the rambling boy
History revealed in Marfa mercantile archive
By LONN TAYLOR
I recently spent two days in El Paso visiting the Big Bend of the 1890s. I was able to do that because the El Paso Public Library has the papers of the Marfa firm of Humphris, Murphy, and Walker, a general mercantile store that provided ranchers in the Big Bend and northern Chihuahua with everything from boots and groceries to barbed wire and sheep dip from its founding in 1885 until it went bankrupt from extending too much credit in 1932. The company was both a wholesale and retail store, supplying merchants as well as individual customers, and they also bought sheep, wool, cattle, mercury, and other local products, as well as operating a freight service, so their papers give a pretty good picture of the economic life of the Big Bend. There are 80 boxes of them.
When the company went broke in 1932, two history-minded Marfa ladies, Alice Shipman and Eddie (Mrs. Luke) Brite, scooped up 14 mail sacks full of their business records and gave them to the El Paso Public Library and they have been there ever since. They have been placed in acid-free Hollinger boxes but otherwise they are pretty much as they were when Shipman and Brite delivered them to the library, sorted into packages wrapped in brown wrapping paper and tied with string.
The papers include bills of lading for goods sold and shipped to customers by wagon; freight receipts for merchandise shipped to the store by rail from wholesalers in San Antonio, Galveston, and even as far away as Chicago; store ledgers and day books; and hundreds of letters to and from customers. It was the bills of lading and the letters that transported me back to the nineteenth century.
The oldest document in the collection emphasized the central importance of the military post at Fort Davis to the economy of the Big Bend. After the railroad came to Marfa in 1883, supplies for the fort were shipped to Marfa and then hauled to Fort Davis on the store’s wagons. The first piece of paper I took out of Box #1 was a bill of lading dated September 15, 1885, for 16 sacks of oats at $25.80 sent to “Quartermaster, Fort Davis.” This was followed on September 23 by a letter from Edward Walker to the quartermaster that said, “Dear Sir, How is it that the oats always check out short when it ought to check out over? I check it regular myself here at the depot all sacks at a time. . . . I don’t see how it underchecks so much. I wish you would please look into a little.” Evidently someone was pilfering oats from the shipments before they were weighed at the fort.
Other letters provide very personal insights into life on Big Bend ranches. On March 23, 1891, Charles Haney wrote from Allamoore, “Please send me a case of eggs at 18 cts. a doz., two bottles Angelica wine and two bottles whiskey at $1.50 bottle. Send c.o.d. Clifford will charge them to us they are five of us boys in this.” Someone has written on the letter in pencil the words “No Eggs”. I hope the boys got their wine and whiskey.
A correspondent who perhaps had celebrated Christmas a little too enthusiastically in town wrote from Alamito on December 28, 1890, “Gentlemen, you will please oblige by enquiring of Jack if he found a pair of old spurs in the yard. I forgot my spurs when I was leaving Friday evening. If they cannot be found please send me out a pair by the mail hack next Sunday. Would prefer smaller ones.”
J.C. Sanders at Coleman’s Ranch evidently needed a new pair of pants before he could come to town, so he wrote an undated note on a small slip of paper: “Please send me 1 pr. of the Strauss spring bottom coffin riveted jeans pants size 30 x 32 or 31 x 32 & will pay you when I come up.”
The 1890s were the heyday of patent medicines. Thomas Henderson wrote from Polvo (now Redford) on July 2, 1890, “Please send me by mail hack of Jas. Goodman as follows: 1 bot. Jayne’s Alternative, 1 bot. Tonic Vermifuge, 2 bots. Ayres Ague Cure, 1 doz. Jayne’s pills, I bot. Brown’s iron bitters. If you have not these medicines on hand order and send as quick as possible. There is some sickness here and these medicines are very much needed.” After he finished the letter Henderson evidently thought about staples and added, below his signature, “By first wagon to Presidio send 30 lbs. bacon, 1 box soda crackers, and cask Anheuser beer.”
At one point Humphris, Murphy, and Walker operated a stage line that served Shafter and Presidio, and some of the correspondence deals with that. A letter dated December 21, 1890 reads, “Mr. Humphris, Will you please see that my old Woman gets off to Shafter? She will be down thear for about three weeks and if she needs anything whiles she is down thear please let her have it to oblige Yours Respectfully, John Walden. PS. And when she gets ready to come back please send her up to tarbett [Torbet].”
These papers personalize the past in a way that no history book can. They also raise some tantalizing questions about the history of the Big Bend. They mention places and people that were clearly important but are not mentioned in any published histories of the region. For example, there are letters from correspondents in Torbert, Newman’s Springs, Camp Schreyver, and Calvo. Where were these places? There are bills of lading made out to the well-known Fort Davis merchants Thomas Murphy and Whittaker Keesey, but there are equally numerous bills of lading made out to a merchant in Fort Davis named Edward Brockman. Who was he and where was his store? Clearly a comprehensive history of the Big Bend cannot be written without reference to the Humphris, Murphy, and Walker papers.
However, there is an unsolved mystery about them. I had expected them to go up to 1932, which is when the store closed and the papers were gathered up. But the papers in the El Paso Library only cover the years between 1885 and 1900. Where are the rest of them? Still in mail sacks somewhere in El Paso, or in an attic in Marfa, or lost forever? I hope they turn up somewhere.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.