Michael M. Miller
University of Oklahoma Press
Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-0-8061-6716-9, 288 pgs., $29.95
October 22, 2020
This story could be subtitled “Myth Busters, Texas Edition” or “Lonesome Dove Unplugged.” Either way, this unique and in-depth mashup of pivotal Texas history includes the Panhandle, turf wars—literally, big hat politics, cattle barons, a problematic state capitol building, the nascent railroad, gritty cowboys and trail bosses, thousand-mile cattle drives, and more. This history can be summed up in one word: captivating. I couldn’t put it down.
Michael M. Miller anchors this two-headed juggernaut in the late-nineteenth-century Texas Hill Country and the Panhandle: the latter is commodified, parceled, and marketed to pay for the construction of a colossal capitol building in the former. The grandiose Texas capitol plans had to be paid for, and in the pre-oil-boom 1880s, land was one resource Texas had in huge supply. The strategic brainstorm of the Capitol Syndicate was to sell some of the three million unoccupied West Texas acres for a twofold purpose: funding the capitol building and settling the vacuous West Texas High Plains.
The building project itself was a massive political overreach, with cost overruns, mismanagement, political maneuvering, misleading promises, and failed commitments worthy of any government project today. Miller has the minute details, the very words exchanged in heated, elegant, and often rustic nineteenth-century argot: “If you are not dead,” the Chicago investors queried construction boss Turner, “will you take the time to write and tell us how the work is progressing.”
Here’s where the “myth busters” process unmasks the Syndicate strategy: the land was marketed to foreign, “Gilded Age” investors, mostly from England, as valuable grazing land at $2 an acre. The Texans and even the northern investors who poured money into the XIT acreage figured out the actual value was in the land, not the cattle on it. Meanwhile, the foreign investors never realized the quick and copious dividends they were promised, especially as Texas gave away Panhandle land to veterans discharged after the Civil War. In the end, large tracts of the Panhandle land were sold for as little as fifty cents an acre.
Worse, as so often happens in long-running municipal-funding streams, part of the XIT land revenue realized by the State of Texas was diverted to education, rather than simply the new capitol edifice. That further exacerbated the capitol project budget shortfall, adding to the ongoing frustration of lengthy delays and rampant cost overruns.
Lonesome Dove meets “Myth Busters” in Miller’s thoroughly documented accounts of cowboys wrangling cattle on an epic scale: thousands of cowhands moving huge herds, trailing a string of “a thousand horses,” fording rivers with an audience at many crossings, plus multiple and “well-stocked” chuck wagons. The photos and documentation are all there for the reader, but as Miller points out, for all the Hollywood-worthy romance back then—including the cachet European XIT investors valued in being able to claim “an investment in a Texas cattle operation”—the iconic ranch really only operated for barely more than a decade, formally ceasing cattle-drive operations in 1912. Plus, the huge trail rides wrangling thundering hooves to the slaughterhouses of Kansas City and Chicago were eventually, quietly, replaced by specialized railcars.
The early railway freight industry that eventually displaced the old-fashioned cattle drive is an intriguing subplot of the larger XIT story. Not only was there competition, often unfair, coerced, or accomplished with bribes, for cattle operations to secure railcar space, but there were growing pains of costs, technology, and manufacturing for the early railroad industry. That interfered with the movement of cattle to meatpacking house, but also shipments of granite from the quarries to the capitol construction site.
As happens anywhere power, money, and industrial development intersect, there were predictable struggles for dominance and exclusion: land access; railway right of way; settlers’ rights versus cattlemen’s needs for passage and animal grazing entitlement; access to the railroad; and railroad right-of-way through the Panhandle, and even through Austin, to deliver granite quarried for the capitol. Nevertheless, the capitol itself was completed ahead of schedule, in 1888.
XIT: A Story of Land, Cattle, and Capital in Texas and Montana is a captivating, well-documented, and richly detailed history of nineteenth-century ambition, investment, and industry. This is an important primary source for students of American history and for Texans, a story of Panhandle cowboys and the cattleman legacy not to be missed.
Born and raised in Montana, Michael M. Miller teaches history at colleges in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. He spent twenty years in the technology business, primarily working with public and academic libraries, prior to returning to graduate school for his PhD, studying the intertwined political economies of state and federal land policy during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Miller was the recipient of the Montana Historical Society's James H. Bradley Fellowship in 2013.
His article on the XIT Ranch appeared in Montana The Magazine of Western History and won the Spur Award for Best Western Short Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America.