A Brief Refuge History

wichita entry gate

The word Wichita is derived from two archaic Wichita native American words: "Weets", which means "man" and "ee-taw" which signifies "of the north."

The Wichitas felt their original ancestors came forth from the rocky points of the mountains, which rank among the oldest ranges on earth. Formation of these mountains began some 500 million years ago when stratified layers of eroded silt were deposited. Through the ages climatic forces have chiseled and sculptured the mountains until all that remain of the once lofty escarpments are weather-reduced knobs and domes.

The mountains are rich in lore. Spanish traders bartered with several native American tribes for hides and other artifacts and legends persist of hidden treasures of Spanish gold. Colonel Henry Dodge made the first American contact with the tribes when he and a troop of dragoons visited the area in 1834 in an effort to halt tribal raids of the Santa Fe Trail. Marauding bands of Comanches used the mountains as a resting and hiding site after pillaging in Texas and Mexico and, in 1843, J.C. Eldredge, commissioned by President Sam Houston of Texas to make a treaty with the Comanches, found them camped in the mountains where negotiations took place. Captain R. B. Marcy, directed to explore the source of the Red River in 1852, investigated the Wichitas, collected specimens of flora and fauna, noted geological formations and named Mount Scott. General Phil Sheridan shot elk near the mountain which now bears his name. 

 wichita mountains ag signQuanah Parker, last of the Comanche Chieftains, called the Wichita Mountains home and built a large square house with four large stars on the roof near the present refuge - hence the name Star House. Quanah and his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, a young settler captured by Comanches in Texas, lies buried in a shrine a few miles south of the refuge boundary. Geronimo, famed Apache chief, was imprisoned for many years at nearby Fort Sill. Lone Wolf, Kiowa leader, purportedly is buried in an unmarked grave on the north side of Mount Scott.
There are legends of lost mines and cached treasure. The James gang is supposed to have buried bandit loot somewhere among the boulder-strewn slopes of the Wichita and other, less renowned, outlaws supposedly hid booty in the mountains. Kiowas raided a wagon train on the Santa Fe trail and tales of hidden silver are told. None of these legends have proven true.

Mining activity flourished for a time at the turn of the 20th century and Camp Doris, a mining community near present day Quanah Parker Lake, was the center of cultural accomplishment. Early day miners, cattlemen and ranchers attended social gatherings at the camp. Theodore Roosevelt, on a wolf hunt, was the camp's most distinguished guest. Today, Camp Doris is the site of the refuge's public campground.

Buffalo, once nearly extinct, were reintroduced in 1907 and have made an amazing comeback under close and scientific care. Progenitors of present-day longhorns date to Neolithic times and were first domesticated in Europe from Asiatic stock. Villalobos, a Spanish explorer, brought them to Mexico in 1521. Once the prime beef cattle of the United States, improved breeds forced the longhorn into virtual extinction. A nucleus herd was brought to the refuge in 1927 from the lower Rio Grande region and the herd is maintained for historic posterity.  Elk, exterminated in 1875, are thriving as a result of transplants from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, opossums and other animals are common.

Set aside from the Comanche-Kiowa-Apache Indian Reservation as a National Forest in 1901 and administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the area was transferred in 1935 to the Bureau of Biological Survey, one of the predecessor agencies of the present-day U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A remnant of the days before white settlement, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is an island in the sea of modernity and a segment of southwestern history preserved for future generations. 

Thanks to Harry B. Candell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for this narrative.