An Outpost of Civilization

by Frederic Remington

This article appeared in Harper's new monthly magazine
Volume 88, Issue 523, December, 1893.

Shoeing a Bronco by Frederic Remington

Shoeing a Broncho by Frederic Remington

The hacienda San Jose de Bavicora lies northwest from Chihuahua 225 of the longest miles on the map. The miles run up long hills and dive into rocky canyons; they stretch over never-ending burnt plains, and across the beds of tortuous rivers thick with scorching sand. Some go on foot--which is best, if one has time--like the Tahuramaras; others take it ponyback, after the Mexican manner; and persons with no time and a great deal of money go in a coach. At first thought this last would seem to be the best, but the Guerrero stage has never failed to tip over, and the company make you sign away your natural rights, and almost your immortal soul, before they will allow you to embark. So it is not the best way at all, if I may judge from my own experience. We had a coach which seemed to choose the steepest hill on the route, where it then struck a stone, which heaved the coach, pulled out the kingpin, and what I remember of the occurrence is full of sprains and aches and general gloom. Guerrero, too, is only three-fourths of the way to Bavicora, and you can only go there if Don Gilberto, the patron of the hacienda--or, if you know him well enough, "Jack"--will take you in the ranch coach. After bumping over the stones all day for five days, through a blinding dust, we were glad enough when we suddenly came out of the tall timber in the mountain pass and espied the great yellow plain of Bavicora stretching to the blue hills of the Sierra. In an hour's ride more, through a chill wind, we were at the ranch.

The Hacienda de San Jose de Bavicora by Frederic Remington

The Hacienda San Jose de Bavicora by Frederic Remington

We pulled up at the entrance, which was garnished by a bunch of cow-punchers, who regarded us curiously as we pulled our aching bodies and bandaged limbs from the Concord and limped into the patio. To us was assigned the room of honor, and after shaking ourselves down on a good bed, with mattress and sheeting, we recovered our cheerfulness. A hot toddy, a roaring fireplace, completed the effect. The floor was strewed with bear and wolf skin rugs; it had pictures and draperies on the walls, and in a corner a wash basin and pitcher--so rare in these parts--was set on a stand, grandly suggestive of the refinements of luxury we had attained to. I do not wish to convey the impression that Mexicans do not wash, because there are brooks enough in Mexico if they want to use them, but wash-basins are the advance-guards of progress, and we had been on the outposts since leaving Chihuahua. Jack's man William had been ever-present and administered to our slightest wish; his cheerful "Good-mon'in, gem-men," as he lit the fire, recalled us to life, and after a rub-down I went out to look at the situation. Jack's ranch is a great straggling square of mud walls enclosing two patios, with adobe corrals and out-buildings, all obviously constructed for the purposes of defense. It was built in 1770 by the Jesuits, and while the English and the Dutch were fighting for the possession of the Mohawk Valley, Bavicora was an outpost of civilization, as it is today. Locked in a strange language, on parchment stored in vaults in Spain, are the records of this enterprise. In 1840 the good fathers were murdered by the Apaches, the country devastated and deserted, and the cattle and horses hurried to the mountain lairs of the Apaches. The place lay idle and unreclaimed for years, threatening to crumble back to the dust of which it was made. Near by are curious mounds on the banks of a dry arroyo. The punchers have dug down into these ruins and found adobe walls, mud plasterings, skeletons, and bits of woven goods. They call them the Montezumas.

El Patron by Frederic Remington

All this was to be changed. In 1882 an American cowboy--which was Jack--accompanied by two companions, penetrated south from Arizona, and as lie looked from the mountains over the fair plain of Bavicora, he said, "I will take this." The Apaches were on every hand; the country was terrorized to the gates of Chihuahua. The stout heart of the pioneer was not disturbed, and he made his word good. By purchase he acquired the plain, and so much more that you could not ride round it in two weeks. He moved in with his hardy punchers, and fixed up Bavicora so it would be habitable. He chased the Indians off his ranch whenever he “cut their sign.” After a while the Mexican vaqueros from below overcame their terror, when they saw the American hold his own with the Apaches, and by twos and threes and half-dozens they came up to take service, and now there are two hundred who lean on Jack and call him patron. They work for him, and they follow him on the Apache trail, knowing he will never run away, believing in his beneficence and trusting to his courage. I sat on a mud bank and worked away at a sketch of the yellow sunlit walls of the mud ranch, with the great plain running away like the ocean into a violet streak under the blue line of the Pena Blanca. In the rear rises a curious broken formation of hills like millions of ruins of Rhine castles.

Saddling up in the Patio by Frederic Remington

Saddling up in the Patio by Frederic Remington

The lobos [wolves] howl by night, and the Apache is expected to come at any instant. The old criada or serving-woman who makes the beds saw her husband killed at the front door, and every man who goes out of the patio has a large assortment of the most improved artillery on his person. Old carts with heavy wooden wheels like millstones stand about. Brown people with big straw hats and gay serapes lean lazily against the gray walls. Little pigs carry on the contest with nature, game-chickens strut, and clumsy puppies tumble over each other in joyful play; burros stand about sleepily, only indicating life by suggestive movements of their great ears, while at intervals a pony, bearing its lithe rider, steps from the gate, and breaking into an easy and graceful lope, goes away into the waste of land. I rose to go inside, and while I gazed I grew exalted in the impression that here, in the year of 1893, I had rediscovered a Fort Laramie after Mr. Parkman's well-known description. The foreman, Tom Bailey, was dressed in store clothes, and our room had bedsteads and a wash-basin; otherwise it answered very well. One room was piled high with dried meat, and the great stomachs of oxen filled with tallow; another room is a store full of goods--calicoes, buckskin, riatas, yellow leather shoes, guns, and other quaint plunder adapted to the needs of a people who sit on the ground and live on meat and corn meal. "Charlie Jim," the Chinese cook, has a big room with a stove in it, and he and the stove are a never-ending wonder to all the folks, and the fame of both has gone across the mountains to Sonora and to the south. Charlie is an autocrat in his curious Chinese way, and by the dignity of his position as Mr. Jack's private cook, and his unknown antecedents, he conjures the Mexicans and d__s the Texans, which latter refuse to take him seriously and kill him, as they would a "proper" man. Charlie Jim, in return entertains ideas of Texans which he secretes, except when they dine with Jack, when he may be heard to mutter, "Cake and pie no good for puncher, make him fat and lazy”; and when he crosses the patio and they fling a rope over his foot, he becomes livid, and breaks out, “D__ puncher; d__ rope; rope man all same horse; d__ puncher; no good that way.”

The patron has the state apartment, and no one goes there with his hat on; but the relations with his people are those of a father and children. An old gray man approaches; they touch the left arm with the right--an abbreviated hug--say “Buenos dias, patron!“ “Buenos dias, Don Sabino!“ and they shake hands. A California saddle stands on a rack by the desk, and the latter is littered with photographs of men in London clothes and women in French dresses, the latter singularly out of character with their surroundings. The old criada squats silently by the fireplace, her head enveloped in her blue rebozo, and deftly rolls her cigarette. She alone, and one white bulldog, can come and go without restraint.

The Administrador of San Jose de Bavicora by Frederic Remington

The Administrador of the Hacienda by Frederic Remington

The administrador, which is Mr. Tom Bailey, of Texas, moves about in the discharge of his responsibilities, and they are universal; anything and everything is his work, from the negotiation for the sale of five thousand head of cattle to the “busting” of a bronco which no one else can “crawl.” The clerk is in the store, with his pink boy's face, a pencil behind his ear, and a big sombrero, trying to look as though he had lived in these wilds longer than at San Francisco, which he finds an impossible part. He has acquired the language and the disregard of time necessary to one who would sell a real’s worth of cotton cloth to a Mexican. The forge in the blacksmith’s shop is going, and one puncher is cutting another puncher’s hair in the sunlight; ponies are being lugged in on the end of lariats, and thrown down, tied fast, and left in a convulsive heap, ready to be shod at the disposition of their riders. On the roof of the house are two or three men looking and pointing, to the little black specks on the plain far away, which are the cattle going into the lagunas to drink.

Haircut ala Puncher by Frederic Remington

The second patio, or the larger one, is entered by a narrow passage, and here you find horses and saddles and punchers coming and going, saddling and unsaddling their horses, arid being bucked about or dragged on a rope. In the little doorways to the rooms of the men, women stand in calico dresses and blue cotton rebozos, while the dogs and pigs lie about, and little brown vaqueros are ripening in the sun. In the rooms you find pottery, stone metates for grinding the corn, a fireplace, a symbol of the Catholic Church, some serapes, some rope, and buckskin. The people sit on a mat on the floor, and make cigarettes out of native tobacco and corn husks, or rolled tortillas; they laugh and chat in low tones, and altogether occupy the tiniest mental world, hardly larger than the patio, and not venturing beyond the little mud town of Temozachic, forty miles over the hills. Physically the men vacillate between the most intense excitement and a comatose state of idleness, where all is quiet and slothful, in contrast to the mad whirl of the roaring rodeo.

In the haciendas of old Mexico one will find the law and custom of the feudal days. All the laws of Mexico are in protection of the land-owner. The master is without restraint, and the man lives dependent on his caprice. The patron of Bavicora, for instance, leases land to a Mexican, and it is one of the arrangements that he shall drive the ranch coach to Chihuahua when it goes. All lessees of land are obliged to follow the patron to war, and, indeed, since the common enemy, the Apache, in these parts is as like to harry the little as the great, it is exactly to his interest to wage the war. Then, too, comes the responsibility of the patron to his people. He must feed them in the famine, he must arbitrate their disputes, and he must lead them at all times. If through improvidence their work-cattle die or give out, he must restock them, so that they may continue the cultivation of the land, all of which is not altogether profitable in a financial way, as we of the North may think, where all business is done on the “hold you responsible, sir,” basis.

The vaqueros make their own saddles and riatas; only the iron saddle-rings, the rifles, and the knives come from the patron, and where he gets them from God alone knows, and the puncher never cares. No doctor attends the sick or disabled, old women’s nursing standing between life and death. The Creator in His providence has arranged it so that simple folks are rarely sick, and a sprained ankle, a bad bruise from a steer’s horn or a pitching horse, are soon remedied by rest and a good constitution. At times instant and awful death overtakes the puncher--a horse in a gopher-hole, a mad steer, a chill with a knife, a blue hole where the .45 went in, a quicksand closing overhead, and a cross on a hillside are all.

Unknown, Killed by Apaches by Frederic Remington

Unknown, Killed by Apaches by Frederic Remington

We sat in our room one evening when in filed the vaqueros and asked to be allowed to sing for the patron. They sat on my bed and on the floor, while we occupied the other; they had their hats in their hands, and their black dreamy eyes were diverted as though overcome by the magnificence of the apartment. They hemmed and coughed, until finally one man, who was evidently the leader, pulled himself together and began, in a high falsetto, to sing; after two or three words the rest caught on, and they got through the line, when they stopped; thus was one leading and the others following to the end of the line. It was strange, wild music--a sort of general impression of a boys’ choir with a wild discordance, each man giving up his soul as he felt moved. The refrain always ended, for want of breath, in a low expiring howl, leaving the audience in suspense; but quickly they get at it again, and the rise of the tenor chorus continues. The songs are largely about love and women and doves and flowers in all of which nonsense punchers take only a perfunctory interest in real life.

These are the amusements--although the puncher is always roping for practice, and everything is fair game for his skill; hence dogs, pigs, and men have become as expert in dodging the rope as the vaqueros are in throwing it. A mounted man, in passing, will always throw his rope at one sitting in a doorway, and then try to get away before he can retaliate by jerking his own rope over his head. I have seen a man repair to the roof and watch a doorway through which he expected some comrade to pass shortly, and watch for an hour to be ready to drop his noose about his shoulders.

The ranch fare is very limited, and at intervals men are sent to bring back a steer from the water holes, which is dragged to the front door and there slaughtered. A day of feasting ensues, and the doorways and the gutter-pipes and the corral fences are festooned with the beef left to dry in the sun.

The Music at the Baile by Frederic Remington

The Music at the Baile by Frederic Remington

There is the serious side of the life. The Apache is an evil which Mexicans have come to regard as they do the meteoric hail, the lightning, the drought, and any other horror not to be averted. They quarrel between themselves over land and stock, and there are a great many men out in the mountains who are proscribed by the government. Indeed, while we journeyed on the road and were stopping one night in a little mud town, we were startled by a fusillade of shots, and in the morning were informed that two men had been killed the night before, and various others wounded. At another time a Mexican, with his followers, had invaded our apartment and expressed a disposition to kill Jack, but he found Jack was willing to play his game, and gave up the enterprise. On the ranch the men had discovered some dead stock which had been killed with a knife. Men were detailed to roam the country in search of fresh trails of these cattle-killers. I asked the foreman what would happen in case they found a trail which could be followed, and he said, “Why, we would follow it until we came up, and then kill them.” If a man is to “hold down” a big ranch in northern Mexico he has got to be “all man,” because it is “a man’s job,” as Mr. Bailey of Los Ojos said--and he knows.

Jack himself is the motive force of the enterprise, and he disturbs the quiet of this waste of sunshine by his presence for about six months in the year. With his strong spirit, the embodiment of generations of pioneers, he faces the Apache, the marauder, the financial risks. He spurs his listless people on to toil, he permeates every detail, he storms, and greater men than he have sworn like troopers under less provocation than he has at times; but he has snatched from the wolf and the Indian the fair land of Bavicora, to make it fruitful to his generation.

There lies the hacienda San Jose de Bavicora, gray and silent on the great plain, with the mountain standing guard against intruders, and over it the great blue dome of the sky, untroubled by clouds, except little flecks of vapor, which stand, lost in immensity, burning bright like opals, as though discouraged from seeking the mountains or the sea from whence they came. The marvelous color of the country beckons to the painter; its simple natural life entrances the blond barbarian, with his fevered brain; and the gaudy vaquero and his trappings and his pony are the actors on this noble stage. But one must be appreciative of it all, or he will find a week of rail and a week of stage and a week of horseback all too far for one to travel to see a shadow across the moon.

Frederic Remington was born in St. Lawrence County New York, in 1861. He studied drawing for a year in the Yale School of Fine Arts at New Haven, and went West in 1880. With the exception of this single year of instruction, he derived all his knowledge from constant observation and study. He wrote entertainingly and cleverly of life in the West, as well as illustrating it in his drawings, paintings, and sculptures.

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