The sheep and wool era in South Texas


 The shepherd was at home in South Texas like the cowboy and vaquero was. Flocks of sheep grazed the range from Corpus Christi to Laredo, making this one of the top wool-producing places. Carretas loaded with wool, from as far away as Mexico, rolled into Corpus Christi, one of the world’s great wool markets.

The sheep era began about 1850 when W. W. Chapman, an Army officer, was transferred to Corpus Christi to head the Army’s new 8th Military District depot. Chapman realized that the area’s rich grasslands made ideal sheep country. He set up a sheep camp on Santa Gertrudis Creek and brought in purebred Merinos from Pennsylvania.

The Merino, unmatched for the quality of its wool, was too delicate for this climate. While Mexican sheep could take the heat, they had a coarse wool. Chapman figured that fine-wooled Merinos bred with tough Mexican sheep would produce a hardy breed with a fine fleece. Merino cross-breeds became the golden fleece of South Texas.

James Bryden, a sheepman from Scotland, was among immigrants attracted here by Henry Kinney’s land promotion efforts. Chapman hired Bryden to handle his sheep. In payment for watching the flock, Bryden was given part of the natural increase and a share in the wool profits. Bryden grazed the sheep along Santa Gertrudis Creek.

The following year, in 1853, Richard King bought 15,000 acres to begin his ranch near the Chapman sheep camp. King purchased 10 Merino bucks and 42 Mexican ewes; within a decade, he had some 40,000 sheep. His main sheep camp was called Borregas.

Other sheepmen besides Bryden were among immigrants attracted by Kinney’s land-selling promotion in the 1850s — Joseph Almond of Newcastle-on-Tyne, the Adams’ family, George Reynolds, the Wrights, these became sheep ranchers in the Nueces Valley. Corpus Christi in 1856 suffered a blow when the city’s top employer, the Army, moved its depot headquarters to San Antonio. Kinney’s immigrants were forced to find new jobs. George Reynolds worked cutting hay for the Army; when the Army left, he went to work on King Ranch, then began his own sheep ranch.

Other immigrants turned to raising sheep, something they knew from England and Scotland. This was the beginning of the sheep era. The cattle kingdom began about the same time, and in almost the same place, along Santa Gertrudis Creek and in the well-watered Nueces Valley, and for the same reason: necessity. For decades, Corpus Christi’s economy depended on Merino cross-breeds and longhorn steers. The wealth of South Texas walked on four legs.

Maria von Blucher wrote in a letter to her parents in Germany (“Maria von Blucher’s Corpus Christi”) — “Sheep are the best business here, better than cattle. Mrs. Chapman (her friend and the widow of the late W.W. Chapman) has grown rich by keeping sheep, going halves with somebody.”

By the end of the 1850s, quality wool was shipped from Corpus Christi to world markets. When the Civil War began in 1861, the Confederacy bought Texas wool to make uniforms for Confederate soldiers. When Texas ports were bottled up by the blockade, wool was moved down the Cotton Road to ships waiting at Baghdad.

Word spread that South Texas was sheep country; sheepherders came here from all over to make their fortunes by tending sheep on shares. John Buckley came to Duval County from Ontario, Canada, to raise sheep. He became the patriarch of the William F. Buckley family. Oscar Edgerly came here from New York to tend sheep for William Headen, one of Corpus Christi’s wealthy wool merchants.

Edgerly recorded the routines of a sheepherder in his diary. He stayed busy moving the sheep and setting up new camps. When the sheep ate all the grass near watering places, they were driven out in search of greener pastures, then brought back for water. He once moved the flock to San Fernando Creek and Richard King rode up and told him to move. Oscar moved up the creek; King told him to move again.

“As I thought I was not on his lands, I did not move,” Edgerly wrote. “I stayed there until the grass gave out, then took them up on the Aqua Dulce.”

Edgerly’s daily tasks were taking the sheep to water or grass, cooking meals, watching for coyotes and other predators. It was said that sheep, unlike cattle, had to be “lived with.”

It was a lonely life. Robert Adams went to work when he was 16 in 1863 tending sheep near Casa Blanca. He wrote that — “I never saw a house for a year, and was not inside a house for over two years. I did most of my own cooking for four years, and had nothing to eat but meat. I had no bread and didn’t know what a vegetable looked like. I didn’t see people sometimes for two or three months.”

After the war, there were 1.2 million sheep in Nueces County. It had more “fleecies” than any other county in the country. Tax rolls for Laredo’s Webb County in 1878 recorded that that county had 8,000 cattle and 239,000 sheep, so many sheep that one cowman said he was afraid to ride through the place wearing a wool shirt.

In shearing season (April-June and August-September), big two-wheeled ox-carts loaded with bags of wool came to Corpus Christi to sell to the wool merchants on Chaparral. Sheepmen came all the way from Mexico to sell their wool here.

Chaparral would be crowded with ox-carts at the wool-buying emporiums: David Hirsch, Ed Buckley, Perry Doddrige, William Headen, John Woessner, and Uriah Lott, before he began building railroads.

Norwick Gussett, the town’s richest wool merchant, was a former muleskinner in the Mexican War. In 1873, he purchased three million pounds of wool. Gussett’s store, topped with a rooster weathervane, was called “la tienda del gallo.” Doddridge’s place had the symbol of a ram, hence “la tienda del borrego.”

The Weekly Democratic Statesman in Austin reported on May 24, 1877 — “Corpus Christi is controlling a large wool trade. It is thought that four to five million pounds will be handled this year.”

Sheepmen returning to Mexico after selling their wool clip in Corpus Christi carried back merchandise for sell, so they made a profit coming and going.

These returning sheepmen were often targeted by bandits. One strategem of the sheepmen, it was said, was to drill holes in the wooden axles of their ox-carts. The holes were packed with silver dollars, then sealed with wooden pegs.

Three things happening almost at the same time brought the colorful and lucrative sheep era to an end. A parasite decimated the flocks. In 1884, Grover Cleveland was elected president and he lowered the tariff on cheap Australian wool, a devastating blow to Texas sheepmen. The other was the end of the open range; sheepmen needed free grass and when cattle ranchers began to fence their pastures, the days of the sheepmen were numbered. The convergence of all three factors brought the sheep era to a close. Sheepmen became cattlemen almost overnight.

 During World War II Corpus Christi, this once-great wool market, received millions of pounds of Australian wool, stored here for the duration of the war. For unknown reasons,  perhaps there was an old sheepman still alive, who remembered how the cheap Australian wool imports had done so much to bring the sheep and wool era to an end in South Texas.

                                                       Marti Hayes, Nueces County

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