Cattlemen first to settle Llano Estacado

By Don McAlavy: Local columnist

Editor’s note: This is second of two parts of a thesis paper written in 1934 by Norvell Tate.

“So far as we know, the first white man to visit the Llano Estacado was Coronado in 1541. Man had flourished for many centuries as evidence by the findings in recent excavations between Clovis and Portales. For almost 350 years this country was left to the Indians and wild animals.

In the settlement of Curry County perhaps no one thing played so important a part as the windmill and the drilled well. They were adapted to this country and were not only a convenience, but a necessity, or without them Curry County would have long remained sparsely settled.

The first white men to actually settle on the Llano Estacado were cattlemen, these in turn giving way to the homesteader, the farmer. It was in 1880 that Pete Maxwell, at Fort Sumner, moved about 800 head of cattle to a point about 20 miles north of Melrose at the Horseshoe Ranch. In 1883, Trammel and Newby of Sweetwater, Texas, moved 8,000 head of cattle from Texas to their ranch 25 miles northwest of Melrose.

The Horn Ranch, 10 miles southwest of Melrose was established in 1882 and the house was built out of the timbers of the Maxwell house at Fort Sumner. In 1882 the Rhea brothers founded the Figure 2 ranch at Mule Springs, about 20 miles north of Clovis. They sold out in 1906 and moved to Roswell. John DeOliveira established a ranch on the Frio Draw, west of the Rhea Ranch, by filing on a quarter section of land and then grazing the adjoining land.

Jim Stone and Jim Brown, brothers in-law, founded ranches on the Running Water Draw, about 10 miles northwest of Clovis. George McLean ran sheep in the vicinity of Clovis, in the late 1890s, before moving to his present location on the Frio Draw, north of Pleasant Hill. Most of the early settlers simply took possession of the land by squatting on it. Joe Rhea filed on a quarter in 1893 and John DeOliveira in 1895. At that time, these two ranches were in San Miguel County.

Before 1900 this region (what is now Curry County) belonged to the stockman. The first influx of homesteaders came in 1901 and 1902. During the years of 1901, 2, 3, several hundred entries were made in communities that later became Melrose, Blacktower, Clovis, St. Vrain and Texico. Very few of these homestead entries were ever completed.

It was in 1904, 5, and 6, that a slow but more steady stream of homesteaders came and most of the filing was done in what is now the southern part of Curry County. Texico was the principal trading point from 1903 to 06, and the Santa Fe railroad was planning a road west to Belen. The coming of the railroad in 1906 and 07 gave the homestead movement a great impetus and these years saw the county fill up very rapidly, the land along the railroad being taken first.

Large numbers of the homesteaders of this later period also became discouraged and left. In 1910 the statistics show 2,134 farms in Curry County, averaging 160 acres and 1920 and had only 1,174 farms, but they averaged 630 acres. The only filings of record, other than those of Rhea and DeOliveira, prior to 1902, were made by W.H. (Wildhorse) Brown in 1895. Ira Taylor, who became section foreman at Texico, filed in 1901, and John (Jack) Lewis, in the same year.”

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:

dmcalavy@telescopelab.com