The legendary outfit, long known for top hands and outstanding horses, has left its mark on the Texas landscape and the ranching industry.
The waggoner ranch’s 520,000 acres cover some 812 square miles, making it the largest Texas ranch behind one fence. Cattle have always been on the outfit,and oil was found there, as well, but the ranch is best known for its good horses. The ranch’s long, colorful history began with Dan Waggoner, back in the days before statehood, when Texas was a republic.
Building a Dynasty
Dan was born in Tennessee in 1828, and journeyed with his family to Texas in 1838. His father died a year later, and it was up to young Dan to take care of his mother and seven siblings.
In 1849, Dan married 16-year-old Nancy Moore. Nancy died young, a mere year after their son, William Tom, called “W.T.,”was born in 1852. After her death, Dan left W.T. in the care of his mother and sisters and rode west to look for more land.
At that time, thousands of acres of free land were available for settlement. Dan quickly filed on 160 acres on Cattle Creek, near the present town of Decatur in Wise County, Texas. He moved there in 1854 with his mother, siblings, son, 240 Longhorns, and six horses. Shortly thereafter he began to seriously accumulate land.
In 1859, Dan remarried, and 7-year-old W.T. came to live with his father and stepmother, Cecily Halsell Waggoner. These were hard times for the infant Texas cattle industry. The Civil War disrupted rail transportation, and the only beef buyer was the Confederate Army, paying just $10 a head. The low cattle price coupled with continuous raids by American Indians and outlaws, forced many cattlemen to sell out. Dan, however, held on. Once the war ended, rail lines pushed into Kansas, and the famous Texas cattle drives began.
Following his father’s footsteps, W.T. was committed to the life of a cattle baron. At age 14 his stated ambition was “to run the best cattle outfit, own the best horses and do the most work of any man in the country.”
When W.T. turned 17, Dan made him a full partner in the ranch. At 18, W.T. drove a herd of cattle along the Chisholm Trail to Kansas, returning home with $55,000 in his saddlebags. Back at the ranch, Dan and W.T. bought cattle at $8 a head. The next spring, W.T. drove their herd north to market, selling it for $30 a head. From then on, the Waggoner empire grew rapidly.
In 1877, W.T. married Ella Halsell, his stepmother’s 18-year-old sister. Married in the county courthouse, the bride’s “attendants”were 12 of W.T.’s cowboy friends. The couple eventually had five children, three of which survived to adulthood: Electra, Guy and E. Paul Waggoner.
In 1885, W.T. and another Texas rancher negotiated a lease on thousands of acres of prime grazing land in Indian Territory. Situated across the Red River, it was known as the “Big Pasture.”The last great Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, approved the lease. As a 14-year-old boy, Quanah, whose mother was a white captive who came to love the American Indian way of life, vowed to “avenge his mother’s recapture by the white man, steal the most horses from the settlers and become the greatest Comanche warrior of all time.”Alike in many ways, W.T. and Quanah began life as enemies, but counted one another as friends decades later.
In 1902, Dan Waggoner died, leaving W.T. a vast cattle empire. But times were changing; free grazing and Indian lands were soon to be a thing of the past. His father lived through the open-range period, but W.T. realized new settlers meant that he needed deeded land, and in a few short years, he bought thousands of additional acres. In 1905, the land once owned by the Comanche was taken from the tribe and opened for settlement. That fall, the Waggoners drove their cattle out of the Big Pasture for the last time. The days of the open range were gone.
But another event in 1902 had a lasting impact on the Waggoner Ranch. While drilling for water, W.T. hit oil instead. Disgusted, he continued drilling for water. Oil was a nuisance, and any good cattleman knew the value of water. But by the 1920s, with advent of the automobile, W.T.’s attitude about oil had changed. The Waggoner Ranch got into oil in a big way, and today oil wells still methodically pump as cattle graze around them.
In the early 1900s, W.T. and Ella’s three children married. Electra married A.B. Wharton. Today, descendent Albert B. Wharton III is co-director of the Waggoner Estate and lives with his wife, Jolene, at the Zacaweista (an Indian term meaning “good grass”) Headquarters on the ranch. Gene Willingham, the husband of E. Paul’s granddaughter, Helen Biggs Willingham, is the other co-director of the Waggoner Estate today. They live at the Santa Rosa Ranch Headquarters. W.T. died in 1934, and his wife, Ella, died in 1959. But long before then, in 1923, they’d placed the Waggoner ranch in a family estate where it remains today.