The first big land giveaway in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande. Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to men eager to establish colonies in Texas. The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico. After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction. Finally, the state Constitution of 1876 to set aside three million acres of land in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.
The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building. By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.
Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northeast of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington. Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.
Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold. Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.
Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected. Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name. In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties. Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”
The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each. A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time. By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year. Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month. XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling. Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season. Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.
The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch. She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries. Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas. Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.
With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches. All the cattle had been sold by 1912, but the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963. One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.
The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion Parade where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.