In the mid-to-late nineteenth century sheep herders, or pastores, from New Mexico extensively pastured their flocks in the western section of present Cimarron County and contiguous areas in present eastern New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, southwestern Kansas, and southeastern Colorado. A part of the Great Plains called the High Plains, the region offered vast, continuous grasslands in the watersheds of the Cimarron, Beaver (North Canadian), and "South" Canadian rivers, which headed in northeastern New Mexico and drained the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. Playa lakes also dotted the landscape. Abundant gramma, little bluestem, and buffalo grasses provided ample forage for bison and antelope and later for domesticated herd animals.
The New Mexico sheep industry, a major aspect of the economy, dated from the sixteenth century when Spanish settlers had brought herds north from Mexico. Although all social classes might own sheep, by the early nineteenth century this resource became concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy menin the central part of the province. Central New Mexico, however, offered too few pastures to sustain large flocks, but the free-range grassland to the east could support hundreds of thousands of woolybacks.
Well known to the ranchers and merchants of New Mexico, much of the eastern grassland lay within a transportation corridor leading from New Mexico to the middle United States. The Santa Fe–Missouri trade, which developed in the 1820s, used the Cimarron Cut-off of the Santa Fe Trail, which crossed through present Union County, New Mexico, and Cimarron County, Oklahoma. New Mexico ciboleros, or buffalo hunters, and comancheros, or traders to the Comanche, conducted their activities throughout the grasslands. The Santa Fe–Missouri connection also provided New Mexicans with a market for wool and woven goods, and thus the Santa Fe trade was a major stimulus to the sheep industry. In the 1830s Josiah Gregg, chronicler of the Santa Fe Trail, observed and later described in detail in Commerce of the Prairies (1834) his encounter with shepherds and their flocks in the High Plains. In addition, breeding-stock sheep and sheep destined for slaughterhouses were driven from central New Mexico through Las Vegas and eastward along the Santa Fe Trail for sale in Kansas and Nebraska. Because these activities took place, in the last half of the nineteenth century numerous Hispanic communities, or placitas, developed near the trail's path through present Union and Cimarron counties.
Sheep herding was systematically arranged as a vertical organization of responsibility. The owner, or patron, hired an experienced sheep man to be mayordomo, in charge of the entire pasturage operation. He hired mid-level managers called caporales, who hired vaqueros, or riders, who each supervised three herders, or pastores, who actually raised and cared for the sheep. "Wages" generally consisted of part of the increase in the flock and part of the wool, like sharecropping. Each pastor handled two to three thousand sheep. After spring lambing in east-central New Mexico, the pastor moved the herd eastward into the distant grasslands. In summer and autumn the flock traversed a wide circuit through the grassy plains around the Cimarron and Canadian rivers and returned westward to the mountain valleys for the winter. Sheep needed grass but could survive without much water; pastores carried their own water and food. The pastores established various "base camps," often building small houses and corrals of native stone, when available.
Prominent New Mexico sheep-raising families were grazing their flocks using the pastures of eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle after the mid-nineteenth century. Bartolome Baca, who had received a land grant southeast of Albuquerque in 1819, had established a large sheep operation in present Valencia County. In addition, the Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca family had grants in central and eastern New Mexico and in Colorado and was apparently using pastures in present Union County and in the Public Land Strip (or Neutral Strip, No Man's Land, Oklahoma Panhandle) at least by the late 1860s. Local historians maintain that an owner or mayordomo named José Albino Baca (the surname may actually be Cabeza de Baca) was reportedly responsible for twenty-five thousand sheep pastured annually in present Cimarron County. He employed sixty men, his pastores including Juan Cruz Lujan, Francisco Lujan, Ramon Bernal, and possibly Benito Baca, Jose Vicente Baca, and Juan Bernal. According to a 1935 interview with Juan Lujan, the headquarters of the herd was located around Carrizo Creek and Road Canyon. He indicated that the range of pasturage included Cimarron County and "'as far west as Folsom, New Mexico,'" in far western Union County. The pastores established various sheep camps, and according to photographic evidence of structures in Cimarron County, often used local "sheep-pen" sandstone to built huts and corrals. Scattered ruins identified in a 2002 survey and excavation in the area of Black Mesa suggests that some may have kept semipermanent placitas. The herders used the eastern pasturages until the late 1870s when incoming cattlemen reportedly paid the Baca family to keep their sheep in New Mexico. Circa 1885 Juan Cruz Lujan turned a sheep camp on Corrumpa Creek into his own ranch. He was joined by his brothers Francisco, Lorenzo, and Alejandro, who came from Mora County, New Mexico. Turn-of-the-century photographs show that the Lujan ranch had a flat-roofed adobe house with a large addition, a chapel, and New Mexico–style, beehive-shaped baking ovens. The primary market for Lujan's wool and lambs lay in Trinidad, Colorado.
The descendants of the pastores continued to live and ranch in the Oklahoma Panhandle. The 1900 and 1910 U.S. Censuses recorded sizeable concentrations of Hispanic stock raisers, including the Lujans, in Harrison Township of Cimarron County. In 1899 a widely circulated newspaper report asserted that a "colony of three hundred New Mexicans" were raising sheep there, and approximately 125 individuals (25 surnames) are represented in the 1900 census. As late as 1920 and 1930 Juan Cruz Lujan still appeared in the census as a sheep rancher; he died in Cimarron County in 1943. Although Anglo-Americans in the area primarily raised cattle, some raised sheep in Cimarron and adjoining counties. In 1906 more than a hundred New Mexican pastores were "imported" into Beaver County to care for flocks owned by Anglo sheep ranchers. By 1907 statehood Cimarron County numbered 9,011 sheep, more than any other Oklahoma county, and fully 25 percent of the new state's sheep population.
The Hispanic presence in Cimarron County remains visible in local place-names that include Carrizo, Castañeda (at Wolf Mountain, on the Santa Fe Trail), Cimarron, Delfin, Hidalgo, and Nieto Junction. Geographical designations include Corrumpa, Cienquilla, Tesesquite, Carrizozo, and Carrizo creeks, and Trujillo Springs. In the twentieth century some of the environment that served as pasture in the four-state area was preserved as the Rita Blanca National Grassland in Texas and Oklahoma, the Kiowa National Grassland in New Mexico, and the Comanche National Grassland in Kansas.
H. Allen Anderson, "Pastores," in The New Handbook of Texas History, ed. Ron Tyler (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1995).
Magdalena Lujan Baca and Connie Espinosa Pendergast, "Sheep Ranchers in No Man's Land [typescript]," Vertical File, Cimarron Heritage Center, Boise City, Oklahoma.
Paul H. Carlson, "Panhandle Pastores: Early Sheepherding in the Texas Panhandle," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 52 (1980).
Ezra A. Carman et al., Special Report on the History and Present Condition of the Sheep Industry of the United States, Bureau of Animal Industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1892).
Gary Gress, "From Maverick Lands to Managed Lands: Ranching and School Lands in Cimarron County, Oklahoma" (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 2002).
Berenice Jackson, Man and the Oklahoma Panhandle (North Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Press, 1982).
Charles L. Kenner, New Mexican-Plains Indian Relations (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).
George Rainey, "A Visit with an Old Spaniard," in No Man's Land (Enid, Okla.: George Rainey, 1937).
Edward Norris Wentworth, America's Sheep Trails (Ames: Iowa State College, 1948).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Pastores,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=PA029.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.