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Historical Crane County

Horsehead Crossing looking east     
toward Castle Gap     
Photo by Bill Dawson     

Table of Contents

  • Castle Gap
  • Crane County
  • Homer R. Henderson
  • Horsehead Crossing
  • Horsehead Crossing
        by Donnie Henderson
  • Juan Cordona Salt Lake
  • Page two of the History of Crane

  • (TOC)
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    Castle Gap

    Castle Gap   Castle Gap
      Castle Gap, famous early pass for Southwestern trails, lies along the Upton - Crane County lines.  Through this mile long gap between Castle and King Mountains flowed the full panorama of Texas.

    In pre-historic time Castle Gap was a landmark for Nomadic Indian tribes and later guided the Comanches on their war trail into Mexico.  The first white man to discover the pass was probably the Spanish explorer Felipe Rabago Y Teran in 1761.  Then came the 49'ers in their frenzied rush to the California gold fields, to be followed by more permanent settlers.

    From 1858 to 1861 the famed Butterfield Overland mail coaches rumbled through the pass on their 24 day journey from St. Louis to San Francisco, pausing briefly at the adobe walled Castle Gap way station for fresh teams.  Then they were off again, fording the Pecos River at Horse-head Crossing 12 miles to the southwest and fading into the sunset.  By 1866 the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail was firmly established at the gap, funneling tens of thousands of bawling longhorn cattle to northern markets.

    During this same period, legend holds that a treasure laden aide of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, fleeing the country when the regime collapsed, buried gold and jewels worth a quarter of a million dollars in the area.

    Today Castle Gap slumbers peacefully, disturbed only by visitors, occasional treasure hunters and those who probe for ruins of the Butterfield Stage Station and the rapidly fading ruts of coach and wagon.

    Reprinted with the permission of the Crane County Chamber of Commerce.


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    Crane County

    Bridge over Pecos River on old Crane-Ft. Stockton Hwy     Windmill at Sunset  
      The area that is now Crane County was within the territory of the Lipan Apaches, who were among the originators of the plains culture common to Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, and other Indians.  This part of the Pecos country may have been crossed by Spanish explorer Felipe de Rabago y Teran in 1761 and some of the early California bound American travelers passed through Castle Gap and Horsehead Crossing.

    Crane County was formed in 1887 from land previously assigned to Tom Green County the same year.  Scant rainfall discouraged settling the county.  The first, and only, city of Crane County, Crane, was established in 1908.  The discovery of oil in 1926 led to the county being organized the following year, and led to Crane's development as an oil boomtown. In 1940 the population, 1,420, had grown to 3,622 in 1980, when the town had a library, swimming pool and some 104 businesses, including a concrete plant, steel industry, nursing home, a hospital, and a newspaper, the Crane News.

    Crane County was attached to Ector County for administrative purposes until 1927.  The county's main product has been oil, with 1,552-million barrels produced by 1991.

    Crane County is bounded on the north by Ector, east by Upton, south by Pecos, and west by Ward counties.  Two railways cross the county: Texas and Pacific on the northeast, and Panhandle and Sante Fe across the southern tip.  Interstate 20 crosses the northwest corner.  US 385 runs north/south along the eastern border, and the Pecos River forms most of the southern border.  Historic pioneer trails are among the tourist attractions for the county.

    The New Texas Handbook is the source of this information.  For more facts try the complete article in the New Texas Handbook.

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    Homer Robert Henderson
    February 24, 1881-April 8, 1963

    Texas Ranger; Deputy Sheriff; Ector County Commissioner; Crane County Commissioner 1941 - 1946.

    Born in Wilson County; One of 12 children born to Robert and Mary Elizabeth (O'Neal) Henderson.

    Came to Odessa as member of Company A, Texas Ranger under command of Captain J. A. Brooks, in 1906.  This was in the period when Rangers kept the peace during citizens filing of land claims.

    December 5, 1907 began a homesteader's occupancy of Section 4, Block 43.  This section straddles the Crane County, Ector County line.  Also at this time purchased Sections 20 and 32, Block 43 in N. E. Crane County.  Married Annie L. Henderson in Odessa, Texas, October 8, 1908.

    June 9, 1917 began a homesteader's occupancy of Section 29, Block B-22. Also purchased Section 20, Block B-22 and later purchased Sections 8 and 17, Block B-22, and Sections 4 and 5, Block B-26 all in N. W. Crane County.  A rancher who raised Herford Cattle.  Buried Sunset Cemetery, Odessa, Ector County, Texas.

    Annie L. Henderson, 1884 - 1997; housewife; very gracious and proper; no children; buried Sunset Cemetery, Odessa, Ector County, Texas.

    5-31-2000   Gordon Hooper

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    Horsehead Crossing

    Horsehead Crossing Marker     Pecos River  
      Travelers between the east and west have reckoned with the Pecos River as long as man has lived in the Southwest.  The old river has dealt some odd hands - one of them in contemporary history when she swept away the prize bridge of the entire state highway system at the crossing near Langtry.  It has been replaced with the highest vehicular bridge yet built in Texas.

    A few highway and railroad bridges now span the historic Pecos River.  But until days of the late Judge Roy Bean, the only place the Pecos could be crossed was at a point northeast of Fort Stockton.

    Old Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River lies dormant and ignobly among the salt cedar and silt of the centuries.  The historic spot seemingly still is unrepentant for her deeds of the past and takes with sullen acquiescence of the mantle of ignobility thrust over her by history.

    Most modern maps do not recognize the infamous crossing, but before the turn of the century - and as far back as the days of the Spanish conquistadors - no map of the Southwest was complete without a spot to designate Horsehead.  She was as important on maps of those days as San Antonio, Nacogdoches and Chihuahua City, as no traveler could travel the Southwest from east to west or west to east without conquering the anger of the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing.

    As pioneers treked westward, they built towns and these towns grew to cities where obstacles or nature's signposts halted men in their westward movement  All who traveled the lower route halted at Horsehead, but nobody tarried longer than necessity demanded.  No cowman's rockshack, no inn, no permanent habitation ever marked Horsehead Crossing.  Having done with her, men shunned her like a pestilence.

    Chronicles of travelers, from the Spaniards on to the users of the crossing at the turn of the century have not one good word for Horsehead Crossing.  They paint pictures of desolation, danger, bleakness and dread, where death lurks at every turn.

    Antonio de Espejo, the Spanish explorer, crossed the river here in 1583 and named it Rio de las Vacas (River of Cows) because of the herds of buffalo that drifted along both banks of the turbulent stream.

    Nearly a century later Spanish Explorer Mendoza led an expedition into the area.  He came upon the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing but rather than attempt a crossing, he headed north and discovered the Concho River.  He wrote of the ancient road that crossed the Pecos here and commented on the vast piles of bones he saw along the banks of the river.

    In 1839 the first American citizen crossed the Pecos at Horsehead.  He was Dr. Henry Connelly, and he headed a small expedition from Independence, Missouri, to Chihuahua, Mexico.

    He brought gold and silver from Mexican mines and loaded 20 wagons with the metals and headed back to the United States.  He used 6,000 mules in the caravan and more than 100 armed men guarded the cargo.  In spite of the constant danger of attack by Indians and outlaws, the dread that tormented those of the party who made the long trek with Dr. Connelly was not of the danger from attack but of the hidden danger lurking at Horsehead Crossing.

    When they arrived at the crossing the Pecos was bank-full and nearly 150 feet wide.  The teamsters used empty water kegs tied around the laden wagons as floats and managed to get the precious metals across, but several supply wagons with their teams were victims of the angry Pecos and one teamster lost his life.

    Although it was almost dark by the time the caravan finally crossed the Pecos, Dr. Connelly ordered the drivers to push away from the skeleton - marked Horsehead Crossing, and no man ventured a word in favor of a camp for the night.

    In 1848 an expedition set out from San Antonio for Chihuahua and crossed the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing and opened a route to the interior of northern Mexico and called it the Chihuahua Trail, over which in years to follow, rolled gold and silver bullion of a value to stagger the imagination.  Freighters from old Indianola, on the Texas Gulf Coast, drove to San Antonio and along the trail to Horsehead Crossing and on to Chihuahua and back, adding to the riches that rolled over this desolate desert-way and dared the vengeance of the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing.

    The U. S. Army in 1849 mapped a trail from San Antonio to El Paso and used Horsehead Crossing.  Lieutenant Francis T. Bryan, one of two officers heading the expedition noted in his report that they spanned the Pecos at a place called Horsehead Crossing, named no doubt, he commented, because of the many horses' heads scattered nearby.  This expediton mapped a route that later became a part of the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail, named in 1866.

    A year later another Army expedition under Captain John R. Bartlett crossed at Horsehead.  He noted in his report the many horses' and mules' heads scattered along the banks of the river.  The crossing almost extracted its grim toll from this small expedition.

    After most of the wagons and teams had made the crossing safely, two wagons, one driven by Captain Bartlett, fell victim to the deadly current.  The mules lunged and fought the water and two of the wagons and teams became entangled in mid-stream.  A young soldier named Clement Young saw the danger, waded as far as possible into the swirling waters then tossed a rope over the heads of the lead team.  Others rode to his assistance on horseback and by pulling on the rope managed to untangle the teams and wagons and haul them to shore.

    Horsehead was the crossing for the Old Salt Trail, well-traveled even in the days when explorer Mendoza saw the crossing; and it extracted its toll from those who traveled it to haul precious salt to the arid and saltless land to the east.

    Just when Horsehead Crossing got it's name is unknown.  It bore the name when the first American explorers crossed it, and the name was generally common when Jack Hays, the Texas Ranger, led an exploring unit of the U. S. Army from San Antonio to Chihuahua in 1848.  Most maps drawn by the early explorers marked the spot and called it Horsehead Crossing.

    Not a mention of the crossing in any way of the records or journals kept by explorers, adventurers and traders who used it contained a single favorable mention of her.  The river was treacherous, the waters brackish and salty.  There was practically no graze in the area for cattle or horses.  The trail on both sides of the crossing was marked with carcases of oxen, horses, cattle and mules, apparently dropped in their tracks from thirst and exhaustion.  After long drought the water was unfit to drink by men or beast, and hordes of animals, near dead from thirst after crossing nearly 100 miles of desert on either side of the river, plunged into the salt gyp-water and drank themselves to death.

    In 1857 the United States awarded to John Butterfield a contract to extablish an overland stage from St. Louis to San Francisco to expedite mail service.  The Butterfield stage line breached the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing.

    An easterner, after making the stage trip and experiencing the danger of Horsehead and the Trans-Pecos country, wrote to friends back home that he now knew where hell was.  Another tender-foot, gorging himself with Pecos water wrote that the water would give a bird flying over the river diarrhea.

    As if the brackish water and the desert were not enough to make Horsehead a dreaded crossing, the river was cursed with quicksand.  In 1865 a caravan left old Fort McKavett in Menard County, Texas, headed for California.  In the caravan were 1,000 head of cattle, 70 yoke of oxen and 120 oxen to pull the wagons.  The party camped at Castle Gap about 12 miles east of Horsehead Crossing.  That night Indians swooped down and drove off all the stock except the 120 work oxen and a few horses.

    While some of the men searched for the stolen cattle, others drove the oxen on to Horsehead Crossing.  The moment the oxen smelled the water of the Pecos, they stampeded.  They plunged head-long into the river, those behind shoving the others into the quicksand.  Only 19 oxen of the 120 that the Indians did not steal came out of Horsehead Crossing alive.

    John Chisum bought a herd of 1,100 steers at Trickham, Texas, in Coleman County, at $18.00 a head and headed them for New Mexico.  At Horsehead, Indians came down on the camp.  The Chisum flock amounted to exactly 6 steers when finally it reached Fort Stockton.

    In 1871 G. F. Ranowsky, a trail driver, started from Mason County, Texas, with 3,000 steers, headed for Colorado.  When the famished outfit reached Horsehead Crossing they pitched camp.  War whoops startled the men from their sleep.  All that was left of the herd when the Indians rode away was one yoke of oxen.

    The history of Horsehead is a history of violence, financial ruin and death.  Throughout three centuries trailmakers tried in vain to find another crossing, but the banks of the Pecos throughout the vast area of West Texas were high and rugged.  Only at Horsehead did the banks on both sides of the river lend a gentle slope down to the water.  How deceptive that gentleness was.

    The rugged terrain and desolation made perfect ambushes for lurking Indians and outlaws.  If a caravan was fortunate enough to escape its human enemies, frequently the crossing was more merciless than the Indians.

    Today a marker points with pride to the treacherous Horsehead Crossing.  In a clump of mesquite a few yards from the river bank are the sunken rectangles where, as far back as 1870, 13 men lay buried, victims of violence at old Horsehead.

    The passing of time nullified the need of Horsehead as a crossing of the Pecos, and sand and erosion have obliterated the deep ruts of the great freighters, the footprints of the conquistadors, the salt freighters, the trail-drivers and the pioneers rolling westward in search of California gold and the end of a rainbow.  Even time has calmed the old river as farmers partake of its water for irrigation and the salt cedar chokes its passage.
    Taken from the files of Lacy Pittman, Jr.
    Reprinted with permission of the Crane County Chamber of Commerce.

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    Horsehead Crossing by Donnie Henderson

    Castle Gap     Pecos River  
      Most West Texans have heard of historic Horsehead Crossing, yet although in earlier times it was a very famous crossing, today no one can pinpoint its exact location.  To earlier travelers it was a treacherous fording place and was surrounded by drab scenery.  Through scorching sand and rocky defile we travel the 200-year-old trail the Comanche raiders, stages, and thirst-crazed longhorn cattle and horses have traveled.

    Starting at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, the 600 miles of the Pecos River skirted the East side of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to join the Rio Grande in West Texas.  Along this Pecos River are various other crossings, but none as famous as the Horsehead Crossing located in the present West Texas county of Crane.

    The Cibolas (Buffalo) Indians of the Presidio del Norte region used the Salt Trail to travel from their home on the Rio Grande to kill buffalo east of the river.  They salted their meat at the salt lake just east of the Pecos also located in Crane County.  The old Salt Crossing they used was about ten miles above the site of Horsehead Crossing.

    Mendoza's 1684 expedition described Castle Gap and thought it possible the Pecos was as large as the Rio Grande, and because of its salty water he named it the Salado.  Although he does not mention Horsehead Crossing, it is believed he probably used the crossing.

    By the 1800's the fierce Comanches had established the Comanche War Trail raiding below the Rio Grande and returning with their stolen horses, livestock and captured Mexicans for slavery and adoption into their villages.  In the 1800's the Pecos was the division between Comanche and Apache territories in West Texas.  During that period, the Comanches and Kiowas took the short cut across Horsehead Crossing to raid Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, Mexico.  September's period of a full moon was known to the Mexicans as the Comanche Moon when the raids took place.  The Comanches would drive their stolen horses from Comanche Springs at Fort Stockton at a fast pace causing many of the horses to stampede upon smelling the water of the Pecos.  The desperate animals tortured by thirst would trample each other trying to reach the water.  Early travelers would tell of large numbers of horse's heads that lay scattered near the crossing.

    The California Overland Mail (Butterfield Overland Mail), 2,795 miles from St. Louis to San Francisco, entered Texas by way of Fort Smith, Arkansas, followed the line of forts southwesterly to the middle Concho River then turned westerly up that valley, then through Castle Gap to Horsehead Crossing.  From here the early route followed up the Pecos River to Pope's Crossing near the present Red Bluff Reservoir, and westward to El Paso.  A more southerly route from Horsehead Crossing was probably a better choice.  It went from the Crossing direct to Fort Stockton, Leon Springs, Toyahvale, Fort Davis, and to Van Horn's Well and El Paso.  It also had the advantage of servicing the westerly line of forts.  The original run over this new mail trail to California was made in 1858 and the New York Herald sent a special news correspondent, W. L. Ormsby, to be a passenger on the mule-drawn coach so that he could report the trip.

    W. L. Ormsby described the area as "Strewn along the road, and far as the eye could reach along the plain-decayed and decaying animals, the bones of cattle and sometimes men (the hide drying on the skin in the arid atmosphere), all told a fearful story of anguish and terrific death from the pangs of thirst.  For miles and miles these bones strew the plain..."

    The Goodnight-Loving Trail on June 6, 1866 followed the old Butterfield Overland Mail route in order to make use of any water holes still open there to New Mexico.  The herd consisted of 2,000 longhorns.  Goodnight himself recalled a scene when, after three days of tortured thirst, the cattle approached the waters of the Pecos.  After running the final miles to the river, "those behind pushed the ones in the lead right on across the river before they had time to stop and drink."  The crush at the river was so great that more than 100 cattle were drowned or trampled to death.

    Joel D. Hoy, his family, and cowboys in 1867 were driving 1,000 head of cattle across Horsehead Crossing when they were attacked by 150 Indians. When the Indians temporarily fell back with some of the cattle, Hoy and some of the cowboys pushed a wagon with the wounded upstream and took shelter in the abandoned stage station.  At the same time, Ben Gooch and the cowboys of a second herd reached the crossing only to become similar victims.  For two days Indians attacked the two parties before withdrawing in the face of a one hundred man prospecting party under Jacob Schnively and Colonel William Dalrymple.

    A cemetery was noted by Charles Goodnight in the 1870's-thirteen graves, twelve the result of gunfights.  Horsehead and the Pecos grew so notorious for outlaws that to "pecos" a man was to kill him and roll his body over the bank of the Pecos.

    The last herds were pushed across Horsehead Crossing in 1928 and officials placed a Texas Centennial marker in the vicinity in 1936 and subsequently set aside a west-bank plat supposedly encompassing the crossing, knowledge of Horsehead Crossing came mostly from legends.  Destructive floods that widened the moat-like river to as much as a mile in 1929 and 1941 altered the banks.

    Horsehead Crossing has been described as a big, wide crossing with as much as one hundred yards of gently sloping banks with a rock bottom that allowed for fording the river.  In some areas along the Pecos River quicksand can also be found.

    Colonel Thomas B. Hunt's sketch, made during his 1869 scout of the region, situating the crossing on a straightaway, an 1890 Pecos County survey map places it a short distance above the present marker; and a United States Department of Agriculture high-altitude photograph taken in 1961, shows the historic wagon road approaching the Pecos from Castle Gap to the east-northeast and, within a few hundred yards of the river, branching into four or five ill-defined trails that curve upstream to merge into a single road, from which a side trail veers to the Pecos.  On the opposite bank and a little upstream, patterns suggest wagon roads exiting in a "V" pattern.  Also Colonel Thomas B. Hunt's 1869 map shows an army camp on both the east and west side of Horsehead Crossing to the south of the old station.

    The 1936 Texas Centennial marker is accessible on State Hwy. No. 11 between Imperial and Girvin.

    Sources: Old West; April 1969, Clayton W. Williams
    True West; August 1992, Patrick Dearen
    The Treasure Legends of Castle Gap; October 1965, Jeff Henderson
    Fort Concho Its Why and Wherefore; 1957, J. N. Gregory
    Story of the Great American West; 1977, Reader's Digest


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    Juan Cordona Salt Lake

    Juan Cordona Salt Lake     Juan Cordona Salt Lake  
    Juan Cordona Salt Lake is a waterless natural deposit and has been used for the past 300 years.  The salt lake was named after Juan Cordova and was incorrectly spelled on early maps; hence - Cordona.

    Apaches were encountered here by explorers in 1683.  During the Civil War, 1861-1865, a seven family San Saba wagon train traded water-melons and other goods to the Indians for the much needed salt.

    In 1912-1914 a 36 burro train hauled salt from the lake, and as recent as 1930 commercial salt shipments went out to Midland and Odessa, Texas.

    Reprinted with permission of the Crane County Chamber of Commerce.

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