Ranching in Spanish Texas

By: Jack Jackson

Type: Overview Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: April 30, 2019

Livestock was brought to Texas in most of the early entradas, or colonization attempts, including, for instance, those of José de Escandón. The animals included major livestock (ganado mayor)-cattle, horses, mules, and burros-as well as sheep, goats, and swine (ganado menor). During the eighteenth century the Franciscans were the principal stock raisers of the province; they carefully tended their seed stock, and their herds grew quickly. Their ranching activity was centered at missions in the San Antonio River valley from San Antonio de Béxar to La Bahía (Goliad). Although stock raising was attempted in the East Texas settlements of Nacogdoches and Los Adaes (present Robeline, Louisiana), it never rivaled the successes of the San Antonio area. Each mission had a ranch located some distance from the compound, and missions received land grants from the king of Spain to conduct their activities. Only after 1750, following peace with the Apaches, did the missions receive serious competition from private ranchers. Gradually these individuals began to settle small ranchos in the river valley, prompting several bitter lawsuits against the missions, which claimed ownership of the best pasture lands. The missionaries in turn charged the private cattlemen with rustling; two major trials occurred during Governor Juan María Vicencio de Ripperdá 's term. Both missionaries and private ranchers also raised sheep and goats for mutton and wool. Herds of such ganado menor increased rapidly due to the Spanish custom of breeding twice a year; by 1800, however, the herds had practically disappeared because of their inability to survive against predators in the wild.

When Teodoro de Croix visited Bexar in January 1778, he attempted to bring order to the livestock industry by declaring all wild and unbranded stock (mesteños) to be the property of the king. He imposed a tax on both cattle and horses rounded up and branded by the inhabitants. Thus began the Fondo de Mesteños, or Mustang Fund, one of the most divisive taxation attempts in Spanish Texas. During this turbulent period enterprising individuals began trailing herds to markets below the Rio Grande, generally to provide beef for military garrisons. Trade with Louisiana, prohibited since the time of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, was opened in 1779, and longhorn cattle from Texas began to move along the Old San Antonio Road through Natchitoches and into the Opelousas region. Because of smuggling and contraband this policy was revoked during the administration of Domingo Cabello y Robles (1778–86). The trade was not easy to stop, however, due to the demand in Louisiana. Private cattlemen and missionaries put aside their differences and fought a long legal battle against Croix's cattle law. By all means possible they attempted to overturn the ruling that unbranded stock belonged to the royal treasury. Father President José Francisco López penned a report in 1785 in which he blamed the sad condition of the Texas missions on the loss of their unbranded herds. A young rancher and self-appointed attorney, the younger Juan José Flores, went to Chihuahua and appealed to the commandant general, José Antonio Rengel, on behalf of his fellow stockmen. Flores's undertaking culminated in a detailed statement of their position, known as the San Fernando Memorial. This document maintained that unbranded stock belonged to the ranchers, especially the Canary Islanders, from whose cattle the wild stock descended. Through such efforts the ranchers of Texas succeeded in gaining a series of branding extensions to collect their stray cattle.

In 1787 was held a great roundup, in which over 7,000 cattle were caught and branded. None of the missions except La Bahía was able to participate in this roundup, despite the elaborate plans made. This fact clearly demonstrated that the missions were on the wane and that private individuals were now dominant in Texas stock raising. In 1795 the ranchers were absolved of their debts to the Mustang Fund and were granted a full year to gather, brand, and dispose of wild cattle tax-free. This relaxation of restrictions increased the number of herds shipped to Coahuila and Louisiana and led to the slaughter of large numbers of cattle for tallow, hides, and dried beef. As a result, the cattle herds were severely depleted by 1800. The emphasis then turned to wild horses (mustangs), especially as the market for them expanded in the Mississippi valley through the efforts of Anglo-American mustangers like Philip Nolan. Attempts to rebuild the Texas cattle industry were disrupted by the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. Spanish stock raising had not recovered from the devastating effects of civil war, population dislocation, and Indian raids by the time Stephen F. Austin's colonists arrived. Many aspects of Spanish ranching, such as dress, equipment, saddle styles, mounted herding, roping methods, terminology, legal precedents, and stockmen's associations, influenced the early Anglo-American stock raisers. The extent of this influence, however, is still a matter of debate among students of nineteenth-century ranching in Texas. See also RANCHING, and SHEEP RANCHING.

Paul H. Carlson, Texas Woolybacks: The Range Sheep and Goat Industry (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Jack Jackson, Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721–1821 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). Terry G. Jordan, Trails to Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981). Val W. Lehmann, Forgotten Legions: Sheep in the Rio Grande Plain of Texas (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1969). Sandra L. Myres, The Ranch in Spanish Texas, 1691–1800 (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1969).

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

Jack Jackson, “Ranching in Spanish Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ranching-in-spanish-texas.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
April 30, 2019