The Chihuahuan Desert has been plagued with hostility between indigenous
peoples, colonists, and the environment itself. During the 1800's, migration,
gold rush greed, and, ultimately, the virulence of the railroad proved to be
the colonists' "victory" over the native people and land.
The Rio Grande (Spanish: Big River) valley is the halfway point between El Paso (Spanish for
passage/passing/way) and Sante Fe. Caravans of travellers would stop here for
3-4 weeks to build up their animals for remainder of the trip. This created
much congestion and competition for forage. One report from El Paso in 1849
noted 1100 people travelling in 300 wagons with 4000 cattle and 300 mules. In
all of 1849 there were reported 4000 emigrants and all of their associated
Over time the Rio Grande would alter its course, slicing new channels and
reentering old ones. When the river would move away from these channels, river
lagoons remained. These would be refilled from overflow and rainfall giving
rise to a fertile environment for a plethora of plants and animals.
Bears, mountain lions, and wolves were sparsely noted while waterfowl, beavers,
otters, turkeys, deer, and mountain sheep were a common source of meat for
travelers. Fish remained fairly abundant throughout the century, only fading as
the rivers declined. Deer, beavers, and otters were completely extirpated from
the region due to excessive harvesting. Beaver hides were so prized that the
Mexican government banned their killing; this led to lucrative black markets
Even as the region declined, it was still much more lush than what we see
today. In southern New Mexico during 1849 Marcy queried, "Is it not within the
scope of probabilities that these springs may be found to possess valuable
medicinal properties, and that this place may yet... become a place of
fashionable resort for the 'upper-ten-thousand' of New Mexico?" Additionally,
Marcy noted that the soil was of poor quality and covered with gypsum, yet
still produced luxuriant grama grass of excellent forage quality.
Ft. Selden was established because military planners wanted to escape the
malaria-carrying mosquitoes they were encountering elsewhere (Ackerly 1998:
The First Half
In 1821 Mexico gained independence from Spain. Many Spanish settlements were
abandoned and the already dwindling livestock numbers decreased even more
precipitously; by the mid-1800's the Arizona territory had fewer than 5,000
head of cattle.
Through the rest of the 1820's communal land ownership of the indigenous was
reclassified as private property on the state level. The national policy
mirrored this sentiment as well as providing additional measures to break up
Church holdings expropriated under Spanish rule.
The initial decades were disastrous from a Mexican territorial standpoint.
The United states, through a series of wars and treaties, took control of large
swaths of land. Texas won its independence in 1836 and most of New Mexico and
northern Arizona was had in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the result of the
1846-48 U.S.-Mexican War.
The early to mid-1800s saw American settlers from the east coast forge westward
through Indiana, Missouri and eventually into the untouched plains of the
southwest (Doanahue et al., 1956). Initial reports stated that the grasslands
were nearly free of shrubs and riparian areas were lined with forests and even
the occasional wetland. Pronghorn, black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys
ludovicianus), Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) and deer were noted in
Doniphan's Army undertook an expedition in 1846, during the Mexican-American
war, in the southwest, including areas such as the Mesilla Valley, Brazito
, La Laguna (lagoon), and modern day Anthony (Bieber 1936: 222). Party
members' journals give such account as "fine rush bottom, the first we have
seen in Mexico worthy of notice" and "at a small pond called Alamitos... very
brackish... we could not even make coffee fit to drink." (Gibson 1935:
309-310). Alamitos translates from Spanish to "the little cottonwoods".
Other places, such as a campsite 13 miles south of Doña Ana, reportedly
consisted of "a fine lot of rushes" and "a reed, arundo phragmites".
Additionally, a site between La Joya (Spanish: jewel/treasure) and Socorro
(Spanish: help), was noted to have "...mistletoe that grows so abundantly on
the cottonwood, and is called 'bayote de alamo'."
There were reports of varying density in timber and undergrowth. In 1846 the
vegetation in the Mesilla Valley was described as "cotton-wood, dwarf oak, and
mezquite, under which is a thick undergrowth of bushes." Additionally, near
Valverde (Spanish: green valley) in 1846, "The timber extends half a mile from the river, and the
cotton-wood trees are of large size, without any undergrowth of bushes."
After the war, in 1848, American explorers were sent to survey the land gained
by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This provides one of the most exhaustive
animal lists for a single stretch along the river, the Engle Valley. Johnston
notes: "In passing along the river, I saw the tracks of the otter, the
catamount, the wildcat, the bear, the raccoon, the polecat, the crane, the
duck, the plover, the deer, and the California quail."
Along the northern most reaches of the desert Rio Grande (PECOS?), "very large
and heavy" catfish, weighing 5-20 pounds, and soft-shelled turtles were
featured in some mid-nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts (Johnston 1848:
570, Bieber 1936: 337, Emory 1976: 49, Emory 1987, vol. I pt. 1: 78).
The gold rush of 1849 attracted many people that had to cross the southwest in
search of riches; the journals during this era are quite numerous compared to
the previous three centuries. Often times these travelers noted different
species that previous expeditions failed to mention. Accounts of rodents,
reptiles, and insects are much more common.
1849 as being "...situated on skirt of a beautiful wood, at edge of which was a
lagoon of good water"; and calling it the new settlement of Santa Barbara.
One member of Powell's party "...discovered we were in a perfect den of
rattlesnakes. All set to work beating the bushes and killing the snakes. How
many we killed I do not know. They were very large, had black and white rings
round their tails just above the rattles. One I helped kill had 13 rattles and
his fangs were nearly an inch long! Besides snakes, we have rats, mice, black
tailed rabbits, quails and a few centipedes around us." A few days later they
noted "Our lives are in constant danger. Saw centipedes today, and a dirty
yellow worm about an inch and a half long, which, those who have been in this
country before say, is poisonous. The grasshoppers are singularly variegated
here; some black and white; others red, yellow and black, and some I have seen
that have a dress of many bright colours, putting me in mind of a clown at a
circus more than anything else." (Powell 1981: 102-105),
We see some reports of grasses showing degradation, more in the more travelled
regions more than others, with comments like "grass had been camped off" and
"used up". At this point timber was become rarer and obtaining fuel wood
becomes more difficult. Cottonwood was often only left preserved on private
property because of its value for making the carts.
Although "the grass is generally poor" and the bottom is "nearly destitute of
grass", Whiting described numerous ponds south from El Paso to San Elizario
that attracted "a flock of twenty-five huge white pelicans" (Bieber 1938:
300-1). Close to El Paso "...There are a number of small lakes or ponds
scattered about, where will be found large quantities of duck and some
Bartlett (1965: 187) described how the variable river flows helped shape
agriculture in the mid-nineteenth century around the area of El Paso: "In
February and March there is always enough for the first irrigation. In April
and May the quantity is much diminished; and if the rise, expected to take
place the middle of May, fails, there is not enough to irrigate properly all
the fields prepared for it."
The techniques people moved west with were failing. We can already see the
decreasing grass stands and timber being removed to make carts and such by
1850. This is where a lot of the recent damage begins in earnest. The Spanish,
as bad as they were, couldn't export the products the way the railroad could.
This turned the market for beef/cattle from a limited regional one to a
continental one. The explorations in the early 1800's would pave the way for
the railroad, which was key from the mid 1800's forward.
The Second Half
Plainly a Plain
In the 1850's, the grass in the northern Chihuahuan Desert was said to grow as
high as the belly of a horse. The term plains is not misleading, as many
travellers noted the "endless" lushness that was to be its undoing.
Susan Sheldon Magoffin wrote in her diary that the area of Journada del Muerto
was predominantly grama grass. Additionally a land survey from 1858 reveals
that shrubs were restricted to uplands, arroyos, and rivers while much larger
areas of land were grassland compared to today. May Humphrey Stacy noted in
1857: "The whole extent, as far as vision reached ahead, was a level plain,
covered thickly with the most luxurious grass."
Today, Jornada researchers estimate that in 1858 about 5 percent of the range
was dominated by mesquite or creosote, 37 percent had a few shrubs in it, and
the remaining 58 percent was shrub free.
It was so lush that during one exploration, a military party queried the
feasibility of using camels in the desert. One 1857 report, from near Ft.
Fillmore, stated: "Grass indifferent; mesquite wood abundant, especially a kind
of which the camels are particularly fond, the fornia [tornillo] or screwbean"
(Lesley 1949: 171).
Garrettson's 1857 surveys indicates that few large, old trees existed at the
time. Of the 165 trees measured in 1857, the maximum dbh (diameter at breast
height) recorded by the surveyors was 30 inches (75 cm), which would represent
a maximum age of about 43 years old. More recently, in 1988, 607 trees were
measured in the Middle Rio Grade valley. Of these, 42 had a dbh greater than
75cm. The maximum age represented in the 1988 study was about 67 years old.
Though the sample sizes are small, the fewer older trees in the 1857's supports
the journals left behind outlining the removal of cottonwood trees to make
carts. The variable flow of the 1800's Rio Grande may have played a role as
well. Cottonwoods would be suseptible to being washed away by the untamed
river. (Crawford et al. 1993: 25, 28-9; Graf 1994: 99)
Enter The Railroad
By the 1860's the railroad was proving to be so successful that railroad
interests hired mercenaries to get rid of the pesky Native Americans and
buffalo. The most famous of these, Buffalo Bill, managed to kill 4280 bison in
18 months. The natives were often tricked off their land, harassed, or even
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the conclusion of the American Civil
War in 1865 reestablished the long standing, but mostly regionally contained,
grazing-based economy. Now, for the first time, the products of the plains
could be shipped back to the major cities on the coasts. This created a
seemingly limitless market and started a deluge of investors and individuals
wanting to get a piece of the pie.
With the removal of the buffalo, grasslands once in balance exploded into
growth. A so-called "golden period" between 1874 and 1884 gave great results to
the first stock-men in the southwest. Fewer head of stock, abundant rains, and
grass, often recounted as being as "high as a cow's back" in both the
bottom-lands as well as the uplands, were the trifecta needed to produce cattle
at relatively little capital expense (Smith, 1899).
This profit attracted more and more cattlemen, who could now take advantage of
the railroad to deliver their cattle to population centers back east. Land was
fenced off and cattle were not properly cycled, leading to degraded areas.
Historically the buffalo acted similar, eating and then moving on, but the
management practices kept the cattle on the same land far longer than the
buffalo would have stayed. When the cattle were finally moved, the land was
exhausted to the point were it could not recover.
Land laws in 1875 and 1883 did little more than legalize the theft of lands
that had already been occurring for decades. By allowing individuals to claim
"vacant" and untitled lands a concentration of land holders forced indigenous
people off their land when they could not produce legal titles. These people
chose to move to the Sierra (Spanish: mountains) or become peon laborers on the lands they once
American expansion west was mostly limited to expedition parties, pioneers,
entrepreneurs and the like, up until the 1880's. Prior settlements had followed
watercourses, but the plains had no such natural paths to follow. A few narrow
trails forged into the expanse of grasslands, coupled with the constant threat
of Indian harassment, proved much more daunting a challenge. Eventually
population pressure, coupled with the new steel plow, proved the impetus to
expanding settlements west (Donahue et al., 1956).
By 1883 the Texas Pacific Railroad had spread far and wide. The people
claimed/stole all the land. The land was seen as extravagantly lush and virgin.
It was thought that this was the natural condition of the land and was
subsequently overstocked. Everything green was eaten and the land has never had
a chance to recover. "By 1880, every piece of irrigable land along the length
of the Rio Grande [in New Mexico] was under development" (Harris 1995). We
will see many larger irrigation projects in the next century claiming to "green
the desert" that were nothing more than poorly planned engineering failures.
In 1889 the International Boundary Commission (IBC) was created and later in
1944 reorganized into the IBWC - International Boundary and Water Commission.
Its purpose would be expanded to include water quality, preservation,
"apportioning" the waters in the US/Mexico boarder rivers. Today it seems
little more than another bureaucratic multi-national organization dead set on
controlling ever resource on Earth. If nothing else, they have proven a total
failure given their initial purpose.
After Spanish colonialism in Mexico ended and the total cattle decreased to
about 5,000 head in Arizona, American ranchers, that dominated the area,
ballooned the cattle populations of Arizona and New Mexico to more than 1.5
million in 1891. At the same time in the Mexican states of Zacatecas,
Tamaulipas and Chihuahua there were haciendas (Spanish: estate, ranch, farm)
holding claim to 75,000 head of cattle (Kaerger, 1986), the primary product of
the northeast. The more southern states of Puebla, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes,
Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí had a greater abundance of goats.
Communities were established along the rivers. Capital was flowing in from the
east coast and beef was flowing out to both coasts. Grazing and mining (silver)
dominated the economy. Indian attacks were frequent, but subsided as more were
converted or killed. The autonomy of the Texas, New Mexico, and the northern
states of Mexico was reduced with the construction of railroads in the late
1800’s. This period of the late 1800's and the early 1900's marked the beginning
of the end of a once lush grassland system.
Though the seeds of degradation had been sown, locations like the Jornada Basin
were still precariously dominated by grasses at the end of the 1800's. Of
course the region was not converted overnight, generations of continuous abuse
were required to produce the degraded lands we see today.
It is estimated perhaps 5% of the river valleys were marsh and slough habitat,
including such wetlands plants as pondweed, cattails, sedges, and rushes. Salt
grass often grew in association with screwbean and honey mesquite, patches of
arrowweed could still be found regularly, and 25-33% of the river valleys would
have been covered by cottonwood stands towards the end of the 1800's.
In 1889, Follett (1901: 195-6) described 6200 hectares of uncultivated
"swampland" in the Texas portion of the Mesilla Valley. The land was said to
contain roughly 75% dry land, of which one third was "moderately well
timbered... with cottonwoods" and two thirds were "composed of tornillo
thickets". The 25% wetland consisted of sand bars, willow thickets, and "flat
lands, which overflow every time the river rises, and yearly produce a fair
crop of cockleburs.