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The Big Spring

The oasis has been a life force of history in West Texas.

By Eric L. Moreno

The wide-open lands of West Texas are filled with mystery and legend. Endless, wind-swept plains and craggy peaks mark a land that is, for all intents and purposes, the last frontier of Texas. For the earliest visitors, traversing this land was dangerous because of the harsh elements and the lack of available water.

At the edge of the Llano Estacado, midway between present-day Midland and Abilene, you can find a true oasis. Tucked away in the city of Big Spring in Howard County is the legendary “Big Spring.” For centuries, the native people of this region utilized this sacred feature.

The body of water that would be dubbed the Big Spring by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy in 1849 was destined to be a crossroads for generations of Texas history. Legendary figures such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Robert E. Lee and the Buffalo Soldiers, among others, all found themselves drinking from the spring at some point in time.

The Water of the Big Spring

Early written accounts of the Big Spring reported the site to be a place of abundant wildlife and vegetation, and the water was described as “cold, clear and dependable.” At its apex, the collection pool of the spring was 15 feet deep.

The source of the water is an aquifer located at the northern end of the Edwards Plateau. A survey done at the time of the arrival of the railroad in 1880 determined that the discharge volume of the Big Spring was more than 100,000 gallons per day.

The spring was heavily used by residents for personal purposes and by the railroad that made its way there in the late 19th century. Water use exceeded the aquifer’s relatively modest recharge rate until the water table dropped below the spring outlet and was finally depleted.

The Big Spring and the Comanche

No one can say for certain who first discovered the Big Spring. Evidence indicates that prehistoric creatures visited it, and early native hunters followed roving herds of bison there. The spring, with its lush flowing waters, was a source of sustenance for coyotes, wolves, antelope and mustangs, as well as other animals.

It has been theorized that the first European to view the Big Spring was probably a member of a Spanish expedition, possibly that of Cabeza de Vaca, during his travels across the Southwest, although the record of his travels cannot wholly confirm his visit. No matter who visited first, the spring ultimately held the most importance to the indigenous people of the land.

Big Spring

The spring has served as a water source for wildlife, Native Americans, explorers and settlers.

“As all springs were important to early Americans, the Big Spring in particular was notable for its size in the region,” explains longtime resident and Howard County historian Doyle Phillips. “The waters fed down to the Colorado River, and nomadic Indian encampments were found all along the waterway.”

For the Comanche, the spring would ultimately be a source of sustenance and reverence, as it lay along the spur of several raiding trails. The Comanche of the northern plains and the Llano Estacado beyond Texas converged on the spring before continuing their raids to the south.

“Originally, the region seemed to be well known to the Lipan Apaches,” Phillips says. “When the Spanish came and horses became common to Plains Indians, then came the Comanche.”

From the Big Spring, the Comanche trails continued south via three branches: one to the southeast through the western part of the Concho country; one going due south, heading to the Pecos River; and one heading west to Midland before turning south ultimately to Mexico.

“The horse-riding Comanche really needed the water,” Phillips explains. “Another reason that the spring might have been important was the wood from the bois d’arc trees that grow in the area. The Comanche felt that this was the best wood for bow making.”

Without this access to water, the Comanche raids likely would not have been as successful. To them, the spring was worth fighting for, as exemplified by the conflict that took place between Comanche and Pawnee tribes over use of the spring during the 1840s.

The Big Spring and the U.S. Military

Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Army began exploring the West in greater detail in order to determine the best location for a series of defensive outposts. After prolonged periods of conflict, the Comanche were virtually driven out of the region by the Army in the late 19th century. 

“By the time the 1860s came around, the Comanche in West Texas were pretty much handled, so to speak,” Phillips says. “The Texas Rangers were organized during the 1840s mainly to fight the Comanche. Almost a decade later, the U.S. Army came in and assumed that duty.”

In 1849, Capt. Marcy, a veteran of the Mexican-American War and an adjutant of Gen. Zachary Taylor, began exploring the region that would come to be known as Big Spring. It was he, in fact, who gave the spring its official name.

The spring became a valuable asset to the Army and its western line of defense. The military established posts near the spring at Fort Chadbourne, Fort Concho and Fort Phantom Hill; troops from the forts depended on the spring during patrols, including one particularly famous soldier.

“There was an Indian fighter who was in charge of a garrison by the name of Robert E. Lee, who of course became very famous later in life,” Phillips says. “There is documentation of Lee stopping at the Big Spring during his time in West Texas.”

From 1875 until 1882, Fort Concho was the garrison for the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, aka the Buffalo Soldiers. They would engage in torturous three-month patrols to combat the Comanche and deal with bandits who plagued the area at the time. The troopers relied on the waters of the Big Spring.

The Big Spring in Modern Times

The area near the spring continually collected inhabitants, and by the 1870s, a settlement to support buffalo hunters who frequented the area had begun. The city of Big Spring grew around the spring and became a stop on the Butterfield Overland Trail. Later, the city became a popular railroad stop on the way to California.

The spring continued to be an asset to the military until the early 20th century, when it dried up from overuse by the railroad and residents. This once-vaunted and sacred place was nearly forgotten at that point. The spring is now part of Comanche Trail Park, which, along with Big Spring State Park, received funding and renovation as part of the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s and 1940s.

The city now fills the spring to give residents and visitors some idea of how it appeared in times past. Water from nearby Comanche Trail Lake is pumped into the spring so it continues to be a source of local pride to its residents.

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