Old Tascosa Lives On

May 2, 2012

The site of Old Tascosa in the Texas Panhandle has a rich history, beginning centuries ago with a prehistoric Indian culture that settled in a valley where several creeks converged into a river we now call the Canadian.  The Spanish explorer Coronado probably rested at the campsite in 1541 when he followed the Canadian in his trek across the plains.  Mexican traders used the site to barter with Indian tribes, and ultimately named it for the quicksand at the crossing. They supposedly christened a stream that ran into the river Atascosa, meaning ‘boggy’, when a train of oxcarts was mired in the mud.

In the first half of the 1800s traffic through the site included trail blazers Josiah Gregg and Randolph Marcy, as well as hundreds of settlers and gold miners moving westward.  Buffalo hunters, Indian warriors, and the U.S. Cavalry all used the campsite at various times during their battles over the land and its resources.  They were followed by sheepherders from New Mexico, who pastured their vast flocks in the Canadian River valley, and cattlemen like Charles Goodnight who used the crossing to drive their herds onto the Texas Plains. 

Eventually a town grew on the north bank of the crossing, supplying travelers with goods and services needed to continue their journeys.  In 1878 an application was approved for a post office for Tascosa, because a town called Atascosa already existed in Texas.  A mail line and a cattle trail between Tascosa and Dodge City was developed and soon the town was known as The Cowboy Capital of the Panhandle.  With this title came all the wild and wicked ways typically associated with a trail town.  Saloons, dancehalls, and gaming parlors attracted a large crowd that was not altogether welcomed by the more upstanding citizens of Tascosa.  Consequently two distinct sections of town developed, Upper Tascosa and Lower Tascosa, also known in some quarters as Hogtown because ‘the inhabitants behave like swine’. 

In 1882 the population of Hogtown increased dramatically, as the Texas Rangers began a cleanup of the town of Mobeetie, causing a mass migration of somewhat unsavory characters who took up residence and plied their trades in Tascosa.  A reputation for lawlessness developed that put Tascosa in the company of Dodge City, Kansas and Trail City, Colorado, but a new fangled invention called barbed wire eventually brought an end to Tascosa’s wild ways, and ultimately to the town itself.  The cattle trails that were the lifeblood of the cowtown were pinched off by the fencing of open range. 

Fencing of two massive spreads, the Frying Pan Ranch and the XIT, tightened the noose around Tascosa, and by 1887 the town was completely closed in.  When the railroad bypassed it the same year, Tascosa entered the death throes of a ghost town.  But the site of Old Tascosa sprang to life once more in 1939 when a rancher and businessman named Julian Bivins offered the property as a home for boys who need a helping hand toward a new life.  The reputation of Old Tascosa took a dramatic turn with the establishment of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, and the area is once more a busy settlement on the Texas plains.

Research material for writing this story was provided by Carl Williamson of Miami.  For High Plains Public Radio, I’m Doug Ricketts in Higgins, Texas.