Pages Navigation Menu

Sheepherder Plazitas, ca. 1875

The northwestern region of Texas, known as the Panhandle, is cut in half by the Canadian River creating the North and South Plains. Tabletop flat south of the river and ragged, rolling grasslands in the north, it is a region low in rainfall, once referred to as a part of the Great American Desert by early explorers.

The treeless Texas Panhandle.

Sheepherding compounds once occupied land on both sides of the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. These plazitas were central to a carefree, hardworking life for Mexican sheepherders.

Before the cowman staked their claim on the flat, treeless plains, Casimiro Romero brought fourteen wagons from Mora County, New Mexico; painted bright blue, each pulled by four-yoke oxen, and stuffed with his family and worldly possessions. Joining him was a friend, Agapito Sandoval and his seven children.

Jose Romero was 5 at the time. He remembers, “It was a beautiful stream, no sand bars at all. It was hardly more than 20 feet wide, and had deep, clear, living water in most spots. Its banks were fringed, along practically the entire distance we traveled, with many bushes: wild chokeberries, plums—great big plums, too—wild gooseberries and grapes. There were many cottonwood mottes scattered along its banks.”

The families encircled their wagons under a grove of cottonwoods, building wind breaks with tree limbs and brush. From this first wintering-in site, they explored the surrounding area looking for the perfect location for their compounds. They also begin to stockpile adobe brick.

The first clue of a plazita; a low, natural stone wall surrounding the sheepherders compound, ca 1875.

Romero decided on the area east of what would later become the wild west town of Tascosa (the county seat of Oldham County in 1881). Romero’s compound became the center of cultural activities for the families who settled here. Sandoval set up house about eight miles away near a cottonwood protected natural spring on Corsinio Creek. For their homes, the two men used thin layers of sandstone, cemented together with adobe. Cottonwood logs and sod made the roof.

The Trujillo, Garcia, Valdez, Salina, Chavez, Montoya, Agua, Briggs, Kimball, Borrego, and Tafoya families soon followed. By 1880 an estimated 300 souls called the Tascosa area home. Miles away, the thriving populations of south Texas and the Austin politicians cared little about what went on in the “useless” Llano Estacado.

What’s left of the stone wall of a building. Sheepherders compound, Texas Panhandle.

The plazitas were central to life and the location of the weekend’s “baile” or dance. Guitars and fiddles provided the music for night long celebrations where plenty of liquour and spicy foods was enjoyed by all. Neighbors rode from miles and miles away when word reached them about an upcoming baile.

What remains of an early sheepherders villa, ca. 1875

As you gaze over the stark, treeless landscape occasional trees disrupt the horizon. From a distance it’s hard to know if these might be clumps of squat mesquite or cactus. As you get closer, you discover they are tops of towering cottonwoods, shading a fresh water seep in a deep arroyo. These natural springs dot the flat plains, but they’re almost impossible to find even with specific directions.

It is here, hidden from the plains above and protected from the chilling north winds, portions of original plazitos remain. As you walk among the orderly ruins, it’s easy to imagine a time of simple existence where sturdy families worked hard to make a life in the middle of nowhere.

Stacked rocks outline a long rectangular building that stretches across one side a plazita. The building was possibly a stable, storage for the wool, or winter housing for the sheep.

REF Panhandle Pilgrimage by Pauline and R.L. Robertson. Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle by Byron Price and Dr. Frederick Rathjen.  All pictures by N. Bright,

Natalie Bright is the author of the upcoming book, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’: The All-American Chuck Wagon Cookbook. With over 100 recipes, cattle drive history, archival photos, and her own Texas ranch photography, you can bring a taste of the old West to your kitchen! Available now for preorder at all online bookstores. She is also the author of the Trouble in Texas series for middle grade readers.