Texas Ranchers Preserve American Indian Paintings

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on February 10, 2008
Tina Doyle A turtle pictograph is used to mark the winter solstice.

Kay Campbell, 80, walks along a dusty trail on her central Texas ranch, leading a tour group of school children. She stops along the way to point out dozens of crude drawings painted on a rock bluff overlooking a once popular American Indian campground. Ranging from a few inches to several feet in size, the rock art is the legacy of American Indian tribes that roamed the area centuries ago. Some of the drawings—animals, human figures, weapons, stars and suns—tell stories that experts can decipher, while others remain mysterious, vague communications from cultures that existed some 200 to 500 years ago.

“I’ve been coming to see these pictographs since my mama brought me here when I was 9 years old,” Campbell says. “My grandfather settled on this ranch in the 1870s. He had roamed around Texas looking for evidence of Native Americans, and the pictographs were documented on old maps from Spanish missionaries. When he found this site, some of the drawings had already been defaced by early European immigrants. He bought this place to protect what he knew was historically important.”

Campbell and her husband, Fred, share the 2,500-acre ranch, which is located near Paint Rock, Texas (pop. 320), named in honor of the famous pictographs. In fact, the ranch boasts one of the largest pictograph displays in the United States, with more than 1,500 remarkably well-preserved paintings etched into a limestone bluff suspended over a half-mile of the Concho River.

As many as 300 different tribes inhabited the area during a 12,000-year span, some as recently as 1865. While the majority of rock art was drawn by nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers, artifacts such as pottery, arrow points, musket balls and bone fragments found on the property are believed to be 900 to 1,000 years old, and indicate that some groups occupied the site for a considerable time.

“Many different cultures and beliefs are represented here,” Campbell says, “so it’s hard to just put them into one ‘Indian’ group.” Earlier paintings were likely from Jumano, Apache, Tonkawa and lesser tribes who roamed the area. Latter pictographs have been attributed to Comanches, warriors who lived in the region from the mid-1700s until they were moved to reservations in the 1860s.

Take a look around
Campbell conducts tours by reservation only for school groups and curious visitors, a practice she and Fred have enjoyed for more than 50 years. She averages a tour a day year-round, with thousands of visitors coming to the ranch annually. It’s a tradition that began with her grandfather and uncle, who led tours 90 years earlier.

At the beginning of each tour, she scrapes hematite rock, mixes the red shavings with water, and uses this to paint symbols on her arm. A retired school teacher, she uses “show and tell” to demonstrate the process by which American Indians made the paint that they used to fill in designs etched by flint. “I try to show how people lived thousands of years ago and how they wrote history without letters or words,” she says.

Campbell’s efforts don’t go unrecognized. “Kay is so passionate—she makes the stories come alive,” says Christy Meador, a teacher at Eldorado (Texas) Middle School, who has brought students to the ranch for 15 years. “It’s wonderful exposure for them to see what they study in history.”

Despite the countless times Campbell has given tours, she says, “I never get tired of showing the pictographs to people.” She tells the story of one remarkable drawing: “A white lady—we know that because she’s wearing a hoop skirt—and two other women were attacked by Indians,” Campbell says. That same tale is recorded in local historical documents: A woman, her daughter, and their maid, traveling by wagon near Mason in 1865, were attacked by Comanches.

The site also was thought to be a spiritual meeting place where Indians celebrated seasonal rituals. In 1996, a solar marker was discovered in a pictograph of a turtle drawn so that a dagger of sunlight hits the turtle’s back at exactly 12:35 p.m. on the winter solstice, a spectacular sight that Campbell has photographed.

Preservation of the pictographs, which were named a National Historical Site in 1971, is a personal mission for Campbell and her family. In 2000, their dedication won them an award from the Texas Historical Commission for excellence in archaeological preservation.

“The pictographs are like a mystery that may never be solved,” Campbell says. “But I hope people will keep learning about the messages left here long ago.”