians had to offer. This trade gradually diminished as hide hunters exterminated the once-numerous buffalo herds.
Probably the first significant party of pastores to settle in the Panhandle was led by the brothers Ventural and Justo Borrego, who may have settled the area as early as 1874 but then abandoned it momentarily when the Red River War broke out. Sometime early in the spring of 1876, the Borregos brought several families from Taos to a site near the south bank of the Canadian about a mile south of Atascosa Springs. There they constructed a plaza, that is, a single line of rock and adobe houses, and erected stone sheepfolds around two small buttes near the riverbank 100 yards away. Shortly thereafter Juan Dominquez and his family built their adobes next door to the Borrego plaza. From the foothills above Las Vegas came a caravan of carretas led by Jesús Marie Trujillo. His plaza was erected on the creek that bears his name eight miles upstream from its junction with the Canadian. The largest group of pastores came with the caravan of Casimero Romero from Mora County in November 1876. After camping for the winter in a cottonwood grove at a bend in the Canadian near its confluence with Rica Creek, Romero constructed his adobe home near Atascosa Creek. Several well-watered springs and a broad vega (meadow) protected by sheltering hills lay near this spot, which became the town of Tascosa. Agapito Sandoval selected a site on Consiño Creek, on the north bank of the Canadian eight miles downstream from the Romeros. Eugenio Romero, a brother of Casimero, and his two sons picked a spot on Rita Blanca Creek, in present Hartley County northwest of Tascosa, and started the Romero Springs community. In the spring of 1877, as word of the abundant grass, flowing springs, and clear creeks in the Canadian breaks reached New Mexico, other pastores, including Isidro Sierna and Miguel Garcia, brought in their families. By 1878 Mariano Montoya had located his plaza at the junction of Punta de Agua and Rita Blanca creeks and was soon joined by the family of José Piedad Tafoya, the onetime dean of Comancheros.
In addition to the plazas in the Tascosa area, others were erected elsewhere along the Canadian breaks. Salinas Plaza, named for a nearby salt lake that had long been a valuable source of the mineral for both Indians and New Mexicans, was the westernmost, located in a sandy area in present Oldham County near the New Mexico line; at one time it was home to about twenty-five Mexican families. Juan Chavez, a former cibolero, established another plaza at the mouth of a picturesque canyon near the Canadian's north bank a few miles northeast of Salinas. The Chavez group raised their own vegetables, melons, and grain in addition to livestock, and later Narcisco Gallegos opened a store there. A third plaza, Tecolote, was also located near the New Mexico line across the Canadian from Chavez. There was also a plaza established on the old Comanchero campsite at Tecovas Springs in Potter County southeast of Tascosa, and a smaller one at Joaquin Spring, on the west bank of a small tributary, later became noted for its saloon. In all, over a dozen plazas dotted the Canadian Valley, most of them in the area of Oldham County. These settlements usually consisted of several houses, all built out of thin, flat native sandstone held together by adobe mortar, with walls around eighteen inches thick and containing beehive-shaped adobe hearths. Irrigation ditches, or acequias, were dug to divert water from nearby creeks and springs to cultivated gardens. Sheep corrals, also of sandstone, were erected nearby, and many empleados of various pastores resided in crude dugout shelters.
Along with the Hispanics, a few Anglo-American pioneers moved into the Canadian Valley. Back in 1874 Henry Kimball and Theodore Briggs had been among a party of soldiers from Fort Union who participated in a buffalo hunt on the Canadian. Finding the area to their liking, the two men, both of whom had married native Hispanic women, vowed to settle there as soon as their enlistments had expired. Accordingly, Kimball and his family followed the Romeros to Atascosa Creek, where he built a one-room house near its junction with the Canadian. At a nearby spring Kimball set up a blacksmith shop, thus becoming the Panhandle's first resident farrier. Among other things he planted several cottonwood saplings he had collected on the Canadian. Briggs and his family arrived soon afterward and on Romero's suggestion chose a site protected by high bluffs on Rica Creek a mile and a half above the Canadian and six miles west of the Romero plaza. Sometime late in 1876 the Casper brothers from California brought their flocks to the upper waters of the Red River, and by 1878 the New Zealand Sheep Company, owned by James Campbell and A. B. Ledgard, had established its headquarters on Rita Blanca Creek northwest of Tascosa. The Canadian Valley thus took on the aspects of a boom as sheepmen vied for the best pastures and watering places. Most of the sheep the pastores brought in were probably a cross between the Spanish chaurro and Merino breeds, which adapted well to the harsh Panhandle environment. At first the majority of pastores utilized the old Spanish transchumante system of moving flocks annually between summer and winter ranges. Early in the spring, the sheep were trailed out of the Canadian Valley onto the plains' pastures by lambing time and kept there until the later months, when they usually were trailed back to the valley by shearing time; larger blocks, however, were sheared while still on the range and the wool transported to market directly by wagon. Since abundant grass and sufficient water were quite scarce during dry periods, sheep grazing circuits extended for miles into the Red River basin as far southeast as Tule and Quitaque canyons and beyond into the upper Brazos drainage area. Jesús Perea ran 30,000 sheep to Tahoka Lake and the Yellowhouse and Blanco canyons. Since he needed a tremendous amount of grazing land and water for such a large flock, Perea scattered them widely over much of the South Plains. Portions of the Panhandle region, particularly the northeastern area that was infested with locoweed and the dry, arid southwestern reaches, proved totally unsuitable for sheep raising. As more ranches crowded the region, grazing circuits became more fixed. Some pastores erected crude stone pens on the open range to shelter themselves and their flocks, while others like Casimero Romero carried portable wooden sheepfolds with them. During the winter the sheep were bedded inside the stone and adobe corrals near the plazas; sometimes grassy areas protected by bluffs were fenced in. Sheep owners like Perea with larger flocks often divided labor among four types: the shepherd, or pastor, who watched over a flock of roughly 1,500 head was the lowest in rank; over him was a vaquero who picked out the watering places and grazing areas for the day. A caporal supervised several vaqueros, while the mayordomo, who was in charge of the caporales, ran the entire operation. These large operations maintained their flocks in bands of 2,500 to 3,000 head, with two or three herders to each band. Hirelings, many of whom were Pueblo and Navajo Indians, were reportedly paid as high as $15.00 a month, with board around $4.75. Most of the sheep along the Canadian, however, were raised in smaller flocks for which the owner performed most of the tasks himself, including shearing and lambing.
Life in the Panhandle plazas was simple, unhurried, and little different from what the pastores had known in New Mexico. Shepherds and their dogs kept a sharp eye out for coyotes and wolves during the day and at night drove their flocks into the protection of the corrals. A few cattle, horses, goats, and chickens were also kept around the plazas. Fishing, hunting, trapping, cockfights, and rooster races were favorite pastimes; one favorite game was La Pelota, a crude form of field hockey. Fiestas featuring lively, all-night bailes (dances) with Latin flavor also added zest for living and attracted everyone from miles around; visitors included cowboys from neighboring cattle spreads who anxiously sought chances to dance with lovely senoritas and freely indulge in their hosts' spicy foods and strong drinks. Indians from New Mexico and the Indian Territory who came by to trade also provided an occasional break from an otherwise monotonous existence. Since the plazas were largely isolated except for the military road between forts Elliott and Bascom, the pastores were initially ignored by the Texas state officials in Austin and thus had neither taxes to pay nor any urgent obligations to the outside world.
The pastores faithfully adhered to the Catholicism they had known in their homeland. Although there was no organized church in Tascosa prior to the late 1880s, Fr. Clemente Payron from New Mexico's Chaperito Mission made frequent visits to the Panhandle plazas, where he conducted masses and administered the sacraments. Usually the visiting priest stayed at the Romero home. Sometime in 1877 a shady Frenchman who called himself Padre Green came to the Panhandle and established a sheep ranch on Rita Blanca Creek twelve miles south of present Channing. Claiming that he was a Catholic priest collecting for the church, Green began demanding a 10 percent tithe from the settlers, usually 100 sheep for each 1,000 a sheepman possessed. While he seldom performed any clerical functions and failed to deliver his tithes to the church, Green built up a vast flock and produced an abundance of wool, which he kept in a large adobe shed he had constructed on the Rita Blanca before carrying it to market. Prior to 1880 he sold his holdings and left the Canadian Valley in search of greater opportunities.
Even as the pastores were building their plazas, other forces were rapidly developing that would soon end their almost tranquil existence. The cold-blooded murder of the Casner brothers and their Navajo herdsman by Sostenes l'Archeveque in late 1876 and the wave of violence that followed caused several pastores and their families to flee back to New Mexico in terror of "those Californians," as they called the vengeful John and Lew Casner. The Gunter and Munson firm from Sherman surveyed the area in the late 1870s. What was more, by 1880 several wealthy New Mexico merchants and ranchers in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and other places had begun drifting their large flocks onto the Panhandle. Using the partido system of sharing profits from wool clip, these partidarios often crowded out the ranges of the smaller sheepmen. Although some pastores like Mariano Montoya and Antonio Baca found new markets in Kansas and Colorado, the influx of free range cattle outfits into the area brought a new and greater challenge to land ownership and use. While Charles Goodnight restricted his operations to the eastern Panhandle, other cattlemen like Ellsworth Torrey, Thomas S. Bugbee, David T. Beals, and W. H. Bates established their headquarters and grazed their herds along the Canadian breaks. As early as 1877, George W. Littlefield bought out Henry Kimball and turned the latter's home, along with his Cottonwood Springs, into the LIT Ranch headquarters. Coupled with the cattlemen's arrival, a period of drought caused others like Jesus Trujillo to abandon their plazas by 1878. Although nearly 400 pastores with roughly 108,000 sheep were reported in the Panhandle by the 1880 census, these numbers dropped drastically during the next decade, until by 1890 there were only 10,000 sheep in the entire area. Laws restricting the movements of itinerant pastores to prevent the spread of scab and other diseases were passed by the Texas legislature during the 1870s and 1880s. With the organization of Oldham County in 1880, taxes were imposed on the sheepmen. While some of the New Mexican settlers, like Mariano Montoya and Juan Chavez, were elected to various offices in the new county government, the populace and culture of their Anglo neighbors soon came to dominate their environment. Tascosa quickly grew into a booming, rowdy cowtown as more businessmen like George J. Howard, James E. McMasters, Mickey McCormick, and the brothers John and Will Cone moved in. The abandoned Trujillo plaza was taken over by Charles and Frank Sperling and turned into a stage stop on the mail line between Mobeetie and Las Vegas.
The final blow to the pastores' plazas came with the advent of barbed wire fencing to the Panhandle in the early 1880s. When William M. D. Lee , who detested sheep, began buying up ranch land along the Canadian in 1882, he occasionally resorted to threats and bribery to coerce the sheepmen into moving their flocks back to New Mexico. By 1884 most of the plazas had been vacated and either had been cleared away or were being used as line camps by the LE and ranches LS. Casimero Romero, having lost many of his sheep to a blizzard, sold the remainder and operated his own freighting business from Tascosa to Dodge City, Kansas, until 1896. Antonio Trujillo switched to cattle after one cowman accused Trujillo's sheep of infecting his horses with mange. Agapito Sandoval remained at his plaza on Corsino Creek until 1887. Throughout this period of rapid change there had been no open warfare between cattlemen and sheepmen in the Canadian valley. As the first group to actually settle the Texas Panhandle, the pastores had located valuable watering places, further developed the old trade routes previously used by Comancheros and hide hunters, and encouraged others to move permanently onto the isolated ranges. What was more, they proved that sheep could be raised successfully in the area and showed, though not to the cowmen's immediate satisfaction, that both sheep and cattle could share the same pastures. To this day many of the creeks, canyons, and other geographical features along the Canadian retain their Spanish names. Several stone ruins of plazas and sheep corrals still dot the sites, mostly on private ranch properties, along the breaks in Oldham County, and the old Frying Pan Ranch spring house in western Potter County is believed to be the last remnant of that plaza.