The $725 Million Ranch That’s Bigger than DC, and Its Suspect Roots

88a2318waggoner-cowboy-on-plaincredit-chris-collis*1200xx5760-3240-0-300Did you know you can buy a ranch that’s bigger than the entire city of Washington DC?

The Waggoner Ranch – the largest ranch in the country – is in Texas (of course) and is currently on the market for three-quarters of a billion dollars. In square miles, it dwarfs both New York and LA, not to mention the District;  it’s over half as big as the state of Rhode Island.  The conventional backstory behind the ranch is that it was built up by the hard work and business acumen of William Waggoner, who started out in the 1860s with 160 acres and eventually expanded that to 510,000 acres – but the real story, as usual, is considerably darker and more complicated.

The land that now makes up the $725 million ranch originally belonged to the Comanches, who watched with dismay as settlers streamed in from the East, established homesteads, and put up fences. One of the first outposts was Fort Parker, which was just a few sod buildings surrounded by crude fencing. The family, and the fort, was headed by John Parker, a socially awkward would-be entrepreneur who’d failed at various vocations and get-rich-quick schemes before landing on the frontier. In 1836, Comanches attacked the fort, slaughtered most of the adults, and made off with several of the children, one of whom was a ten year old named Cynthia Ann. Over the next few years, most of the kidnapped children were ransomed back to their families – but not Cynthia Ann. Her father spent the next decade searching for her, a quest that inspired the John Wayne movie “The Searchers.”

In 1860, a band of Texas Rangers came across a band of Comanches and slaughtered them, sparing only the chief’s wife, who they quickly realized was the now-middle-aged Cynthia Ann Parker. She’d been married to a chief, bore him three children, and now lived and identified as a Comanche. They took her back to “civilization” against her will, and after a few tormented years spent pining after the family she’d left behind, she died of influenza.  (Some claim she’d stopped eating, and died of grief.)

One of her half-Comanche sons, who’d escaped the slaughter, later grew up to be chief of the Comanches. His name was Quanah, and the fact that he was half-white was a major factor in his ascendance. The Comanches had been largely defeated by westward expansion, and Quanah’s leadership was a bridge from their glory days of open prairie to their eventual exile on reservations. At a time when most of his tribe were still clinging to fantasies of a return to old ways, Quanah was willing and able to cut deals with the white ranchers who saw him as uniquely “reasonable” because of his white ancestry. This is where Waggoner comes in; he and his lifelong friend and business partner, Samuel Burnett, quickly set about cultivating a relationship with Quanah.

Waggoner had, by this time, significantly expanded his ranch, sometimes unscrupulously. He’d bought up many surrounding ranches, and when people didn’t want to sell, he sent around a gunslinger named Jimmie Roberts to “persuade” them. But his expanding herd of cattle needed a huge amount of grass, and much of the land he’d acquired was barren and rocky. Burnett had the same problem. The Comanches, though, still controlled a huge tract of land called (wait for it …) “Big Pasture.” It had been strictly off-limits, but Burnett and Waggoner sensed that the new chief, Quanah, might be open to “compromise.” They quickly set about showering him with gifts – expensive clothes, diamond-studded pistols, a big house emblazoned with “general’s stars” to signify his military prowess, all-expenses-paid trips to the state capital. Before long, Quanah had struck an unprecedented agreement with them, over the objections of many of his fellow Comanches, to let them graze their cattle in the Big Pasture.  Whatever you want to call their courting of Quanah – bribing, exploitation, cynical manipulation, schmoozing – it resulted in massive wealth for both Waggoner and Burnett.  As far as how the deal worked out for the Comanches, Quanah died with a couple thousand dollars to his name, and the tribe, whose lands he’d leased to the ranchers, received nominal “grass fees” for a few years, and then were ushered off to reservations, their remaining land seized by the US government and sold to homesteaders.  (Waggoner’s land holdings, of course, were not seized, though they were at that point at least as large as the Comanche nation’s, and as much of an obstacle to the US’s “manifest destiny.”  Waggoner, the inveterate schmoozer, had hosted President Teddy Roosevelt on his ranch for a wolf hunt, during which the two men presumably worked things out.)

Waggoner’s wealth built for decades, and then exploded when he discovered oil on the ranch while drilling a well.  (One of the ranch’s present-day selling points is that only 10% of the land has been explored for oil;  who knows how much more is under there?)  Before Waggoner died, he put the property in a trust, which is probably the only reason it’s still intact today.  After years of squabbling among various extended family members (they keep adjacent offices in a lavish building they co-own, but haven’t spoken for over a decade), a court ordered the ranch to be sold.  The sale is expected to go through early this year, with two agents splitting a $14 million commission.  It’s like the IMAX version of your friend who always brags that they made two hundred grand just by living in their Shaw rowhouse for five years;  all the Waggoners did was drive off some Indians, put up a fence, wait for 150 years, and now they’re about to make a billion.

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