Footprints of Fayette

A Historical Column From The Fayette County Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge’s Office

One Branch On Jesse Burnam’s
By Carolyn Heinsohn

About two miles west of the Burnam/Wilson home at Oak Creek, Sam and Nena Burnham Nail, a younger sister of Charles, lived in their adobe home on a sizeable cattle ranch. She spelled her maiden name with an “h” after she became an adult. Nena (Sadie Lee) Burnam was born in 1881 near London in Kimball County. She married Samuel Robert Nail, whose original family name was Naille, in 1918 in Marathon. Sam was born in 1878 in Arkansas, and by 1910, he was listed as a 32-year-old rancher who owned land in Brewster County.

Their home was nestled among willow and pecan trees at the foot of Burro Mesa. There was a shaded patio of flagstones at the back of the house and flowerbeds around a hand-dug well lined with rocks that was located on Cottonwood Creek. A wind mill and concrete water storage tank, that was also a “swimming pool” for many of their family members and friends, was located nearby. The interior of the house had white-washed walls with pine beams and sotol poles for the ceiling, which helped keep the house cool in the heat of the summer.

Nena Nail was a quiet woman of great strength who always welcomed visitors to their home with an abundance of well-prepared food, much of it coming from their large garden. They also had a fruit tree orchard, milk cows and chickens.

Sam and Nena had two children: Robert Thompson Nail, born in 1919, who died at age 9 from complications of the measles, and Julia, born in 1921, who attended Sul Ross College in Alpine and married John M. Moss. Samuel Nail died in 1958, and Nena died in 1970 of cancer of the stomach, the same malady that caused her father’s death. Both are buried in the Marathon Cemetery.

The Nail homestead was one of the few ranch complexes that was not removed by the National Park Service in its efforts to return the land to its natural state. The Nail homestead, which also seems like an oasis in the middle of the desert, is still accessible from Ross Maxwell Road in the park. A walking trail winds around the old home, that is hidden under a number of tall pecan trees and encroaching vegetation. Springs, which are abundant on the west side of the Chisos, probably keep the trees alive. The old wooden windmill is still standing, although it is now leaning and will someday fall over.

After the roof of the home collapsed, the adobe walls started “melting” into the earth. Only a very small part of the house remains. A few deteriorating animal pens can also still be seen in the brush. The house was built with materials from the land and will eventually return to the land in its entirety.

The third child of Waddy Thompson Burnam to live on a ranch in the Big Bend area was his son, Waddy Thompson Burnham Jr., born in 1883. He too spelled his name differently than his father and grandfather, Jesse. In 1918, Waddy married Dessie Ferol in Alpine; she was born in 1893 near Waelder. They lived near Government Springs in the northern part of the present-day park.

Their ranch extended north from the Chisos Mountains to Paint Gap Hills, east to Grapevine Hills and west to Croton Springs. Natural springs on the ranch had to be dug out occasionally to provide surface water for livestock. Waddy raised Hereford cattle, because the hardy breed endured the harsher desert conditions better than other breeds.

Waddy and Dessie’s simple frame home sat out in the desolate desert with no shade trees, gardens or fruit tree orchards, unlike his siblings’ homes. In 1920, Dessie’s parents were living with them on the ranch. Like some other ranchers, they were able to sustain themselves, but with difficulty. Compounding their financial problems, it was also necessary for Dessie to maintain a household in Marathon for their children to attend school, leaving Waddy to tend to the remote ranch with a hired hand. They had two sons, Waddy III, born circa 1919, and William Jesse, born circa 1924. In 1930, Dessie was living with their two sons and her father, William Hopkins, in Marathon, where she was teaching in the public school.

Life was not easy. Once, while looking for a stray cow, Waddy slipped and fell into a deep ravine, breaking his leg. It was quite some time before he was rescued by ranch hands, who pulled him out of the chasm with ropes. On another occasion, a cow hooked one of his eyes; after a 10-hour bumpy ride in a wagon, a physician in Marathon put his eyeball back into its socket and saved his vision.

After their first home burned, the Burnhams built a larger stucco home with two fireplaces and a screened porch. After their land was purchased for the park, their home was used by park service employees for social functions until a shortage of operating funds for upkeep resulted in the building being razed in the 1970s.

During the summers, all of the Burnam/Burnham cousins went home to their respective ranches. Social activities, including picnics and occasional swimming parties at Sam and Nena Nail’s ranch, gave them the opportunity to visit with one another. Unfortunately, traveling over the harsh desert and mountainous terrain was not conducive to frequent visits.

Waddy Jr. died in rural Brewster County, more than likely at his ranch, in June 1947. Dessie died in Marathon in November 1967. Both are buried in Marathon.

It seems that it was a familial Burnam trait to move westward in search of wide-open spaces with few people. Their forced moves by the acquisition of their lands in Big Bend by the National Park Service ended a legacy of ranching life for this branch of Jesse Burnam’s tree. However, the story of their interesting journey westward began in Fayette County, so it is noteworthy to its history.

Alex, Thomas C., Big Bend National Park and Vicinity, Arcadia Publishing, San Francisco, CA, 2010 birth, death, marriage & census records
Carter, Kathy, “Jesse Burnam” Footprints of Fayette, Feb. 2012
Clothier, Patricia, Beneath the Window, Iron Mountain Press, Marathon, TX, 2005 online burial information
“Jesse Burnam,” Texas Handbook Online