by Barbara J. Wood
RANCHO DE LAS CABRAS
Dona Ana Maria del Carmen Calvillo
On a June morning in, let's say, 1815, you're riding west toward San Antonio de Bexar along El Camino del Cibolo when a dust cloud signals an approaching rider. As the distance between the two of you closes, you make out a majestic white horse, and, astride the horse, a handsome woman, her long, black hair fluttering like pennants from beneath her wide-brimmed hat.
You recognize the rider as the remarkable Dona Ana Maria del Carmen Calvillo, descendant of early San Antonio settlers, former wife of anti-Spanish rebel Juan Gavino Delgado and, since her father's violent death the year before, flamboyant owner of Rancho de las Cabras along the west bank of the San Antonio River.
Rancho de las Cabras, or Goat Ranch, was established in 1731 by the Franciscan friars of Mision San Francisco de La Espada, known today as Mission Espada, the southernmost of the five missions clustered near the San Antonio River. According to a 1745 report, the mission maintained large herds of cattle, sheep, goats, horses and oxen, but early settlers complained that the animals were trampling their crops. The friars dispatched Native American vaqueros, probably teenagers, to herd the animals 30 miles downriver to the Goat Ranch.
These early-day cowboys lived at the lonely outpost, where they were vulnerable to attacks by Lipan Apaches, Comanches and other raiders. At least once a week, they likely herded sufficient cattle and goats back to town to supply mission residents with beef and cabrito.
According to the Texas Beyond History website, a 1772 inventory of Mission Espada reported that the ranch consisted of four jacals, or structures of upright poles with thatched roofs, one of which was sometimes used as a church or shrine; corrals and pens; and a fenced field for corn. A later account mentioned that the ranch was home to 26 people, including herders and perhaps their families.
"It's the only known extant mission ranch that still has standing architecture," National Park Service archaeologist Susan Snow told me.
The mission operated the ranch until secularization in 1794, when the Spanish government sold church properties to private owners. The rancho's new owner was Ygnacio Francisco Xavier Calvillo, an early San Antonio settler. When he was killed by bandits in 1814, his daughter took over the ranch.
By all accounts Ana Maria del Carmen Calvillo was a remarkable woman. Born in San Antonio in 1765 to Calvillo and his wife Antonia de Arocha, a descendant of Canary Islanders, she was the eldest of six children. She married Juan Gavino de la Trinidad Delgado around 1781. The couple had two sons, both of whom died young, and three other adopted children.
Between 1811 and 1814, Gavino was part of an active and often bloody rebellion around San Antonio against the Spanish crown. Maria apparently left her husband during this period, perhaps to protect the family's land holdings, and let it be known that he was dead. He wasn't.
"She could be something of a scoundrel," said Tambria Reid, a Floresville High School art teacher and knowledgeable local historian. "For several years, Dona Ana Maria del Carmen Calvillo was my research passion."
On April 15, 1814, her father, Ygnacio Calvillo, was murdered during a raid initially thought to have been perpetrated by Indians. A later investigation revealed that the attackers included Calvillo's own grandson, disguised as an Indian.
With both father and husband no longer in the picture, Ana María Calvillo gained control of Rancho de las Cabras. Unlike their American counterparts, women in Spain and in Spanish Texas had the right to hold property under their own names and could sell any property they had owned before marrying. Property purchased or inherited during the marriage belonged to both spouses.
On Aug. 28, 1828, Ana Maria Calvillo formally petitioned the Mexican government for a new title to the ranch. It was granted the next month.
In the coming years she increased her livestock operation to perhaps 2,000 head of cattle, added an irrigation system and a mill and expanded her crop production. She also managed to get along with nomadic indigenous tribes by offering them cattle and a camping site when they passed through the area. She died in 1856 at age 91 and bequeathed the ranch to two of her adopted children.
Archaeologist Snow said that artifacts suggest that the ranch "changed in use through time," perhaps evolving into a central gathering place for the area or an informal inn for travelers.
In 1976, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired
99 acres from private owners, including what remained of the old ranch structures. Without funds to preserve the crumbling rock walls of the compound, Parks and Wildlife buried the ruins in sand to prevent further erosion and vandalism. In 1995, the National Park Service acquired the property, now part of the World Heritage Site of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
NPS biologist Greg Mitchell oversees the site, just off Highway 97, five miles south of Floresville. The dirt road to the ranch is unmarked at the highway and is normally closed to visitors, although UT-San Antonio and NPS archaeologists have excavated the site. Area Girl Scouts and the Junior Historians Club from Floresville High School, under Read's sponsorship, have helped clear trails.
Maybe by the fall, Mitchell said, the site will be open to the public, perhaps two weekends a month. He'd love to find additional volunteers to help him maintain it.
On a hot, steamy morning last week, we ambled along a quarter-mile hiking trail through rangeland Mitchell hopes will revert to native prairie. Jumbled sandstone rocks, once part of ranch fortifications, jutted up through their protective covering of sand and grass. We walked past a depression in the ground that would have been a stone quarry and descended a steep ravine into lush, thickly forested San Antonio River bottomlands. Mitchell said alligators have been known to lurk in a nearby oxbow.
I told Mitchell I had read that Ana Maria's ghost — astride a white horse, her long hair flying — had appeared off and on through the years. Since the Michigan native is often alone at the site, I wondered if he had seen her. He said he had not.
Knowing her, of course, is more important than seeing her. As Read has written, "Doña Anna María del Carmen Calvillo was a strong, courageous and spirited Spanish/Texas woman, experienced in riding horseback, handling guns, managing her ranch, getting along with others, and a proud steward of her land."
This almost-forgotten woman, an integral part of the state's ranching heritage, deserves to ride her white horse into the history books. (Written by Author Joe Holley, Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize)
COURTESY/ Joe Holley