Famous Ranches of Old Texas

The famous ranches of old Texas in a variety of ways represent the story of Texas and exploring this history when you travel through the state can be a lot of fun. There are several excellent venues to visit in Texas that tell the ranching story in great detail. You’ll find saddle exhibits, firearms, carriages, cowboy artifacts, dozens of different barbed wire used, a wide display of old ranch photographs, household furnishings of the ranching era, cattle drive equipment and many more artifacts that have been preserved from these historic Texas ranches.

xit ranch cowboys
1890’s photo of XIT Ranch cowboys

The Old Texas Ranches and Ranchers

The old famous ranches of Texas include the massive XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. The massive King Ranch in southeast Texas, south of present day Corpus Christie, the Waggoner Ranch which was in northern Texas near the Oklahoma border and the JA Ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon area south of present day Amarillo.


One of the interesting facts about each one of these ranches is that each had an impact on both the western ranching industry in general and the state of Texas in particular.

 Early Ranchers

Ranching was a tough business in the late 1800’s and there were some who made it big. Certainly not all but some. Many of these successful Texas ranchers used a good part of their fortune helping to build civic structures, churches and schools and colleges throughout the state. Among others, Texas Christian University got it’s start with ranch money.

The earliest of the great Texas ranches was the King Ranch. The King Ranch history predates the American Civil War. When the Civil War did break out, Texas of course was a southern sympathizer, and the King Ranch was important for beef.

JA Ranch Texas
Palo Duro Canyon, home of the legendary JA Ranch

Interesting Facts About the Legendary Texas Ranches

  • The 3 million plus acres set aside by the state of Texas for the XIT Ranch funded the construction of the Texas State Capitol Building.
  • The XIT Ranch was funded and owned by British investors.
  • The XIT Ranch eventually grazed cattle as north as Montana.
  • The XIT Ranch was the largest of the old ranches in the Texas Panhandle. Its headquarters are still standing today.
  • During the Civil War, Captain Richard King, the founder and owner of the King Ranch, had to flee to Mexico to avoid arrest by Union troops.
  • Richard King was also a steamboat pilot and had a monopoly of on the Rio Grande River. During the Civil War he used his steamboats to help procure supplies for the Texas Confederate forces.
  • George Littlefield, founder of the LFD Ranch was one of the founders of the University of Texas.
  • Charles Goodnight, founder of the JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle area,was the co-founder along with Oliver Loving of the famous 1866 Goodnight -Loving Cattle Trail from Fort Belknap Texas through New Mexico and up into Colorado. The Lonesome Dove movie was loosely based on the life of Charles Goodnight. Charles Goodnight is often referred to today as the Father of the Texas Panhandle.
  • The Waggoner Ranch struck a large oil deposit on their ranch lands and at one time had several service stations selling their brand of gasoline.
  • The Waggoner Ranch donated funding to build several structures on the Texas Womens University in present day Denton Texas.
  • The present day town of Electra Texas just west of Wichita Falls was named for his daughter “Electra”.
  • The Great Texas Trail was the longest cattle trail in the western U.S. extending at one time from the Rio Grande River in south Texas all the way to the Canadian border.
  • The large Matador Ranch in Texas was also owned by British and Scottish investors.
Branding iron of the JA Ranch

Live and Let Live / The Code of the West

Cowboys looked forward to spring and the fall roundup as social occasions of sorts. There was also competition among the various outfits as they rode side by side carrying out their work. At night it was campfires that served for socializing and entertainment. One of the most unique aspects of these gatherings were the diversity of people there. Rich, poor, college graduates, uneducated all got together in a common effort. The Texas cowboy represented many social classes. Everyone involved knew that to get along they merely needed to follow the code of live and let live.

Probably one of the most false tale was how rowdy and violent the cowboys could be at the end of a trail drive. To be sure, there was a lot of celebration and drinking at the end of the drive but the violence was hard to find. Dodge City Kansas, one of the biggest cattle towns, reported a miniscule amount of violence and shootings involving cattle drive cowboys. The real trouble in these towns came from the outsiders who traveled there to take advantage of the cowboys. A large cattle town would surely attract the gamblers, swindlers and outlaws.

ja ranch bunkouse
JA Ranch cowboy bunkhouse exhibit at Saints Roost Museum

Overseas Capital helped Fund Texas Ranching

Many foreign investors were well aware of the potential profits to be made in early cattle ranching. Many British and Scottish groups were formed just for the purpose of buying into western ranches. Generally, during the ranching boom of the 1880’s, American speculative groups sold their ranch holdings to foreign investors with one of them becoming manager for the new corporation. In some instances, foreigners with some livestock experience assumed the role. Sometimes that arrangement worked and sometimes it didn’t. The biggest problem with foreign capital was trying to explain ranch conditions to boards sitting across an ocean.

Two of the largest foreign owned ranches in Texas were the XIT and the Matador Ranches. Not to let foreign capital dominate things, old Eastern Capital also found it’s way west. One good example of this was Theodore Roosevelt’s investments in Dakota Territory ranch land.

Fort Worth Texas stockyards
Old Fort Worth Texas Stockyards

 Characteristics of the Early Texas Ranchers

The most distinguishing characteristic of the old Texas Rancher was his individuality. One of these best descriptions of the Texas rancher can be found in the book, The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton. Atherton makes the case that ranchers and cowboys both expressed allegiance to individualism since the early days. Government influence at the time was basically nonexistent. The open range was available to all takers.

The ranchers were rugged individualists who opposed government paternalism and generally cooperated among each other quite well. These ranchers would return strays to their rightful owners without asking for a fee. Ranchers would offer hospitality to all travelers coming by and would help neighboring outfits in cases of illness or accidents.

The old Texas ranches would form associations to coordinate cattle drives and decide how many cowboys would be required. You might think that the Texas rancher who got his cattle to Dodge City first would benefit from higher prices but that really wasn’t the case. Instead, they would meet with their neighbors and coordinate dates for the roundup.

Additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are linked below…

Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What It Was Really Like

Things That Can Go Wrong on a Cattle Drive

The First Chuckwagon

panhandle plains historical museum canyon texas
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon Texas

Historic Sites and Museums to Add to Your Trip Planner

There are numerous venues to visit to see genuine artifacts from the old Texas Ranching days. They include The Red River Valley Museum in Vernon Texas, The XIT Museum in Dalhart Texas, the King Ranch Museum in Kingsville Texas which includes a saddle shop and firearm exhibits, the George Littlefield Mansion at the main gate of the University of Texas in Austin, the Pioneer Homestead in Plano Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas, the Charles Goodnight Ranch House in Goodnight Texas, just a short drive east of Amarillo on US Hwy 287, the Armstrong County History Museum in Claude Texas, also just a few miles west of Goodnight and east of Amarillo.

Another fascinating stop is to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum located on Canyon Texas just a short drive south of Amarillo and just a few miles west of Palo Duro Canyon.

Today there are historical markers and one old structure at a site called “Doans Crossing“. The site is just about twenty miles north of Vernon Texas and was the chosen spot where cattle on the Great Western Trail crossed the Red River into then Indian Territory on their way to the rail heads at Dodge City Kansas.

The Texas ranch story is a story about the early history of Texas. Visiting any of the museums and venues mentioned above make good additions to your Texas vacation planner.

Two excellent books to explore the subject further are The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton and Historic Ranches of Texas by author Lawrence Clayton.

( XIT cowboys photo from the public domain, Article copyright Trips Into History)