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Hispanic Shepherds of New Mexico

The History Bureau of the Museum of New Mexico conducted an oral history project covering the way of life of the Hispanic sheepherder of the states eastern plains.  The following account is based on the authors interviews at the History Bureau with Mariano Chavez, the son of a traditional Hispanic sheepherder.  Mr. Chavez died on July 12, 1982.

By Diana Ortega-DeSandis
["The Hispanic Shepherd of New Mexico's  Eastern Plains" El Palacio, Spring 1982:12-13.  Published by The Museum of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]

During the turn-of-the-century period when the railroad was changing the face of New Mexico, several Hispanic families migrated from northern New Mexico and southern Colorado to the area now known as Harding County.  Taking advantage of the Homestead Act, these people, with names like Chávez, Martínez, Gallegos, and González, settled along the canyons and valleys of the Canadian River Valley to raise sheep.

In a series of taped interviews recorded in 1980, Mariano Chávez, who as a youngster herded sheep in the Canadian River area, discussed this vanishing chapter of New Mexico’s history.  Chávez recalled his life and experiences as a shepherd around the Carrizo area, north of Roy, New Mexico.  His father, whose sole occupation was sheepherding, moved his family from Conejos, Colorado to eastern New Mexico around 1898.  He had learned of the area from his father, Colonel Jesús María Chaves, who had hunted buffalo in the area.  Jesús Chaves was a prominent man in his own right; he had served in the New Mexico Militia and had also herded sheep to places as far away as California.[1]

The Chávez family claimed 1,600 acres, enough land to allow them to make a living from their sheep. [2]  The family herds numbered anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 head during the peak of their sheepherding years. [3]  “It was a good living,” recalled Mariano Chávez.  They kept sheep, cattle and pigs for meat, and produce from a vegetable garden and fruit trees helped to supplement their diet.

The family’s primary source of income, however, was the sale of sheep and wool to the Floersheim Mercantile Company.  The account books of Mariano’s father show that as many as 1,200 sheep were sold annually to Floersheim for about $1.50 a head.  The family also sold the company wool, which was packaged in gunny sacks that weighed as much as 350 pounds. [4]

 During the late nineteenth century, mercantile houses established by Anglos, such as the Charles Ilfeld Company in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Gallup; Floerscheim in Springer; and Bonds in Albuquerque and Española, played an important role in New Mexico’s economy. [5]  By 1890, the Floerscheim Company, with a branch office in Roy, had become one of the largest mercantile enterprises in northern New Mexico and had developed extensive land and livestock interests.  Hispanic shepherds with smaller flocks sold their sheep and wool to these merchants on a regular basis.

 During his years as a sheepherder, Mariano’s father continued the practice of al partido, and he involved all three of his sons in sheepherding. [6]  (The old Spanish custom of al partido, which remained an integral part of New Mexico’s sheep industry well into the twentieth century, involved a contract whereby a shepherd agreed to care for a number of sheep over a period of time in return for a percentage of the offspring of the herd.)  The governor’s report in 1900 states, “It is no unusual thing for them [shepherds] to take sheep on shares, agreeing to return double the number of young and healthy ewes at the end of five years, with a considerable amount of wool annually.” [7]

The experiences of the Chávez family clearly reflect the prominent role of shepherds and the sheep industry in New Mexico since early Spanish Colonial times.  Southwestern sheep husbandry was initiated with the first Spanish colonization efforts in 1598.  As many as 2, 517 sheep were listed in Oñate’s personal inventory aside from those brought by other colonists. [8]  These were the breed known as churro, noted for their tasty meat.

Mutton and lamb continued to be traditional food staples throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  A few Spanish families managed to amass large flocks and live a comfortable lifestyle.  The al partido system worked to their advantage and most of them were referred to as ricos, for there was a relatively lucrative market for New Mexico sheep.

 Shepherds drove sheep south to the silver mines of Mexico where they provided food for the miners.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, about 200,000 head were driven annually to northern Mexico where the New Mexicans sold them for one to two dollars a head. [9] After the 1849 discovery of gold in California, New Mexicans – among them Mariano Chávez’ grandfather Jesús María – drove thousands of sheep via the Old Spanish Trail to California, where they could be sold to the Forty-Niners at a profitable price.  New Mexico’s prominence in the sheep industry during this period was instrumental in making Americans more aware of the Territory.

Although many sheep were lost to Indian raids in the mid-nineteenth century, the sheep population had increased rapidly by the 1880s.  The railroad, instead of long-distance sheep drives, provided a new, more efficient outlet for wool and sheep.  Mariano Chávez recalls placing sheep on the train at Springer for shipping to Kansas. [10]

American ingenuity resulted in crossbreeding of the short-haired churros with the longer haired merinos, a development that also increased wool production.  According to information published by the Bureau of Immigration in 1885, sheep brought quicker financial returns than cattle, for they supplied wool as well as meat.  The price paid for sheep in the early 1880s ranged from $1.50 for common Mexican ewes to $3.00 for high-grade sheep.  Wool sold for anywhere from 15 cents to 24 cents a pound, depending on the quality. [11]

New Mexico’s sheep industry experienced a steady decline after the beginning of the twentieth century.  With the coming of the railroads, the cattle industry grew and began to compete with the sheep industry.  The depletion of pasture lands led to legislation unfavorable to profitable sheepherding: use of water holes and springs was limited, and fencing heralded the final phase of a long tradition.

Faced with these realities, Hispanic families like the Chávez, who depended on sheep for their livelihood, had to sell their livestock and move to cities to pursue another way of life.  Adjustment to the new times proved personally difficult for the Chávez family.  Mariano’s father died in 1911, and his two brothers subsequently moved away leaving Mariano to care for his mother and attend to matters on the ranch.  Eventually, Mariano and his mother sold their ranch for a mere $2.50 an acre.  Beginning anew in Roy, Mariano earned a living by doing gardening, carpentry and other odd jobs. [12]  The fate of his family underscores the fact that the pastoral way of life was virtually ended.  The Depression was the final blow.  The 1935 farm census for Harding County noted that the total number of sheep and lambs numbered a mere 13,101. [13]

Only vestiges now remain of the bins and corrals where Harding County’s shepherds once tended their sheep.  Other place names have replaced the designations such as Tequesquite, Aquaje (the name for the Chávez family ranch), and other spots prominent during the sheepherding era.  The daily chores of moving sheep from one watering hole and grazing area to another, the problems such as protecting the flocks from coyotes and other predators, and the constant concerns over the battles with the cattlemen are but faint memories.

[1] Taped interview with Mariano Chávez, History Bureau, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, November 19, 1980. 

[2] Mariano Chávez, taped interview, Santa Fe, November 26, 1980.

[3] Journal of Mariano Chávez, Sr., May 31, 1902, copy on file with History Bureau, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.

[4] Mariano Chávez, taped interview, November 26, 1980.

[5] For more information, see: Sandra Schackel, “The Charles Ilfeld Company: A Perspective on a New Mexico Mercantile Family,”  El Palacio 87 (Spring 1981): 18-24.

[6] Mariano Chávez, taped interview, November 19, 1980.

[7] Report of the Governor of New Mexico to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C.:Government Printing Office, 1900), p. 333.

[8] George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Don Juan de Oñate: Colonizer of New Mexico, (The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1953), vol.. 5, p. 215.

[9] Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, ed. Max L. Moorhead (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1954), p, 134.

[10] Mariano Chávez, taped interview, November 19, 1980.

[11] William G. Ritch, Historical and Industrial Illustrated New Mexico (Bureau of Immigration, Santa Fe, 1885), p.. 60.

[12] Mariano Chávez, taped interview Santa Fe, January 28, 1981. 

[13] U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Farm Census, 1935.