‘Full circle’: Descendants of the first settlers of El Polvo return to their roots

From left to right: SallyAnn Acosta, Elizabeth Flores, Harley Flores and Bill Acosta attended last week’s gathering. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

SOUTH PRESIDIO COUNTY — Last Saturday morning, dozens of people gathered at the Presidio Activities Center to learn more about their ancestral connections to the first settlers of Polvo. Afterward, the group traveled downriver for asado, storytelling and reconnection — and a tour of important historical sites. 

The word polvo means dust. Polvo the place was many things before it was Polvo, including the Jumano settlement of Tapacolmes and the site of a Spanish mission. For thousands of years before that, Polvo was a place to cross the river. That low spot in the water was called the vado rojo, later translated to Redford. 

In the 1870s, a group of settlers moved their families to Polvo, where they filed for 160 acres apiece under new Texas homesteading laws. Other folks soon joined them until all 22 grants were allotted. 

Descendants of those families came together for the weekend, at one point posing for a group picture in front of St. Joseph’s Church, built in 1914 — where many ancestral memories took place. “I’ve got polvo in my eyes!” someone exclaimed as the wind kicked up dust. 

Gathering attendees posed for a group photo in front of St. Joseph’s Church after lunch on Saturday. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

Bert Lujan — great-great-grandson of Polvo settler Hilario Lujan — organized Saturday’s gathering by tracking down descendants and connecting them through social media. 

Bert’s own genealogical research was in part sparked by the fact that Hilario’s brother, Secundino, appears all over the historical record — in Cecilia Thompson’s History of Marfa and Presidio County, considered the premier regional history reference, his name appears 14 times. (Hilario does not appear at all.)

After digging deeper, Bert wondered: what was the rest of the family up to in the 19th century? “Hilario was one of those characters that just stood out,” he said. 

Hilario was responsible for surveying many of the land grants; his signature is all over the official documents that detail the settlement of Polvo. From there, Bert scoured records with documents available through online services like Family Search and Ancestry and archived newspapers available from the Library of Congress.

SallyAnn Acosta capped off her Saturday with a historical tour of the ruins of Camp Polvo. Staff Photo by Sam Karas.

Exhaustively chasing his great-great-grandfather’s family through the historical record led him to some surprising places. One example of many: Karen Cano, a fellow Lujan descendant and family history buff, found Hilario’s name in records relating to the Civil War. “How could he be fighting the Confederates when there were no Confederate battles there [in the Big Bend]?” Bert asked.

There was one exception. A historical marker in front of St. Francis Plaza on Presidio’s main drag commemorates Henry Skillman, a Confederate scout who roamed Far West Texas during the war. “He moved without fear of the Federals [and] spread false rumors about Confederates massed in remote deserts to send enemy troops on fruitless, exhausting chases,” the marker reads. 

Skillman was eventually killed by Union troops in 1864. Bert can’t prove it just yet, but reading between the lines — and the family stories he’s been able to collect — he believes Hilario may have led Union troops to Skillman as a local guide or scout. It is one of many theories he holds about what’s missing from the standard historical narrative. “The history was based on oral history and repeated itself,” he said.

Oscar Rodriguez makes a drawing in the dirt showing significant geographical features around the site of Camp Polvo. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

Bert’s distant cousin — Jerry Lujan — was also at Saturday’s event. Jerry is descended from Secundino’s side of the Lujan clan, and his interest in the history of El Polvo and the surrounding area started young — he can trace his lineage back to a ruin next to the old grocery store and a cave along Palo Amarillo. 

The family land was lost in 1934 after a crop failure and a cotton market crash happened in quick succession. Still, they never forgot their roots — in 1980, his father organized a family reunion in Polvo. ”My dad’s the one that brought in all the people — he was a chief,” Jerry remembered. “He always kept in touch with family all over the Southwest.” 

Connecting with distant family through the land grants was a piece of the puzzle — but didn’t complete the picture. “This gathering is about the modern settlements of El Polvo and Redford,” he explained. “But our family and ancestors have been here for hundreds of years.” 

Two other gathering attendees, Elizabeth Flores and her daughter, Harley, are also related to the Polvo Lujans. They were personally invited by Bert and were excited to travel to the Big Bend for bonding and digging into their family’s past.

As a teenager, Elizabeth moved in with her grandmother on a farm outside of Abilene. There, she learned how to cook and whip up traditional herbal cures. She picked up Spanish — and in the process was pushed headlong into her family’s complicated history, which could be traced back to the Ojinaga area since the 1600s. 

Like many people in the region, the Flores family is deeply Indigenous. Today, they are enrolled members of the Jumano Nation and regularly travel around Far West Texas to represent their culture and history. 

Elizabeth was glad she learned as much as she could — while she still could. “My grandmother had no choice,” she said. “She was forced to hide her Native American side, and my mother was trying to leave behind the Hispanic traditions. There were two parts of a culture they were forced to forget about or change.”

After working constantly for over 20 years to support her children, Elizabeth had more time to sit down and start digging. Some of her kids did 23 & Me, a popular online DNA test. She did some research on Ancestry, but got frustrated with the paywalls. 

There was no straightforward way to learn about her family’s Indigenous past, especially through anthropological texts written by white scholars in the early 20th century. “All the books say, ‘We believe, we speculate, we assume.’ They didn’t bother to ask any of the Jumano descendents — instead, they’d just say the Jumanos disappeared.”

With little information to go on, Elizabeth started trying to piece together clothing her ancestors might have worn. Learning to work with the skins of animals processed and traded by Jumanos  — bison, deer, fox, rabbits — is an ongoing process. “It’s my interpretation,” she said. “I wanted to make clothes for everyday survival — what could go into the river, what could last.”

Harley Flores wore traditional clothing on a tour of the site of the former Jumano village of Tapacolmes. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

On Saturday, Harley changed into a dress made by her mom for a visit to the remains of the Jumano pueblo of Tapacolmes. “This is one of the dresses they would have worn back when they killed the bison,” she explained. “They used everything — the bones, the hair, the skin.” 

She wore the dress on a pilgrimage to Europe — to visit the final resting place of María de Jesús de Ágreda, otherwise known as the Lady in Blue. 

The Lady in Blue was a Spanish nun who is said to have appeared in visions to the Jumanos in the 1700s. As the story goes, a group of Jumanos showed up at a mission in Albuquerque already knowing the Gospel — though no missions had yet been built in Far West Texas.

Harley was baptized in the same place as the Lady in Blue. “We went full circle,” Elizabeth said. “They say the Lady in Blue appeared to the Jumanos, and we brought a Jumano child back to where she came from.”

For Harley, wearing traditional clothes all over the world is a powerful gesture. “We’ve been doing a lot more to put our name out there and say, ‘Hey, we’re actually a tribe. We’re not extinct.’” 

She and her mom would like to return to Polvo alone sometime, to sit and be still, to listen to the sound of the river. 

Learning to accept the past on its own terms is an important part of the Flores family philosophy. “People always say they want to change history nowadays — they want to knock down statues, they want to get rid of this, they want to get rid of that,” Elizabeth said. “History is there for a reason. Not to glorify or worship it — it’s there for you to learn from it.”

David Keller helped gathering attendees interpret and identify materials in the Polvo archaeological site. Staff photo by Sam Karas.