The first Europeans to set foot in Big Bend were probably Cabeza de Vaca —an explorer from Spain—and his companions. In 1535, de Vaca landed on the upper Gulf coast of Texas, far from his intended destination, Mexico City. Only three or four of his original crew survived.
But humans lived and died in Big Bend long before Europeans arrived. As the ice age was ending around 11,000 years ago, hunters known as the Clovis people were hunting bison, mammoth and camels in the area.
“What catches the imagination about them,” said Dr. Steele, “is that we find their spear points among the bones of mammoths. In their camps, we find bones of extinct horses (camels). Clovis and his predecessors were living with an extinct fauna. It would have been a fauna as dynamic as Africa was at the turn of the century to our ancestors. But in the New World, there were giant ground sloths, giant armadillos that looked like Volkswagens, camels, and a range of horses—from smaller than donkeys to larger than the horses and zebras of today.”
Big Bend at that time was not a desert. It was rich in oak and pinion forests. In the lower areas, it was grassy. Then, by 10,000 years ago, the megafauna (camels, bison, mammoths, etc.) was all gone. Scientists still debate how much influence the Clovis hunters had on the collapse of these species. Humans in Big Bend were left to adapt over 2,000 years from a biological community dominated by megafauna to a biological community where bison and deer dominated. There were fewer species after the ice ages, but the remaining species increased in biomass.
Following the Clovis people, there was a procession of native cultures. The Chisos, the Jumanos, the Mescaleros, and the Apaches all lived in and around Big Bend. The last great native group in the region were the Comanches. The raids into Mexico— first by the Apaches and then by the Comanches—made the region notorious. According to Dr. Steele, on their raids in northern Mexico, the Comanches “were getting horses, slaves, booty, to trade for guns . . . slave children would be taken in to the community . . . “
The Spanish tried desperately to tame the region. A string of forts were constructed on high peaks. These presidios offered excellent views to track the movement of the Apaches. But the presidios were too far apart. And the area is so vast that it took too many soldiers at each fort to make it viable. The region couldn’t be reclaimed. The forts eventually fell into disuse.
Dr. Steele added, “For a long time, the Northern Chihuahuan Desert was no man’s land. The ranches that were trying to make a living in that area were subject to the Comanche and Apache raids. That continued until the 1870s, when the Comanches were finally controlled in their last free home base in Palo Duro Canyon.”