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'Pecos' rich in translation

Columnist explores facts, fables of West Texas' Pecos

Published: Thursday, October 9, 2003

Updated: Saturday, September 11, 2010 08:09

The word "Pecos" conjures up all kinds of images in the minds of Americans, and even people around the world. If you asked 10 different people what comes to mind when they hear that word, you will get 10 different answers.

The word means everything from cowboys and rodeos to gunfights and folktales, from American Indians and outlaws to a town in West Texas.

To some people, Pecos means cantaloupe. Pecos is also a county and, of course, Pecos is a river

How one word can gain such a broad meaning is truly a testament to the tall-tale mentality of the American West. Even a friend of mine in Eastport, Maine, knew the connotation of the phrase "west of the Pecos." (He also told me in Maine, the phrase "east of the Kennebec" means the same thing.)

The actual origin of the name "Pecos" is debated. It's most likely derived from the Latin word "pecus," which means "a single head of cattle." However, others argue that it comes from the Spanish verb "pecar," which means to sin or do wrong. This belief is substantiated by the use of "pecos" as a verb in the late 19th century. Cattlemen and farmers referred to something being stolen as a "pecos swap." For the less fortunate, "to pecos" someone meant to murder him. And yet another source claims the river is named after the Spanish word "pecoso" which means "freckled." (They never explain how a river can look "freckled.")

Despite the ambiguity, we do have some constants. Take Pecos Bill, for example, the larger-than-life cowboy who once roped and rode a cyclone. Many of us heard bedtime stories as children of how coyotes raised Pecos Bill when he got lost crossing the Pecos River. One of Bill's greatest accomplishments is having dug the Rio Grande River with only a stick.

Beyond Pecos Bill are the wild and rowdy stories of the town of Pecos, home to the world's first rodeo. Supposedly, in 1883, some cowhands started arguing over who were the better cowboys, and a rodeo ensued. No one owned blue ribbons, so they cut strips from a young girl's dress to be used as ribbons. And wah-la, rodeo was born.

Pecos is also home to the legendary Orient Hotel, sight of an 1896 saloon gunfight that left two men dead. (The building actually became the Orient Hotel after the gunfight, to be truly accurate.) In comically Pecos-like terms, locals described the shoot-out as a "disagreement."

For history buffs, the gravesite of famed gunman Clay Allison can be found just around the corner from the Orient Hotel in downtown Pecos. One of Allison's more famous lines, in keeping with the Pecosian mentality, was uttered after he shot a man he'd just eaten dinner with: "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach."

If you consider yourself a "fruity" person, Pecos is also world-renowned for its cantaloupes, which growers claim are sweeter than other cantaloupes. This extra sweetness led to the saying "if you haven't had a Pecos cantaloupe, you haven't had a cantaloupe."

And who hasn't heard of Judge Roy Bean and his law West of the Pecos, headquartered in the Jersey Lillie Saloon? Bean named the saloon/courtroom after an actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean's leap into the realm of folklore came after staging a prizefight on a sandbar in the Rio Grande claiming the location as international waters and thereby avoiding both Mexican and American officials.

The common bond with all these stories and locations is the Pecos River itself. The river stretches almost 500 miles from Mora County, New Mexico, to the Rio Grande, cutting through all that is, or could be considered, West Texas.

For the most part, the river stretches through desert terrain. Before mankind controlled the river with the Red Bluff Reservoir near Mentone, Horsehead Crossing (near the town of Girvin) was the prime location for cattle drives to make their way across the river. You will often find references to the Horsehead Crossing in westerns, including some by San Angeloan Elmer Kelton.

Last weekend, I visited a friend's ranch several miles south of Sheffield (population 600). The ranch, four sections big, shares its western border with the Pecos River. Salt cedar and mesquite dominate the area, but that doesn't stop a person from hiking down to the river and picturing things the way they once were. You can still see in some places where Comanches and Kiowas passing through would grind corn. To them, "Pecos" meant life. If you're quiet, you might hear the hooves of the Spanish expedition led by Gaspar Casta�o de Sosa, who made his way up the river in 1590.

Some regions of the Pecos River are still so remote, a quick glance reveals no power lines, no roads, no houses— no civilization. All one can see are mesas—everywhere.

It's not hard for a person to understand fully the vast meanings associated with the region and the river.

Sadly though, traveling west of the Pecos today involves nothing more than glancing down when you zoom over it on I-10.

Fortunately, tall-tales and larger-than-life attitudes still permeate the people who consider the Pecos a part of their lives. In the tiny town of Sheffield, I found a photo on the wall of a gas station. The picture shows a man and his son holding up an enormous alligator gar with the bucket of a backhoe. In ink, someone had scratched "7 feet 5 inches."

When asked the origin of the monstrous catch, the woman at the register smiled.

"They caught that in the Pecos."

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