Historical markers, commemorating Presidio history, will finally be moved from Marfa to Presidio 

Photo by Maisie Crow.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — After nearly 20 years of negotiation, a pair of historical markers commemorating Presidio history are set to be uprooted from a roadside pull-off just outside Marfa. One marker explains the origin of Presidio County’s name, and another proclaims Presidio “the oldest town in America.” 

The two small monuments will be relocated to Presidio, one to a future downtown visitor center and the other to a satellite visitor kiosk across from the Presidio Municipal Pool. At last Tuesday’s meeting of the Presidio Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB), $200 was allocated from the organization’s budget to finance the transport of the markers, which they hope will take place in the next few months. 

Board President Arian Velázquez-Ornelas has been working to move the markers since she was a member of the Presidio Chamber of Commerce in 2003. Shifts in city leadership delayed her efforts, but she was able to get the ball rolling again a few years ago. Numerous entities — including the Texas Historical Commission, Presidio County Historical Commission, City of Presidio and Presidio County Commissioners Court — all had to sign off on the project. “This has been a labor of love,” she said. 

Last year, the CVB and the Presidio Municipal Development District started planning a visitor center in the Slack building, home of the Presidio Farmers Market. Members of the two boards discussed setting up a historical exhibit detailing Presidio’s past, from its prehistoric roots and Indigenous history to the Spanish colonial years and recent settler past. 

Alongside the historical exhibit, there will be more general tourist information detailing fun things to do in the area and tips for visiting the neighboring state and national parks. Velázquez-Ornelas hopes transporting the markers off the highway and to busy parts of Presidio will encourage more people to check them out. “Hopefully when everything’s set up, it’ll be a focal point to share our community’s history,” she said. 

Rod Ponton and Mona Garcia of the Presidio County Historical Commission weren’t exactly sure why the markers were erected in Marfa in the first place, but speculated it had something to do with Marfa being the county seat. The earlier of the two markers, placed in 1936, was a part of the Texas Centennial Celebration — that year, $3 million in state funds were appropriated to commemorate the state’s historical sites. “The Centennial caused a big push to get markers put up everywhere, and for some reason, these markers ended up here [in Marfa],” Ponton said. 

The text of the 1936 Centennial Marker details the establishment of Presidio County, which was carved from Bexar County in 1850 and formally organized in 1875. The original county seat was Fort Leaton, located just south of Presidio. The text of the marker explains that the county’s name comes from “the early fortress garrisoned by soldiers for the protection of the Big Bend missions.”

Missions were a Spanish colonial institution that sought to convert Indigenous people to Christianity. In 1683 — a date immortalized throughout Presidio on its welcome signs and Catholic Church — Jumano leader Juan Sabeata petitioned the Spanish government for the establishment of a mission near present-day Presidio, in hopes that colonial powers might protect his people from the incursions of other local Native groups. 

The actual presidio — the Spanish word for “prison,” though that term doesn’t fully capture how these sites functioned — wasn’t completed until 1760. In the 77 years it took between the establishment of missions in the Big Bend and the construction of the presidio, the six missions in the Presidio area were cyclically raided, abandoned and rebuilt. 

The county was named after Presidio del Norte, which was intended to put a stop to all the chaos. It lasted only six years at its original site before shuttering and being moved downstream on the Río Conchos. Its own pink granite Texas Centennial marker is located at Fort Leaton. 

The history commemorated on the other marker that will be moved to Presidio is a little more slippery. That marker — erected in 1961 by the Texas branches of the Children of the American Colonists and Daughters of the American Colonists — proclaims Presidio “the oldest town in America” and “the site of the first recorded wagon train crossing into Texas.” 

In a paper published by the Center for Big Bend Studies in 1989, Russell Gardinier wrote skeptically of the roadside attraction. He agreed with the marker’s claim that Presidio had been “a settlement for over 10,000 years,” but couldn’t verify that it was, in fact, the oldest town in America. “Whether this claim is a bona fide one or not, Presidio has been a [center] of human occupation for millennia,” he wrote. 

Luis Armendariz, former superintendent at Fort Leaton and Presidio history buff, explained that an exact timeline for the area’s history is hard to pin down because local history wasn’t written until the arrival of Spanish priests. “They were the only ones who knew how to read — whatever they did that day, they’d write it down,” he explained. 

It took Armendariz a long time to get the hang of poring through the priests’ and monks’ scrawling script. Those religious leaders started recording snippets of Indigenous history — albeit filtered through their perspective and language. “They had to have relations with the Indians and they had to communicate with each other,” he said. 

Their testimony was more nuanced than the sporadic Spanish expeditions that passed through the area in the 16th and 17th centuries — some of the heads of those entradas, Armendariz explained, were illiterate and had to enlist outside help to record their travels. 

One such expedition is memorialized on the 1961 marker in Marfa as “the site of the first recorded wagon train crossing into Texas” by Antonio de Espejo in 1582. Espejo was the 16th century equivalent of a rancher in present-day Chihuahua, known back then as Nuevo Vizcaya. Sometime before his great journey up the Río Grande he was accused of assisting his brother in the murder of one of their hired hands. 

The brothers were found guilty, and Espejo decided to duck the fine levied by the Spanish government by hiding in the northern reaches of Nuevo Vizcaya. “It was a customary practice to evade punishment for a crime by remaining on the frontiers,” historian J. Lloyd Mecham wrote in a paper for the Texas State Historical Association.

While on the lam, Espejo took an interest in the fate of two friars who had disappeared from their missionary work among pueblos in modern-day New Mexico. He assembled a number of soldiers and their servants to set off for the north, ostensibly under the banner of Spanish King Phillip II, whom he owed money. “By what official authority the expedition was organized is not certain,” Mecham wrote. 

Espejo traveled up the Río Conchos until he reached the present day site of Ojinaga, where his party rested and resupplied for eight days. They then set off on a long and ultimately pointless journey up the Río Grande — not surprisingly, they found that the two missing friars had been murdered. The party split in two, and Espejo led the remaining men overland to the Pecos river. 

About a month into their journey downriver, some helpful Jumanos informed the Espejo expedition that the Pecos emptied into the Río Grande hundreds of miles below Ojinaga, and that it was virtually impossible to follow the river upstream through the canyon country of present-day Big Bend National Park. The men journeyed southwest, becoming the first white people to see what’s now Balmorhea, Fort Davis, Marfa and Shafter. 

Of course, the full Espejo saga — and the larger 10,000 year story of Presidio — can’t be written out on a roadside plaque. Still, Armendariz feels that any opportunity to teach locals and tourists about regional history is important. “I think as human beings we should know where we came from,” he said. “To respect each other we have to know who we are — and who you are.”