The Edwards Plateau is an immense, high-standing tableland that covers more than 25,000 square miles of west-central Texas, the geomorphic expression of the thick, resistant Edwards Limestone. Rainfall tends to sink into the permeable limestone terrains on top of the Plateau, rather than run off. Because the formations underlying the porous Edwards Limestone mass are relatively impervious, groundwater accumulates in the lower part of the Edwards, forming an extensive regional aquifer up to 300 feet thick. This groundwater is the source of all the springs around the margins of the Plateau. The consequences of this geology are unusual: a vast, elevated, waterless plain, dissected around its margins by deep, limestone-cliffed canyons, each fed by perennial springs that form the headwaters of all the rivers in west-central Texas.
This singular geologic/geomorphic/hydrologic combination exerted a profound influence on settlement and development of the region during the late 19th century. All frontier settlements were proximal to perennial, spring-fed streams, but the Edwards Plateau itself, because of its rugged margins and the absence of dependable surface water, constituted a formidable wilderness barrier to permanent habitation. Early road networks mostly went around the Plateau, and the Western Beef Trail skirted its eastern margins. During the 1870s, marauding Indians raiding southeastward from the High Plains and northeastward from Coahuila, utilized the flat, thick-turfed plateau uplands as wilderness pathways to fall suddenly upon unsuspecting settlements around the margins of the Plateau, thus inhibiting permanent Anglo settlement.
In 1873, the U. S. Army began to suppress raiding into Texas by Comanche and Kiowa Indians. Even though Kickapoo and Lipan Indians continued to raid from safe havens in Northern Mexico, opportunistic Anglo-Celtic ranchers and homesteaders began settling the wide apron of open, stream-laced lands that bordered the Edwards Plateau on the east. Family-based criminal confederations were also attracted to such isolated locations because of the sparse populations, lack of organized government and law, proximity to clandestine livestock markets along the Mexican border, and the adjacent wilderness as a waiting refuge from pursuing lawmen.
Isolated by geology and by-passed by history, the canyonlands around the forks of the Llano River in unorganized and lawless Kimble County provided an ideal location for such a tribal confederation of frontier outlaws beginning in 1874. They preyed on neighboring settlers, north-bound trail herds, and stock raisers in adjacent counties, sometimes disguised as Indians. Outnumbering and intimidating law-abiding settlers, they took over the Kimble County government shortly after it was organized in 1876. They robbed stage coaches repeatedly. They were known to trade stolen livestock regularly in Mexican border markets alongside Mexican Indian raiders, and they may have participated with Mexican Indians in the brutal massacre of four young people of the Dowdy family in Kerr County in 1878.
Sustained campaigns by the Frontier Battalion, Texas Rangers, aiding fearful settlers and beleaguered county lawmen, gradually brought order and law to the region. In 1882 railroads were completed that skirted the Edwards Plateau, which put an end to the cattle drives and regional stagecoach lines. The plateau uplands began to be settled in the mid-1880s, when the widespread use of cable-tool drilling and windmills began to provide reliable water sources for livestock and permanent habitations, and barbed wire allowed ranchers to control grazing. The frontier era in the western Hill Country of Texas was over.
—Peter R. Rose