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The Legendary XIT Ranch

The Legendary XIT Ranch (largest in the world).

In the previous podcast, I talked about how the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin was financed by raising funds through the sale of 3,050,000 acres of vacant land in the Panhandle of Texas. The land purchase was conducted by a Chicago firm, which created the Capitol Syndicate purchased the land in 1882. An immediate decision was made to use the land for cattle ranching until they could see an opportunity to break it into parcels for sale. This podcast looks at the famous ranch that grew out of that decision—The legendary XIT Ranch.

To fund the new ranch’s development, one of the Capitol Syndicate’s major investors, John V. Farwell traveled to England, set up The Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company of London and sold bonds to wealthy British investors. The funding resulted in the successful creation of the XIT Ranch.

The ranch was huge, stretching more than 220 miles north-to-south along the New Mexico border and measuring from 20 to 30 miles east-to-west. A common belief is that the name XIT stands for “Ten in Texas,” referring to the 10 counties it covers, As you might guess, the ranch chose as its brand the letters XIT. The land, rich with grass, was fenced and  in July of 1885, stocked with 2,500 longhorn cattle.

According to a 1929 book —The XIT Ranch and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado—by historian J. Evetts Haley,the XIT brand was conceived by the Texas trail driver, Abner Blocker, who drove the original herd of cattle from Fort Concho to the XIT. Blocker also branded the first XIT cow. According to Haley, ‘She was not an animal of high pedigree, but a Longhorn from South Texas. Her color, gauntness, and perversity were historic.’”

To run the mammoth ranch, Farwell hired Colonel Burton Harvey “Barbecue” Campbell of Wichita, Kansas as general manager. Campbell’s “Barbecue” nickname came from a cattle brand he used at his ranch along the Kansas-Oklahoma border—on land rented from the Cherokee—A bar with the letters B and Q below it.

Now, if you think of Texas cowhands as rough and rowdy, ranch manager Campbell had other ideas for the XIT. He published a booklet with a list of twenty-two rules aimed at creating well-behaved cowpunchers. And there were a lot of cow punchers. One hundred and fifty cowboys rode 1000 horses and branded 35,000 new cows during one year on the ranch.

Here are a several random examples of Campbell’s expectations for well-behaved cowhands:

  • Six-shooters or other small firearms will not be permitted to be carried on the ranch.
  • Card playing or gambling of any kind is strictly prohibited on this ranch.
  • All persons having the care or use of animals belonging to the ranch will be required to handle them carefully and treat them kindly.
  • Horses are furnished for the care of cattle and for other useful purposes, and they must not be used to run wild horses, or buffalo, or antelope, nor to run races.
  • Beeves will not be permitted to be killed unless the force is large enough to consume the meat before it becomes unfit for use, or other provision be made to salt and preserve it.

By 1888, “Barbeque” Campbell had been fired over rustling allegations and replaced by Albert Boyce, who was active in management on the ranch for eighteen years and published his own list of ranch rules. At its peak, the ranch handled 150,000 head of cattle secured by 6,000 miles of fencing.

By 1901, the last of the bonds sold to English investors were maturing and the ranch began selling off parcels of land. The last of the cattle were sold in 1912 and the remaining parcels of land were put up for sale. The XIT Ranch faded into legend.

However . . .Today, the legendary XIT Ranch is back. Drew Knowles, the great grandson of investor John V, Farwell and Knowles’ wife, Abby, have brought the XIT Ranch back to life. Today the ranch breeds Quarter Horses and 100% grass-fed Black Angus and American Wagyu cattle on XIT land in Southern Colorado and on some of the original XIT Texas Panhandle land near Channing, Texas.

According to their website, “The ranch keeps with age-old traditions of roping calves and dragging ‘em to the fire for branding. This is an important way for the XIT to preserve our heritage and to pass it on to the next generation.”

Knowles, working to revive his family legacy, says “Ultimately, my job is to take care of the land so it can take care of my family and me, to honor the past and all the sacrifice and hard work, and to bring it into the future.”

NOTE: To learn more about the historic XIT Ranch:

  • Consider visiting the XIT Museum and famous “Empty Saddles” monument, both in Dalhart TX 
  • Dalhart is also the site of the annual XIT Rodeo and Reunion, usually held in late July or early August.
  • You’ll find a restored XIT General Ranch office in Channing, TX.
  • And, The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum keeps memories alive with thousands of XIT Ranch records. You’ll find the museum on the grounds of West Texas A&M University in Canyon, TX.

Thanks for listening. This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with Texas Brave and Strong, the best little podcast in Texas. Subscribe for notification when a new twice-monthly podcast is posted.

Ya’ll come back.

Laurie is the author of the historical, Texas-based novel GONE TO DALLAS, the Storekeeper 1856-1861.  Available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and Ingram Spark.