Sheep ranching in Texas began when the first Spanish explorers and missionaries came to the region. It expanded during the eighteenth century with the continued establishment of mission ranches, especially near San Antonio and La Bahía. It declined somewhat at the end of the century after authorities ordered the missions secularized, but in the mid-nineteenth century, after Anglo-Americans came to dominate the industry, it increased again. In terms of numbers of sheep it reached a peak in the mid-twentieth century. Texas today leads the nation in sheep production. As early as 1691 Domingo Terán de los Ríos brought to New Spain's recently established East Texas mission field some 1,700 sheep and goats. Although the missionary work there was soon abandoned, Spaniards returned in 1716 under the leadership of Domingo Ramón, bringing with them a band of 1,000 sheep and goats. The next year flocks appeared in the San Antonio region, and during the 1720s sheep ranching spread down the San Antonio River. Although most sheep raising in early Texas was associated with mission stations near San Antonio, where there were 9,000 sheep in 1727, and La Bahía, civilian ranchers included sheep and goats with cattle in their pastures, and a few sheep grazed near the East Texas missions. Sheep ranching spread to others areas of Spanish Texas and by 1767 had become an important industry at La Bahía and in the Rio Grande valley as well as at San Antonio. In that year Gaspar José de Solís estimated the number of sheep and goats at 17,000 around San Antonio. He noted 2,200 sheep in the La Bahía area. Solís and others estimated that perhaps 90,000 sheep grazed on haciendas in the Rio Grande valley from near the site of present McAllen to near Laredo.
Most of the sheep were chaurros, a gaunt breed that weighed only sixty to eighty pounds. The chaurros were more important for mutton than for the small amount of coarse wool they provided. Nonetheless, mission Indians wove coarse blankets or other cloth from the wool, and ranchers in the Valley found a small market for wool south of the river. Two important systems of sheep ranching emerged. In one, often called the partido system, sheep owners hired individual herders to tend the animals. Customarily, herders and owners entered into contracts as to the length of service and wages. It was common for the sheepherder to tend about 1,500 sheep. He remained with them day and night, moved them from range to range, and participated in lambing, shearing, and other activities associated with sheep raising. At the end of the term of the contract the herder received his wages, took a brief respite from the range, and subsequently entered into a new contract. In the other system, used especially on the large haciendas, a careful hierarchy of organization existed. At the top was the haciendaro (owner) or, in his absence, a superintendent. Below him was the mayordomo, a man of long experience in sheep raising. He stayed constantly on the range, going the round of the different camps, noting the conditions of the sheep, and suggesting changes of ranges. Answering to him were the caporales, usually three to a mayordomo. The caporales produced monthly reports, rode the range, and provided their camps and their subordinates with provisions from the home ranch. They each directed the work of three vaqueros. The vaquero provided a monthly report to the caporal and delivered supplies and news to the three pastores (herders) he supervised. The pastores, the lowest in the hierarchy, each had charge of about 1,500 sheep, which he accompanied by day and camped with at night, moving on foot, usually assisted by a dog. The Spanish interest in sheep ranching in Texas declined during the late eighteenth century. High taxes, orders to close the missions, and other influences were all responsible. In the early nineteenth century the appearance of settlers from the United States pushed Spanish sheep ranching south of the Nueces River. In the Rio Grande valley large ranchers continued to dominate, but through the great interior below the Nueces only a few itinerant sheepmen grazed flocks of 1,500 to 2,000 sheep.
American pioneers in Texas were slow to adopt sheep raising, except as an adjunct to the field or plantation. Those who in the 1830s and 1840 turned to significant sheep production brought changes. They introduced such breeds as the Merino and Rambouillet, which required close herding and were more important for their wool than for their mutton. With the emphasis now on wool, a new market was found among the woolen mills in New England. In the period of the Republic of Texas and afterward, sheep ranching expanded into the hills and plateaus north and west of San Antonio. Purebred sheep were introduced in the 1840s and 1850s by Germans and Scots. During that same period many sheep were brought from the Midwest and the Ohio valley. After the Civil War a boom occurred in sheep ranching. Several factors brought it about. George Wilkins Kendall, a pioneer sheep rancher near Boerne, advertised widely what he saw as ideal conditions for raising sheep in Texas. New England woolen mills, which had devised new manufacturing techniques, offered favorable prices for Texas wool. Westward-moving settlers found sheep raising a profitable enterprise in the temperate but generally dry climate of the state. The boom, which expanded rapidly in the 1870s, peaked in the 1880s and extended the industry to the far limits of West Texas. The emphasis remained on wool, not mutton. Many prospective sheepmen headed for the Edwards Plateau or the Trans-Pecos country. They usually directed a band of 1,500 to 2,000 sheep and located the animals on lands leased from the state. Some were contract herders who worked under terms similar to the Spanish partido system. Others were large operators who brought thousands of sheep from California or purchased chaurros in South Texas to mix with their Merinos, Rambouillets, or other wool breeds on land they purchased from the state. Charles Schreiner of Kerrville, who provided warehouses, transportation facilities, and a unique commission sales system for wool, played perhaps the key role in the expansion of sheep raising in the 1880s and 1890s. By 1900, although it occurred in nearly all the state's counties, sheep raising had concentrated primarily on the Edwards Plateau and in Southwest Texas. There, ranchers with large spreads adopted the Spanish system of herding, but streamlined it to suit their needs and changed some of the terms; vaquero was replaced by rustler. Some ranchers, such as Charles Callaghan and Arthur Anderson, had as many as fifty herders, eighteen rustlers, and six caporales. By this time they had also begun to add goats to their flocks. Because many sheepmen were also cattle raisers, bovine herds were common on the sheep ranches of Southwest Texas.
In the early twentieth century, extensive changes came to sheep ranching. Ranchers introduced new breeds, including Corriedale, Delaine, and others that were better suited to the high, dry rangelands of the Edwards Plateau. They organized more efficient wool-marketing associations that allowed individual raisers greater advantage in dealing with New England-based wool buyers. They turned more and more to the practice of raising sheep, goats, and cattle in the same pastures. And in 1915 they organized the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers' Association, with J. B. Murrah of Del Rio as the first president. One of the most significant developments in the early twentieth century was the adoption of mesh-wire ("wolf-proof") fencing. The woven wire, generally with a six-inch mesh and standing forty-two to fifty-two inches in height, was stretched between cedar posts. Builders set barbed wire along the ground to prevent wolves and coyotes from scratching under the fence, and they frequently placed one to three strands of barbed wire above the woven wire. Although expensive, the mesh-wire fences reduced the need for herders, cut losses to predators, and in the long run helped ranchers improve the economic yield of their operations. During the first half of the twentieth century the number of sheep in Texas grew significantly, reaching in 1943 a peak of 10,800,000 animals. During this growth, Texas raisers produced an increasing proportion of the total sheep of the United States. In 1910 Texas accounted for only 4 percent of the total number of sheep in the country, but in 1920 the figure reached 9 percent. Ten years later, the state had become the nation's leading producer and Texas sheepmen claimed 13.8 percent of sheep raised in the United States. Even greater growth occurred in the 1930s, when Texas produced more than 20 percent of the nation's sheep; although the number of sheep in the state declined after World War II, the state maintained that percentage throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. In 2000 Texas had 1,200,000 sheep valued at $94,800,000.
Sheep ranching in the state includes busy seasonal activities, of which lambing is the preeminent one. In the early days in the Southwest, particularly on the Edwards Plateau, range ewes were bred in the fall-the gestation period is about 150 days-to lamb between February and May, demanding on latitude and elevation of the range. The herder, acting as a midwife, carefully watched over the ewes in his flock, assisting at a difficult birth, forcing indifferent mothers to nurse their offspring, caring for orphaned lambs or lambs born to "dry" ewes, and in other ways attending to the flock so as to get the lambs through their critical first weeks. One participant called the lambing season a "month long hell of worry and toil." Some of the larger ranchers hired special crews, hijadores ("lambers"), composed of three or four men, to handle the task. Shearing season was likewise intense. Itinerant shearing crews did much of the work, especially on the large ranches. For the herder shearing represented the "social season" of sheep ranching, a time when he had the companionship of others. The arrival of the crews signaled an excuse to gather for visiting, feasting, drinking, and other social activities. Shearing also was cumbersome work. In the days before electric equipment, shearing was done by hand in huge barns or in large pens covered with brush or reeds. From daybreak to dark, shearers bent over their animals, boys sat by to count sheep or apply medicine to wounds of any animal accidentally cut, and men stood at a table with twine to tie up each fleece before they carefully placed it in a sack that was eight to ten feet long and, when filled, weighed about 360 pounds. In such fashion shearing continued until all animals were trimmed, and then the crew moved to another ranch. Other jobs included castrating, docking, and marking. In castrating male sheep in the nineteenth century, a worker held the back of the animal against his own chest with all four legs gathered together and elevated. After he cut the end of the scrotum, he pulled out both testicles and with a knife or sharp tug severed the cords. Castration produced better mutton and ensured that the ewes would be bred only by prize rams. Docking, cutting off all but two inches of the tail, was done for sanitary and reproductive reasons. Marking was done for identification. Ranchers painted their marks on freshly shorn sheep and earmarked the animals by notching one or both ears with distinctive combinations of cuts and slashes known as "corps," "lance points," or "downfalls." By using a slightly different mark each year, a rancher could tell the age of his sheep.
Today, sheep ranching in Texas is often associated with cattle and goat raising, especially on the Edwards Plateau. Wool production remains more important than mutton, and ranchers continue to experiment with new, different, and sometimes exotic breeds to improve wool quality. Ranchers have become more efficient and scientific in their operations. They rely on improved transportation, novel marketing techniques, and modern equipment. Nonetheless, many of their methods, terms, and paraphernalia can be traced back to the eighteenth-century Spanish settlers who first undertook sheep ranching in Texas. See also GOAT RANCHING, RANCHING, SPANISH MISSIONS, and WOOL AND MOHAIR INDUSTRY.