Summary and Review of Elton Miles' Tales of the Big Bend

By Emily Miller Payne

4 out of 4 sotols

Elton Miles’ collection of Big Bend myths, historic events, people, and places in the Big Bend of Texas is one of the most noted and well-researched compilations of stories about supernatural phenomena, tales of lost mines, blood feuds that occasionally lead to murder, and cast of genuinely odd characters. Several of the chapters appeared in publications of the Texas Folklore Society prior to the publication of his book.

Each chapter engages the reader with the history behind the myths of well-known tales, such as the ghosts in the Chisos Mountains and the Marfa lights, and some lesser-known stories (i.e. water witching and a steer branded Murder). This book is written in a lively and engaging style by the late Dr. Miles, a Sul Ross English professor. Dr. Miles shared the various versions of each story and critiqued the sources he used.

A couple of the stories stand out because of the richness of Miles’ research. The third chapter on ghosts of the Chisos Mountains gives the reader a wide-ranging history of how the Chisos got their name. There is some question about whether or not chisos refers to ghosts. Some compelling quotes like “…some say that on moonlight nights the white limestone peaks rub shoulders with their igneous companions, like mountainous spirits among the darker crags,” might convince the reader the mountains are haunted. However, a second theory is that the word chisos is a bastardization of hechizo the Spanish word for “delightful.” This chapter, like all the others, relies heavily on Miles’ informal research with early settlers in the Big Bend. This story is full of quotes from those familiar with the Chisos legends.

The second chapter, Old Fort Leaton, is worth the read for the well-documented history of the site. Around 1850, Ben Leaton, the pioneer who took over the original building at the site near Presidio and its Mexican sister city, Ojinaga, added to the existing structures and expanded his business of allegedly selling firearms to the local Native Americans (Miles used the term “Indians”). Leaton’s ambition was to establish a critical link in the trade route between San Antonio, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico. His real goal, however, was to become wealthy, which he did for a time. Leaton’s business practices made enemies, and, not surprisingly, he came to his end over his shady business dealings.

Miles devotes a short chapter to one of Big Bend’s more colorful characters, Bobcat Carter. Anyone who spent time in the area has heard the tales of Bobcat. No one knows about his background or how he arrived in the area. He lived in a cave near Persimmon Gap, the eastern entrance to Big Bend National Park. He claimed to trap bobcats for food and sold the hides for money. The proprietor of Cooper’s Store (long since gone) at Persimmon Gap took care of Bobcat in the winter months. Carter was just one of any number of eccentric loners who came to the Big Bend, and he left his indelible mark with the early settlers because his lifestyle.

Miles focuses two chapters on the devil and Christ in Big Bend. Both chapters talk about the religious superstitions and practices of early settlers in the area. The chapters describe the early pentitentes who made pilgrimages to the sites where their ancestors reported seeing miracles performed or devil sightings. Miles incorporates tales from locals on both sides of the border.

While readers who are not familiar with the lore of the Big Bend may question the veracity of some of Miles’ stories of the events and people, I recommend that you read the book and decide for yourselves. The chapters are intact gems the reader can peruse in any order. I recommend the book for the lively topics, the comprehensive research, and the engaging writing.

Emily Miller Payne lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Dennis, and their cranky Welsh Terrier, Dilys Mab. Emily retired from teaching college literacy at Texas State University in 2020. Her retirement pleasures are reading trashy mysteries for fun, succulent gardening, and being a soccer fan grandmother to grandkids, Zoe and Connor. Emily is descended from early southern Brewster County settlers, and she spent her childhood in Big Bend National Park exploring the nooks and crannies of the Chisos Basin and the slopes of Panther Peak.