Fort Smith National Historic Site

 

 It was a little cool, albeit rainy when I arrived at Fort Smith. Barely sitting inside the state of Arkansas it was time for me to discover some past.

Saturday Febuary 9, 2013From the establishment of the first Fort Smith on December 25, 1817, to the final days of Judge Isaac C. Parker’s jurisdiction over Indian Territory in 1896, Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves almost 80 years of history. On the edge of Indian Territory through the stories of soldiers, the Trail of Tears, dangerous outlaws, and the brave lawmen who pursued them. The history of the Fort Smith area abounds with tales of heroism, battles, and social justice. Walk where soldiers drilled, reflect along the Trail of Tears overlook, and stand where justice was served and carried out. There are many individuals who made history at Fort Smith, and their actions and attitudes can serve both as inspiration and lessons learned. The Fort Smith National Historic Site includes the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Judge Isaac C. Parker, known as the “hangin’ judge,” presided over the court for 21 years.

 

Bass Reeves

1838 – January 12, 1910

During the late 19th Century no area in the United States was a haven and a refuge for criminals like the Indian Territory, pre–statehood Oklahoma. The jurisdiction of this territory fell to the United States court for Western Arkansas, located at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith, a frontier town, was located on the eastern border of the Indian Territory. The court was the FtSmithNP-0389largest federal court in United States history covering over 75,000 square miles. In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker, was given the task of cleaning up the territory by President Ulysses Grant. It would not be an easy task. Parker authorized the hiring of 200 deputy U.S. marshals to sweep over the territory and arrest felons and fugitives. The Fort Smith federal court never hired that many deputies to work, there were usually between twenty and thirty deputies at any one time.

The Indian Territory was originally the domain of the Five Civilized Tribes, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. Due to the fact that some of the Indians fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the western portion of the territory was taken away and set aside as reservation space for Plains Indians. The Five Tribes had their own governments, courts, and police, but could not arrest white or black men who were not citizens of the tribes. This task fell to the deputy U.S. marshals who worked out of Fort Smith. Also, the deputies were responsible for arresting Indians who committed crimes against white or black men.FtSmithNP-0383

One of the first of the deputies hired by Judge Parker’s court was a former slave from Texas named Bass Reeves. It is believed that Reeves fought in the Indian Territory during the Civil War with the Union Indian brigades. Reeves was known as an expert with pistol and rifle, stood about six foot, two inches, weighed 180 pounds, and was said to have superhuman strength. Reeves had a reputation throughout the territory for his ability to catch outlaws that other deputies couldn’t. He was known to work in disguise in order to get information and affect the arrest of fugitives he wanted to capture.

Reeves was involved in numerous shootouts but was never wounded. He stated that he killed fourteen men in self defense, at the time of his death newspapers reported that he had killed over twenty men. In 1901, Reeves was interviewed by a Territorial newspaper, at that time he stated he had arrested over 3000 men and women who had broke federal laws in the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory, later to include the Oklahoma Territory, in 1890, was the most dangerous area for federal peace officers in the Old West. More than one hundred and twenty lost their lives before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Bass Reeves escaped numerous assassination attempts on his life, he was the most feared deputy U.S. marshal to work the Indian Territory.

Reeves according to research is the only deputy on record who started working for Parker’s court in 1875 and worked up to statehood in 1907. Bass Reeves worked a total of thirty–two years as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Indian Territory.

Being a former slave, Reeves was illiterate. He would memorize his warrants and writs. In those thirty–two years it is said he never arrested the wrong person due to the fact he couldn’t read.

On one occasion, Reeves son, Bennie committed a domestic murder against his wife. Bass took the warrant and bought his son in for murder shortly thereafter his son convicted and sent to Leavenworth.

At the age of 67, Bass Reeves retired from federal service at Oklahoma statehood in 1907. He was hired as a city policeman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he served for about two years. Reeves had a beat in downtown Muskogee, during that time it is reported there was not one crime reported on his beat. It was told by residents that Reeves while walking his beat he would have a sidekick who carried a satchel of pistols.

African American deputy U.S. Marshals who worked the Indian Territory had the authority to arrest whites, blacks or Indians who broke federal laws. This was a very unique reality for black men given the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. On one occasion Bass Reeves was given the warrant for Belle Starr, it was the one time she turned herself in at the Fort Smith Federal Court. Bass Reeves was a legend in his own time. He was the epitome of dedication to duty, Judge Parker’s most trusted deputy and one of the greatest lawmen of the western frontier. On January 12, 1910, Bass Reeves died at the age of 71, in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

FtSmithNP-0398

Places at the First Fort Smith (1817-1824)

 

Belle Point (Beautiful Place)

The area overlooking the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers had been named Belle Point by French fur trappers who traveled along the rivers in the 18th century. When the U.S. Army decided to establish a fort near the Osage boundary at the Arkansas River, Belle Point was the site chosen by Major Stephen H. Long of the Topographical Engineers. Long led the expedition in which he chose the location of, designed, and named the first Fort Smith in 1817. He was accompanied by Major William Bradford and the U.S. Rifle Regiment whom he left at the site of the future Fort Smith in order to begin construction.

FtSmithNP-0405

Places at the Second Fort Smith (1838-1871)

 

While only two buildings remain from the second fort, visitors can walk the old military grounds and see the outline of the stone wall as well as the location of some of the military buildings. The exhibit in the Commissary gives a glimpse into the time period when the army used the building as a supply warehouse. Food supplies were stored here and later transported to troops stationed further west.

Building The Second Fort Smith

 

Belle Point was the busiest place on the America’s southwestern frontier during the late 1830s. A new military post was under construction and a bustling town named Fort Smith was emerging on its eastern edge. Without the hard work of 55 men from Bangor Maine, the second Fort Smith might never have existed.

In 1838 Congress authorized the reoccupation and enlargement of the military post at Fort Smith. John Rogers sold the United States 306 acres adjoining the site of the first Fort Smith for $15,000. Captain Charles W. Thomas was named supervisor of Fort Smith’s construction. The plans called for building a stone wall 12 feet high and from two to three feet thick enclosing an area of six hundred by four hundred feet, with a blockhouse bastion, two stores high, at each angle.

Thomas’ first objective was to recruit a construction crew. His attempts to find workers in New York and Boston failed, as the men there wanted what Thomas considered extravagant wages. It wasn’t until he travel to Bangor, Maine that he was able to sign 39 tradesmen and 16 laborers to one year contracts. The tradesmen received $1.50 a day and the laborers $15.00 a month. The crew immediately started west, only stopping to purchase a steam engine to power a sawmill, tools, food and other supplies. They traveled by steamer for most of the trip, but low water on the Arkansas halted the boat and the men had to travel the last 100 miles to Fort Smith on foot. They arrived in July of 1838.

Once quarters for the workers were ready, thirteen men were sent up the Poteau to fell trees and float them to Fort Smith on timber rafts containing 80 saw logs. Once brought ashore, the logs were cut into timbers and planks at the new saw mill. The master brick mason found suitable clay nearby, constructed a kiln, built a shed capable of holding 200,000 bricks, and dug two wells to provide water for mixing. Another crew opened a stone quarry at Belle Point.FtSmithNP-0423

Thomas knew the contracts of the Maine men expired in July. He could not get local men to work except for high wages and then on only short-term basis. Attempts to recruit soldiers from nearby forts to assist with construction failed. Thomas knew he had to get the most from his Bangor men, but on July 1, 1839, most of them drew their pay and boarded the first steamer bound downriver. Only the masons and bricklayer signed on for another year.

The work that was completed was impressive, however. The foundation of the entire outer wall had been completed and raised to a height of 4 feet. Foundations for four of the five bastions had been laid and raised to a level of the walls. It took seven more years before the new fort was finally ready for occupancy in 1846, having cost nearly $300,00.

Today visitors come to Fort Smith to see the federal courthouse used by Judge Isaac C. Parker from 1875-1889. However, the building was originally the military barracks and not ideally suited for a courthouse. The courtroom was small and not lavishly furnished. The former mess halls in the basement were converted into two large jail cells, nicknamed “Hell on the Border.”

 

Gallows

 

FtSmithNP-0433-2

The gallows at Fort Smith served as an instrument of federal justice for twenty-three years, from 1873-1896. During those years 86 men were executed for capital offenses on the gallows.

While the gallows that stands today is a reconstruction, visitors are still drawn to the place where these executions were conducted. Perhaps no other place in Fort Smith illicits such interest and strong feelings.

Gallows Location

The gallows proper had their beginning in early August of 1873. The Fort Smith Weekly New Era of August 6, 1873, reported that “Captain C. E. Perry, U.S. Jailer has received orders to erect the gallows for the execution of prisoners sentenced to be hung here shortly.” The article also noted “the fatal structure may already be seen going up near the old powder magazine just inside the garrison walls.” The only other known description of the location of the first gallows was published in the New Era of August 20, 1873, which placed the scaffold “at the opposite end of the grounds near the magazine.”

The area in which the gallows stood was the southwestern corner of the five-sided fort. Each of the corners was to have been originally crowned with a blockhouse or bastion. When the fort’s role was changed in the 1840s from that of a frontier defense to a supply depot it was decided to utilize these sturdy foundations for more practical structures. Therefore the foundations of bastion #1 (Northwestern corner) were modified and a two-story stone commissary warehouse constructed upon them. The Southwestern bastion (#2) was later crowned with a very similar structure housing the quartermaster warehouse. In September of 1846, Colonel Arbuckle negotiated a contract which converted the southern blockhouse foundation (bastion #3) into a very sturdy magazine for the storage of munitions. It was against the face of this structure that the two successive gallows were constructed. In October of 1873, after the final closure of Fort Smith by the army, three commissioners appointed by the Secretary of Interior to appraise the buildings of the fort described the structure as follows:FtSmithNP-0435

Pentagonal (Magazine) Stone 2 faces 30 ft. 2 faces 20 ½ ft., one 15 ft. used for storage of powder belonging to citizens. Good condition. Valuation – $400

In September 1875, at the first execution carried out after Judge Parker’s arrival in Fort Smith, an extra edition of the Independent described the building and area: “In one corner of this wall stands an old pentagon-shaped building, with iron doors and pointed roof, built of solid masonry….”
By 1896, years of disuse had taken their toll, and a traveler reported that “the scaffold is on a line with the wall, and beyond is a grotto of heavy stone masonry 50 feet in diameter. This was once a bomb-proof magazine, but the top is now off and cavities in the masonry show where the big timber rested that supported the heavy roof of rock and earth.”

1873 Gallows

The 1873 gallows were described several times by various reporters. On September 3, 1875, an article in the Independent of Fort Smith described as follows:

THE GALLOWS
In the jail yard in front of and close up to the old magazine is a strong platform about 20 feet square and 12 feet high, with a long trap door in the floor, swung on iron hinges for the
DEAD FALL.
Over this about 10 feet higher, framed on upright posts and firmly braced, is a long rope beam with six ropes attached.

Another journalist wrote in the St. Louis Republican of September 4, 1875 this description of the gallows:

The scaffold upon which they will be executed has been erected at the south side of the old parade ground, right against the front of the old magazine. The structure is built of rough timbers. The cross-beam is a stout stick of hewed oak, supported on two upright posts, very strongly braced. The platform is about seven feet from the ground. The distance between the supporting posts is about twelve feet, giving nearly two feet space for the fall of each victim. The trap extends across the breadth of the platform, and consists of two pieces strongly hinged to the flooring of the platform so that they form a connection in the nature of a double door when closed from below. These are held in place when brought up by a stout beam of oak, extending in the direction of the gallows’ beam on which rest two arms firmly fastened to one flap of the door below. To this beam about the middle is secured an iron trigger bar about three feet long, well secured on the facing of the platform floor. By a movement of this lever back, the trigger bar which holds the trap in position is released and the doors drop down.

Some six years later, on September 7, 1881, a reporter from the Fort Smith Elevator visited the garrison and described the execution machinery as follows:

The scaffold stands eight feet above the ground. A stairway of 12 steps, 3 feet six inches in width, leads up the platform, which is 14 x 15. The trap is twelve feet long by three feet wide, and is so arranged as to give way in the center when sprung, each half being on hinges. The cross beam over head is seven feet two inches above the platform, and is of heavy timber. The ropes are so arranged as to give about six feet drop. A deep trench had been dug directly under the trap, so as to prevent the feet of the condemned from striking the ground.

Of the appurtenances of the gallows there is only limited evidence. It is known that the area adjacent to the gallows was fenced prior to the execution of John Postoak and James Diggs in 1878. The New Era of December 18, 1878, noted that, “the execution will be conducted in a private manner, the gallows being surrounded by a high board fence, which shuts out from public gaze the terrible scene which is to take place there.” The roof that formed a major feature of the second gallows either never became a part of the first gallows or was at best a very late addition. As late as 1881, during a September execution, it was noted that, “the condemned sat on a bench beneath an awing which shielded them from the boiling sun.” This only casually mentions the benches, which might, or might not have been an integral part of the gallows structure. Another feature of the gallows that was described in the years before Judge Parker and not subsequently, was a screen beneath the gallows. The August 20, 1873 New Era noted “at 1:40 p.m. John S. Childers was LAUNCHED INTO ETERNITY, the body disappearing with a heavy ‘thud’ behind the screen.” Coverage of a dual hanging two months later also mentions the screen, under what can be considered far darker circumstances; “After the drop had fallen the Officers, in order to allow the crowd to satisfy its appetite for the horrible, knocked down the sides of the under part of the gallows so that the bodies were exposed to full view as they hung from the ropes.” The first gallows operated for over a decade. The ‘U.S. Court Proceedings’ column in the Elevator for April 16, 1886 noted that, “the old gallows, upon which forty FtSmithNP-0453three men have been hung have been torn down and a new one put up where it stood. The old one had become rotten and dilapidated generally.”

1886 Gallows

“The new gallows is put up in a more neat and substantial manner than the old one was. The platform is 16 x 20 feet, supported by solid oak columns 12 x 12 inches square; the cross beam is of solid oak 9 x 11 inches 16 feet in the clear and rests on two upright columns of oak sixteen feet high, and about 12 x 12 inches square. The beam is braced on top by heavy timbers, the ends of which rest on the upright columns. The trap door is sixteen feet long and three feet wide. The drop is fully six feet.”
Fort Smith Weekly Elevator, April 23, 1886

The new gallows was reportedly built by well-known Fort Smith craftsman, Martin Luther Stoufer. There is a wide spread tradition that the earlier gallows had a capacity of six men executed at one time, and that the new gallows was designed with a capability of executing twelve men at one time. The dimensions established for the 1886 gallows tend to dispute this, if a spacing of two feet per man is used.

On the night of April 24, 1886, the fence that enclosed the gallows was blown down and entirely demolished in a severe wind. U.S. Marshal Carroll not being opposed to public hangings, there was some doubt that the enclosure would be rebuilt. However, by the next execution the enclosure was back in place. When Marshal Carroll left his post in May 1889, it was noted that he “left to his successor a brand new gallows enclosure and new roof.” The article did not specify whether or not this was the first roof, or merely a replacement. A photograph of the courthouse and grounds taken prior to 1887 does not seem to indicate the presence of a roof on the gallows.

During the time in-between executions the gallows was used by the jail and court staff as a corral for horses and cattle. In fact, the official records of the federal court hardly make notice of the gallows structure, except in passing.

In the summer of 1896 the crossbeam of the gallows was replaced. A local newspaper described the event:

“Last Monday, Jailer Berry had the old cross beam of the gallows, on which so many men have been hung, removed and a new on(e) substituted in its place. The old beam upon removal was found to be rotten through and through, and it is a matter of wonder that it did not long ago break under one of the many strains to which it has been subjected. The condition of the beam was discovered by Mr. Eoff, the turnkey, about the time of the last execution, but not in time to replace it. When it was removed Monday it broke into several pieces as it fell to the ground. One end was sound, but the remainder was rotten to the core.”

Only six more men met their maker via the new beam, the last man on July 30, 1896.

The Gallows: 1897 to 1957

The gallows at best could be considered a crude device and was the source of much controversy even while it was in use. Frank Strong, General Agent of the Attorney General, noted in his Report of the Inspection of the Fort Smith Federal Jail that:

“The arrangements for executing criminals are crude and unsightly. Unless some reasons exist (certainly to me unknown) for preserving intact the rude appliance by means of which so many criminals have been executed, it should be replaced by a newer arrangement, decently enclosed, where those who are sentenced to death may meet their fate amid surroundings more suggestive of the sacredness and majesty of the law than are the weather scarred beams and boards now devoted to the purpose.”

Mr. Strong’s reactions were shared and amplified by the citizens of Fort Smith. They felt that the large number of executions occurring here had unjustly slandered their fair city. The newspapers were quick to point out that no one was ever sentenced there for a crime committed in Arkansas, much less in Fort Smith.

On September 1, 1896, the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas lost its jurisdiction over Indian Territory, rendering the gallows excess property. A congressional act on February 26, 1897 transferred the bulk of the property once used by the court, including the gallows, to the control of the city of Fort Smith. Former hangman and jail guard George Maledon approached the city council with a request to purchase the trapdoor from the gallows for use in his traveling display. While there is no record of the council’s reaction to this request, shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1897, the mayor of Fort Smith ordered that the gallows be dismantled and burned. The Weekly Elevator supported this action, stating, “this removes an object which, unsightly and gruesome as it might be, was, nevertheless an interesting one to strangers from abroad.” Shortly thereafter, the old fort wall at the site of the gallows was torn down, and Parker Avenue was extended through the location of the gallows enclosure. At the time the gallows was removed, a more romantic mind wrote these words to mark the end of the structure:

“The Passing of the Old Government Suspender: Fare thee well old gallows! Whether thou has been a necessity in the suppressing of crime, or whether thou art a lingering relic of the dark ages that has lapped over our modern civilization, remains to be decided by that divine tribunal before whose law must stand the mighty nations of the earth as well as their weakest subjects.”
After the wall surrounding the old fort was removed, the city of Fort Smith built streets through the grounds of the former garrison, and right through the location of the gallows. For over fifty years there was no trace of the gallows; it remained only as a memory.

Tommy Lounsbury

Advertisements

Big Bend National Park

When I began to drive south toward this immense park located in that huge bend in the Rio Grand river that you have all seen at one time on your maps of the great state of Texas, I literally could not quit understand why this area was deemed “A National Park” by our so called standards we measure all other national parks by.  “What’s the big deal?” I kept pondering. “Its a desert, some mountains, and a stinky dirty river”. Why would anyone drive so far off the interstate to bother looking at this pretty typical, non-extraordinary cactus filled world ? “This” is found all over the western United States? “What was I not seeing” I kept asking myself as I drove further and further south getting deeper into the park and ever closer to that shared border with Mexico. I began to feel the expanse of desert and mountains work its ever present, mystical magic on me. I made camp at the Rio Grand Village and it soon became a surreal experience as the sun granted me a golden orange on the walls of stone that rise all around me. The coyotes sang me to sleep and it was a cool evening-an ideal sleeping arrangement. As I began to explore the park around me over the next few days I began to notice a bigger picture, It’s in the details. The details of the park. The rocks, the fossils, the streams, the plants, the history, the expanse of country I could barely imagine that which lay before me. It was in the details for sure. How could this not be a National Park? It is a remarkable place. A place you simply must come and see. A place you must simply get out of the car and away from the roads to truly get it. That portion of the earth’s surface known as the Big Bend has often been described as a geologist’s paradise. In part this is due to the sparse vegetation of the region, which allows the various strata to be easily observed and studied. It is also due to the complex geologic history of the area, presenting a challenge to students and researchers from all over the world. Not all field geologists, however, refer to the Big Bend as a paradise. For some, this land of twisted, tortured rock is a nightmare. The abundance, diversity and complexity of visible rock outcrops is staggering, especially to first-time observers. From 500 million year old rocks at Persimmon Gap to modern-day windblown sand dunes at Boquillas Canyon, geologic formations in Big Bend demonstrate amazingly diverse depositional styles over a vast interval of time. For most of us, time is measured by the passing of days, years and generationsThe concept of geologic time, however, is not so easily understood. Events that occurred 2 million, 26 million or as many as 120 million years ago are, at best, difficult to comprehend. Since astronomers now place the age of the earth at approximately 4.6 billion years we should perhaps consider ourselves fortunate that the oldest rocks found in the Big Bend are only about 500 million years old. Initial commentary on the geology of the Big Bend was provided by early-day explorers and adventurers in the 1800’s. Subsequent studies by numerous 20th century researchers enable us now to reasonably reconstruct the complex geologic history of the Big Bend.

Layers of the Boquillas Formation

Layers of the Boquillas Formation

For a period of at least 200 million years, ending some 300 million years ago in the Paleozoic Era, a deep-ocean trough extended from present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma into the Big Bend region of far West Texas. Sediments from highlands to the north accumulated in that trough to form layers of gravel, sand and clay. With the passing of time, these layers became sandstone and shale beds. About 300 million years ago these strata were “squeezed” upward by collision with a continent to the south to form the ancestral Ouachita mountains. Subsequent erosion over an interval of 160 million years left only the roots of those mountains visible. These remnants may be observed today in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, in the immediate vicinity of Marathon, Texas, and in Big Bend National Park near Persimmon Gap.
A warm, shallow sea invaded the Big Bend during the Cretaceous Period, some 135 million years ago, providing the setting for deposition of lime mud and the remains of sea-dwelling organisms such as clams and snails. Limestone layers formed from those shallow muds are now visible throughout much of the Big Bend. They comprise the dramatic walls of Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas canyons, the entire range of the Sierra del Caballo Muerto (Dead Horse Mountains) and the magnificent cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico, towering above Rio Grande Village. Approximately 100 million years ago the shallow Cretaceous sea began a gradual retreat to its present location, the Gulf of Mexico. Sandstone and clay sediments that formed along the retreating shoreline are found in lowlands surrounding the Chisos Mountains. Shallow water strata of this episode contain the fossil remains of oysters, giant clams, ammonites, and a variety of fishes and marine reptiles. Near-shore deposits in Big Bend have yielded petrified wood, fossil turtles and crocodiles–one almost 50 feet long! Deposits from further inland contain fossil remains of a variety of dinosaurs. Perhaps the most famous of Big Bend’s fossil treasures from this period is the giant flying reptile, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a wingspan over 35 feet. (A replica of the bones of one wing is now on exhibit at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.)
Near the end of the Cretaceous Period, a west-to-east compression of the earth’s crust marked the beginning of the second major mountain-building period in Big Bend. This compression, which began in Canada, moved gradually southward, uplifting and folding ancient sediments to form the Rocky Mountains. In Big Bend National Park, Mariscal Mountain represents the southernmost extension of the Rockies in the United States. Broad uplift punctuated by upward folding exposed both the erosion-resistant lower Cretaceous limestones and the less resistant overlying sandstones and clays to the onslaught of erosion. Limestone cliffs throughout the region continue to be eroded today; most of the more easily removed sandstone and clay is gone from the mountains.
For almost 10 million years after uplift ended, non-marine sediments of the Tertiary period constitute the only record of events in the Big Bend. Dinosaurs had long been gone from the land, their places taken by a proliferation of mammals, many of whose remains have been found in Big Bend…horses, rhinos, camels and rodents, as well as fossils of the plants on which they thrived. All was not to remain quiet for long. Near the present northwest boundary of Big Bend National Park, the first of a long series of volcanic eruptions occurred approximately 42 million years ago. Upwelling magma lifted the mass now known as the Christmas Mountains, fracturing and weakening overlying strata, allowing massive outpourings of lava to spread across the land. The oldest volcanic rocks in Big Bend owe their origins to this eruptive cycle. Between roughly 38 and 32 million years ago Big Bend itself hosted a series of volcanic eruptions. Initial activity in this cycle centered in the Sierra Quemada, below the present South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. Subsequent volcanic activity at Pine Canyon, Burro Mesa, near Castolon and elsewhere in the park is responsible for the brightly colored volcanic ash and lava layers of the lower elevations and for most of the mass of the Chisos Mountains.
Volcanic activity was not continuous during these eruptive cycles. Periods of hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of years passed between eruptions. During the quiet interludes the forces of erosion carved new landscapes, many of which were destined to be buried under layers of ash and lava from later eruptions. Life returned to the land only to be displaced by future eruptions. Elsewhere in the Big Bend rising magma sometimes failed to reach the surface. Instead, it spread within existing layers of rock, uplifting and fracturing overlying strata. Once the magma cooled and crystallized it formed solid masses of erosion-resistant intrusive igneous rock which have now been exposed by erosion of the overlying material. Maverick Mountain, the Grapevine Hills, Nugent Mountain and Pulliam Ridge are among many examples in Big Bend of such “frozen” magma chambers.
Beginning some 26 million years ago, stresses generated along the West coast of North America resulted in stretching of the earth’s crust as far east as Big Bend. As a result of these tensional forces fracture zones developed which, over time, allowed large bodies of rock to slide downward along active faults. The central mass of Big Bend National Park, including the Chisos Mountains, from the Sierra del Carmen to the east to the Mesa de Anguila to the west comprises such a block of rocks dropped downward by faulting. Direct evidence of this faulting is readily observed at the tunnel near Rio Grande Village. There the limestone layer through which the tunnel passes is the same layer that forms the skyline of the Sierra del Carmen to the east, dropped down over 4800 feet by faulting. To the west, at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon the highest elevation rises 1500 feet above the river, while at the parking area the same layer lies some 1500 feet below the surface. Displacement along these faults did not occur in a single event, rather in a series of lesser episodes of faulting punctuated by earthquakes. The 1995 magnitude 5.6 earthquake near Marathon, Texas, 70 miles north of Panther Junction indicates that the responsible stresses are still active. The western slopes of the Chisos Mountains provide evidence of additional activity within the same fracture zones. Near the old ranch on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive stand a number of parallel ridges to the east of the road. These ridges are the eroded remains of tabular intrusions of magma along the Burro Mesa fault. The layers of volcanic ash into which the magma intruded are being actively removed by erosion, leaving the more resistant “dikes” of intrusive rocks standing in bold relief.
Mountain building by compression, volcanism and tension all served to form the framework for today’s landscapes in Big Bend National Park. Erosion of higher lands resulted in the filling of surrounding basins. Eventually basins from El Paso to Big Bend were filled and subsequently linked by the Rio Grande. Achieving through-flow to the Gulf of Mexico only within the last 2 million years, the Rio Grande ranks as the youngest major river system in the United States. Once established, the Rio Grande served, and continues to serve, as the conduit for material removed by erosion.

The processes of erosion comprise the most active aspect of Big Bend’s geology today.Erosion in Big Bend is best defined by rapid runoff and flash-flooding following summer thunderstorms, but there are other active agents of erosion. Water droplets in the atmosphere capture carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid, a very weak naturally occurring acid which has virtually no effect on man. One mineral, however, is vulnerable to attack by carbonic acid: calcite, which comprises the bulk of all limestone in the Big Bend. Every drop of rain that falls on limestone dissolves a tiny bit of calcite which is transported away by runoff, perhaps to a final destination in the Gulf of Mexico. The beautifully etched limestone cliffs in the Sierra del Caballo Muerto and in Big Bend’s canyons owe their origin to mother nature’s own version of acid rain! Rainwater also contains free oxygen which reacts with sulfur-bearing minerals in igneous rocks.
Virtually all igneous rocks in Big Bend contain minor amounts of pyrite, or Fool’s Gold, which is iron sulfide. Oxygen-bearing water attacks individual pyrite grains, replacing the sulfur with oxygen to form iron oxide, better known as rust, which provides the warm red and brown colors of igneous rocks in the Big Bend.
Plant and animal activity is also vital in the shaping of the land. As plants grow their root systems expand, forcing rocks ever farther apart, until, eventually, rocks are dislodged and fall. The same roots also extract needed minerals from rocks, weakening the rocks and rendering them more vulnerable to removal by flowing water. Similarly, animals crossing a rocky slope often dislodge rocks, sending them crashing downslope to collide with yet other rocks, which, in turn are dislodged. Though plants and animals play significant roles in erosion, the key player remains water. From chemical weathering by water-borne carbonic acid and oxygen to mechanical removal of soft and broken rocks, to scouring ever deeper and wider the canyons of the Big Bend, water is today, as it has been in the past, the major tool in the shaping of the land.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said “There is nothing permanent except change.” This phrase could have been directed to the Big Bend where geologic processes have been constantly changing the land for over 500 million years. Each time you return to Big Bend National Park it will be different, for with every passing day the land is indeed changing.