History of the Spring

From a historical standpoint, the “big spring” of Howard County is one of the most significant springs in Texas, and arguably the United States.

Archeological data from numerous universities and agencies have found that the spring was an important watering hole in West Texas prior to man setting foot in the region. Mastodon, wooly mammoth, saber-toothed tiger, and the remnants of many other now extinct species have been found near the spring, suggesting that this was an important watering hole for many thousands of years.

The first European known to have visited the spring was Alvar Nunez, also known as Cabeza de Vaca in the year 1535. After his shipwreck on Galveston Island, the journals of de Vaca’s travels across Texas note that he traveled up what was later to be known as the Colorado River to a point where he encountered a very large spring near the source of the river. There, he encountered the Eastern Apache Indians, who gave him food and clothing. To show his gratitude, De Vaca held an impromptu blessing service with the natives, thanking them for saving his life. As has been documented by the Dallas Morning News, this may have actually been the first Thanksgiving in the New World, preceding the Plymouth event by 85 years.

The journey of Cabeza de Vaca to the spring actually occurred before the mighty Comanche nation existed. With the introduction of the horse by the Spanish in the Taos area, and offshoot of the Shoshone tribe of Colorado and Wyoming moved south and onto the plains. This group became the Comanche tribe. These Indians developed an uncanny relationship with the horse, and turned an otherwise violent foot army into what would be described as the “Finest Light Calvary in the World”. So adapt were the Comanche, that they drove out or destroyed all other tribes of a region larger than New England. Comancheria was the name used by westerners to describe their homeland, and the central point of this region was the “Big Spring of the Colorado”. From here, the Comanche ruled for 200 years without rival. What is now known as the “big spring” was the point where of a huge trade route used by the Comanche that extended into areas of Iowa, Wyoming, and Idaho, and as far south as Mexico City and even Honduras took place. Additionally, the Comanche met at the spring to go on what was known as the “Great Comanche War Trail”. From the big spring, one branch of the trail went west to just northeast of Midland at Mustang Springs, then down along the draw system in Midland to the Pecos River and on into Mexico. Another branch originated at the spring and went south to the Concho River and then across to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos and then down into Mexico. Yet a third originated at the spring and went northward to Tule and Palo Duro Canyon and then into the southeastern portion of Colorado. So great were the Comanche’s that they are the only know force in American history to have actually pushed back eastward the manifest destiny movement of America. This took place from the 1850’s to the mid 1860’s. The spring was known as one of the 3 most holy sites of the tribe, the other 2 being Palo Duro Canyon and Medicine Bluff in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. Quanah Parker, the last great chief of the Comanches, referred to the spring often as the heart of the tribe’s existence.

In 1849, the United States government began to look for a southern route for rail line development across the plains. Captain Randall Marcy, in a journey between Fort Smith, Arkansas and El Paso, had his Indian guides tell of a dependable water source on the southern Llano Estacado. His description of the spring was one of “20 yards square, with a water depth ranging from 15 to near 50 feet , with clear, cold flowing water forming a small river some 20 feet wide and 6 feet deep.” Marcy was the first “American” to lay claim to finding the Big Spring of the Colorado River. Marcy reported that his discovery of the spring for use with the train’s steam engines, combined with the relatively flat terrain of the area, made his route the most advantageous way for the railway to move across the southern plains. Soon, the Texas and Pacific Railway charted a course based upon the route to the spring that Marcy had mapped. Because of the dependable water source of the “big spring”, the rail line was built and became functional in 1873. Because of the spring and it’s water for the train, the cities of Abilene, Colorado City, Big Spring, Midland, and Odessa were formed along the rail line. If it had not been for the existence of the spring, these cities, along with numerous smaller and outlying towns, would not exist today.

By the late 1890’s, the busy railway, along with the newly developing town of Big Spring, had caused the water table at the spring site to drop to a point where the spring became non-functioning. Modern mapping methods changed the names of the river systems, and the Colorado River where the spring was located was changed to “Beal’s Creek”, named after a large ranch where the river branches met near present day Colorado City. The cattle industry grew along the rail line, and so did the cities previously mentioned. Upon the development of the automobile, a highway was built adjacent to the rail line. This was known as the “Bankhead Highway”. Eventually, the route became Interstate 20, connecting most of the Southern United States.