Legacy of Texas is the official store of the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).
Especially Texan is a weekly dive into historical topics that make up the tapestry of Texas history.
Especially Texan: XIT Ranch
While the XIT Ranch was never meant to be a permanent business, its unique story and incredible size left a lasting legacy on Texas history. Additionally, the history of the XIT Ranch will be forever tied to the history of the Texas Capitol. Keep reading to discover how this Especially Texan ranch got its start and met its end.
In 1879 the Sixteenth Texas Legislature appropriated three million acres of land to finance a new state Capitol building and appointed a Capitol Board to sell the land and contract for the building. The destruction of the old capitol building by fire on November 9, 1881, made construction of the new building urgent, and early in 1882 Mathias Schnell of Rock Island, Illinois, accepted the contract in return for the land. In turn, Schnell transferred three-fourths interest to Taylor, Babcock, and Company of Chicago, which organized the Capitol Syndicate.
Several months later Schnell assigned the rest of his contract to the syndicate after rumors surfaced that he had bribed one of the capitol commissioners and had tried to bribe the designing architect. Since the land that the syndicate was to receive as payment was in the unsettled Panhandle area, the syndicate established the XIT Ranch to utilize the land until it could be sold. Total cost of erecting the state capitol, which was completed in April 1888, was $3,744,630.60. Of this amount, the Capitol Syndicate’s expenditures were $3,224,593.45; about $500,000 was assumed by the state.
Col. Amos C. Babcock soon took a group to Texas to conduct a survey of the property. F rom Buffalo Springs, near the northern boundary, to Yellowhouse Creek in Hockley County, the group took thirty-six days to inspect the vast ranges, traveling over 950 miles in all. Babcock returned to Chicago to report that claims for the spread, which extended some 220 miles north to south on the New Mexico border, were accurate in regard to soil, grass, water, timber, rock, and shelter. He recommended that it be immediately stocked with cattle and fenced.
To secure the enormous amount of finances necessary for developing the ranch, John Farwell, a member of the syndicate, went to England. By attracting wealthy British investors, Farwell returned with the equivalent of roughly $5 million in American currency.
B. H. (Barbecue) Campbell of Wichita, Kansas, was chosen by Farwell to be the XIT’s first general manager. Campbell set about contracting for longhorn cattle in Central and South Texas. On July 1, 1885, the first herd of 2,500 head arrived at Buffalo Springs.
XIT: A Story of Land, Cattle, And Capital in Texas and Montana
They had been driven from the Fort Concho area by Abner P. Blocker , who reportedly devised the XIT brand with his boot in the dust when Campbell sought a design that could not be changed easily. Within the next year 781 miles of XIT range was fenced, and by November 1886 some 110,721 cattle valued at $1,322,587 had been purchased.
After 1887 large-scale buying ceased, and the herd as carried averaged 150,000 head. For convenience the ranch was cut into the southern areas reserved for cattle and steer raising, which gradually transition northward until the cattle are two years old and ready to be driven. The northern and southern regions consists of eight pastures or divisions. Each division had a section headquarters, a foreman, its quota of employees and horses, and its specific functions.
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In 1887 reports of inconsistencies in the XIT’s management, including inferior cattle and the presence of wanted outlaws on the range, led to an investigation conducted at the syndicate’s request by state Senator Avery L. Matlock from Montague. Consequently, Campbell resigned and returned to his family and business interests in Kansas. Matlock briefly took over the management until January 1, 1888, when Albert G. Boyce came in as the new general manager.
Like his predecessor, Boyce insisted on strict adherence to the ranch laws as set up by the syndicate, including prohibitions against gambling, drinking alcoholic beverages, abusing stock, and killing beef without permission. Under his rule, the XIT reached its peak with 150 cowboys who rode 1,000 horses and branded 35,000 calves in one year. For eleven consecutive years, 12,500 cattle were driven annually to northern pastures and fattened for the Chicago markets. Beginning in 1889, a program of breeding and herd improvement was launched with the introduction of Hereford, shorthorn, and Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the XIT.
Certainly the operation of such a huge spread meant coping with unceasing problems. Instances of fence cutting and cattle rustling increased as smaller ranchers moved into the Panhandle and the adjacent New Mexico Territory. Consequently the XIT men, along with certain “hired guns,” often formed vigilante posses that struck back at known rustler abodes. Straight-shooting lawmen like Ira Aten were frequently hired as section foremen. Moreover, wild animal predators took a terrible annual toll among cattle. Frustrating delays in drilling wells, especially during XIT’s earlier years, sometimes resulted in cattle dying from lack of sufficient water. Because of such difficulties, in addition to droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and declining markets, the XIT operated largely without profit throughout most of its lifespan.
By the late 1890s the clamorings of British creditors were rising, and the Capitol Syndicate began the gradual process of selling out. As homesteaders began pouring in, a land rush occurred during the early 1900s. Experimental “poor farms,” as the cowboys called them, were set up, one about seven miles south of Channing and another at the short-lived townsite of Parmerton near Bovina. By the time Henry S. Boice succeeded A. G. Boyce as general manager in 1905, much of the XIT land was already being divided into small tracts and sold to farmers.
In 1909 nearly all of the British bonds that had helped start the enterprise were redeemed in full, much to the satisfaction of the English investors. While the state capitol had cost more than $3,000,000 instead of the original projection of $1,500,000, the cost of the land being sold was increased, and the corporation fulfilled its contract. The last of the XIT cattle were sold on November 1, 1912, and the last parcel of XIT land was sold in 1963.
In Dalhart memories of the ranch are kept alive in the XIT Museum and the famous “Empty Saddles” monument, as well as the annual XIT Reunion, complete with parade and rodeo. Other West Texas towns, including Muleshoe, Farwell, and Bovina, also advertise their common heritage with the XIT. Because of these efforts, the unique history of the XIT will live on well into the future.