As a young teamster on a pack-mule train, Wilfred Dudley Smithers saw the Rio Grande’s Big Bend for the first time in 1916, and it captured his imagination forever. For decades thereafter he returned to Texas’ last great frontier—the great bend of the Rio Grande on the Texas-Mexico border—chronicling the region and its people in words and photographs.
After half a century of photography, Smithers’ superlative collection of nine thousand images ended up at the University of Texas at Austin, and in 1976 more than one hundred of these were reproduced in Chronicles of the Big Bend, a critically acclaimed work that until now has long been out of print.
The years that Smithers chronicled in the Big Bend were sometimes violent ones. Pancho Villa and Chico Cano were among the many “bandits” playing hide-and-seek with the U.S. Cavalry—events Smithers recorded. He was also an eyewitness to liquor-running and smuggling during Prohibition. His principal subjects, however, were the people of the Big Bend: local ranchers, Mexican American and American families, miners, Texas Rangers, and others living simple lives in this harsh and beautiful land.
With words and camera Smithers wanted to capture “vanishing lifestyles, primitive cultures, old faces, and odd, unconventional professions. Before my camera I wanted huts, vendors, natural majesties, clothing, tools, children, old people, the ways of the border.” He also told his own life story along with that of the Big Bend.
There are illustrated chapters on the military, law enforcement, curanderos (healers), liquor smugglers, avisadores (secret-message senders), and the national park. Smithers’ word sketches and black-and-white photographs capture the harsh reality and stark beauty, the dust and the mystery of the frontier era of the Big Bend that ended in 1944 when it became a national park.
Chronicles of the Big Bend is a rare documentary look at a frontier region as it was known by only a few and as it will never be seen again. It is a deeply personal human portrait of the majestic Big Bend.
WILFRED DUDLEY SMITHERS (1895–1981) was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in 1895. He began taking photographs at age fifteen while living in San Antonio, and later worked as a teamster, joined the U.S. Army, operated a photo studio, served as a news correspondent, and helped pioneer aerial photography.