During the early historic period (before 1535) several Indian groups were recorded as inhabiting the Big Bend. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gatherers who probably practiced limited agriculture on a seasonal basis. The origin of the Chisos Indians is not known. Linguistically, they were associated with the Conchos Indians of northern Chihuahua and northwestern Coahuila. Their language group spoke a variation of Uto-Aztecan, a language whose speakers ranged from central Mexico to the Great Basin of the U.S.
The Jumano was a nomadic group that traveled and traded throughout west Texas and southeastern New Mexico, but some historic records indicate they were enemies of the Chisos. Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Mescalero Apaches began to invade the Big Bend region and displaced the Chisos Indians. One of the last Native American groups to use the Big Bend was the Comanches, who passed through the park along the Comanche Trail on their way to and from periodic raids into the Mexican interior. These raids continued until the mid-19th century. The last of the great military leaders of the native peoples of the region was an Apache of Spanish ancestry named Alzate, who was active as late as the late 1860s.
The European presence in the region begins circa 1535 AD with the first spanish explorations into this portion of North America. The expedition of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, passed near the Big Bend and was followed by other expeditions. Some of these expeditions were searching for gold and silver, or farm and ranch land. Others, such as those by the franciscan missionaries, were intended to establish centers in which the natives could be evangelized. In an attempt to protect the northern frontier of the New Spain, from which emerged present-day Mexico, a line of presidios, or forts, was established along the Rio Grande in the late 18th century. The Presidio de San Vicente was built near present-day San Vicente, Coahuila, and the Presidio de San Carlos was built near present-day Manuel Benavides,Chihuahua. Some of the presidios were soon abandoned, because of financial difficulties and because they could not effectively stop Indian intrusions into Mexico. The soldiers and settlers of these presidios moved to newer presidios where the interests of the spanish empire were more defensible. Such was the case of Santa Rosa Maria del Sacramento, now Muzquiz, Coahuila.
Very little study has been made of the Spanish occupation of the Big Bend following the abandonment of the presidios. In 1805, a Spanish settlement called Altares existed 30 mi (48 km) south of the Rio Grande. The region became a part of Mexico when it achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. Mexican families lived in the area when English-speaking settlers began arriving following the secession of Texas during the latter half of the 19th century.
Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the U.S. Army made military surveys of the uncharted land of the Big Bend. Forts and outposts were established across Trans-Pecos Texas to protect migrating settlers from Indian attacks. A significant proportion of the soldiers in the late 1800s were african american and came to be called the "buffalo soldiers", a name apparently given to them by the Native Americans. Lieutenant Henry Flipper, the first American of African ancestry to graduate from West Point, served in Shafter, Texas, near the end of the 19th century. (Shafter, named for General William R. Shafter, lies west of the Big Bend along the highway from Presidio to Marfa) Ranchers began to settle in the Big Bend about 1880, and by 1900, sheep, goat, and cattle ranches occupied most of the area. The delicate desert environment was soon overgrazed.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, valuable mineral deposits were discovered and brought settlers who worked in the mines or supported the mines by farming or by cutting timber for the mines and smelters. Communities sprang up around the mines. Boquillas and Terlingua all resulted from mining operations. During this period, the Rio Grande flood plain was settled by farmers. Settlements developed with names like Terlingua Abajo, San Vicente, La Coyota, and Castolon. Often, no more than clusters of families were living and farming in the same area, and they were successful only to the degree that the land was able to support them.
In the 1930s, many people who loved the Big Bend country saw that it was a land of unique contrast and beauty that was worth preserving for future generations. In 1933, the Texas Legislature passed legislation to establish Texas Canyons State Park. Later that year, the park was redesignated Big Bend State Park. In 1935, the United States Congress passed legislation that would enable the acquisition of the land for a national park. The State of Texas deeded the land that it had acquired to the federal government, and on June 12, 1944, Big Bend National Park became a reality. The park opened to visitors on July 1, 1944.
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