Perhaps the first person to cross West Texas was the famed Spanish explorer, Coronado, in the mid 1540s, when he roamed New Mexico, West Texas, Western Oklahoma, and Kansas in search of Golden Cities. Coronado probably passed through Runnels County.
In 1684 Juan Dominguez de MENDOZA and Fray Nicolas LOPEZ established the first mission east of the Pecos River in Texas. San Clemente Mission, named for the San Clemente River (actually the Colorado River), was a hastily built, two-room structure located on a hill about seventeen miles south of Ballinger. The mission was founded at the request of the Jumano Indians, who desired Christianity and the friendship of the Spanish. During their stay from March 15 to May 1, the Spaniards baptized many of their several thousand Indian allies.
The Indians had complete control of Runnels County until October, 1840, when Colonel John H. MOORE, with a force of ninety Texans and twelve Lipan Indians, discovered an Indian camp of sixty lodges near the present site of Ballinger, Texas. The attack was made the following morning at daybreak, and the Comanches were driven from their village to the river. Hemmed in a semi-circular bend, with no chance of escape save by swimming, they were shot down by the Texans without mercy, men, women and children meeting the same fate. The Comanches had decided for a war of extermination and had forced the Texans to adopt their own policy, and now they were reaping the harvest they had sown. The fight was over in a half hour and 128 Comanches were left dying while 34 prisoners were huddled together at the mercy of their captors. Only two of the Texans received minor wounds.
When gold was discovered in California in 1849, a great migration from the eastern part of the United States to the West began. The Indians, however, remained a formidable problem to the migrating settlers. The federal government realized the seriousness of the Indian problem in Texas and established the first line of defense forts in 1848-9, extending from Fort Worth on the Trinity to Fort Duncan at Eagle Pass. But these forts were soon swallowed by settlements as the swelling tide of population flowed westward.
By the end of 1852, the frontier was pushed back another two hundred miles with a new cordon of Army posts which began at Fort Belknap on the north and ended with Fort Mason on the south. This line of forts included Fort Phantom Hill and Fort Chadbourne, sixty miles to the southwest, both located in the heart of Comanche territory.
Established as a United States military post October 28, 1852, Fort Chadbourne was first known as Camp on Oak Creek, but the name was changed in honor of Lieutenant T. L. CHADBOURNE, killed at the battle of Resaca de la Palma, May 9, 1846. Over 20,000 Indians were known to be in the area but the Comanches were the only ones to visit the post; they had no camps nearby, but the fort was near their north-south trails. One visit occurred in the spring of 1854 when the government called a conference with the Comanches in an effort to persuade them to live on reservations.
With 120 miles of unprotected frontier between Fort Mason and Fort Chadbourne, and at the insistence of the settlers who wanted more protection, the army bridged the gap by establishing Camp Colorado, 58 miles east of Fort Chadbourne in Coleman County.
Troops occupied Fort Chadbourne continuously from 1852 through March '61, until the approach of the Civil War. But the fort was successful in giving the settlers stability as Runnels County was set aside and named on February 1, 1858. Fort Chadbourne was considered part of Runnels County until the county was surveyed in 1886 and the fort was found to be outside the line on the west.
While Fort Chadbourne was occupied, O.T. TAYLOR and Herman AKEN put in a large farm at the forks of Fish and Valley Creeks about eight miles east of the fort. There they raised crops of hay for the soldiers during the years of 1856-7 and then abandoned the farm.
Fort Chadbourne was occupied intermittently during the Civil War and was finally abandoned on December 4, 1867 when Captain George C. HUNTT's troops left for Fort Concho in Tom Green County.
In December, 1862, a settlement called Picketville was formed near the mouth of Elm Creek in the vicinity of present Ballinger. The place received its name from the houses built by setting posts, or pickets, upright in the ground and chinking them with mud or clay. Some of the people lived in dugouts and all the houses were surrounded by picket fense enclosures for protection against the Indians. John W. GUEST and his three sons, Nathaniel T. GUEST, William Moses GUEST, and Barton GUEST, lived in a dugout and were the first permanent settlers of Runnels County. Robert K. WYLIE and his brother, Henry Clay WYLIE were also there with their Negro servant and several cowhands. Mrs. Felicia GORDON and her children were also there. Richard COFFEY and his family arrived about 1863. They lived in Picketville for a few years before moving to different locations in the surrounding country.
During the decade from 1865 til 1875 all those people on the Runnels County frontier had frequent encounters with the Indians. However, most of the leaders seemed to have survived, somehow, with losses concentrated in their hired hands and livestock. Richard COFFEY lost over 1,000 head of cattle and more than fifty saddle horses in 1871.
In July, 1872, John HITTSON and his son, Jess HITTSON, who had been ranching in several West Texas counties including Runnels, set out to round up their cattle and drive them to Colorado. After a few days of work, they and eleven other men had 700 head of cattle rounded up and penned at old Picketville on the Colorado River, those being the only pens in the county at that time. On July 11, 1872 when the HITTSON group awoke, they discovered that the Indians had stolen most of the horses. Mounting the few remaining horses, the men took the cattle and started for Battle Creek in Callahan County. With Picketville five miles behind them, Jess HITTON sighted the large group of Comanches with the stolen horses. The ensuing fight lasted all day and culminated in the loss of all the cattle and the wounding of several of HITTSON's men; this was in exchange for ten or twelve Indians killed and several more were wounded.
The Texas Almanac for 1871 reported that Runnels County was a fine stock country but that it was too far on the frontier, and too much exposed to Indians for settlement. In an effort to alleviate the Indian menace, Company E of the Frontier Battalion (Texas Rangers) was ordered to protect Runnels, Coleman, and surrounding counties from its base in Brown County. Captain W. J. Maltby, the company's commanding officer reported on July 30, 1874 that Sergeant Israel and ten men killed two Indians and wounded two others.
In November, 1874, the Indians met defeat under the largest spreading elms on the bank of Valley Creek. Lieutenant Best and several of the Rangers had been following a small band of Kiowas and Comanches when they located them in camp before sundown on November 18. In a surprise charge the Rangers killed three of the Indians and wounded one; three escaped.(Ranger's Peak)
The last person killed by Indians in the Runnels area was W. H. BROWN, a Texas Ranger, who was shot by Comanches near Fort Chadbourne on September 19, 1875. With the elimination of the Indian threat, more ranchers began to bring their herds to Runnels County. Robert K. WYLIE, one fo the first settlers, stayed on and in time acquired more than 40,000 acres of land.
In 1876 Thomas Lawson ODOM, who had ranched in Bexar County, and his son, Garland G. ODOM, drove 4,000 head of cattle to Runnels County and established the O. D. Ranch with Fort Chadbourne as headquarters. Odom purchased the land from Samuel A. Maverick who had leased it to the government. The Odom-Luckett Land and Livestock Company was organized in 1879, with Garland Odom as general manager, and proced to buy and acquire title to a large body of land. In 1883 the company fenced in about 100,000 acres and this drew a great deal of oppositon from the wire cutting element who once clipped about 40 miles of fence in one night. By 1886 the range war had subsided, as many of the original opponents had erected fences around their own land.
A community had grown up around the fort site. In 1884 Fort Chadborne town had a population of twenty-five. Henry Hatcher LUCKETT was postmaster and John McLARLONG was justice of the peace. J. B. McCLUTCHEN had a general store.
Some of the other important ranchers were James Harrison PARRAMORE, Georeg Washington CLAYTON, Sr., Hazel Edward DICKINSON, William Levi McAULAY, John Walker CLAMPITT, John R. KEY, Andrew Jackson NICHOLS, Samuel Randolph MUNCY, Job DAVIS, Nathan J. ALLEN, Hector Stuart MURPHY, James Cicero SWIFT, William Riley NUNN, Charles Forest DICKINSON, Robert Arthur DICKINSON, James Jefferson ERWIN, Horace A. THOMSON, Thad A. THOMSON, Dudley TOM, Frank CHRIESMAN, John R. BLOCKER, Jacob STUBBLEFIELD, Green Berry NIXON, John GILLIAM, Thomas DODSON, John McEwen FORNWALT, James Monroe HALLCOMB, David RANSBARGER, Walter MULLINS, Hestwood VANDERVANTER, Ross A. SMITH, and Henry CONNER.
A stage line connecting Camp Colorado in Coleman County with Fort Concho in Tom Green County had a station at the crossing of the Colorado River, four miles southeast of present Ballingerr. A settlement grew up here which at first consisted of one store, a house, and a dugout. Later a school was built across the river. The settlement acquired the name of Walthall. Nathaniel T. GUEST, who had settled at the site in 1869, built the first wood house in 1876. A post office was established on June 6, 1877 with William G. Hightower as the fist postmaster; he also ran the general store. A telegraph station was also established. Others settlin there were Archibald Beniah HUTCHISON, James Monroe HALLCOMB, Nathaniel Wesley DEAN, Samuel Randolph MUNCY, Thomas Wadlington COTTEN, and William MANUEL.
The Walthall Methodist Church was organized in the Archibald Beniah HUTCHISON home in 1879. The Colorado Baptist Church was organized on December 29, 1878; its earliest members were Thomas Wadlington COTTEN, Jacob Benjamin COTTEN, Samuel Randolph MUNCY, Nathaniel Wesley DEAN, Nathaniel T. GUEST, William Moses GUEST, and W. M. COPELAND. The latter group worshipped in the Walthall schoolhouse with the Rev. J. T. AVERETT being the first pastor. In 1879 Rev. Thoms Wadlington COTTEN was chosen pastor and remained with the church until 1884.
The first schoolmaster at Walthall was John Nichols WINTERS. The last postmaster was Nathaniel T. GUEST who closed the office in 1881. When Camp Colorado was closed, there was no need for the telegraph station and Walthall declined. In a few years it was a ghost town.
On February 1, 1858 the Texas Legislature created 23 new counties. One was Runnels County, named in honor of Hiram G. RUNNELS, ex-governor of Mississippi.. By the end of 1879 immigration had increased the population of Runnels County considerably, but there was still no organization and no officials in the 21 year old county. According to law the officials of the nearest organized county, in this case Coleman County, carried out all official business in an unorganized county. On January 12, 1880 a petition was signed by 158 qualified voters of the area to organize a new county. On January 12, 1880 the Coleman County Commissioners Court approved the petition, sectioned the new Runnels County into four precincts, and ordered an election of county officials to be held on February 16, 1880. The first commissioners were William Moses GUEST, W. G. PRESTON, P. M. PEMBERTON and P. S. TURNER , with W. W.COPELAND as clerk. Sylvester ADAMS was made county judge; John McEwen FORMWALT was made the first sherrif; and Jacob Benjamin COTTEN was made the tax assessor-collector.
The Commissioners Court met for the first time on March 10, 1880 and selected Walthall as the temporary county seat with the home of Rev. Thomas Wadlington COTTEN as a temporary courthouse. Later, an election on April 14, 1880 made Runnels City the new county seat.
The new county seat, Runnels City, grew rapidly. By April, 1882, it had a newspaper, three dry goods and grocery stores, a drugstore, two hotels, a bank, a blacksmith shop, a saloon, a livery stable, a saddle shop, three land offices, a school, and several churches. Among the early leaders were Henry Davis PEARCE, Georeg Washington PERRYMAN, James Riley NUNN, Dr. Thaddeus William HELM, Joseph Samuel COTTEN, Thomas Milton COTTEN, Jacob Benjamin COTTEN, James Roche HOLLIDAY, Francis Marion MILES, William Kyle DICKINSON, James Cicero SWIFT, Horace A. THOMSON, Dewill Clinton UNDERWOOD, Dr. Thomas A. RAPE, Andrew Jackson NICHOLS, John Young PEARCE, Rev. W. S. MADDOX, Joseph William HATHAWAY, Samuel P. BROWN, D. C. SIMPSON, Edmund D. WALKER, Thomas T. CROSSEN, William L. TOWNER, Charles Henry WILLINGHAM plus most of those who had previously lived at Walthall..
When the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad held the famous auction sale of lots on June 29, 1886 and established the city of Ballinger, four miles to the south, finis was written to the history of Runnels City.
On January 2, 1888 the Commissioners Court assembled at Runnels City and issued an order instructing John McEwen FORMWALT to proceed to move all the records of Runnels County to Ballinger. Most of the population of Runnels City were forced to move to Ballingerr.
The county courthouse was built in 1888 at a cost of $30,000.
Some of the first Settlers of Ballinger were Marryatt C. SMITH (M.C. Smith), William Henry WEEKS, Alexander MCGREGOR, Jack MCGREGOR, James Wallace FRANCIS, David Portus GAY, Nathaniel F. BONSALL, Alvin Hutchison VAN PELT, Charles Pettis SHEPHERD, John Isaac GUION II, William Thomas ROUTH, Newton Jasper WARDLAW, George Washington HULL, Isaac Owen WOODEN, Adolph SCHAWE, Dr. John A. YOUNGER, Dr. Walter Weber FOWLER, and Charles Stonewall MILLER. The city of Ballinger immediately became the metropolis of Runnels County and has remained so. Ballinnger was named for William Pitt BALLINGER, an attorney for the railroad.
The second city of Runnels County, Winters, was formed in 1890 and named for John Nichols WINTERS. Some of the first Settlers were Frederic PLATTE, H. J. BUTTS, John S. HALL, Dr. Robert COOK, McDonald TOWNSEND, I. M. BARTON, Tillman Denson BISHOP, Randall DAVIS, C. E. BELL, and C. N. CURRY.
Miles, named for Jonathan MILES, was established as a post office on March 21, 1890. In 1908 the population was about 3,000; then it declined. Joe THEILE, Arthur GROVES, and John N. MCLEOD were early settlers.
Rowena was settled by German and Czech farmers beginning about 1897. Some of the first were Ludvik TIPLICEK, P. J. BARON, Gerhard GOETZ, Henry LISSO, W. A. HENNIG, Joseph PSENCIK, Fred MACHOTKA, and Gustav SCHUHMANN.
There were a number of other settlements in Runnels County.
Maverick, named for Samuel A. MAVERICK, had a post office by 1883. Among the first settlers in this area were William T. CASTLEBERRY, Marion COBB, William Levi MCAULAY, G. N. MARSHALL, J. M. SLAUGHTER, William O. DARK, John Walker CLAMPITT, J. C. OSGOOD, and James Clinton THAXTON.
A post office was established at Blue Gap prior to April 12, 1882 when it was moved to the Content community. Daniel W. HALE was the first postmaster. Nancy PARKER, a widow with three small children, moved to the Content area in the early 1870's; she made an affidavit of occupancy before the clerk of the court on November 16, 1873. Other early settlers in the Content area were Michael C. BRIGHT, Andrew J. ROSSON, Alfred H. HANSCOMB, Benjamin S. MASSENGALE, Julius E. CHANDLER, Joseph TROLLER, J. F. Baldridge, Richard F. Counts, Sam KILLION, John A. HANNA, Reuben B. BREWTON, Berryman F. GOATS, and Andrew FANNIN.
Benoit began in 1886 and was first called Norwood. William A. TYSON became the first postmaster on March 29, 1906.
Crews began when J. D. WISE became the first postmaster on June 28, 1892. Among the early settlers were A. D. TALLEY, Stephen F. HALE, F. M. HALE, C. A. WATSON and R. E. BURRUS.
Drasco, first known as County Line, obtained a post office on December 16, 1903.
Hatchel obtained a post office on April 21, 1904 with Elijah W. HATCHEL being the first postmaster. J. W. BLASDELL was an early doctor. John R. HARDESTY was an early preacher.
Maria was named for Buck GENTRY's wife when the post office was established by Walter C. BASS on May 8, 1906.
Norton was established as a post office on November 27, 1894 and was named for George W. NORTON, an early settler. Other early settlers were J. Sam HALL, Thomas Lee PATTERSON, James William MACKEY, Green B. MORGAN, J. P. ASH and John V. BORDERS.
Olfen was originally known as Fussy Creek. Some of the first settlers in this German Catholic farm community were Bernard MATTHIESEN, William HALFMANN, Henry B. HALFMANN, Tom BROOKS and Ben NIEHUES.
Pumphrey, named for W. M. PUMPHREY, was granted a post office on October 4, 1901, when the name was changed from new Hope to Pumphrey. Among early settlers were Oscar PUCKETT and Charles F. AWALT.
Mazeland was founded May 25, 1903 when a store and post office opened on the ranch which belonged to Archibald Beniah HUTCHISON.
Wilmeth, named after a Ballinger banker, became a post office on April 1, 1907.
Wingate became a post office on March 14, 1892; it was named for Judge W. J. WINGATE of Ballinger. William George CATHEY, J. W. GANNAWAY, W. M. KING and I. B. LOW, Jr. were early settlers.
Other settlements of minor importance were Brookshier, Bethel, and Pony. They were three of the sites of many early schools scattered throughout the county.
The population of the county in 1880 was 980. In 1890 the population was 3,193. In 1900 the population was 5,279. In 1910 the population was 20,858. The population of Runnels County has never exceeded 23,000.
This article was abstracted from the following sources with their permission:
One of the counties laid out by the legislature by act of February 1, 1858, and named in honor of Governor Runnels, this county was not permanently settled for twenty years afterward, and was finally organized in 1880. On Oka creek, just beyond the west boundary of the county, Fort Chadbourne was established in the '50s, and was garrisoned by federal troops until the Civil war. Under this protection a few settlers had located in Runnels county, but they were traders or wandering stockmen, and during the troublous times of the war decade the county was practically abandoned.
During the 70's the cattlemen took possession of Runnels county, driving the buffalo before them and establishing their camps all along the Colorado and its tributaries. By 1880 the T. & P. Railroad had been built through Abilene, about twenty-five miles from the county, and for many miles on both sides of that route the stockmen and settlers began permanent occupation. In 1880 the population of Runnels county was 980 (15 negroes). Agriculture had hardly been attempted, merely enough to test the productiveness of the soil. When the county was organized the place selected as the county seat was given the name Runnels. In 1886 the G.C. & S.F. Railroad was built through the county, and the town of Ballinger, founded on this line, soon afterward became the county seat and has since been the metropolis of the county.
In 1890 the population of the county had increased to 3,193; by 1900 it nearly doubled, being 5,379 (33 negroes); and by the last census, 1910, nearly a quadruple gain is shown, the population being 20,858.
The development of the county, as revealed in assessed values, has likewise shown remarkable gains. In 1881 taxable property was assessed at $665,077, nearly half being represented by live stock. In 1882 the county had about 42,000 cattle, 30,000 sheep, besides other livestock. In 1903 the taxable values were $4,188,000; and in 1909, $10,571,775. Since the '80s, the county has changed from an exclusive range to a well diversified farming country. In 1903 over 15,000 bales of cotton were raised in the county, and Balligner claims to have the largest wagon receipts of cotton among all the cities of Texas, 54,000 bales having been brought into town in 1909 over the country roads. In the meantime the number of livestock has decreased, though the values, under conditions of modern stock farming, are greater than thirty years ago. In 1909 about 12,000 horses and mules 18,000 cattle and 11,000 sheep were assessed. About three thousand acres are now irrigated, and by this and other means the county's area is being adapted to productive agriculture.
The population of the prinicipal towns in 1890 was: Ballinger, 1,390; Runnels, 416; besides a number of small places without separate enumeration. The census of 1900 gave Ballinger a population of 1,128; Runnels, 416; Winters 138. Miles, Rowen and Winters are now the largest towns outside of Ballinger. From Miles to Paint Rock, the Concho, Llano and San Saba Valley Railroad (seventeen miles) has recently been completed, and the Abilene Southern is partly constructed.