Thursday, July 31, 2014

The saga of Blas Payne, a Big Bend cowboy legend

...Payne, who died in 1990 at age 88, was a cowboy - "the best cowboy I ever saw,” said the late Joe Graham, a ranch-life anthropologist at Texas A&M-Kingsville and a Big Bend native. State Comptroller Susan Combs knew him from when she was a little girl growing up on her family’s Brewster County ranch. Payne worked for the Combs family for 70 years. “He was super-good with horses, super-good with cattle. He prided himself on the weight his calves got,” Combs told me not long ago. She and her husband named their middle son, Blaise Nicholas Duran, after the old wrangler. The Paynes, several of whom still live in the Big Bend, are Black Seminoles. Their 18th-century ancestors were African-American slaves who fled plantations in South Carolina and found refuge among the Seminoles, who had lived for centuries pretty much unprovoked in the Everglades of Spanish Florida. When the United States acquired Florida and forced the Seminoles to resettle in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Black Seminoles, by then an integral part of the tribe, moved with them. In the 1840s, a group of them, fearful of being kidnapped by slave traders, made their way across Texas and into northern Mexico. The Mexican government gave them a land grant near Musquiz, a village a few miles southwest of Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras, in exchange for protecting settlers against Apache and Comanche raids. When the Civil War ended, the U.S. Army made a similar offer, and a number of Black Seminoles crossed the Rio Grande. Although the army reneged on the land offer, two generations of Black Seminoles served with distinction as scouts for the buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. They knew the land, they knew horses and they were expert trackers. Although the Black Seminoles never received the land they’d been promised, the army allowed them to settle with their families on Fort Clark near Brackettville - until, that is, their unit was dissolved in 1914. Expelled from the fort, their homes razed, they scattered across West Texas, where a number of them caught on as cowboys. (Anybody who’s seen movie director John Sayles’ “Lone Star” has a passing acquaintance with the Black Seminoles in Texas.) Among those who settled in the Big Bend was Blas Payne’s father, John Payne, who arrived in 1914 after being involved in the Mexican Revolution for a couple of years. He worked for several Brewster County ranches before becoming foreman of the Combs Ranch, a job he held until he died in 1941. Blas was born in 1901 and, like his father, was a cowboy his whole life. Ike Roberts, a retired third-generation foreman on the legendary Catto-Gage Ranch, told me about Blas’ most famous exploit, when he was 15 years old. The teenager was building dirt tanks for the Combs Cattle Co. in the spring of 1916 when he got word that Mexican revolutionaries had crossed the river and attacked the villages of Boquillas and Glenn Springs. In Glenn Springs the raiders burned several buildings and fought a three-hour battle with a small force of American soldiers stationed in the area. A second band robbed a general store, made off with the company payroll at a Boquillas silver mine and took two men hostage. Four Americans were killed in the skirmish. As Roberts tells the story, young Payne was worried that the Mexicans were headed toward Marathon, some 25 miles away. On his own, he managed to round up “a remuda” of 200 horses near the river, evade the Mexican rebels and ride all night with the horses through rough country to warn the settlers. “Those Seminoles were all good horsemen,” Roberts said...more


Tom Sidwell said...

Enjoyed the article about Blas Payne. I knew him, Ike Roberts, and Susan Combs when I managed a ranch at Marathon in the 1980's. Ike's father, I can't recall his first name, was about the same age as Blas and would tell stories about Blas and the Seminoles in that area. He also remembered my great-aunt and uncle who died in 1946 and are both buried in Marathon Cementary.

Frank DuBois said...

Tom, nice to hear from you.

I got to know both Rick Perry and Susan Combs when they served as Commissioners of Ag. Some day I'll tell you the story of how Perry caused me to lose my luggage in D.C. and you can tell me those Blas stories.