Captain Marcy's Road

On April 5th, 1849, Captain Randolph B. Marcy left Ft. Smith Arkansas with 75 dragoons of the United States 5th Infantry, accompanying approximately 2,000 settlers bound for California via Santa Fe, New Mexico. On his return trip to Fort Smith, Marcy was ordered to go via El Paso and scout a possible southern route for emigrants heading to the California gold fields. Guided by a Comanche scout named Manuel, Marcy set forth from El Paso across the dry, dangerous, and unknown lands of western Texas. Noting the extreme scarcity of a dependable water source, one of Marcy's scouts spoke of a large and very dependable water source east of the plains of sand and near the mouth of a large river. The scout spoke of a tremendous battle at the spring site a few years before between elements of the Pawnee and Comanche in which his brother had been killed. He told Marcy that water always could be found there.

As Marcy's platoon approached from the west on October 3rd, 1849, he came down the edge of the caprock near the present-day location of where Interstate 20 descends the caprock between Big Spring and Stanton. His journal reads "Leaving the salt lake this morning, our bearing was N. 71E for eight miles, where we reached the border of the high plain. Here we could see the low bluffs in the direction we were marching, near which our guide informed us we could find a fine spring of water. Fourteen and a half miles of travel over a beautiful road brought us to the spring, which we found flowing from a deep chasm in the limestone rocks into an immense reservoir of some fifty feet in depth". He also noted, "This appears to have been a favorite place of resort for the Comanches, as there are remains of lodges in every direction. My Comanche guide informs me that there is a good wagon route from here to the Rio Pecos, striking some seventy miles lower down than where we crossed, keeping entirely to the south of the Llano Estacado and crossing the head branches of the Colorado (Conchos). The mesquite trees are becoming larger here as we descend from this high plain, and the soil is better; several fossil shells of the muscle species were found here." Marcy found the spring site to be so desirable and in such great volume that he recommended the "big spring on the Colorado" to be strongly considered when rail developed in the area. Additionally, the slope up to the high plain was far gentler here than further north, and as such, he felt it would allow the westward expansion of rail to develop faster and cheaper.

In the following years, thousands of emigrants bound for California traveled on "Marcy's Road", often using the spring as the last dependable water until they reached the Pecos River, some one hundred fourteen miles away. Among those, was the Rhine party, a group of forty-seven who were traveling to California in 1853. As they approached the site, they wrote in their official journal "Imagine forty-seven thirsty and almost famished men and women, arriving to a splendid spring of pure cool water at about twelve o'clock on a real hot day, overshadowed by a cliff of rock, and you may form some idea, dear reader, of our relief. Such was our fortune, at the commencement of the great sandy desert, which from the scarcity of water thereafter, it did seem as though the God of nature had placed it there for the weary and thirsty traveler on the road to California."

The trail that Marcy documented from "The Big Spring of the Colorado" eastward to the new frontier town of Fort Worth, became one of the most important routes across Texas. Known as the "Overland Trail", it developed as the Butterfield Overland Stage and Mail Route, and was then followed by the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The Bankhead Highway followed the rail route, and was then consequently replaced by the creation of Interstate 20. Most of the towns and cities on Interstate 20 between Ft. Worth and El Paso developed because of the rail route, which developed because of Captain Randolph B. Marcy's Road.