Terrell County
March 2009

Vern & Suzanne Neal, Don Kyle, Frank & Joanie Wyatt, Steve & Kathy Wilkening

TERRELL COUNTY. Terrell County is in the Big Bend area of southwestern Texas, bordered on the south by Mexico, on the east by Val Verde and Crockett counties, on the north by Pecos County, and on the west by both Pecos and Brewster counties. The county was named for Alexander Watkins Terrell. Terrell County comprises 2,357 square miles of rocky terrain with elevations ranging from 1,300 to 4,000 feet above sea level. The soils are of limestone origin. Most of the county is situated in the Stockton Plateau, a part of the Western Mountain region. The eastern and northeastern parts of the county consist of gently rolling to level plains. In the western part the land slopes much more and the rolling terrain becomes mountainous, with narrow canyons and valleys. In the southern portion, the rocky lands near the Rio Grande are cut by deep canyons that carry floodwater into the muddy Rio Grande, which defines the county's southern boundary.

Deep canyons also traverse the eastern plains and empty into the Pecos river, which runs along the county's northeastern border. While the Pecos and Rio Grande are the principal waterways in the county, their accessibility to livestock is severely limited in many places by steep cliffs and deep canyons. There are a number of springs in the county, including Independence, King, Myers, Cedar and Geddes springs. Generally, windmill wells and tanks provide water for livestock. With an annual rainfall of only about fifteen inches, Terrell County lands generally are suited only for the grazing of livestock. Less than 1 percent of land in the area is prime farmland. The only trees of any size, primarily walnut and hackberry, grow along the dry creekbeds.

Almost all of the area's agricultural income derives from livestock, especially Angora goats and sheep; mohair and wool are the most important agricultural products. Some cattle are also raised in the area, and some local growers produce pecans. Mineral resources include limestone, salt, natural gas, and petroleum. In 1982 almost 31,016,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, about 398,000,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and 47,330 barrels of crude oil were produced in the county. The county is on the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and U.S. Highway 90 crosses the southern part of the county east to west.

There are many burned-rock mounds, called middens, on the ranches of Terrell County. Numerous rockshelters and caves with smoked walls and ceilings, mute evidence of long habitation by early Indian peoples, also exist in the area. In some of the shelters Indian paintings are to be found. The most extensive pictographs, on the cliff wall above Myers Spring near Dryden, include drawings of a church, deer, a large bird, and people dancing and hunting. Overpainting on these pictographs makes it clear that they were probably painted by several different Indian cultures. Arrowheads found in the area are dated by archeologists as belonging both to prehistoric and historic periods. Bits of reed matting, parts of baskets, pieces of reed sandals, and evidences of burials have also been found in the caves. Many grinding holes in flat rock surfaces, as well as manos (round stones worn smooth by pounding and rubbing), tell of the early Indians' diet of mesquite beans and dried, roasted, and ground sotol.

Between 1871 and 1905 the area was part of Pecos County. The region was opened for settlement in the early 1880s in anticipation of the arrival of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, which had surveyed a route through the region. Cyrus W. (Charley) Wilson developed a townsite called Strawbridge at a designated stop along the railroad, where he bought the land and laid out streets and lots. In May 1882, when the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad reached the site, the town was renamed Sanderson after a railroad engineer. Charles Downie, a Scot, the first permanent sheepman in the area, homesteaded there in 1881. He eventually increased his holdings to around 150,000 acres. Dryden, the only town besides Sanderson in the county, was also started in 1882 when the railroad built through the area. It was headquarters for the Pecos Land and Cattle Company, a huge ranching operation in the earliest days of white settlement. Roy Bean operated a saloon at Sanderson. By 1900 the population of this community was 112, and post offices had been established there and in Dryden.

The oil and gas industry became increasingly important to Terrell County's economy after 1957, when the Brown-Bassett gas field was discovered in the northeast part of the county. Only gas was produced until the 1970s, when high petroleum prices encouraged limited oil production as well. Sanderson was struck by a flood on June 11, 1965, in which twenty-eight people died. Two of them were never found. Heavy rains to the west and northwest of the town, on the watersheds of the Sanderson Canyon draw and the Three-Mile draw sent the floodwaters through the town, destroying many homes and businesses. By the mid-1980s, a flood-control project funded by the federal government was nearing completion, with eight of eleven projected dams completed or under construction.

The county population rose to 3,189 by 1950 but then continued to drop, falling to 2,600 in 1960, 1,940 in 1970, and an estimated 1,500 in 1982. The movement to the cities for jobs, the elimination of many jobs by the railroad company, and an increase in absentee ownership of land all contributed to the decline. By 1990 only 1,410 people were living in the county. In the mid-1980s Dryden was still an important community in the county, having a post office, service stations, and a general store. It also served as a rallying point for "float trippers" at the end of their runs down the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. The river runners often end their journeys on a ranch south of Dryden. In 1990 there were thirteen residents in Dryden. Sanderson (1990 population, 1,128) is the county's commercial center. The town, sometimes called the "Gateway to Big Bend," hosts a rodeo in April or May, a Street Dance in July, and the County Fair in January.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Terrell County Heritage Commission, Terrell County, Texas (San Angelo: Anchor, 1978).

Walter G. Downie