For years untold the Comanche roamed the area that is now West Texas. In 1845 the state of Texas was admitted to the United States and in 1849 gold was discovered in California. These two events were the catalyst for driving the Comanche off the land and the exploration of the area for settlement by emigrants.
Exploration parties, authorized by the government and accompanied by soldiers, were sent to chart and map areas suitable for farming and ranching. Because there was little water on the southern end of the Staked Plains it was not a focus for the explorers.
In 1835 Major Randolph Marcy, US Army, led an 18-unit wagon train from Monument Springs just located south of Hobbs, New Mexico to Mustang Springs south of Midland. He was looking for a route the railroad might take to link to western states. Lt. William Henry Harrison, son of President Harrison was killed near on the trek and caused a lot of publicity about the area. Marcy’s route had permanent water supplies and became an important trail for supply wagons and travelers from Texas and New Mexico.
The area that is now Gaines and Andrews counties was the last retreat for the Comanches when, in 1874-75, Colonel R. S. McKenzie and the Fourth U.S. Calvary And Colonel Blue with the eleventh U.S. Infantry were sent to stop the raids on settlements and wagon trains. Leaving Fort Concho at San Angelo they fought many skirmishes. One of the last was fought at McKenzie Draw in Gaines County.
Colonel William Rufus Shafter, operating out of Fort Concho, made an 840 mile march through this area proving the country was not absolutely devoid of water as many easterners believed. The march was not easy by any means and Shafter and his men experienced suffering and horrible agonies of thirst in their search for water holes.
Colonel Shafter named the 11 square mile salt lake in the western part of the county "Shafter Lake".
It was in October 1875 that Colonel Shafter came upon the body of water northwest of what is now the city of Andrews. The water was brackish but usable by his men and animals. The lake was discovered while Shafter and his troops were trying to locate a suitable trail between the five Wells watering place and the west, which he had found previously.
Shafter’s description of the lake and surrounding country in his diary says, "…it is all heavy sand, except three short stretches of a couple of miles each, to an alkali lake, distant from Five Wells 36 miles. This lake is situated in a depression of the prairie with hard ground all around it, extending several miles on the south and west: water permanent, and though quite strongly alkali, can be used from holes dig in the band. Grass excellent and luxuriant. Roots in abundance."
Shafter’s exploration focused attention on the region of the Permian Basin.
Andrews County was organized in August 1875. The state legislature passed an act that created 54 counties from the original Bexar County that encompassed most of the panhandle and South Plains.
For administrative purposes the county was under the jurisdiction of Shakleford County in 1876. In 1882 control was transferred to Howard Land District. In 1887 it was transferred to Martin Land District and in 1891 to Martin County. By 1890 the county had a population of 24 and by 1900 the number had grown to 87.
O.B. Holt is listed on deeds recorded in Austin as the first man to file on land in Andrews County. Other settlers in the 1880’s included Will Gates and Peter Von Holebeke, a refugee from Belgium who had the counties first post office that was located at Florey. Other early settlers were W.H. Brenner, J.S. Means, John Bustin, Hunter Irwin, Dorsey Pinnell and W.J. and John Underwood.
The Cowden’s moved into the Sand Hills at the southwest corner of the county and started a ranch in 1884. Two years later they established the famous JAL Ranch in Monument Draw in New Mexico.
In 1883 when the state legislature passed an act making it possible to purchase huge tracts of land for 50 cents and acre (one-half of the proceeds going to the state public school fund and the rest to general revenue) two partnerships in Midland purchased 228,000 acres of land on the southeastern part of Andrews County.
The land was sold to Nelson Morris, a wealthy meat packer of Chicago. The large "Chicago Ranch" or "C" ranch was the first wire fenced ranch in West Texas. Morris stocked it with Black Angus cattle and built up the largest herd of this breed on the world.
In 1886 and 1887 drought and blizzards brought two new innovations to this area. Nelson brought in a "windmill" which made it possible to operate big ranches independent of rivers and streams as sources of water. Blizzards caused rancher to put up the first barbed wire fences as "drift fences" to keep cattle from drifting to "hell and Amariloo"
During the early days the ranchers had troubles other than the elements on the open range where they grazed their stock. Cattle would get mixed whet other herds and during this period. In the 1880’s the practice of borrowing unbranded cattle became widespread. This caused the ranchers here to organize the Texas Cattle Raisers Association.
Ranchers would borrow from their neighbor’s herds so that they would have enough cattle to make a drive to market. Sometime they would pay for the borrowed cattle, but other times would forget to do so. There was also some rustling done by ranchers who were trying to start a herd or who were trying to earn a fast dollar.
Early ranches in the area were the Brennen Ranch, the Sam Holloway Ranch, The H.E. Crowley spread, the J. C. Ranch owned by J. S. Means and Bud Purcell and the Will Gates Ranch. A. I. Boyd owned what was known as the Parker Adobe Ranch and John F. Bustin owned the Shafter Lake Ranch.
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