A new western film arrived in American movie houses last month. It’s by a French director, Jacques Audiard, and its title is unusual, provocative, and informative.
The Sisters Brothers tells the story of a couple of Oregon cowboys whose last name is Sisters, but the film is not just a brother story. It’s about sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers. In other words, this is a film about families, particularly ranching families in the West.
Audiard’s vision of the people of the historic American West squares with my own experiences with the ranching community in Lea County. The County’s history can be studied from a variety of perspectives, from its geography to its natural products, from its role in the lives of Native Americans, the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans to its place in the mining of the wealth of the Permian Basin. However, when it comes to the permanent settlement of the region that has been called Lea for the past century, history begins with just one subject.
History here begins with ranching
The origin of our ranching history is a roll call of a handful of family names: Causey, Littlefield, Merchant, Weir, Bingham, Graham, Lee, Madera, Medlin, Berry, Eidson, Etcheverry, Fort, Field, and several more. The first here at the end of the 19th century owned big ranches that covered many
sections or they owned the initial prime locations, such as Ranger Lake, Four Lakes, land along the Caprock, or Monument Spring.
I have had the good fortune to meet members and descendants of all of those families, even of the Causeys and Littlefields. However, the ranching family that I have been around the most over the last couple of years is the Field family. What has most impacted my recalling of their lives in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas is the feeling that everything that has happened in their time here has happened and continues to happen because of one subject: family.
Though like just about every family, there have been divisions between different branches of the Field family tree. For several generations of this ranching family, there have been Field men and their family in Lea County while others are just across the state line in Texas. I have been around just one branch of the family tree, that group of men, women, boys, and girls of Dan Field. Dan is a third generation Field to ranch in Lea, and it is with Dan’s children—Tray, Traysa, Danya, and Storm — which I have had close contact.
The first permanent resident was a rancher. A onetime buffalo hunter turned rancher, George Causey built the first home here. He erected the first barn and corral; he dug the first well and erected the first windmill. Causey spent the last two decades of his brief life doing all those things so he could raise cattle and horses and settle down to a life very different from the transitory life he had lived since he was a boy.
Causey did not get to enjoy for very long the life he desired, but he made it possible for several generations of the ranching community to live one version of the American dream. Here is the dominant impression I have observed of the cowboys and cattlemen, the cowgirls and cattlewomen who have been my neighbors for the last half-century: They are hardworking people committed to the ethos of their cow-people community and, despite all of the changes that have taken place in Lea, they still believe in the life that George Causey laid out for them. They are living the dream as it materialized in the pastures and corals, the bunkhouses and barns, and the headquarters and line shacks of the American West.
They live in the present, as with their pickup trucks and the cell phones that allow them to access global satellites. But they also live in Causey’s world in such things as herding bovines from horseback and branding calves in a pen. Back in June of this year, I spent two mornings watching a branding along the state line on the Field Ranch north of Bronco, Texas. The Field family, with many branches in their tree, has been a part of Lea County life for over a century. Their roots are deep in this region. Dan Field is part of the third generation since his grandfather came just a few years after Causey quit hunting buffalo in Texas. Dan’s two sons, Tray and Storm, and one daughter, Traysa Zimmerman, are building a history exhibit to their family on the second floor of the Lea County Museum’s 1918 Commercial Hotel building.