Llano Estacado

by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Making the gentle climb east out of Ft. Sumner, New Mexico on US Highway 60, one hardly notices that somewhere just beyond Tolar one has gained the top of an extensive tableland known today as the Llano Estacado. It is not until venturing beyond the city limits of Clovis, New Mexico, that it becomes apparent that as far as the eye can see the land is extremely flat. As early as 1541 members of the Francisco Vázquez de Coronado expedition recorded the first European impressions of this unique geologic feature. "[The expedition] encountered a land level like the sea." "The land is so level that men became lost when they were separated by [only] half a league." "It is something worth noting that since the land is so flat, if at midday they [the Spaniards] have wandered foolishly following their prey from one place to another, they must stay calmly near their prey until the sun lowers, in order to see by what course they must return to where they departed from." Even 300 years later George Kendall, a member of the Texan-Santa Fe Expedition, echoed those very same sentiments when his party ascended the Llano Estacado, "finding spread out before us a perfectly level prairie, extending as far as the eye could reach, and without a tree to break its monotony." Captain Randolph B. Marcy in 1852 looking for a favorable route from Ft. Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe stated, "When we were upon the high table land, a view presented itself as boundless as the ocean." For the modern traveler, it is harder to imagine those earlier descriptions in the current landscape of telephone poles, highways, buildings, and windmills.

The Llano Estacado encompasses some 30,000 square miles bounded on the north by the Canadian River, running east from Tucumcari, New Mexico to just beyond Pampa, Texas, thence south to Midland, Texas, creating the spectacular eastern escarpment. The southern boundary is generally defined by the Mescalero Escarpment, south of Hobbs, New Mexico. Finally the gentle western boundary extends on a north-south line from west of Hobbs and back again north to Tucumcari. This kidney bean-shaped plateau, approximately 250 miles long and 150 miles wide, sits atop one of the most extensive aquifers in the United States, the Ogallala.

The main geologic phenomenon creating the Llano Estacado is erosion. As the Rocky Mountains eroded they deposited vast amounts of debris onto the Great Plains, which in turn continues to erode. The Llano Estacado, part of the Great Plains, has been protected from surface erosion by its calcareous caprock and semi-arid climate. What rain does fall, generally evaporates, sinks into the ground, or collects in playas (intermittent lakes). Because the landscape surrounding the Llano is eroding at a faster rate than the plateau itself, it continues to maintain its geologic isolation. However, its eastern escarpment is quite vulnerable to erosion allowing for the formation of spectacular canyon lands, birthing the headwaters of some of Texas's major rivers.

Weather on the Llano Estacado is notorious for its violence. Tornadoes and sand storms can spring up in a matter of minutes, race across the plateau and leave destruction in their path. The earliest mention of a hailstorm was recorded by Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera in his report of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition: "One afternoon while the expedition was resting in the barranca we have told about, a whirling storm arose with the strongest of winds and hail. In a brief while such a huge number of hailstones came down, as large as small bowls and larger and as dense as rain, that in one place they covered the ground [to a depth of] two and three palmos [width of a hand] and more." Today, a snowfall of only a few inches can create white-out conditions, closing highways and creating six-foot high drifts. The intense summer heat can give rise to imaginary illusions as described by Lt. James W. Abert in 1845: "These reverberations [of heat waves] gave rise to the phenomena commonly termed mirage, so often observed in the desert, where every object appears distorted, and generally in motion."

Early Spanish visitors like Vázquez de Coronado and Castañeda de Nájera as well as later Hispanic hunters and Anglo-American explorers were astounded by the wildlife, especially the endless herds of buffalo (Bison bison). Vázquez de Coronado wrote to the king of Spain: "On [the plains] I found such a multitude of [bison] that to count them is impossible. [That is] because I did not travel a single day through the plains, until I returned to where I [first] found them, on which I lost sight of them." The land was also home to antelope, deer, coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, turkeys and prairie dogs.

Before modern farming practices the Llano was covered with buffalo and grama grasses, with wheat grasses edging the playas. Even Vázquez de Coronado commented in 1541, "there are numerous, very beautiful pasture lands of excellent grass." In the canyons on its eastern escarpment were found mesquite beans (Prosopis var.), Chickasaw sand plums (Prunus angustifolia), wild grapes, wild gooseberries or bison currants, walnuts (Juglans microcarpa) and pecans (Carya illinoens). Despite Vázquez de Coronado's characterization as "those tiresome, endless plains," the Llano Estacado was and is a source of life-sustaining flora and fauna.

The origin of the name "Llano Estacado" is steeped in legend and myth. The literal Spanish translation is "Staked Plains." No one knows for sure who first applied the name and why. The Coronado expedition gave no name to the giant plateau. In fact, the origin may date to no earlier than 1786, but certainly by 1839 Josiah Gregg noted that the Mexicans called the area "Llano Estacado." The word "estacado" may refer to the Comanche, cibolero (buffalo hunters) andcomanchero (Hispanic and Pueblo traders) practice of staking their horses to prevent runaways, or it could refer to the caprock appearing to be a palisade encircling the plateau. Speculation abounds and no clear answers have emerged.

Human habitation of the Llano Estacado can be traced back to Paleo-Indians of 9000 BC. The earliest written record was that of members of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition who called the inhabitants on the Llano Estacado, Querechos and Teyas. They were described as nomadic peoples who lived off the buffalo. The Querechos may have been Athapaskan-speaking ancestors of the Apaches. The identity of the Teyas, later referred to as Jumanos, remains in dispute. These two initial groups were later assigned different designations and were joined on the Southern Plains by Comanches, Kiowas and Kiowa-Apaches.

The next inhabitants of the Llano Estacado were the comancheros, ciboleros, Catholic missionaries and the American military. All were drawn to the expansive Llano Estacado by either its inhabitants or its natural resources. The tradition of trade between the Indians on the Llano Estacado and the Rio Grande and Pecos Pueblos pre-dates Hispanic occupation. With the settlement of New Mexico in the seventeenth century, both Hispanics and Indians in the role of comanchero continued the mutually advantageous trading practice, reaching a golden age in the 1820s-1860s. In exchange for tools, cloth, flour, tobacco, and bread, the New Mexico settlements received buffalo robes, deerskins, and horses.

After 1786 the ciboleros, or buffalo hunters, made their way onto the Llano Estacado in search of a reliable source of protein for New Mexico's communities. Organized Hispanic villagers would take whole families, supplies for six to eight weeks, horses and many carts to haul buffalo meat and by-products back to their villages. In good years 10,000-12,000 buffalo were taken. These hunters preferred to chase their prey rather than use the method of a still hunt, where the hunter maintained one position and picked off buffalo one at a time. Josiah Gregg in his encounters with the ciboleros in the 1840s described them thusly: "These hardy devotees of the chase usually wear leather trousers and jackets, and flat straw hats." The life of the buffalo hunter waned as the herds of buffalo were drastically reduced by overkill.

Catholic missionaries were drawn to the Llano Estacado only reluctantly. There seemed little chance of success in converting the Plains Indians, because they continued to maintain their nomadic way of life. A serious attempt was made in the 1620s when missionaries at Santo Domingo, New Mexico were visited by Jumano Indians living in eastern New Mexico and West Texas. The Jumanos asked that missionaries be sent to them. They said they had been instructed by the "Lady in Blue," sor María de Jesus de Ágreda, to make this pilgrimage. The Franciscan effort was short-lived however.

Hispanic, American, and Texan explorers approached the Llano Estacado both from the east and west, often skirting the northern edge and staying in the Canadian River valley. Few ventured onto the Llano itself, because it still maintained a reputation as a forbidding place. In the late 1780s to early 1800s Pierre (Pedro) Vial, José Mares and Francisco Amangual made various forays across the plateau, not to stay and explore, but rather to find suitable east-west routes from the missions of San Antonio, Texas to Santa Fe.

The Texans, wanting to lay claim to all the land east of the Rio Grande, sent the 1841 Texan-Santa Fe expedition from Austin to Santa Fe. They were no match for the harshness of the landscape which put an effective end to the Texas claims.

The Americans in the 1840s sent several scientific explorations, or so they were characterized, onto the Southern Great Plains; ostensibly to gather geographic and botanical information. Men like Gregg, Lt. Abert, and Captain Marcy furthered knowledge of the Llano Estacado, which continued to remain a largely forbidding impediment to easy travel between the United States and Santa Fe. By the 1870s the military was pursuing its objectives of containing Indians on reservations. The first U.S. military force to cross the Llano was led by Ranald Slidell Mackenzie. In his pursuit of nomadic tribes, he explored much of the tableland and its water courses.

With the subjugation of the native tribes, once free to roam the Llano in search of buffalo, came the Anglo-American settlers. These men and women finally tamed the vast landscape and transformed the forbidding Llano into a major producer of cotton. Introduction of water wells in the 1930s tapped the plentiful Ogallala aquifer to bring irrigation to the once dry but rich top soil. Today in many places on the Llano Estacado one can stand quietly looking out over a vast sea of undulating wheat and sorghum and see "nothing except [cattle] and sky," and once again imagine that great untamed plateau.

Sources Used:

Almaráz, Félix D., Jr. "An Uninviting Land: El Llano Estacado, 1534-1821." Spain and the Plains: Myths and Realities of Spanish Exploration and Settlement on the Great Plains, ed. Ralph H. Vigil, Frances W. Kaye, and John R. Wunder, 70-89. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1994.

Flint, Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. and trs. Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-1542: "They Were Not familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 2005.

Flores, Dan. Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys into the Heart of the Southern Plains. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Morris, John Miller. El Llano Estacado: Exploration and Imagination on the High Plains of Texas and New Mexico, 1536-1860. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1997.

Rathjen, Frederick W. The Texas Panhandle Frontier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.

Simmons, Marc. Coronado's Land: Essays on Daily Life in Colonial New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

The Llano Estacado, a 30,000 square mile plateau straddling the New Mexico-Texas border in the east, is characterized by its extraordinary flatness and is often described as "ocean-like." This unique geologic feature drew vast herds of buffalo, Plains Indians who hunted them, and eventually Hispanic and Anglo-American explorers.

Reproducing prohibited without express permission from the State Records Center and Archives.