He was born in Missouri. Or maybe it was Kentucky or Virginia. He could have been English or French, or even hailed from New York. Perhaps Milton Faver didn’t even know himself. The 1880 U.S. census lists the west Texas frontiersman as “white, male, age 58, married, stockraiser and farmer” and for his place of birth: “Virginia or Kentucky.” In the 1860 census, his birthplace was listed as Missouri. He was born Catholic, unless he converted while living in Mexico. He might have shot a man in Missouri; then again, that could be just another tall tale. Some sources say he was a small man, barely 5 feet tall, but another describes him as a “large man with a flowing beard and iron will, who suffered from tuberculosis.”
It’s little wonder Milton Faver has been called the “Mystery Man of the Big Bend.” What can’t be debated, however, is the impact and influence Milton Faver wielded over harsh west Texas from the time he established his ranches in the 1850s to his death in 1889.
Faver was probably born in 1822. The popular story is that he fled Missouri after a duel, believing he had killed his opponent only to learn years later (some accounts say he was living in Texas at the time; others claim Mexico) from a former neighbor that the wounded man had survived. The story of the duel could very well be true. The 1840 U.S. census for Missouri’s Lafayette County lists a John “Favor” and family living near an Enos Pool and family. John Pool arrived in Presidio County, Texas, from Missouri in 1885, and started a ranch near Faver’s empire.
Milton Faver was in Mexico in the 1840s. He worked in Francisco de Leon’s flour mill in Meoqui, Mexico, where he met Francesca Ramirez, and soon married her. Of course, even that’s uncertain. The 1860 U.S. census lists Josefita, a 26- year-old Mexico native, in the spot for the wife of the head of the Faver’s household, but the 1870 census cites 30-year-old “Francesca Favor” as the wife. The best theory is that Josefita was actually Faver’s sister-in-law—unless, as one tale has it, Francesca was Faver’s second wife. In either case, Francesca, who died in 1893, is the wife most remembered. Cowboy William Jones called her “the most beautiful Mexican woman I ever saw.”
Faver soon began a Chihuahua Trail trading venture from Meoqui to Presidio del Norte (present-day Ojinaga, Mexico) on the Rio Grande. By 1857 Faver had moved his family—which now included a son (John, or Juan, born in 1851)—to Presidio del Norte and was operating a mercantile store. He adopted the Hispanic culture and became known across Texas and Mexico as Don Meliton.
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The establishment of a military post in the Davis Mountains probably lured Faver, ever the businessman, into the United States. Established in October 1854 near Limpia Creek, Fort Davis was built to protect travelers on the San Antonio–El Paso road. It would be evacuated by Union troops during the Civil War, re-garrisoned and rebuilt in 1867, and finally closed in 1891. The soldiers and settlers needed provisions, which Faver could provide. Zenas Randall Bliss, a second lieutenant with the 8th Infantry, which had established Fort Davis, recalled: “There were places on the roads which were always bad for Indian attacks, and other roads where the Indians never attacked. One of the latter was Fort Davis to Presidio del Norte, 100 miles right through Apache country….The nearest town was Presidio del Norte, where lived several Americans….Milton Faver had a little store where he could sell a few cents worth of anything, but he was laying foundation for a large fortune.”
It was probably during his trips to Fort Davis—or maybe from his trading with Indians—that Faver learned about the springs near Cibolo Creek in the Chinati Mountains between Fort Davis and Presidio. The Army needed beef, which Faver could raise if he had well-watered ranges. In the Big Bend country, water was scarce. Precious water, however, flowed freely on land owned by Juana Pedrasa Leaton y Hall (the widow of Big Bend trader Benjamin Leaton) and A.C. Hyde. Faver began negotiations and in 1858 bought the Cibolo spring and surrounding acres, paying $500 to Hyde for a warranty deed and $2,000 to Hall for all rights. The land totaled one section (640 acres, or a square mile). Faver made other purchases, too, although some deeds wouldn’t be recorded until the 1880s. He also took possession of the springs at Ciénega and Morita, and began to establish his west Texas empire.
Faver obtained his original herd of about 300 Longhorns in San Pablo, Mexico, trading sweet potatoes and other items. He also began erecting an adobe fortress at Cibolo Creek. El Fortín del Cibolo began with a 90-by-140-foot stone corral 3 feet wide and 4 feet high. The main complex of the fort had walls 20 to 30 inches thick with two-story round towers on the fort’s northwest and southeast corners. The bastions had window openings or firing loopholes. Faver also constructed acequias, irrigation ditches from the nearby springs, called El Ojo Grande, to bring water to the compound. Construction of the fortress began in the spring of 1857—long before the sale of the land had been finalized.
Far from satisfied, Faver next began building fortíns at La Ciénega, Spanish for “marshy place,” and La Morita, meaning “the little mulberry tree.” The Ciénega compound, a square fort with two-story towers on the southwest and northeast corners and shady cottonwoods and Arizona ash trees outside the gate, would serve as headquarters for Faver’s cattle operation. La Morita, the smallest of the buildings with only one tower, and unfortified, would be the base of the sheep and goat operations. Faver’s main estate would be El Cibolo.
The water at Cibolo fed rich, fertile fields in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. Faver grew acres of beans, squash and other staples. Orchards provided valuable shade and fruits, most prominently peaches. Employing a 50-gallon copper still made in Chihuahua, Faver used the peaches to make brandy, which soon became one of Faver’s most popular commodities. From his Cibolo fort, he would sell or trade it to settlers, travelers, Indians and soldiers. The 1880 “Productions of Agriculture” for Presidio County reports that 750 bushels of peaches were picked at Faver’s ranch. Fort Davis Justice of the Peace Nick Mersfelder called Faver’s peach brandy better than good. Tradition has it that Faver often broke out the brandy for his potential customers first, and let them imbibe awhile before getting down to business.
A traveler named Burr C. Duval visited Faver at El Cibolo after Don Meliton had established his west Texas ranches, noting in his diary: “This is a most extraordinary settlement. Faver has lived here since 1848. His house is literally his castle built of adobes, in a rectangular shape, the corners flanked by huge mud towers. He cultivates quite a field here—has a peach orchard— very good peach brandy. We got a bunch of eggs, coffee, tortillas and the old man invited us into his sanctum to try the ‘peaches and honey.’ This sanctum is sui generis, ornamented with Catholic prints of the rudest character, guns, pistols, saddles, bridles, all sorts of odds and ends—of guns he had enough to show the progress in modern firearms for the last hundred years, from the flintlock musket to the modern breech-loading rifle and shotgun.”
The Favers often entertained, throwing parties for Fort Davis officers and customs officials and their families. Faver’s wife held a big bash every May 3 to celebrate the last day of a nine-day prayer. At Christmas, the Christmas tree was trimmed with cranberry strings and different-colored wax candles. Rosa Ramirez de Jimenez, Faver’s niece, recalled that whenever workers told Don Meliton that Indians were stealing crops from the vegetable garden, or maybe even butchering a steer, Faver would reply, “It is all right, leave them alone, they were here first.”
Milton Faver prospered. He registered his first cattle brand, the standing F, in 1877, and a second brand, M over lazy F, 10 years later. In the late 1870s or early 1880s, he sold 1,800 ewes to George Crosson, who established a ranch in present-day Brewster County. In the 1870 census, Faver valued his real property at $2,500, and his personal property at $7,100. But there were setbacks.
On July 30, 1875, Indians — or disguised Mexican bandits (another mystery) — attacked La Morita, where Carmen Ramirez, Faver’s brother-in-law, lived with his wife and two sons. Carmen’s dead body was found; accounts vary on the fate of Carmen’s wife and children. In November George Andrews, a colonel in the 25th Infantry and commander at Fort Davis, assigned a small garrison of cavalry to Faver’s ranch to “restore confidence to Mr. Faver’s employees and to prevent the loss of his crops.”
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In the early 1880s, silver was discovered in the Chinatis, and the town of Shafter, named after Lt. Col. William Shafter, another Fort Davis commander, sprung up about five miles south of El Cibolo. Faver played little part in the development of the boomtown, although he owned property in the town limits. Faver’s son sold a parcel of land in Shafter to the Roman Catholic bishop of San Antonio in 1896 for “the love of God and one ($1) dollar.”
Faver didn’t need the silver at Shafter. By 1880 his ranch had a population of 67, while an overseer and three sheepherders lived at La Morita and 19 people lived at La Ciénega. Faver claimed 70 acres of tilled improved land, 1,210 unimproved acres and $9,200 in livestock that included 18 horses, 20 oxen, 60 barnyard fowl and 4,000 sheep.
And he had cattle by the thousands. Cowboy William T. Jones recalled in 1929 that Faver probably had 15,000 to 20,000 adult head, many of them unbranded, in an 1886 roundup. Historian Barry Scobee also noted that during this roundup, “Faver appeared at the end of each day’s drive with horse and buggy and jug, ostensibly to serve brandy but actually to keep a shrewd eye out that careless riders did not include any of his F-branded cattle with the brands of other owners.”
By the mid-1880s, however, Faver’s health began to deteriorate. Yet he could still strike a commanding pose. William B. Mitchell, who met Faver in 1885, described him as “a man of small stature.” Mitchell added: “His long white beard came to his waistline. He was probably 75 years of age and was rather hump-shouldered—due no doubt, to his years. He must have weighed about 125 pounds. Mr. Faver was not an ignorant man. He was regarded as one of unusual ability. He had lived long with the Mexicans without contact with the outside world. He knew nothing of checks or paper money. In money transactions, he would accept only gold or silver.” Another legend has it that, when selling cattle, he demanded payment for each animal as it was tallied rather than settle up after the final count.
By then, the railroad had come to west Texas. But Faver remained set in his ways. One account says he had to make a trip to San Antonio a few years before his death, but he refused to ride a train and made the trip on horseback instead.
As his health worsened, Faver began to transfer property and other assets to family members, relatives and friends—yet he never made out a will. He died on December 23, 1889, and was buried on a hill overlooking El Fortín del Cibolo. Over his grave was built an adobe mausoleum. His tombstone, in Spanish, read:
En memoria a
el dia 23 de Deciembre
del ano 1889 a la una
de la tarde.
Si tuvo faltas que fueron obvios,
y presento solo sus buenas,
Translation: “In memory of Meliton Faver who died on December 23 of the year 1889 at one o’clock in the afternoon. If he had faults, let them be forgotten and only his good deeds remembered.”
The epitaph proved prophetic. Milton Faver is remembered as a powerful man, tough but fair, compassionate and understanding. His faults have been forgotten. Don Meliton left behind a legacy in west Texas—not to mention a lot of unsolved mysteries.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West.